Saturday, June 13, 2009

Writer falls short in playing "real journalists" card

The debate on the legitimacy of sports blogging recently returned in a big way for the first time since Buzz Bissinger and Will Leitch had their infamous quarrel more than a year ago on HBO's "Costas Now."

For those who haven't been paying close attention to the controversy that took place this week, here's a quick summary: Basically, a sports blogger whom you've probably never heard of, Jerod Morris of Midwest Sports Fans, wrote a post on Phillies' left fielder Raul Ibanez and his fantastic start to the season. After trying to explain Ibanez's numbers by looking at a change in ballpark dimensions and various bad pitchers that he's hit home runs off of so far, Morris speculates that mentioning the possibility of steroids is not completely out of the equation:

[I]t’s time for me to begrudgingly acknowledge the elephant in the room: any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better than his career averages is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbers are not natural, that perhaps he is under the influence of some sort of performance enhancer. And since I was not able to draw any absolute parallels between his prodigously improved HR rate and his new ballpark’s hitter-friendliness, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that “other” performance enhancers could be part of the equation.

Sorry Raul Ibanez and Major League Baseball, that’s just the era that we are in — testing or no testing.

Personally, I am withholding judgment until we see a full seasons’ worth of stats. Many players put together terrific runs of 150-250 ABs in the midst of otherwise normal or just slightly above average (based on their career numbers) seasons. Ibanez’s terrific 219 AB run since Opening Day is just magnified right now because it came at the start of the season.

Really, is that so bad? Morris doesn't come out and accuse Ibanez of taking steroids, which is because no one knows whether he did or not. Is it unfair to even include Ibanez's name in the steroid speculation dicussion? Sure, but it's not the first time that something similar has happened, and it won't be the last. Try mentioning Brady Anderson's name to someone and have the issue of steroids not come up. It's almost impossible, yet Anderson never tested positive for steroids.

As Joe Posnanski recently wrote, the worst thing Morris did was to not go far enough in his analysis. Posnanski points out that in Ibanez's career, he routinely goes on stretches when he absolutely tears the cover off of the ball, but that this year his hot stretch started at the beginning of the season instead of later on.

If Morris had discovered that trend, he probably wouldn't have had to bring up the steroid element in his article. So if Morris is guilty of anything, it's 1) not completely following through with his research, 2) using steroid speculation as a crutch to explain a situation that he couldn't find a reasonable solution to, and 3) mentioning steroids at all -- really, it's possible to bring up the notion of steroids with just about any player, so what does it bring to the table?

But if Morris hadn't written his post and caused an uproar, Posnanski may not have written his post, and many people wouldn't have learned more about Ibanez and his hitting trends. Morris still did a good job of discussing the topic at hand, which is what many blogs are good for anyway. Not every blog is well written or is the place to go to be schooled in Journalism 101, but readers can absorb plenty of opinions from all over the place. Blogs further the discussion in many ways that mainstream media can't and won't.

And that's precisely what many in the mainstream media fail to realize. Case in point: Geoff Baker's recent article in the Mariners blog for The Seattle Times. Baker discusses accountability, dedication, and responsbility, etc. in his article, which is great; I agree that all of those things are important and are qualities that all journalists should have. Baker writes:

But when you go all-in, you've got to go all in. He didn't do that. When you write about topics like killers, or Hell's Angels, or major leaguers and steroids, you can't pussy foot around. You've got to go at it hard, directly, with no b.s. and be able to defend yourself afterwards. This blogger couldn't because he went in only halfway. He tried to raise the "steroids issue" then claimed he really wasn't pointing a finger at Ibanez....It's no different from being in the schoolyard in fifth grade. If you're going to talk smack about someone, be prepared to stand up for yourself and ride out the blows. That goes for writing about Ibanez, or Yuniesky Betancourt, or John McLaren, or Bill Bavasi. In this business, you can't afford to give in to momentary fan frustration and lash out at players and team officials. Sure, some people do it in this business. Nobody is perfect. But there is always a price to be paid. It's not as simple as doing it from your "basement" or "office" or whatever. You have to have the defense ready in your head, and be prepared to defend your reputation in any forum, when you venture potshots at people from my position.

And that's why you see mainstream media taking fewer potshots than bloggers. Because at the end of the day, reason and fairness has to win out. Nobody's perfect. But it's always better to err on the side of caution -- and do a little more legwork -- than to have Ken Rosenthal destroying you on national TV, when your only defense is mere cliches and half-hearted insinuations.

It's rarely about us "soft pedaling it" or currying favor with the people we cover, either. I laugh at those suggestions, which I still see made by bloggers who have no idea what they are talking about. I get accused of it from time to time by bloggers too lazy to try to consider why I might be saying something. Folks, I took on an 88-win manager in his first season of a multi-year contract when I was a rookie beat writer 11 years ago because the circumstances warranted it. Do you seriously think I cared whether McLaren liked me or not? Time to get real. There's a difference between being fair and critical and being an attack-dog. You learn things like subtlety and nuance when you do this for a while.

Some writers pander to the blogosphere, focusing on popular stats or topics, or targets, to curry favor. Trust me, I know exactly what to write if I want all Seattle baseball fans to like me and worship what I print. But it's never about that. It can't ever be that way.

This is serious stuff. When you have the power to ruin reputations and change lives, it can never be abused. Or gone at in a half-hearted way.

And the ability to think about those things beforehand, truly, is what separates real journalists -- serious ones, not Jason Blair types -- from basement bloggers.

Sorry for the long quote, but this is important stuff. I'm not really sure how writing about killers compares to writing about baseball, but that's just me. People should be accountable for whatever they write, that's a given. And it's also extremely important to take a side in an argument, but only when the situation calls for it. Why did Morris have to stand on one side or the other in his piece? He was trying to present an honest take on what he was observing. He didn't quite uncover all that he could, but he tried, and at the end of the day, that's important. He wasn't trying to call out Ibanez; he was trying to figure something out. Not everyone can get a manager fired like Baker did, and they shouldn't be penalized for it.

That's a huge problem between the mainstream media and the blogosphere -- having a discussion vs. becoming the discussion. Baker offers a more than reasonable argument, but his column also presents another wrinkle to the overall debate. He's too busy saying, "Look at me" and "Look what I've done." Whenever popular columnists are challenged or feel threatened, they want to throw out their resume or talk about their contacts or anything else that makes them feel popular. Baker's column isn't just talking about journalists vs. bloggers; it's about himself. Just look at how many times he uses the words I, my, or myself -- 100 times. That's right, 100. He's trying to tell you that he's right and that you should believe him because of what he accomplished 10 years ago and that if you disagree, well you don't have the experience that he does, so you're wrong.

It's hard enough to read a column these days without being bombarded with a lack of in-depth analysis. I talked about this before, but a recent Michael Wilbon article on the upcoming NBA Draft mentioned Gilbert Arenas and the fact that he's not really a point guard. I like Wilbon's writing, but his only reasoning was that Magic Johnson said Arenas isn't really a point guard, so it must be true. How's that for definitive proof? There are certainly exceptions -- plenty of writers provide outstanding analysis in their articles -- but for the most part, if fans want to delve further into statistics of their favorite team, they read blogs.

And if the entire mainstream media was so much better at analyzing all aspects of a sports topic than the blogosphere, then a website like Fire Joe Morgan wouldn't have been so popular in the first place.

There are good mainstream writers and there are bad ones, and the same thing is true in the sports blogging world. And many media members have embraced bloggers and understand that they're not going away.

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