Bissinger’s Bile: a commentary

Much virtual ink has been expended today on the bunfight on HBO, during which Pulitzer Prize winner “Buzz” Bissinger got his rant on with Will Leitch of Deadspin as his strawman, and Bob Costas as his sidekick.

There’s no need to spend any time defending blogs and their content from the likes of Bissinger and Costas – their permission is not needed. Complaints about the validity of the contents of blogs, about the lack of credentials of their writers, about the tone and editorial decisions: all of these are indicative of people who are attempting to close the barn door after the departure of the donkey of disintermediation, to use an old Web 1.0 buzzword. They are also the cries of the leaders of the guild upon realizing that some ne’er-do-wells aren’t making firkins in the approved fashion – i.e., the way they were told.

What is worth some assessment is the behavior of Bissinger on the show itself and the assertions that he was making – because there’s no excuse for what he did, and plenty of reason to doubt what he was saying.

Rhetorically, Bissinger bushwhacked Leitch with selective quoting and by being deliberately provocative. He did everything he could to position himself as the revered elder putting the errant whelp in place. Not only was it egregiously rude, it was also self-sabotage: who was the more emotional, uncontrolled, abusive, and unreasonable person on that panel? And since when has Bissinger been the aribiter of what makes a good sports writer and the canon that they must have absorbed as a pre-condition to writing? Perhaps other people wondered, as I did, if there was a larger thematic point here: was Buzz getting unhinged to become the strawman of blogs that he decried? Since he’s a Pulitzer winner rather than an Oscar winner, I rather doubt this was a false display, and that in fact the anger was genuine.

Let’s take Bissinger at his word then, and examine two of his claims: that blogs are somehow exploitative and vile in tone, and that they represent a dumbing down of America because there is no quality control, no credentialing of the writers -no way, in essence, to claim the authority that Bissinger so clearly likes to presume he has.

As others will doubtless have pointed out, the tabloid nature of blogs is in no way more exploitative than the tone of mainstream coverage. Despite my best efforts to avoid hearing any more about Roger Clemens poking needles in his ass and his bat up a country and western singer, it’s all over the mainstream news stations. Matt Leinart and Brynn Cameron fought over child support in the Ventura County Star and the LA Times, because both newspapers were willing to publish interviews despite the matter being pursued plainly as a negotiating tactic between lawyers. But it all counts as human interest about sports, and it fills pages and air time, both of which are editorial priorities, so it must be news.

Rather like pornography, real journalists know exploitative stories and pictures when they see them. Let’s go back to Matt Leinart and the pictures of him drinking beer with young lovelies in Arizona that so exercised Bissinger. They probably don’t rise to the level of news in the sense of having any meaning beyond a young single millionaire being inherently interested in, and of interest to, scantily clad young ladies. That’s not shocking, but it is good for a chuckle. It’s also no more or less relevant to Leinart’s quarterbacking skills than how much time he spends with his son, and how many thousands of dollars he provides to his baby momma on a monthly basis, but those were – apparently – acceptable stories.

And to take this one step further, who is Bissinger to talk about being exploitative? In essence, he worked his way into the lives of a group of teenagers and adults in Texas and laid that bare to make money. Nobody forced them to cooperate, but they put their lives out there so that he could make some money and win a Pulitzer. In what way is that any less exploitative, voyeuristic, or intrusive than a picture of Matt Leinart pounding beer? Beyond the use of other people’s stories to feather his nest, Bissinger (on his website) places the book as part of a trip away from his insulated life as part of the elite of the eastern seaboard, which – if you were of a mind to be uncharitable – takes the veneer of an anthropologist’s participant observation and adds a dash of self-hating elitism: the desire to redeem privilege by comporting with the echt volk. The fact that the result was, by all accounts, a very interesting and compelling narrative goes to show that flawed people and mixed motivations don’t automatically mean poor writing.

Moving to another form of exploitation… The inverse of the human interest story from the mainstream press is the finger-wagging human disinterest story, about athletes who have departed from the mythologies that allow columnists and reporters to think that sports reflect the finer things about culture – mens sana in corpore sano, the noble and muscular Christian, rather than the hustler and the malcontent. Woe betide the player who falls off the pedestal, for vilification is his or her lot. And in the course of casting out the apostates of sports, the mainstream media can be as merciless, if less profane, than the bloggers.

Consider the vilification heaped upon Barry Bonds for failing to conceal that he was cheating, or think back on the number of times that Terrell Owens was described as a cancer. Any of you who follow British athletics will have heard the abuse directed at [drugs cheat!] Dwain Chambers, in much the same vain. Perhaps the sportswriters were so busy getting their credentials and reading their dog-eared copies of W.C. Heinz as to not be aware of it, but some of us know that using rhetorical comparisons to cancer is one stock in trade of totalitarian states and bigots throughout history. Apparently it’s not overkill for talking about someone with a marked inability to subordinate himself to the will of the coach. But heaven forfend that some blogger call Sean Salisbury a douchebag – because that’s inflammatory.

As for the question of authority and credentials… it’s hard to know where to start. Let me channel my inner Bissinger here: having logged some time in a PhD program at Brown, I know from rigor and I know from qualifications. Older and established sports journalists have never had to rise to a real level of rigor, at least that an academic, lawyer, or doctor would recognize as such. The argument appears to be that serious real journalists are better qualified to say something truthful because their work is subject to review (fits AP style guide, not libelous), that they have written a lot, and that they are bound by journalistic ethics. Those statements are true to some extent, but in practice columnists and indeed beat journalists were rarely held accountable in public for their errors before groups of the Great Unwashed had the temerity to call them out via sports radio and then blogs. Blogs are peer reviewed if they have a broad appeal, and ignored if they don’t – it’s a publishing medium with very immediate feedback loops.

The assertion that blogs are also problematic because you can’t tell who to take seriously is profoundly patronizing – in essence, it is a claim that people who read blogs are so stupid or under-educated that they can’t apply any kind of critical assessment to what they are reading. Is this the fault of blogs, or the fault of education? Even if you assume that Bissinger is right – that most blogs regress to the mean, and the mean is crap – isn’t this a reflection of a society that’s given up on teaching its future citizens to read, to write, to think, and a base of knowledge upon which to base those opinions? In other words, are blogs not a symptom, rather than a cause?

And if blogs are a symptom, then I am at a loss to imagine what Bissinger thinks of his readers. Presumably he doesn’t think that they are all morons, if they like his book, and since they can’t all have gone to Dalton, Andover, and Penn, then he must allow for the prospect that people are able to exercise some ability to think or react critically about what they read.

And, let’s be serious for a moment here: even if people aren’t doing a great job of assessing the worth of blogs, what of it? The future of the republic doesn’t rest on whether or not Matt Leinart drinks beer from lady parts. Sports journalism generally lurks at the edge of the umbrella of serious journalism, a profession that has become a shadow of its former self in the need to sell advertising for Proctor and Gamble and meet the quarterly numbers. They are at the margins of a serious profession, but to hear Costas and Bissinger tell it, they are the the Woodward and Bernstein of the age. That is delusional.

If they are serious journalists, why are the stories all so shallow? Why did we hear about Terrell Owens being a cancer, but not the use of athletes with serious cognitive and emotional issues as a matter of course? Why do we get to see people being jacked up every weekend on Sports Center, but you have to read the Washington Post Sunday Magazine for a serious look at the long term health effects of playing football? Because sports journalism, as a general rule, is as crap as the resources, time, and rigor being applied to it, and as dumb as the people who make it think we are.

And in some regards, maybe that’s what Bissinger should have focused on – not that blogs are inherently crap, but that the worst of them are merely a cartoon version of the failings of workaday sports coverage. He’d have had more of a leg to stand on if he had said that none of this – not ESPN, not the sports pages, not blogs – amounts to a hill of beans for understanding the bigger picture, and that’s a value that authors can provide with time and reflection, without the need to sell more cases of beer and bottles of Viagra. He could have remained self-satisfied (forty years at my craft!) and yet shown some capacity to think about new things.

But he didn’t say that. He simply took a series of intemperate swings, and made himself look like as much of as ass as the blogging strawmen he condemned.

Afterword*:

On an unrelated note, Braylon Edwards missed a crucial point about the difference between the athletes of the 1960s and today. While there’s an argument to be made that the great unwashed is too caught up in sports these days, there’s a real sense of ownership that goes along with the over-identification: we pay these athletes, whether through ticket prices or buying whatever tat they are endorsing, and we pay them exponentially more than their forebears of the 1960s and early 1970s ever made. They may not work for their fans, but they are getting rich off them, and to my mind that means the fans can have an opinion, no matter how misguided it may be, because they’ve paid for that right.

*Yes, I am that pretentious, and I own it.

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5 Responses

  1. Thank you so very much for the best commentary I have read to date on this subject. In an event with lots of heat and no light, you are the beacon of sane reasoned logic.

    I feel lucky to have read it, and please know it was great and appreciated.

  2. I said this once before, and it bears repeating, so much so that I took the time to go find it in its exact form:

    “DCT- Words fail me, to describe accurately the degree to which you fucking rock. On your regular days you’re like James McFadden in Stade de France; on your best days you’re simply Archie Gemmill on June 11, 1978.”

    I’ll be damned if anyone, via any media form, writes a better perspective piece on this situation than you just did.

    Top Shelf. You, Sir, are the man.

  3. Thank you both for your kind comments.

    It’s interesting that Bissinger, in an interview with the inestimable Spencer Hall of the Sporting News, staked out a position rather like the one that I suggested above – that books provide a longer view and a better context for the subject. Whether or not that’s solely true is open to question, but it’s a legitimate argument and one worth making in an era of short-form puffery being passed of as “journalism” or “writing.”

    And in the midst of all of this, I think it’s now necessary that I read “Friday Night Lights” – if only to get a sense of why people take Bissinger’s writing seriously.

  4. Linked to this from Kanu’s site; I must say that it is an exceptional piece. The way you can transition from – “mens sana in corpore sano, the noble and muscular Christian, rather than the hustler and the malcontent.” to “whether or not Matt Leinart drinks beer from lady parts” absolutely blows me a way. I don’t believe that my humble opinion counts for much in such matters (my B.S. in Civil Engineering from Alabama leaves my woefully unprepared to analyze grammar and content) but you sir, are a writer of the finest caliber. In comparison, my rant on the subject was the equivalent of “yeah – you suck Buzz”.
    I’m gonna reread this at least twice more over the next week just to absorb it better.
    Well played sir, well played.

  5. I am a Browns fan from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
    I really liked your blog with the Browns mentioned item. I grew up watching Brian Sipe and Clay Matthews.
    I try to follow as much NFL news as I can with the internet.

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