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Days like today are the ones make me super grateful to have my own platform in the form of Open Court. If I was working in the old world of traditional media, I would probably not be allowed to wander off hard-core sports stuff on the Monday after a big football weekend.
(As an aside, I attended a rare football game as a fan in the stands over the weekend, witnessing the debacle that was Illinois at Penn State. My niece is in the PSU band, and I wanted to see her play. She was awesome. The rest was awful, terrible, no-good football. I was cold, wet and done watching serialized Big Ten incompetence by the third quarter. So no, I was not around for the 9 overtimes of stupidity. Congrats to the Illini on a hard-botched victory.)
Thus ends your sportswriterly content.
Let’s talk journalism and media at the geek level. A grade school classmate, Dan Gore, and my friend and stellar journalist Pat Anstett Kiska posed interesting questions/thoughts after my Oct. 15 Open Court on the bad boy coaches who leave the scenes of their crimes with big piles of money.
I sometimes feel like we are living in the upside-down, where bad is good and good is bad. Things that are simply false are labeled as “alternative facts” (I side-eye you eternally, Kellyanne Conway.) Blow enough bullshit into the world, and the public will not trust anything. Politicians, and now coaches, have made this an art form. We are swimming and drowning in lies. Make the media the enemy. Rinse. Repeat. Onto the next scandal and news cycle.
The narrative, and control of the space around it, mean more than being an actual practitioner of truth and common sense. I see this as by-products of reality TV now being a mainstay of our entertainment, the serialization of scandal, and social media taking up too much of our minds.
Dan, we’re old enough to know when the Real World started on MTV in 1992. (Hellllo Puck, Pedro, Heather B. and Eric Nies!) I trace a lot of the disinformation world for GenX and down launching from there. It was super successful, blurring the lines between a “documentary” and “scripted” TV. It was cheap, effective TV. And we all got into it. Who needs Erica Kane tearing it up on All My Children when you can have the "real" thing? Puck the bad boy!
And from there, pick what people love: The Bachelor, Top Chef, Survivor, Love Island, the Kardashian empire. All about as real as the Tooth Fairy. And yet, I can tell you that my Michigan State students are utterly addicted to the Bachelor and the Kardashians, knowing their names and deets more than who is running the United States.
This is where the journalism part and media literacy come in.
Around that time of MTV choosing to lose the M and go for the TV part, we also saw the rise of 24-7 coverage of politics as another form of reality TV. Scandals like Gary Hart in 1987, which popped up in the National Enquirer, spread into mainstream news coverage - which was unheard of at that level. The National Enquirer was for Elvis news and alien landings at Hardee’s in Sioux City.
But the now infamous photo of Hart and not-his-wife Donna Rice looking too cozy while hanging in Bimini was leaked to the Enquirer and torpedoed his presidential run. Former GOP evil campaign Svengali Lee Atwater was cutting down many trees during that campaign, including the final candidate Michael Dukakis with his ability to play with the truth.
Humans have always played with the truth for politics or our own means. What has changed are the mediums of immediate transmission to the masses and how the public now want to only believe what works for them.
Sports and politics are pretty similar. I tell my Michigan State Sports Journalism students that sports are not just sports, you will spend just as much time reporting on medicine, contracts, legal issues, sociology, psychology and politics as you will doing three trips wide in the third quarter.
So the reporting and framing of the Ed Orgeron and Jon Gruden scandals, along with what is happening with sexual assault at the University of Michigan, along with the crises in leadership at U.S. Soccer and USA Gymnastics, all come with lenses.
Who do you want to believe? What “truths” align with your POV? If Orgeron and Gruden were winning more this season, would all be hidden and forgiven? They were not saints before they got hired, but frequently, that stuff will be glossed over for the buzz of the big time coach. Being a bad boy is wrong, but if he is your bad boy – we love ya. MISUNDERSTOOD!
In the end, both guys were taken down by leaked info to the media. Somebody got their hands on a big ole pile of dimes and dropped them like a rain shower. And the coaches had good agents/lawyers who got them a contract buyout/severance and they danced out the door.
The abused athletes are questioned with a framework of victim-shaming, denying the optics of your favorite university or football coach being capable of facilitating or ignoring sexual assault.
The bad behaviors of those in sports and politics are similar: sex, lies and power. If you are winning, from elections to titles, your B goes down to b in BAD. But as soon as you have outlived your usefulness, buh-bye.
The media's role in this of the twisting and mutating is real. Cue the media literacy trumpet. Telling the difference between a real reporter, a talking-head personality, an anchor, a social media star, an entertainer and John Doe with the tweet of the day is incredibly challenging these days.
The lines are blurred on purpose in many places.
The breaking news coming every 5 min on CNN, the over-reliance on rumors and shady sources for a buzz, and the plethora of “experts” who are clearly not experty tear all of us down. The look-at-me culture needs to keep us hooked. You can build a brand faster on being infamous.
We turned politics and drama into non-stop spectacle. The polls. The races. The Politico blow-by-blow gossiping. Chuck Todd being an idiot on the regular.
Which leads to the corrosion of the truth. The 24/7 beast is fed with the journalistic equivalent of fast food. We have been downing the chalupas and McNuggets like the poor people stuck on that space cruise ship in Wall-E.
The twisting also can come from the perspective of the news outlet. How Fox covered the “protesters” that showed up for the free Kyrie Irving crap over the weekend were used to further an anti-vaccine narrative. (Irony being, you need to be vaccinated to work at Fox News.) ESPN and the rest of the sports world noted they were there, but didn’t cover it like it mattered. The vast majority of the NBA is vaccinated and playing basketball. Kyrie chose not to, so peace out to him – he had his freedom to choose and now his choice has the consequences he clearly knew were coming. Besides, he is really being punished sitting at home while still collecting $17 million. Anyways….
I also see a lot of people as confused, hurt and scared by our world. We’ve had a lot of bad stuff going down, and living in your own conspiracies and facts can bring comfort. You are making your own cave, convincing yourself own reality is the truth. Which brings some sense of control in the big, crazy world. The challenge for those of us who live in delivering facts and working hard to bring them to light is dealing with those who will refuse to believe us no matter what. I have people in my life who refuse to read anything I write for the New York Times because they have deep-seated issues with its journalism over WMD and the Iraq War. I ask them, do you believe what I write and report? Oh, yes, I believe you, I just don’t believe them. How do I parse that?
This platform is hosted by Facebook. I am paid by Facebook. We could spend the rest of our lives talking about all the sickening things that have been empowered by the giant's lack of scrutiny in the name of profit.
Social media is the firehose that spreads everything quickly. It is the ultimate global cropduster, spreading manure.
How do I parse all of this? We are now here: the merging of entertainment and real news have confused the public badly; we are choosing to retreat to our own “facts” because it feels more comfortable; and the relentless need for attention and viewers and eyes.
We all need to be smarter, call out the purveyors of lies. Be better. Be stronger. Be more brave. Don't feed the trolls. Maybe I am naive. I still believe the truth wins. But it is sometimes very hard to see the truth through the fog of disinformation.
I think we all need to be willing to get uncomfortable in a painful world to stay open to the truth. We can't be shocked by much anymore. Which means we are all free to cut loose the people who are screaming FIRE in the crowded theatre in the name of freedom and free speech.
Say what you want, but understand we don't need to trust you. Go with the people who deserve your trust.
We're still out here.
See ya Friday!