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.

 

Review: “Last Days of Knight” is flawed but essential

Cross-posting at duresport.com 

ESPN is gambling these days.

The new “30 for 30” documentary, Last Days of Knight, gambles on three levels:

  1. It’s being shown exclusively on ESPN+, the company’s new pay service, a good way to draw attention to it but not the best way to get this film the wide audience that many previous 30 for 30 entries have found.
  2. It tells the story of a journalist, CNN’s Robert Abbott, who pursued the story for months. As an Awful Announcing review says, the film attempts to tell Abbott’s story and Knight’s, and it sometimes falls between the two stools.
  3. A lot of people still maintain loyalty to Bobby Knight after all these years.

Others can debate No. 1. The questions here are No. 2 and No. 3, and the disappointment of Last Days of Knight is that we get too much of No. 2 and not enough exploration of No. 3.

Like all 30 for 30 films, LDON is a slick presentation. And the story is compelling, even with the unusual focus on Abbott. CNN’s reporting became part of the story itself, for better or for worse, and you don’t have to be a journalism junkie to appreciate the insights on how everyone involved interacted with the media — Knight as one of several bullies, players and staffers afraid to speak, administrators being weasels, etc. Abbott’s reflections and the nitty-gritty at CNN, including some clumsy threats by people working on Knight’s behalf, provide a new angle to an old story.

But that story bogs down with an extended, guilt-ridden take on the post-scandal life and death of Neil Reed, the player Knight assaulted in a video that hastened his downfall. It’s a sad and yet sweet story of someone who reclaimed his own life and was clearly loved before his untimely death from a heart attack, but its placement in this film is odd, as if it’s suggesting Reed’s death was somehow collateral damage from Knight’s antics and/or the media coverage. Abbott regrets making Reed uncomfortable in his pursuit of the story, but it seems a bit much for him to interpose himself in the family’s mourning process.

And we’re left wanting something more. Abbott and some of his colleagues are seeing the old story in a new light. Anyone else?

Perhaps it’s me — I wrote about irrational mobs in my review of Jesus Christ Superstar — but I really wanted to see some reflection from the people who defended Knight when he was quite clearly indefensible. Knight, predictably, wasn’t interested in participating. But what about the students? Former players? Now that the heat has died down, what would they do differently?

But even if we don’t see such reflection on camera, we have to hope it’s happening elsewhere. It’s not happening in this dismissive review from The Daily Hoosier.

The value of a story like Knight’s is that it holds up a mirror to us. How much are we willing to excuse if a guy wins some basketball games? Can a man impart military-style discipline and behavioral values if he doesn’t live up to it himself or hold himself accountable?

We see hints of these questions in Last Days of Knight. Just not quite enough.

 

Holiday giving idea: Support journalism

News organizations generally aren’t nonprofits. Their owners have ranged from somewhat benevolent people with a genuine interest in journalism to your basic everyday robber barons. So, under ordinary circumstances, none of us would suggest adding a news organization to your list if you, like me, do most of your charitable giving in December.

These are not ordinary circumstances. These days, it’s no exaggeration to say facts are under attack from politicians and from nihilistic groups like Project Veritas. That assault is coming when journalism is reeling from the loss of its primary business models. USA TODAY made a lot of its money distributing news to hotel doorsteps, a service that’s not quite as necessary when we can all call up any news site we want on our phones. Local newspapers weathered recessions with classified advertising that has drifted to free platforms. (Or, in the case of the weird personals that used to subsidize alt-weeklies, Tindr or Grindr or Bumpr or whatever the latest app is.)

Times are just getting rougher for journalists. I have two primary freelance clients, and they both slashed their budgets this year.

But I’m not going to ask for money for myself. I thought about setting up a Patreon page or something to support my work as a U.S. Soccer watchdog, but I can’t do it in good conscience. There are too many better ways to spend your money. I may offer some products soon, and feel free to buy as many of those as you wish. Buy early, buy often.

We have larger issues at stake …

Last year, after the election, it became an act of resistance to subscribe to the New York Times or the Washington Post. If you did that, please don’t forget to renew. (And yes, subscribing to the Wall Street Journal is fine, too — most of that money doesn’t go to their lunatic-fringe editorial page.)

I’d also suggest a couple of organizations worth supporting:

  1. ProPublica is doing the most difficult task in journalism — investigative reporting. It’s time-consuming. People often throw up roadblocks to stop this work from being done. And their business model is based on public support.
  2. The Guardian is trying some interesting partnerships, and instead of having the obnoxious auto-play videos that pop up (looking your way, Sports Illustrated — and I’m a subscriber), they have a polite banner asking if you’d like to support them. Please do. Yes, I write for The Guardian, but it’s safe to say that if you donate $20, that adds less than 1 cent to my bank account. I would be telling you to donate even if they completely shut down their U.S. operations and quit taking my pitches entirely.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my great student paper, which has brought me back to serve on the board and help some amazing student journalists — all much brighter than I was back in my day. Student papers don’t make the money they used to make, for all the same reasons your local newspaper no longer has a profit margin that other business with envy. So consider donating to The Chronicle.

Asking for money doesn’t come easily to journalists. I’m not sure I could ever work for a nonprofit for that reason — it’s simply a skill I don’t have. But I feel strongly about this.

So please give it some thought. Maybe we can keep vital, informative and occasionally entertaining journalism afloat a while longer. Or at least get rid of some pop-up videos.

Anarchist/antifa philosophy and tactics just a wee bit counterproductive

Attention conservative or “yes, Trump is evil, but when will the Left address the other side” people: Most people I know on the “Left” (whatever that means) want nothing to do with these idiots and have done a far better job disassociating themselves from then than Trump has from — you know, actual white supremacists and Nazis.

In case you don’t believe me, or in case you think the media are giving these people a free pass, check out two stories today.

Washington Post:

Carrefour said he knows that some people who are sympathetic to the anarchists’ general beliefs would not approve of the tactics used at the inauguration. But, he said, recruiting more anarchists is never the goal.

“The notion of convincing people is a liberal idea,” Carrefour said. “I also think it’s important to attack the symbols of capitalism. It’s just property at the end of the day.

The rioting brought swift rebukes.

On Inauguration Day, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser — a Democrat who has criticized many of Trump’s policies — condemned the rioting, tweeting that while the city welcomes protesters, officials “cannot allow you to destroy our neighborhoods.”

Muhammad Ashraf, whose 2015 Lincoln super-stretch limousine was burned by rioters while parked downtown, wondered whether the protesters understood the effect the rioting had on him.

Ashraf, 52, owner of Virginia-based Nationwide Chauffeured Services, watched on television as his limo was engulfed in flames. The vehicle was a total loss. After insurance payments, it cost him $60,000 out of pocket to replace, he said.

“When that car becomes a source of your livelihood, it becomes a part of your life. I don’t know if the protesters understand that when they destroy something — the way I felt when I saw my car burning, it really hurt me deeply even though it’s just a car,” he said. “Six months later, I still want to know, did that accomplish anything?”

The Guardian:

Still, having heard Antifa’s elevator pitch in person, I must acknowledge that their analysis of ingrained injustice gets more than a little bit right.

Corporate power ought to be challenged. Racial hierarchies are deep and powerful and must be uprooted. The criminal justice system perpetuates mass incarceration while doing little – or nothing – to address police violence.

States captured by corporate interests routinely run roughshod over democratic, Indigenous and local control of land, water and resources, as witnessed at Standing Rock. Ours has become a land of inequity and injustice aplenty.

But in their flirtation with political violence, Antifa ends up hurting the progressive groups it stands with and claims to protect.

They play into the cartoon-image of the left sketched by Fox News and Breitbart. Though violence may not be their dominant tactic, it is inevitably their hallmark. And though the group may not always incite violence, their presence invites it, putting others in danger.

So thanks, guys, but we in the media are aware of these people. Here are the differences between them and the white supremacists …

  1. They do not speak for all people who are against fascism, racial prejudice or other assorted forms of hate.
  2. They don’t have representatives in the White House.

To sum up: Antifa bad. Anti-racism/fascism/discrimination good. Now what are we going to do about racism, fascism and discrimination?

What about whataboutism?

Like a lot of bullying tools, “whataboutism” is powerful because there’s a bit of logic to it, however twisted it may be.

In fact, on the meta level, it’s easy to use whataboutism to fight complaints about whataboutism. Most people use it in some form at some point.

The key difference to me is this: Are you using bringing up an opposing side because you’re making a decision between two things (say, candidates) or because you’re trying to deflect criticism instead of dealing with it?

In other words, if we’re talking about an election with only two viable candidates, and you tell me Candidate X embezzled money but I know Candidate Y murdered somebody, I’ll have to point that out. (I hope it never gets to that point!)

And in some cases, what appears to be “whataboutism” is actually making a case to give one entity the higher ground. For example — if a Trump voter criticizes the Clinton Foundation, it seems fair to point to the Trump Foundation, especially if you go on to note that the Clinton Foundation actually does some good.

Let’s say the Charlottesville situation had been reversed, and an “antifa” demonstrator had killed someone. Surely someone would use that incident to claim there’s no difference between the “left” and “right” in this situation. (Aside to media: Can you quit using “left” and “right” in describing this sort of thing? CBS did it for Boston, which was ridiculous — I’m sure a lot of registered Republicans were among the “left” crowd in this case and were quite offended by the assumption that the supremacists were the “right.”)

But the counterargument would be this:

  1. The majority of the counterprotesters were not violent.
  2. Most likely, the bulk of the nation’s lawmakers and thought leaders would denounce the killer without the equivocation Trump used in his half-hearted denunciation of a considerable chunk of the people who still support him.
  3. What’s the overall intent of the counterprotest? It’s to stand up against racism. What’s the overall intent of the original protest? To promote it. Not equivalent.

A Facebook friend made this sort of point in answering Trump’s “whatabout” on Washington and Jefferson owning slaves. Washington and Jefferson don’t have monuments because they supported racism. They have monuments for their actual accomplishments. Monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are for their service to an abhorrent cause.

QED.

Historical footnote — I did not know this:

In May 1985 the U.S. State Department funded a conference at the Madison Hotel on the fallacy of “moral equivalence,” a philosophical cousin of whataboutism. The goal was to tamp down comparisons of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other instances. The actions may be comparable, the State Department implied, but the intentions were not.

Source: Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump – The Washington Post

 

A few links about Charlottesville

I’m not to the point of writing something that’ll put everything in context.

But let me just share a few things here that demonstrate two points:

  1. A lot of Republicans are far more willing than the president to stand up to the lunatic fringe and its violence and racism.
  2. The lunatic fringe has been enabled by the last election. Remember the last couple of decades of Klan rallies, which usually consisted of a few people in hoods being shouted down by hundreds of peaceful but firm people? How did we get from that to what happened today?

 

Read this entire thread — currently at 157,000 retweets — delineating the things white people do not have to face (which other people, of course, do).

Meet the alt-right moneybag.

Trump froze funding to fight right-wing hate groups.

A collection of research on white supremacists’ backing of Trump and the president’s unwillingness to distance himself from it.

Was Trump’s win about economics? The data says no.

And lest we forget — this is the end result. For now …