What makes an “authentic” sportswriter? In this summary of HBO’s Costas Now from last April, Buzz Bissinger (author of Friday Night Lights) answers this question as he rants and raves and rages against the blogosphere’s encroachment onto the territory of traditional sportswriters. His insistence that W.C. Heinz remains the standard by which other journalists must be measured (Heinz’s novel, The Professional, was published in 1958), is a manifestation of a generation’s anger, and anxiety, about contemporary society.
Bissinger’s frustration is a visceral reaction to what the man sitting next to him represents. Will Leitch is the founder of Deadspin, arguably the most widely read sports blog on the internet. Leitch’s offense isn’t necessarily that he fails to appreciate the brilliance of W.C. Heinz—he knows The Professional, after all—it is instead that he fails to possess authenticity, presumably because he is not a trained journalist. Or maybe because he doesn’t smoke a cigar and wear a fedora? In either case, what is true of Leitch is true of many of his cyber-colleagues: he’s actually a really good writer.
Thus, Bissinger’s contention that the ability to “evoke” the essence of sports can be found only in traditional sports media is a red herring. The real issue, one that has incited heated debate in conventional news circles as well, is that the internet has fundamentally altered the terrain on which we view and discuss sports. Is this all for the good? Well of course not, but that’s not the standard by which we should judge, is it? What is ironic about Bissinger’s accusation that blogs are poorly (or crassly) written isn’t just that he refuses to acknowledge that some blogs demonstrate exceptional talent (check the archives of the now departed Fire Joe Morgan for confirmation). It’s that he ignores the fact that the vast majority of conventionally trained sportswriters aren’t exactly W.C. Heinz, either.
Bissinger’s lament represents a last stand of sorts for “old school” sportswriters. Yet, easy as it is to say that changing media have passed him by, we shouldn’t reduce this moment to a false choice between traditional journalism or “new media” blogs. Rather, how might we envision sports media that accommodate a variety of forms? And, how might those forms continue to re-shape the landscape of sport?
This exchange also points to the shift occurring within sports journalism (and much of professional sports discourse generally) toward sophisticated statistical analysis -- with stats like VORP and WARP offering new metrics for assessing player performance in baseball. Many "traditional" journalists eschew these metrics, characterizing them as too arcane (elitist?) whereas younger journalists and bloggers are more likely to embrace them. As a result, journalists like Bissinger often react -- as we see -- angrily to what they perceive as challenges to their authority. That this constitutes a sort of elitism akin to that which Bissinger apparently dislikes oddly escapes him.
Your final questions, too, suggest a point similar to the one I was making earlier in the week: the ability of new technologies to afford easy access to multiple perspectives could easily enliven and supplement "traditional" perspectives -- not necessarily replacing them, but opening up the discourse considerably. Costas' program itself is another way of accomplishing this, if only to provide a venue in which the uncensored language of the locker room and press box doesn't have to be refined for the apparently delicate sensibilities of most sports-viewing audiences.
Of the many things you can say about journalists today is that one of the few that actually keep a physical beat are sports journalists. I have seen the entirety of Bissinger's complaint and while I don't agree with all that he says about blogging, he was at his best when he noted that bloggers aren't necessarily in the field in the same way that he and his colleagues are. That said, columnists like Jay Mariotti aren't necessarily in the field as well and has never written anything as compelling as Friday Night Lights. After viewing this clip it seems to me that this is as much about displaced anger that the entire profession of journalism has been making a 30 year slide away from staffs of people to more of a reliance on electronic and digital feeds that neither demand salaries or healthcare. Just my two cents.
By the way here the entire segment deadspin.com/385770/bissinger-vs-leitch
VORPies and Access
Doug, the discourse of "VORPies" and the like definitely figures into this. The writers of Fire Joe Morgan were especially gifted in their critiques of these attacks against using statistics instead of "gut feelings" to determine a players value. I think part of the reason writers like Bissinger are so reactionary is because they know (at some level, at least), that the stat-heads are right. This isn't to say that we should shed affect and myth in how we think about sports, but the old guard was a pretty exclusive club, one that the new kids have democratized to a degree.
And this figures into Tim's comments, too, I think. Because "access" has long been a gatekeeping mechanism, a way of discrediting an opinion that comes from outside the club. This isn't to say that access isn't important, but it too often functions rhetorically as a means for disicplining outsiders. I do wish I could've found the entire clip, though, because Bissinger really loses his composure at a certain point.
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