Sports reporters are frequently criticized. But I don’t think their job is well understood. The media is often blamed for many of the ills in society, from the ever-expanding celebrity culture to the increasing loss of civility in the public sphere, to the preponderance of incorrect or misunderstood stories in the news. They often deserve that criticism. But I think they’re held to an unreasonable standard, because, in my view, sports reporters have a nearly impossible job. So, today, I’d like to try to define what sports journalism is, what it is not, and what it should be.
Why is it nearly impossible? Sports reporters are expected to report on the private business strategy of a monopoly corporation: this requires that they maintain a good enough relationship with the corporation that their access is not revoked, while maintaining both access and credibility. While political reporters have recourse to the legal system and the Freedom of Information Act if government officials decide to stonewall the media, sports reporters have no such luxury. And employees of the corporation, from executives to athletes, are instructed to say nothing of substance on the record. (Except for Ozzie Guillen.) Much of what we know about the inner life of the clubhouse and the front office comes from officially sanctioned leaking, anonymous sources, and tabloid and checkbook journalism from sites like Deadspin.
Today, Dave Gershman at Beyond the Box Score tried to quantify one element of being a baseball reporter: getting a scoop about a deal. Soon thereafter, Tom Tango pointed out that the number is meaningless without noting how many scoops that reporter has blown. I agree with Tango’s point, but I think it obscures the larger issue: a reporter doesn’t deserve exclusive credit for getting a scoop. In part, credit for the scoop belongs to the reporter’s ability to cultivate a network of reliable sources, and, in part, credit for the scoop belongs to the people in the know who decide to give the story to that reporter.
Many leaks are intentional, and many reporters are used as tools by their sources, who refuse to go on the record but nonetheless want to get their stories in print. This is the source of the media criticism that a reporter should be more than just a stenographer. But, because there’s no Freedom of Information Act in sports, the sources have all the leverage. The only leverage a reporter can have over a source is to possess another source who makes the first one irrelevant.
The trouble with needing access is that it makes a reporter beholden to the subjects of the reportage; if they don’t like what is written, they can revoke access. That’s why Deadspin’s motto is “Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion” — lacking access, they didn’t need to cultivate favor, and therefore could afford to eschew discretion. Although he’s basically an insider now, able to interview the NBA Commissioner on his podcast, Bill Simmons has very successfully cultivated the image of an outsider: because he doesn’t have to sit in the clubhouse to listen to naked men utter boring platitudes about “one game at a time,” he can speak his mind about sports without needing to worry about hurting those men’s feelings. The need for access hamstrings much of what a journalist would like to do. But a lack of access makes news confirmation impossible.
I don’t consider myself a journalist; I’m a blogger. Still, I write for pay, which makes me a member of the media, and I used to work for The Washington Post, so I’m sensitive to media criticism. Much of that criticism is unfounded, such as when sports figures disingenuously and hypocritically blast reporters for “lying” in stories based on things that they themselves said to the reporter, off the record. Other criticism is well-founded, and the site FireJoeMorgan.com made a beautiful career out of poking holes in the baseless arguments of old-fashioned columnists. As Bill James has written:
Americans 50 and 60 years ago accepted the power of myth as a given. Old baseball books are full of stories which are at best undocumented and are, for the most part, transparent fabrications created in support of a myth….
In the modern world we are less tolerant. We have vastly better resources now to distinguish between true accounts and fictional stories, and, because we do, we expect what is printed to meet the standards of the truth.
When sportswriters cling to myth to the exclusion of truth, they are rightly criticized. However, when they publish intentional leaks as scoops, they are playing into the hands of their sources, but they’re also informing their public. If a sportswriter were expected to verify every story with two on-the-record sources, sports sections would be blank except for box scores. Bad reporting is a shame, but it’s inevitable: forced to contend with a monopoly organization that legally owns all of the information that others might consider news, and that frequently lies about that information, reporters have to scrounge through a great deal of noise to uncover a few nuggets of fact.
There would probably be a lot fewer bad stories if fewer stories were written. Rumors are almost always wrong, obviously. But the toothpaste is out of the tube. The 24-hour news cycle, blogosphere, and Twitterverse have created such an insatiable hunger for content that virtually anything that can be written, will be written. So all they can do is try to get it right, and all we can do is have a little appreciation for just how hard a job it truly can be. And, of course, criticize them mercilessly if they ever argue that Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Bert Blyleven.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.