Defending the Blogosphere

internet.jpgIn recent days, the arguments against the blogosphere have reached a fevered pitch.  Everyone now wants a piece of the action from Bob Costas to Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Years ago, we got our sports like everybody else did.  We awaited the arrival of the daily newspaper and would be especially grateful to hear the thud of that tightly coiled, banded hunk of paper when it hit the end of the driveway.  First stop – the Sports Page!  There, we would read the stories and accounts of the recent action in all of the major sports, examine the box scores and finally we would check the standings.

I remember those childhood days fondly.  Something just seemed right in the world when GI Joe and the Six Million Dollar Man were fighting crime in the living room floor while Dad read the paper in his favorite chair.  A great deal of comfort came from all of that.

But years have passed since then – something like 35 of them.  Times have changed.  The games that we had to watch then on that big floor model TV have been replaced by the pristine clarity of high definition and cable.  We no longer have to be the unlucky one who had to brave the elements to turn the pole so the antenna would face in the proper direction and help us get a stronger signal.  As a result, we no longer have to hear Dad yell through the window, “Go back the way you just came!  You had a good picture just a minute ago!”

Those local reporters we were forced to watch in those days through the haze of the bad reception have been replaced by better dressed versions on cable networks.  The proliferation of cable sports networks has given rise to a fast-food approach to sports news and highlights.

These new times have also seen other changes – namely that newspaper that Dad was reading is undergoing some changes.  Oh, it’s still being printed and dropped at the end of driveways everywhere but it’s also available through the world wide web.  Now, instead of heading out toward the road to pick up the box scores and standings, we can log onto the virutal world of the internet and get the same information faster and more easily than ever before.

Provided in this huge universe of zeroes and ones along with those box scores and standings is a vast array of commentaries, pictures on demand, interviews with our favorite players, video and webistes dedicated to any professional team that you can name.  That old newspaper that we once waited for and ran down the driveway to get?  It’s heading the way of the dinosaur.

This digital revolution (some call it the Information Age) has also begun to have an even deeper impact on news and where we get our news.  Those websites that now display everything that you might find in your Sunday paper are competing with blogs – websites being operated by fans.  It’s a development that has the traditional news media in a serious uproar.

A serious challenge is being faced that looks more like a David versus Goliath than you might think.  But in this fight, Goliath is now afraid of David and what David might do to him with that slingshot and stone.

Let’s start with Goliath who represents the newspapers, online newspapers and the journalists who write for them.  The source of their fear is that visitors to the internet will choose these blogs over them.  Sports fans might decide that taking news and commentary from a fan, or someone who is much more like they are, is the preferred method.  Sports fans can get that point of view from blogs.

Even the television sports journalists have been voicing their concerns.  It recently boiled over with Bob Costas who had some not-so-kind words for those in the blogosphere when he talked about them with the Miami Herald.

But it’s one thing if somebody just sets up a blog from their mother’s bobcostas.jpgbasement in Albuquerque and they are who they are, and they’re a pathetic get-a-life loser, but now that pathetic get-a-life loser can piggyback onto someone who actually has some level of professional accountability and they can be comment No. 17 on Dan Le Batard’s column or Bernie Miklasz’ column in St. Louis. That, in most cases, grants a forum to somebody who has no particular insight or responsibility. Most of it is a combination of ignorance or invective.”

What bothers Costas — and he’s not alone — is Internet and talk radio commentary that “confuses simple mean-spiritedness and stupidity with edginess. Just because I can call someone a name doesn’t mean I’m insightful or tough and edgy. It means I’m an idiot.

“It’s just a high-tech place for idiots to do what they used to do on bar stools or in school yards, if they were school yard bullies, or on men’s room walls in gas stations. That doesn’t mean that anyone with half a brain should respect it.”

A rant like this one displays not only a disdain for those populating the blogosphere but if one were to read between the lines you might even detect a slight amount of fear.  Somehow aligning blogs with bathroom grafitti doesn’t exactly sound like a rational argument to me.  I can’t recall ever reading a blog on which a writer said, “For a good time call Insert A Professional Athlete’s Name Here!”

I, for one, have always held Bob Costas in a somewhat high regard for his skills as a sportscaster.  From the NFL to the Olympics, he has always displayed a sense of good taste and even humor.  In this case, however, he has gone way over the line.

Since he seems to think that bloggers are idiots even going so far as to lump those “idiots” in with the “idiots” discussing sports in their favorite local tavern.  Maybe then we should also be defending the rabid fans who would have the gall, the temerity to <GASP!> discuss their teams while manning a bar stool.  How dare they do that?

I’m sorry but I would rather discuss how things are going in the NFL, or any sport for that matter, with my buddies at the bar than to have opinions spoon-fed to me by some overrated, pompous ass in a suit and a tie sitting at a sports desk on television or in some dusty vacuum called a newspaper news room.

What Costas doesn’t understand is that fans are the ones writing these blogs.  That’s what makes the blogosphere what it is in the first place – a comfortable retreat from the crap spewed by the media from our televisions and newspapers (whether in print or online).  Blogs are the new hangout.  Sure, we can still talk crap about sports in the local bar but sports blogs have become the new watering hole.  It’s that fact that makes the blogosphere entertaining – fans writing for fans and more fans commenting with passion and without the stuff shirts moderating every word.

In fact, Costas now hosts a sports show on HBO where censorship is not only frowned upon but is nearly verboten.  The lack of censorship on his show has allowed four-letter words to invade the language of some episodes and has even been at the center of the very controversy surrounding blogs.

buzzbissinger.jpgOn his show “Costas Now,” Bob hosted a round table of sorts with Braylon Edwards of the Browns, Buzz Bissinger (Pulitzer Prize winning author of Friday Night Lights) and Will Leitch who is the creator of Deadspin.com.  The sparks flew!  (View the video here – WARNING!!!  There is graphic language in this video so send the kids to bed before viewing this one.)

If this had been a political debate, the one holding the Pulitzer Prize would have been roundly discredited while the lowly blogger would have won the day.  Bissinger took off on a rant while slinging some foul language in the direction of Leitch even going so far as to tell him that he “is full of sh**.”

What had Bissinger so upset is the proliferation of blogs containing what Costas referred to in his introduction of the segment as “opinions, photos, video.  All blurring the lines between news and gossip, truth and rumor, commentary and insult.”

Also, during the introduction, Michael Wilbon of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” and formerly of the Washington Post said, “Our producers, they’re 40 years old; they’re mikewilbon.jpgincredibly well educated; they’re incredibly informed.  They don’t care about newspapers and that depresses the hell out of me.”

If there is one inherent flaw in what Wilbon added, it’s the implication that well-educated and well-informed individuals should read the newspapers and that they somehow should be avoiding the internet and the dumbing-down effect it has on those who visit it.

Let me go on record here with this (and Wilbon can quote me on this one on tomorrow’s PTI) – there is no such thing as dumbing down.  No one who can test at average or above-average levels on any IQ test will be infected with ignorance by reading anything.  That includes the internet, blogs, magazines or newspapers.

ESPN the Magazine has been published for years now and I’ve never found their articles to be insightful, incredibly well informed or even detailed.  It has always struck me as a magazine you can read in a minute, while on break or in the toilet, frankly.  By contrast, I’m not sure how blogs or anything on the internet could do anymore irreparable damage to the human IQ than ESPN the Magazine, a less-than-intelligent novel or anything written by Danielle Steele.  It can’t.

Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that there is a tremendous amount of garbage produced on the web.  Some might even consider this blog and my writing to be garbage.  It’s all about personal taste and what entertainment value a visitor to one of these sites receives by reading the material posted there.

Deadspin and its ilk are simply not my cup of tea.  For that matter, The National Enquirer, People Magazine, Jerry Springer and much of what ESPN has produced in the last ten years aren’t either.  This is where personal choice and the freedom to choose comes into play.  Anyone can be as selective as they like based on their own personal opinions, likes and dislikes and even IQ.

The problem that the media has with blogs seems to lie not just with content but also with two things – credentials and education levels.  Costas added, “And the revolution that’s taking place can be unsettling.  If younger fans don’t appreciate real credentials and inside access, what’s the future of newspaper coverage and sports journalism?  The new wave doesn’t appear concerned.”

How can someone with Costas’ education and background ask these questions?  The answer is simple really.  For years, a select few were allowed to report to the public.  They had the education and the laminated press credentials hanging around their necks provided to them by the sports teams they covered.  It was an exclusive club and they, only they, could gain access to the lockerroom, the playing field and the press conferences.

Sadly, only those same select few can gain that kind of access today.  The difference is that they are no longer the only ones doing the reporting or the only ones writing opinions.  Now, the new guard has arrived.  Sure, the new guard will have to wait to gain access.  In the meantime, they can still provide the insights and opinions that only fans can have.

Reporters tend to be crass and pompous (I’ve talked to far too many) while they will decry the outsider for trying to report anything that they don’t have true access to.  They are the ones who can get in – not us.  Plus, that framed piece of rice paper hanging on the wall from a major university cost them money and should entitle them to something.

The tables are turning, however.  It’s the rare occasion that a blogger can gain access to players for interviews, the lockerroom for postgame comments or the press conferences held by coaches and owners.  That day might still be far in the distant future.  Yet the bloggers who care and who write with a conscience are gaining ground on the old guard media and the old guard is getting nervous.

Cries of “that’s not really journalism” have been lobbed at the blogosphere.  Taunts of “you simply don’t know what you’re doing, kid” and “how can you write about this when you haven’t been properly educated or given the credentials to cover it” are regularly thrown our way.

Hanging a laminated credential around my neck doesn’t make me a better writer, a smarter person or even more objective in my viewpoints.  I’d say the same thing about a college education.  I don’t have one.  I’m not ashamed of it.  Hell, I celebrate it because I never had to be told what to think, what to write, how to write it nor what was considered right and wrong in “journalism.”  (For the record:  I hate that word “journalism.”  It means nothing.  An article written by some balding, fat, over-educated pompous ass is no better than a letter to the editor, a rant on a forum or a blogger.)

The blogosphere hasn’t been given credentials to cover games and the sports we love.  How can it be far behind you ask.  Simple – the major sports leagues are afraid of blogs.  They aren’t sure what we’ll write and they think that we’ll be somehow inconsiderate and irresponsible in our coverage of their well-crafted sports.  Besides, we don’t have the titles of summa cum laude, summa cum lately or any other Latin honors.

Failing to gain employment with one of the major news publications is now a curse.  Because I’m not working with the New York Times or ESPN for that matter, I can’t go to a game, meet the players in the lockerroom and report to the fans what I saw and heard there.  That’s a shame.

Fans should have a voice.  That’s what bloggers are for in the first place.  My God, CNN checks the blogosphere all the time during their political coverage!  So why can’t sports bloggers do the same?  Why can’t we be viewed as much a part of the “media” as any hack, two-bit reporter working for a magazine, a TV network or a newspaper?

Professional teams simply don’t see it that way, unfortunately.  Until they do, bloggers can be locked out while being viewed as the vermin the established media believes them to be.

If the blogosphere was void of the gratuitous and mean-spirited, something might give and we might all be allowed to gain access to the hallowed ground we all desire.  Still, asking anyone with a keyboard to cease and desist simply because we don’t agree with them is wrong on many levels.  Yet, it’s when blogs become personal and defamatory that we need to draw a line.  It just so happens that a select, irresponsible few have branded the rest of us.

“I think that blogs are dedicated to cruelty.  They’re dedicated to journalistic dishonesty.  They’re dedicated to speed,” said Bissinger on Costas Now.  He went on to ask who had a “better ability to evoke a game and a moment” comparing W.C. Heinz or some guy who wrote on Deadspin.

I fail to see where that has any relevance.  In this day and age, the average sports fan isn’t interested in reading some second-hand account of a game.  They want to watch the game live or see the highlights and then have the ability to sound off on it.  They get this from the internet in the form of message boards and blogs and the fans who write about the games on blogs aren’t trying to evoke moments.  They’re generally trying to figure out what went wrong or right.

I don’t think I need to channel the spirit of W.C. Heinz to write about sports.  When did sports reporting reach the same level as Fredrick Neitche, T.S Eliot or Edgar Allan Poe?  Aren’t these writers taking themselves a little too seriously?  Really?  “Evoke a game and a moment?”  It’s sports.  This is not a poetry writing contest.  Fact is, pretty it up too much and the average sports fan could care less.  Just tell me what happened, Mr. Reporter, and throw some quotes at me from the players.

This is what reporters think of themselves – that they’re singularly qualified to write about sports; that they are the authorities and that all those in the blogosphere should just put away the keyboard, logoff and be gone.  Even some of the professional sports franchises feel the same way.

Recently, the Cincinnati Bengals threatened to sue our sister site, Stripe Hype, and the owners of the site (and ours), Fan Sided Blogs.  The team claimed that the site violated copyright laws by using their logos and pictures of their players wearing their uniforms.

Mike Brown, owner of the Bengals, had his attorneys contact the owners of the site.  Below is a portion of what Dave Howard, the writer (now former writer) for Stripe Hype, wrote about the incident.

Well, looks like the Cincinnati Bengals are first in something. The fansided.com blog network is a collaboration of fan NFL blogs run by fans of the teams. Cincinnati has contacted our main office to threaten us with a lawsuit over using pictures (that are out in the public domain) that we gave copyright credit to the Bengals organization for. We have been forced into a redesign, as we cannot defend ourselves against Mike Brown’s deep pockets. Funny, we’ve been in touch with the Bengals (PR Director Jack Brennan) via email several times (me personally). I’ve invited him to browse the site, comment and make suggestions for our site to a benefit to the Bengals organization. Instead, we get a lawsuit threatened against us (why, Mr. Brennan, could you not just ask us to make changes?).

I fail to see how having a fan write about your team and your franchise is a bad thing.  Perhaps the Bengals don’t understand the value of positive publicity.  They must not considering the propensity of their players to land in jail so often.

Still, here lies the problem for most bloggers – access.  Teams simply aren’t willing to give it and bloggers, feeling frustrated and left out, tend to turn on the teams and begin writing less-than-glowing articles about them.  Who could blame them?

Look around professional sports and tell me what you see.  You’ll see stadiums and arenas built with public money.  You’ll also see players paid salaries in the tens of millions because the fans paid for tickets and team merchandise and because they watched the games on television allowing for the lucrative broadcast deals enjoyed by the major sports leagues.

These fans have turned to blogging.  Sure, the Bengals can’t grant access to every fan but it wouldn’t hurt to allow access to a couple.  It’s good PR and, more importantly, it’s good business to get that kind of “journalism” from the average fan who can provide an entirely new perspective on the game and the team to other fans.  There is a benefit to be had but the teams simply don’t see it.  They’re too busy fighting it.

The Bengals and other pro sports teams protect their logos, insignia and other trademarks.  They pay top dollar to employ attorneys.  All of those properties should be protected.  I can agree with them on that.

What I can’t agree with them and these high-minded reporters about is that bloggers are some kind of scourge thrust upon them by the vast wasteland they view the internet to be.

It can’t all be bad, can it?  Don’t the major media outlets all have blogs?  Don’t ESPN, Sport Illustrated, Fox Sports, and every major newspaper all have blogs?  These are the very people fighting the blogosphere yet they join the blogosphere in some weird, ironic twist.  These blogs aren’t vilified like so many others we’ve mentioned previously.  They belong to the major media outlets, don’t they?

How is a blog operated by the ESPN, Fox Sports or the Washington Post any less dangerous or any less threatening to the established good-ol-boy media?  Do they get favorable treatment or are they grandfathered in because they belong to a major corporation?  Blogs like these are being monitored for content by their corporate owners so they can’t become dangerous, it would seem.

Here again, is the reason we need independent blogs and how they serve a purpose – they don’t have to answer to someone upstairs (and I don’t mean upstairs in grandma’s house since the writer is sitting in her basement).  No one in a board room tells them what is acceptable and what isn’t.  They simply write what they feel – blemishes, warts and all, good spelling, bad spelling, good grammar and bad grammar.

Fans feel things that the corportate entities don’t want us to feel.  Among these things is passion and love for the sports and teams they cover.  No reporter with his or her proud education or credentials will ever give us that.

This site and every blog like it across the web is just as accessible to anyone who is online as any website out there including the most visited sites on the web.  That means that any blogger out there now has a voice that can be just as empowered as any media type anywhere working for “The Man.”

From now on, the “little guy” is the big guy and I’ll tell you how that’s true – we live in the information age.  The internet is already the medium of choice for those under the age of 30 who are looking for news and information.  This scares the establishment.  It shakes
them.  It scares the hell out of them.

I defend the blogosphere but I don’t have to, necessarily.  That’s because the blogosphere is here and it’s not going anywhere no matter what Bob Costas, Buzz Bissinger or the Cincinnati Bengals think of it.

Ain’t the internet a wonderful thing?

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Tags: Bob Costas Buzz Bissinger Defending The Blogosphere Mike Wilbon

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