Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Since I was a kid – okay, so it wasn’t terribly long ago – there was one person on television that I had strong, but unshared admiration for. It wasn’t so much that I understood the topics or knew where the story began, but I was drawn to the style that he spoke to the audience. Without openly flaunting his knowledge or tossing sound bites to move stories along, his newscasts presented the differing sides of conflicts while introducing unfamiliar issues to a mass audience.

At ten years old, I may have learned as much about the world from Peter Jennings as from any teacher or textbook at I.S. 131 in The Bronx.

Over the past week, I’ve been reading a book about him that was published last fall called Peter Jennings: A Reporter’s Life. More of an anthology of reflections about the late anchorman than a biography crafted during his career, the book chronicles his career from aspiring to follow his father’s footsteps as Canada’s most beloved newsman in the fifties and sixties to an icon in his own right. You could look to his experience in the Middle East or his news specials featuring children to see that Jennings’ mission was to present as many sides to a story as possible, even if it challenges our sensibilitues and experiences. Yet, in an interview sourced in the book shows, he showed great concerns about the direction of the media industry:

“Maybe it started with the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court. Maybe it was the 1988 political campaign using the image of Willie Horton, or the Clarence Thomas hearings, Whitewater, the Clinton sex scandal, the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election. Whatever it may have been, the public dialogue today is often rude and vulgar to the point where I begin to think it’s shameful. It is true that we have been through ugly cycles before. But today I think that it is made much worse by the constant need for the drama of conflict that many broadcasters seem to demand. Our national conversation is very often a shouting match – and too much of it is infected with venom.

“I am not naive and I do not imagine a world in which we all get along. And I do not think we need to single out the right or the left, the talk radio ranters or the angry columnists. To some extent we are all culpable – including the staid center,
which if only by its silence is not without responsibility… Our modern communications system and other technologies have increased the volume of public argument to an unholy racket. Our national conversation sometimes feels
impoverished as a result… Civility doesn’t just promote decency; it also leads
to a fairer exchange of ideas and a greater chance of finding workable solutions
to the kinds of problems we face.”

While it would be strange to think that the words from one of the most revered journalists of all time would apply to the sports arena, they struck a chord in relation to the national and local conversations that take place daily. After reading it over and over again, so many questions regarding the sports media industry came to mind. I wondered where the rage came from in sports media. I wondered when did someone’s performance on the field lead to diatribes about his personal life. I wondered when did reporting the goings-on with sports become an athletic-themed version of the Geraldo At Large or the Rush Limbaugh Show.

Much of the venom that Jennings described comes from economics. There is no doubt that the growing divide between multimillion dollar professional athletes and fans has played a significant role. The idea that someone can make more money in a day as an elite athlete than a teacher does in a year keeps the distance fairly lengthy. Yet, when the folks that travel the globe to cover what’s essentially someone’s typical day at work, something more is added to the fray.

Whether we care to admit it or not, most – if not, all – of us wanted to be athletes, playing at the highest level possible. We wanted the adulation, the last name and our favorite numbers on the back of some jersey and the contract offers to go along with the joys of winning and the pains of losing. Some of us may have played at some point, but we’re holding cameras and voice recorders to those who are playing now as a way of life. We learn about the lives of these players and some of us develop relationships with them based on personal interaction and an understood professional agreement between media and subject. As we learn about these players, we begin to find those quarks, those words, those looks that remind us that they are emotional beings as well as physical marvels. It disappoints many in the business, especially those of us who have never played beyond junior high school.

It disappoints because the men and women who look to be above the flaws of flesh and blood are still just flesh and blood. The disappointment turns into judgments on his or her character. The judgments can become a nasty discourse where Terrell Owens, despite his gross shortcomings, can be mocked for anything genuine that he does, such as his emotional postgame comments about Tony Romo. The judgments against the surly persona of Barry Bonds become a near-decade of vitriol coming from coast-to-coast. The judgments become manifestos of the usual “he’s not worth that much money” line of at least half of the players in the NBA.

The judgments make stars out of some columnists like Jason Whitlock, Skip Bayless and Mike Lupica.

Unlike many of the political jousts that Jennings and many past and present journalists have narrated, these subjects aren’t directly responsible for money towards stem-cell research or alleviating homelessness in America’s cities. As much as we love and consume sports, at times, we protest too much. Sure, the media is responsible for much of the tenor towards the players and the business of sport. Yet, it is also responsible for not doing enough to remind fans that there has to be a separation between the job and the person. For as much as athletes do contribute to society in terms of entertainment and community outreach, their job functions do not reflect the human condition as much as those you’ll see on the evening news.

Before playing Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals, Rasheed Wallace, the forward/center for the Detroit Pistons who is known for an irascible demeanor on the court, was asked about the pressure of this winner-take-all game against the San Antonio Spurs. Maybe the media at the stadium clamored for him to say something that would invite a fine from the league or bulletin board material for the Spurs. Yet, in the spirit of the day, he said;

“Pressure? This isn't pressure and this is not pain. Afghanistan, Iraq and that other place, Croatia and Bosnia - now, that is pressure. This ain't nothing but a little hoops.”

It was hard to debate the next day on the local sports shows.

No comments: