Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On LeBatard, LeBron and the Media

Dan LeBatard has always struck me as a smart guy, and an excellent writer. I even enjoy his loopy persona on Pardon the Interruption. I appreciate his general tendency toward contrarianism in the face of the journalistic orthodoxy. That said, this column is a bit of a scattered mess. First off, what's been real about Barry Bonds since, say, 1991? Second, the reason Chad Ochocinco forms "his own media" is because he is an inveterate self-promoter, and the Internet presents him with the opportunity to form that media.*

Third, Chad Pennington did not lecture the New York tabloids about "fairness"; he lectured them about what a privilege it was to cover the New York Jets, and that they should treat such a privilege with respect, mostly because they were criticizing Pennington for playing poorly at a crucial time of the season. This is New York; this is what the tabloids do. Fourth, Isiah Thomas complaining that articulate athletes like Bill Russell and Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali could never survive in today's media world seems to ignore the fact that much of the sports media in the late 1960s was not only far more conservative, but at least in some cases, overtly racist. Every one of those athletes did have to deal with widespread condescension, even if the media wasn't quite as saturated with the sheer number of opinions as it is today; to say otherwise seems disingenuous, at least to me.

Now I understand--and I agree with--LeBatard's larger point: That the general tenor of media is coarser and meaner than it's ever been**. Most of that has to do with the acceleration of the news cycle, with the proliferation of news outlets and "news outlets"--with, in fact, the same lack of a professional filter that allows athletes like Ochocinco to essentially report on themselves without independent verification. It works both ways: If an athlete wants to shape his own brand, if an athlete refuses to permit any independent access to his world, if he expects us to form an opinion of him through a series of television commercials and publicist-written "blog posts," then he has to expect that the media's judgment of him will be harsher when he strays from that company line. This is exactly what happened with Tiger, of course--the last time we'd heard anything remotely real from him, he was telling dirty jokes to Charles P. Pierce a decade ago--and this is now what's happening with LeBron James.

The other day, LeBron tweeted that he was now keeping "mental notes" about those who had spoken poorly of him. This, of course, has long been the modern strategy for parrying media criticism, whether deserved or undeserved: You invent an enemy, you blame the haters, and then, when you succeed, you lash out at your imaginary blacklist. It's a way of motivating yourself, but it's also a way of denying the fact that there may be a legitimate basis for people finding some of your decisions specious. That's where LeBron's lost his way, and that's really the problem with LeBatard's column, too: He buried some legitimate criticisms under a blanket of condemnation. 

*Though LeBatard is half-right here; the media, and the sports media especially, inexplicably tends to lump harmless goofballs like Ochocinco in with convicted criminals. Twenty-five years from now, I guarantee we'll be looking back with nostalgic wonder at T.O. and Ochocinco and all those self-centered but otherwise harmless products of the Twitter generation. As someone who spent the past several years engaging in Jim McMahon-based nostalgia, I know of what I speak.

**LeBatard also claims sports journalism is now "dumber," but I'm not sure I can completely agree with that. It's just that the best sports media is far smarter than it's ever been, and the worst of what passes for sports media is far, far dumber. Speaking of which, Bill Simmons asked several intelligent questions of Mark Cuban a few years ago, which Cuban then turned into a referendum on how much SportsCenter anchors are paid. So it works both ways.



Anonymous said...

This is an excellent counterpoint....fair....The column really needed more nuance than it had....i allowed mark cuban to generalize, thinking that pointing out that he was generalizing was enough admonishment, but then i dabbled in too much generalizing myself....there are many smart people in sports journalism....brilliant, larger point, that most of sports journalism isn't that bright, is kind of obvious and not worth very much, as many people have pointed out, correctly...90 percent of just about anything is crap -- music, art, is the job of the other 10 percent to lift it....should have made that point more gently

Michael Weinreb said...

If Anonymous is Dan--and it certainly sounds like it is--I appreciate the feedback. (I sent you an e-mail, as well). I think we're largely on the same page, which is that we (as journalists) need to be careful not to give in to that pressure to dumb things down, at least as much as we can. Thanks again.