I’ve looked at life from both sides now (IOW, more access journalism)

Some people in my lovely town surely think I’m a maniac.

They didn’t get that impression by meeting me. They didn’t get that conversation by seeing me run a soccer team or a chess club, even if I’ve had to be a disciplinarian. They know I strive to be positive as much as I can. (Don’t laugh if you only know me from Twitter, where some people get a kinky thrill out of pushing my buttons, and I’ve finally learned to shut those buttons off.) I even won an award my kids’ elementary school in honor of “her” volunteer service. (Gender stereotypes, man …)

They got that impression if they were outside my Starbucks listening to me shouting into my phone at a PR person who was trying waaaay too hard to spin something. He was insisting a story I was chasing wasn’t a story. He was accusing me of being interested in that story only because it affected my son, which wasn’t true in the least. If you’re measuring how much someone is insulting you, that guy went up to 11.

And yet I still have “access” to that organization. I’ve spoken with that person many more times since then. I’ve been credentialed for events.

So you can see why I bristle at the notion of journalists with “access” being compromised and useless.

I got into this a bit in the last post, in which I reacted to Luke Thomas’ thoughtful take on access journalism in sports. It’s not my best work, frankly, but at least a few people read it and got the gist of whatever I was trying to say.

The debate today starts with an Atlantic piece by Elaina Plott defending the notion of humanizing presidents by being close to them:

A lot of folks like to sneer at so-called access journalism, as though the only way to convince subjects to talk is by promising them a puff piece (how ridiculous this is should go, I hope, without saying). But access is often the best—sometimes even the only—way to dimensionalize subjects, to gain intimate knowledge of the ordinary habits and hurts and hang-ups that inform their behavior in extraordinary circumstances. And in politics, it is an avenue through which readers can decide whether the person behind the policies is worthy of empathy and respect.

The response from Splinter News’ Libby Watson is … do we still say “snarky”? Because it is.

Access journalism isn’t just promising a subject a puff piece in return for access. It can be much more subtle than that. If you’re really good at it, your subjects won’t even have to ask if your piece will be gentle with them because they know it will. Access journalism, as Leah Finnegan wrote in the Outline, is also “not only believing people in power, but protecting their identities even when they are wrong or lying”; it’s not even asking the question because you know it might disrupt future coverage; it’s going to off-the-record parties with sources, chumming it up, and posting your selfies with them on Instagram.

Sure, some people do that. To go back to the sports discussion, it’s a big issue in MMA and women’s soccer, where the organizations are either control freaks (UFC) or can’t be picky about who gets credentials (NWSL).

But the implication here is that everyone on the “inside” is compromised. The logicians would call this a hasty generalization.

I would doubt, for example, that Jim Acosta will be posting selfies with any White House officials any time soon …

The White House yanked Acosta’s credentials. CNN sued. The court backed Acosta.

Another issue here from Watson’s piece:

I’m happy for a piece to include a charming anecdote about Barack Obama’s Spotify playlists if the journalist also asks him tough questions about drone strikes and climate change; funny how that so rarely happens in the same piece, isn’t it?

Why in the world would it happen in the same piece? Is that the only piece that news organization will ever write about Obama?

The problem here is the idea that one perspective is inherently valuable while another is inherently useless. A perspective is only useless if it’s fundamentally dishonest, like anything emanating from the Trump administration and maybe 90% of what comes from Fox “News.” (Bless you, Shepard Smith.)

Let’s raise a hypothetical. Suppose you’re the editor of The New York Times, and you have an opportunity to put a correspondent in Pyongyang. You know that correspondent is going to have to tread a fine line. She/he can’t be as bold as Acosta was with Trump or as defensive as I was with that PR rep.

Do you:

A. Decline the opportunity?

B. Accept it, realizing that you’re going to need to balance that reporting with analysis from outside North Korea?

I vote B. It’s going to be difficult. North Korea might eventually kick that person out of the country because of something another Post writer wrote. But it’s worth a shot.

Watson isn’t the only writer in her media group to sneer at “access journalism.” That’s the stance of Deadspin, the snarkiest of sports blogs and a corporate sibling of Splinter News. A couple of comments on Watson’s piece tout the superiority of Deadspin because it does not seek access to sports. The tagline is “Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion.”

But what about Humanization?

Deadspin sometimes sheds light on important issues. It’s also entertaining, in the same vein as the Keith Olbermann/Dan Patrick glory days on SportsCenter. I don’t think I’ve seen a headline that tops “Farting Controversy Clouds Grand Slam Of Darts Quarterfinal.”

But Deadspin also forgets, all too often, that the athletes upon which it snarks are human beings. (Granted, they tend not to see the humanity of anyone. It’s one thing to snark on Duke grads like me. It’s another to make fun of a damn toddler.)

There’s value in Deadspin’s view from the couch. But there’s also value in speaking with an athlete and seeing the sweat and blood.

And that’s true of politics as well. A good news organization will be both inside and outside. It might be “inside” in several different places — American journalism has suffered with the closing of so many foreign bureaus. We barely have voices from anywhere in America outside the coasts — Watson is based in D.C., and I’ve long fretted that the Post treats everything south and west of the Potomac as a giant anthropology experiment. (Or maybe I’m still fretting over the column in which the Post columnist ventured all the way out on the Orange Line to see for himself the hinterland of Vienna.)

Those perspectives won’t always be predictable. An “outside” journalist may think a politician or an athlete is doing pretty well. An “inside” journalist might have insight on how badly that person is screwing up. Or vice versa.

Journalism is under siege. It has been for a long time, and the economic trends of the past 15 years have left it less powerful to fight back. Should we really be talking about silencing any valuable perspective at this point?

 

What’s a journalist? (Sports-related)

The funny thing I found about MMA journalism — most of the sport’s coverage up until the very late 2000s was in the hands of independent journalists who started sites with funny names (Sherdog, Bloody Elbow, MMA Junkie) who are more professional than the organization they’ve covered.

They toss aside the Playboy issues with an Octagon Girl that the UFC is trying to hand out. They hold the UFC accountable to the point of having their access revoked. Josh Gross and Loretta Hunt were both tossed out for asking questions that made Dana White and company uncomfortable. So was Ariel Helwani, however briefly.

And a lot of them have moved into major news organizations. USA TODAY bought MMA Junkie, basically outsourcing its MMA coverage. (That also meant the end of my freelance work for USA TODAY, which had continued after I left the full-time staff, but what really bothered me was that USAT’s new and inexperienced — and short-tenured — sports leadership tossed out a terrific full-time staff reporter.) Bloody Elbow has grown with its parent organization, SB Nation. Luke Thomas has a terrific show at SiriusXM.

I’m glad — because these folks are damn good.

A few soccer folks have done well independently or in the SB Nation fold. But the MMA folks took it to another level. Bloody Elbow has always had brilliant technical analysis along with history and some legal analysis, and it has gone into strong investigative work as well. Most MMA blogs with an audience are rarely, if ever, the province of the fanboy.

With the UFC strong-arming journalists, those journalists have done some careful thinking about the price of access. The UFC tossed Helwani out of the building along with a photographer and videographer who just happened to work for the same site. Dana White backed down on that, despite insisting he wouldn’t, but he has never relented on bringing back Josh Gross and Loretta Hunt, who did nothing more than raise questions that were uncomfortable for White and company.

So a few people in the MMA media have done what we’ve tried to do in soccer with varying success. They formed a journalists’ association. This week, that association spoke up after some mixed messages about whether journalists would be allowed to ask about, say, Greg Hardy and domestic violence. (Here’s the background.)

Luke Thomas offered up a thoughtful take about the association and journalism in general. He didn’t join the former because he thinks he doesn’t do the latter.

I think Luke is setting a very high bar for what’s considered journalism. He does analysis. I’d argue that’s journalism, probably more than I did in a ton of my stories at USA TODAY. We weren’t exactly FRONTLINE in my day. We did aggravate the UFC when my big cover-story splash about the sport led with Kimbo Slice, who was fighting for another organization at the time and leading the way into prime time, but I didn’t uncover a deep, dark secret with the help of anonymous sources. (Post-Jack Kelley, USA TODAY wasn’t big on anonymous sources.) I did original interviews, as he does. I pulled information from those interviews and other readily accessible things to put together stories that were unique, but so does he.

So, Luke, I for one think you’re a journalist.

And yet I understand the reluctance in joining an association, having been in two. I was president of one, and I’m probably at least partially responsible for it falling apart, mostly because I never really figured out what we were supposed to do. Exactly once in my tenure did I have a situation in which I needed to hash things out with an MLS team, and it was ridiculously minor. As Luke says here, a reporter’s editor should be the one doing that.

And yet I have full respect for Josh Gross being an officer of the MMA association. His presence sends a nice message that the members of the group are going to do their jobs whether the UFC likes it or not.

It’s also good to see some unity there. When I was in MMA journalism, I always sensed that many MMA fans figured those of us on the “inside” were compromised. I made every effort to demonstrate that I wasn’t, to the point of taking a gift the UFC had sent me all the way to Vegas to return it in person at UFC 100. The people working the desk surely still think I’m crazy.

(Yeah, they say credentialed reporters are compromised in soccer, too, but that’s because soccer attracts a lot of professional whiners. As I posted to a mailing list this week: “A lot of reporters are accused of not challenging MLS, and the people who raise such accusations won’t be happy until they see a lede like, ‘In a game that doesn’t matter because MLS doesn’t have promotion/relegation and once received a marketing boost from Chuck Blazer, Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers 4-3 in an MLS Cup final featuring hat tricks by Josef Martinez and Diego Valeri, neither of whom would score that many goals in La Liga.'”)

So just having a variety of names attached is a good thing. I often wished I could show some solidarity with those on the “outside,” and a group like this helps.

Maybe they could do some things to raise their visibility. The UFC rankings (no offense to the one former co-worker and longtime friend of mine who takes his vote very seriously) aren’t particularly credible. What if the MMAJA did their own? The only glue that held together the soccer associations was voting on weekly awards.

Still, what matters more is that the media understand what they’re doing and the ramifications of all of it. Press conferences are often just for show, in MMA especially but sometimes in soccer as well.

And it’s important to pick one’s battles. One time I diverged from my soccer colleagues was when MLS decided to give us some information before MLS Cup but asked us to withhold it until halftime. I had no issue with it, and it gave us time to prepare what we were going to do with it. Others immediately tweeted it out. So what happened? MLS never did that again, so now you get the same info at halftime, and you have to scramble to respond to it while you’re trying to cover a game. Was that “scoop” worth it?

The MMA media have more difficult fights. If I’m being asked not to ask certain questions at a press conference, I’d be inclined not to go, and then I’ll ask the questions elsewhere. We’d have to see if my editors backed that up.

They grasp these issues. They have intelligent discussions on them. It’s impressive. And a lot of us could learn from it.

 

My favorite songs of 2018

This list doesn’t feature songs released 2018. I’m a little slow. Some of these songs are from the 90s, and I’m just now catching up. Some of these songs were ever-present in my CD player in my young adulthood, and I’m re-discovering them.

(Yes, I made a Spotify playlist.)

Let’s hit it …

The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon 

Gord Downie was considered a national treasure in Canada, and the Hip’s farewell concert was a major television event.

When Downie passed away, a vigil was held in Bobcaygeon, a small town about 160 kilometers from Toronto. Downie had no particular tie to the town, choosing it for this song because it rhymed with “constellation,” but the band later performed there even though it’s not a big town that attracts a lot of touring bands as big as this one.

It’s a simple, beautiful song propelled by Downie’s wonderfully expressive voice.

Video

The Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster

A sprightly little tune about survivors’ guilt. Must have been one hell of a nasty breakup to compare it to the sinking of a German ship in a World War II naval battle that few people survived.

As with Bobcaygeon, it’s a repetitive melody, but the rhythm is unpredictable, and Downie builds the drama with his authoritative delivery.

This is one of the songs they performed on Saturday Night Live when fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd (neither the host nor a cast member but appearing in several sketches to prop up a disastrous season) pushed for them and did the intros.

Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons – Green Eyes

There are a few perks to being a fan of a relatively obscure band. I had interacted with Angela on social media a few times before I saw them, but I figured she couldn’t possibly remember every fan she meets online. Then I went to Hill Country BBQ, where I was the only person sitting on my half of the front row. (Attendance was rather spotty, mostly a few curiosity-seekers who wandered downstairs from the restaurant, but they didn’t seem to mind.) I looked up after they took the stage and saw her smiling and waving. I looked behind me, thinking she couldn’t possibly be waving to me. She was.

Afterwards, I chatted with her for a bit, posed for a selfie and got a big hug. I also talked with bass player Billy Zehnal, who has kids around my kids’ ages.

Her songs are often about young love. Dandelion Kisses, which they stretch out with an atmospheric intro in their live performances, is a bittersweet tune in which the protagonist knows the man she’s with is in love with someone else and will eventually win her over. (I often find myself yelling at no one in particular: “Angela, you deserve better than that!”) This one is a little less complicated.

Check out the solidly produced “Stereogram Session” or check out the fun live version.

Nicole Atkins – Listen Up

I’ve also interacted with Nicole a bit on social media, especially when she was hosting a show on SiriusXM. I’m not sure she knows who I am, but she high-fived me on the way out of her concert at The Barns. And this happened …

(I didn’t say that I was so startled that I let out an awkward “Hi!”)

For some reason, she just happened to start and finish in the right aisle where I was sitting, taking advantage of the acoustics to sing sans microphone. At the start of the show, she walked through — starting right next to me — singing the wistful Neptune City, which was recorded with a lush arrangement but sounded great with simple guitar chords. After her set, she once again headed into the aisle and sang an a cappella Over the Rainbow, then strode down the aisle to leave. I had my hand up to wave, and she high-fived me.

Yeah, I’m a 48-year-old fanboy. So sue me.

I wish she’d sung a couple of my old favorites — the foreboding Vultures (one of the songs I practice on drums) or the fun Girl You Look Amazing (which had a video that would’ve been a hit if MTV still played music) — but her new stuff is good as well. For this one, she did another entertaining video.

I’d say she should do comedy, but I wouldn’t want her to waste that gorgeous voice.

PJ Harvey – Man Size

Not sure why her breakthrough album Rid of Me popped back into my head after 20 years or so, but I’m glad it did. She skewers gender stereotypes throughout with raw guitar and some odd time signatures (11/4 here, which is a lot of fun to play on drums).

I think 50 Foot Queenie was the bigger hit, and I’m listening to that one, too. But I flipped a coin and chose this one.

Our Lady Peace – Starseed 

I associate this one with my drives back to Duke when I found too many excuses to go back and visit my friends. It’s back with me now because it’s a terrific drum part that I plan to pitch when School of Rock does its adult session. The drummer, Jeremy Taggart, was 18 years old when he recorded this — the Wikipedia entry for the album says recording was delayed for his high school graduation.

Video

Metric – Dressed to Suppress 

OK, THIS is a new one. I’d worried that Metric had fallen off a bit since their brilliant album Fantasies, but Art of Doubt is a powerful return to form. Emily Haines adds subtle inflections throughout that aren’t just for show — they highlight and illustrate the point.

Video

Belly – Mine

They’re back! And the new album matches up pretty favorably with the two they released in their 1990s heyday. WHFS would’ve loved this one.

Drummer Chris Gorman is also an artist, and he’s made intriguing videos for this one and Shiny One, in which Tanya Donelly sings about parenthood over a rumbling bass groove and soaring guitars. The Shiny One video seems to be paying tribute to their hit Feed the Tree, for which the video was set in a forest.

And check out the live version of Mine, which is more ragged here than when I saw them live, but it captures Tanya’s joy at being back on stage with her band as well as bassist (and cancer survivor — let’s keep Obamacare, OK?) Gail Greenwood’s propensity for cool rock-star poses.

Screaming Trees – Dying Days

Not sure I heard this one way back when it was released. I mostly knew Screaming Trees for Nearly Lost You, as I think most of us did, as well as All I Know. This one was a reflection on all the tragedies in the Seattle music community, but I actually find it uplifting somehow.

I’d recommend not watching the video for this, which is just contortions of a grotesque bit of album art, but put it on in the background and listen.

Or just listen to …

the full Spotify playlist! It also includes a few extras, such as …

Heart, Barracuda — Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has a girl who can sing this. That’s some serious talent.

The Mars Volta, Cotopaxi – Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has musicians who can work their way through the crazy time signatures here.

Rush, La Villa Strangiato – The School of Rock Rush show director has challenged the gang to play this one.

Chris Stapleton, Midnight Train to Memphis – I don’t listen to a lot of country, so I’m going to call this “roots rock” instead. Great voice, and I have fun playing this one with the snare drum tuned way down low.

The Stone Roses, Love Spreads – I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with …

Motley Crue, Dr. Feelgood – Another drum-workout track.

Rancid, Rejected – Believe it or not, School of Rock has a bass player who looks like a shy, studious girl who can play this part.

Throwing Muses, Sunray Venus – Tanya Donelly’s stepsister, Kristin Hersh, is still going strong, and she’s had the same trio now for a couple of decades.

The Cardigans, I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer – A perennial. That’s my jam, period.

And I’ve included some comedy. Enjoy.