The Problem With the Debate

Last night, Bob Costas hosted a live (or partially live) episode of his HBO show, Costas Now, to address the changing sports media landscape.  The press release:

Segment Two: The Internet and Impact of Bloggers. Video package interviews: editor Will Leitch, TV writer and media critic Michael Schur and Washington Post columnist and PTI host Michael Wilbon. Live panel: Pulitzer Prize winning author Buzz Bissinger, Will Leitch and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards.

So, there was a taped roundtable with Will Leitch of Deadspin, Michael Schur of FireJoeMorgan, and Michael Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post, which was followed by a live discussion with Leitch, Buzz Bissinger, and, bizarrely, Braylon Edwards.  I haven’t seen the show, but I assume Costas was involved in every segment as well.

The seemingly uniform reaction, at least from blogs (I haven’t found any mainstream opinions on the episode yet), is that Bissinger, simply put, lost his mind.  From MDS at the AOL Fanhouse (who had the first reaction I could find):

Bissinger launched into a profane rant against Leitch, Deadspin, blogs in general and “Big Daddy Balls,” the latter being the name that Bissinger incorrectly used for the blogger who goes by the pen name Big Daddy Drew. Bissinger was completely unhinged. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who for some odd reason was on the panel as well, looked frightened.

“This guy, whether we like it or not, is the future,” Bissinger said, jabbing his finger in Leitch’s direction. “The future in the hands of guys like you is really going to dumb us down to a degree that I don’t think we can recover from.”

Of course, Bissinger couldn’t be bothered to cite even one example of anything “dumb” Leitch has ever written. And neither Bissinger nor Costas seemed to know the difference between a blog post and a blog comment.

Summing up: Costas holds a live panel featuring old-head sportswriter Buzz Bissinger, and new-guy Will Leitch.  Buzz bashes blogging in the person of Will so fervently that Leitch doesn’t even has a chance to defend himself.  Not that he needs to, as the fervor of the attack is absurd enough to sink itself.

Again, I haven’t seen the segment (though I hope someone will post it shortly), so the following comments are based on the idea that the essential uniform reaction from the various commenting members of Blogfrica weren’t, ya know, lying or exaggerating or whatever.  Given the tone (somber) and the (unsettling) lack of swearing and snark, I can only assume that we’re all taking this pretty seriously.

Leitch himself checked in this morning with a couple of salient thoughts, most notably, this leading remark:

Here’s the important thing to remember about Buzz Bissinger, and whatever the heck happened on “Costas Now” about two hours ago: Buzz is not alone. Sure, he might be metaphorically alone, raining spittle on the imaginary demons that clearly haunt him. But if you don’t think that almost every single person — with obvious, clear exceptions — who was on all those panels last night didn’t come up to him afterwards and give him a fist pound and a “yeah, we really struck back tonight!” well, you weren’t there. This really is what many of them think. Though most are a little calmer about it.

Leitch doesn’t indicate who those exceptions might be (though I assume “obvious” and “clear” would work nicely for those who saw the program), but it seems that the segment was designed to publicly hang the appointed representative of Blog.  If, indeed, many of the other panel member congratulated Bissinger on his rantings, the only reasonable conclusion is that the program was less a discussion of the changing face of sport media, and more a reminder of who’s in charge around here, who’s sitting pretty in the press box, and who’s watching athletes from their mom’s basements.  People who share Bissinger’s view possess a mentality of Writers vs Bloggers, Us vs Them.

And there lies the first issue.  There is no “them”, or rather, changing perspectives, there is no “us”.  Sports bloggers have only a few connecting points.  Generally, they all like or love sports.  They have personal interest in the topic about which they write.  Beyond that, though, I’m unsure what there is.  I’m not certain if Orland Kurtenblog and Free Darko have much in common, in terms of content.  Kurtenblog (The KB, to you), consists of enthusiastic fandom for hockey as a sport, which is coupled with frequent, short posts to dissect the news of the game while maintaining the lighthearted spirit that helps make the sport, itself, so wonderful.  Free Darko is more nebulous, interpreting basketball as something poetic and revolutionary, composing posts as manifestos as though the Atlanta Hawks represent something greater, more significant, than one of the better teams in the NBA.  They’re both wonderful blogs, but for totally separate reasons. Any criticism you can apply to Free Darko almost certainly does not apply to the KB, and vice versa.

Criticizing blogs for being inaccurate or inelegant or vulgar on the basis of a few selected posts is like criticizing magazines because of Hustler, or bashing newspapers because of the Weekly World News.  I used to work for an environmental company, and was asked to represent the company at a national meeting for a student’s environmental action group.  Unbeknownst to me, the group had opinions and did work in non-enviromental areas.  One of these areas was (and I assume still is) GLBTQ relations.  They argued against discrimination against queers (their umbrella term) by saying that “everyone is queer”.  They accomplished this feat–of making everyone queer–by defining “straight sex” as “a man having sex with his wife, in bed, man on top, for the purpose of procreation”.  I cannot recall if the procreating has to be successful or not.  Anything else, is, at least a little bit, queer.  This, of course, is a silly tactic, defining your opponent by using incredible narrow terms.

Of course, this is what Bissinger is doing.  He’s trying to reduce the thousands and thousands of blogs out there to some kind of narrow definition of the term, imagining a sports blogger as a Rick Reilly ripoff crossed with cheap tabloid journalism, David Mamet’s vocabulary (but not his plotting), and just a bit of Larry Flint, for flourish.  And while many blogs contain one or more of those elements, hardly any contain all of them.  And far more blogs focus on elements not included in Bissinger’s narrow view.  Blogs, simply put, are far too diverse for any sort of singular criticism to be reasonably applied across most of the board.

Here’s the other problem I have with the apparent nature of the program last night.  There is no discussion from the mainstream media about the changing nature of sports writing.  Rather, there is only a recognition of something different, blogs, and an immense crush against what these blogs fail to do.  For that matter, many blogs, in their criticism of the mainstream media, either ignore or downplay what newspapers do well, and focus instead on what they do poorly, or do not do at all.  What needs to occur that hasn’t, I think, is a thoughtful recognition of the successes and failures of both media formats: blogs and newspapers (including online newspapers).

Bissinger isn’t the man to have that conversation, and, even if it ever takes place in a meaningful way, it seems unlikely that Buzz would care for it.  If it ever happens, I’m not even sure if Leitch is the guy to represent the vast and vaguely associated legions of sports bloggers out there.  He might be, but I’m not sure.  But there are significant differences between journalism and blogging, and it would be nice if the mainstream media could come around and think of blogs as something different, instead of something inferior and dangerous.

UPDATE: I just saw the segment in question (or, at least, most of it) on Awful Announcing.  Even hearing about it, so much this morning, I found the whole thing somewhat shocking.  While haranguing Leitch, Bissinger asks, about blogs, “What does it add?  What does it contribute?”  I’d love to redirect that question to Costas and Bissinger.  What did they add last night, other than bile and venom, to the landscape of sports media?  Bissinger’s hysteria seems, to me, akin to the cries of “Witch!  Witch!” in Salem, MA.  Bissinger didn’t seek to inform anyone about blogs–not even of their faults.  He merely evoked the authority of volume and pronounced blogs a retardant of society.  And I’m unsure why, exactly.

Other posts about this:

Every Day Should Be Saturday: A Brief Statement on Blogging

Awful Announcing: First Reactions to Bob Costas’ Foray Into Sports Media

Deadspin: Friday Night Blights

Fire Joe Morgan: A Few Words on “The Internet”.

Dan Shanoff: Buzz Bissinger vs Will Leitch: The Day After

Dodger Thoughts: The Rime of the Ancient Sportswriter

The Big Lead: “You’re Like Jimmy Olsen on Percocet” and Bob Costas’ Feeble Attempt to Destroy Blogs

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