There was a lot more going on at the Final Four than just the basketball games. Salon's Brian Weinberg pulls back the curtain a bit.
There are probably a thousand things that I could write about this morning, but like most people who follow media coverage of any particular thing, writing about how they do their job is something I consider to be part of covering the Kentucky Wildcats. Wild Weasel linked an article in Salon which is essentially a case of the media covering itself at the Final Four this year, and it is a very interesting and revealing story that deserves some examination.
First, a disclaimer -- I am not, and never have been, a member of the media. Just because I run a UK site does not make me a journalist, nor do I ever want to be one. I am not unbiased, and I will never suggest that I am. I don't have editors, but SB Nation does expect us to follow some common-sense standards on all of us with an eye on giving us as much freedom as possible to write about what we want, but also to help ensure that we don't embarrass the company, get them into defamation suits, or otherwise do more harm than good. I was invited to the Final Four as a guest of Buick, a major client of SB Nation, not as a media member. I had no media credentials and no access to the media areas.
The article under discussion here is one by Brian Weinberg taking a look at all the backstage machinations that happened during the Final Four, and it is revealing for all the petty jealousies and frankly unprofessional behavior that happens there. I say unprofessional because I was absolutely shocked at some of the juvenile grudges and cliquish exclusivity that is revealed in this article. I must also disclaim further that I am taking this article at face value and assuming it doesn't contain it's own agenda, which is a position fraught with danger, but in this case, necessary.
Now, we all know Matt Jones is a kind of bull in the media china shop. His shameless self-promotion, and I use that term from envy, not as a criticism, has placed him in a position of being reviled among the national sports journalists. Imagine that, for a moment; a guy from Louisville who runs a Kentucky blog and has a credential provided by the local cable network manages to engender ostracism from the "old media" -- true print and broadcast journalists -- for daring to crash their little club party. Consider this:
Matt Jones is the chief media villain at the Final Four, the creator of a fan website/blog devoted to the University of Kentucky. The misleadingly named Kentuckysportsradio.com gets up to 150,000 unique visitors per day, and, as Jones likes to brag, it looks like it was produced on an Atari. It’s worth a visit for non-Kentucky fans for an advertisement link to Boone’s Butcher Shop, where you’ll find the following grammar: "Boone’s offers custom processing of your beef, hog, lamb, goat, buffalo, wild game and a numerous amount of other animals."
Perhaps you'll find this as bizarre as I do. Why would the national media care about Jones and his little fiefdom? You'd think, high in their ivory towers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Bristol, they'd be immune to the little guy getting a tiny little piece of their holy ground, or soaking up a few cocktails and swag in their hospitality suite. If it were me, I'd find it both interesting and worthy of some examination, like Weinberg provides in this piece.
Weinberg attributes Jones' ostracism to the frequent attempts at humor he has at big media's expense, and for frankly criticizing Pat Forde and Pete Thamel, among others, for some of the work they did, particularly as it applies to being critical of Calipari (Forde, most notoriously during his stint at ESPN) and investigating the Kentucky basketball program (Thamel).
I should point out two things here -- First, it is the job of the media to investigate programs like Kentucky. There is no doubt whatever that UK is an important cog in the machine of college basketball, and Kentucky's history as a serial NCAA violator along with the fact of Calipari's two vacated final fours draw interest, legitimate and illegitimate, like flies to an animal carcass.
The second is that all media members are not created equal. Some are paid to offer opinion as well as reporting, which can often result in accusations of unfairness, and frankly, that's as it should be. Pat Forde at ESPN was more of an analyst, a position which requires informed opinion. Most will argue that he crusaded against Calipari, and I will not disagree that is the case. But he has a right to that opinion, and he was paid to offer it just as it was.
As an analyst, his job is to offer an opinion which may or may not be fair, but he is obliged to accurately report the facts that inform his opinion, something that we all occasionally fail at. Because journalists like Forde and Thamel are paid to do to it for a living, however, their obligation is far greater and more meaningful than that of blogs and fan communities. If journalists are going to claim their product is truly superior, as they do, they have a much greater obligation to get things right.
Jones has rightfully criticized some of the coverage that the media has given Kentucky, especially Thamel and Forde. But Weinberg suggests that criticism sometimes went too far:
On KSR, Jones and writers, under the guise of journalistic ombudsmen (but acting as what others might call fans with a press pass), regularly accuse Forde of having an agenda to attack Calipari. They claim he mentions Calipari’s checkered past whenever possible in his national articles, and that he yearns to "take down" Calipari through investigative reporting. Basically, they remind Kentucky’s fan base, known as the Big Blue Nation, to hate this writer. The most extreme segment of Kentucky’s fan base is notorious for sending hate mail and, in rare cases, issuing death threats.
This is unfair in a couple of ways. First of all, everyone has a right to be critical of the people presenting stories, particularly when they make factual errors or crusade against a particular person. In America, we have come to expect traditional media to be fair and unbiased, but the truth is that they are human beings, and as such, incapable of objectivity in any reasonable sense.
But what I find most offensive about this is the implication that Jones & Co. intend to provoke a hostile, over-the-top reaction, including death threats and other such unethical and illegal activity. Every fan base has its bad apples, and Kentucky no less than any other, but probably no more, either.
Events like the Final Four are where the friction comes out – between print and online, between fan sites and sites that strive for more journalistic values, between writers who take shots at one another at a comfortable Twitter distance, then find themselves in the same workplace, on the same bus.
Note the implication here that fan sites don't strive for "journalistic values." This reveals the bias of the author toward his guild, and against those who wander the wastelands of the Internet without a journalism degree writing about, in this case, sports. Many blogs and fan sites hold themselves to a very high standard, but they don't run around claiming to be superior to everyone else.
Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports had a particularly interesting quote in here:
"To be on the Internet in sports and have readers really like you — my average reader is a college kid or a little older — you need a hipness to you." Soul patch at the lower lip, he’s wearing bright green Nikes with jeans and a T-shirt. "I don’t know if I’m hip or not, but I can tell you I try to hide how old I am. I have two kids, 16 and 14, and if my readers find out I’ve got older kids, they might tune me out."
It never occurred to me to try to hide my years, but if I were honest about it, I might allow that most of our readers tend to be 35 or older. I consider that a feature rather than a bug, given some of the commentary over on KSR. I am the antithesis of hip, as anyone who has met me will tell you.
Just then, we’re interrupted by Matt Jones. He’s wearing an untucked button-down, and around his neck is a media credential, through his TV work for CN2, a local cable subsidiary of CBS. He greets Doyel by saying, "I didn’t even know you were comin’!"
For the first time in the workroom, I feel self-conscious about the company I’m keeping. If Jones and Doyel are friends, is Doyel media villain No. 2? I like Doyel, and am keeping an open mind about Jones, but I want others to talk to me, like Pat Forde.
You can now see why Jones was the last guy interviewed in this article. Weinberg was afraid that by merely talking to Jones, he would scotch his chance for an honest interview with others like Thamel and Forde. If you think about that for just a minute, it's just gobsmacking. The fact that he fears such incestuous pettiness in this group suggests that it may in fact exist to one degree or another.
Now, consider this quote from Pat Forde, and the unintended irony it contains:
"Quite honestly, it’s prestige and ego. ‘Well, I work at this place, so I should be seated better than this and I’m not. There’s a lot of testosterone in this room, for better or worse, because it’s a mostly male-driven enterprise here."
Forde declined to talk about Jones, but would say there were many more layers of ‘society’ in the media workroom than when he first started covering Final Fours in 1991.
He talks about "testosterone" and then refuses to discuss Jones? Funny stuff. Maybe Weinberg should have asked Forde about Coach Cal.
The [Louisville-Kentucky] game is close, filled with dramatic moments, and sitting press-row is an exercise in restraint. It goes without saying it would be unprofessional to cheer, but I get the feeling I’m supposed to remain impassive even when a player does something athletically amazing. As if I’ve seen it all before. Complicating matters further, should the bench players stand up to cheer, we’re to remain seated, missing the run of play.
This is why I can never be on press row. Never. It would require that I be chemically sedated. If I sometimes seem calm and cerebral when I write (did I really say that?), I am the exact opposite in a game, and I could not enjoy a game in which I had to fake indifference. It's not in me.
When a reporter trips on his words, perhaps out of nervousness, and then trips again, the coach says, "Come on, you’re stutterin’!" It’s meant as a joke, but considering one of his best players, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, has a true stuttering issue, it seems particularly insensitive.
Gratuitous anti-Calipari shot, or perhaps just excessive political correctness. We'll never know which.
A few tables away from Thamel, I sit down with Jones. I tell him what I’m writing, and how surprised I am at the candor I’ve encountered.
He jokes, "If there’s one thing the media likes to talk about more than sports, it’s themselves."
God knows that Jones nails this one. All you have to do is have a Twitter account and follow these guys. It's as incestuous as you can imagine. Next, from Jones himself:
"It’s the lawyer in me. I like to face my critics." He nods in the direction of Thamel. "There’s Pete Thamel from the New York Times. I’d like to talk to him, but he won’t talk to me. He acts like he doesn’t know who I am, but that’s a lie."
Interesting choice of words, "...that's a lie." It just emphasizes, as if that were necessary, the antipathy Jones has for Thamel. Words can be lies, but actions simply can't be, not in this context. You can't really blame Thamel for not wanting to face his accuser, there's simply no percentage in it for him. He's rightly concerned only about his fellow media members, and they are in the tank for him to begin with.
If you think this blog post is a little long, it is nothing compared to the original article, but I don't want you to think it isn't worth reading -- it is. The piece offers some excellent insight into the nature of the media and how they act at large, media-driven events like the Final Four. I have no doubt things like the Super Bowl and NBA Finals are very similar in every way.
I hope I've given you, though, a sense of the piece if you just don't have the time to consume it all. There is really nothing in there that should surprise anyone, except perhaps the degree to which the media consider themselves to be the guardians of the truth. They fail, in every aspect, to admit their biases with the notable exception of Jones, which I find laudable and honest. If ever member of the media were as honest about that one particular point as both Jones, and many bloggers I have seen including yours truly, have been about that, the world would be a far better place.