Tuesday, June 24, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume One, Third Installment

Chapters 5 and 6 of "The National Media and College Football"

Chapter Five: Real Media Power, and Who Has It (If Anyone)

College football fans--in Hawkeye Nation, Gator Nation, Sooner Nation, Troy, or any other nation--simply need to realize that national college football writers care about the welfare of the sport, and would therefore die to be able to work in an industry that could reform itself so as to reduce opinion giving within the world of college football journalism.

College football writers are fans, too, in our off-duty moments--why would any of us cover the sport if we didn’t enjoy it? Because we’re passionate about a sport that captured our imagination since childhood, we want to see it thrive, and a utopian vision of college football would certainly involve more debate-deciding big games between the top teams, both during and after the regular season, and especially in January. Regardless of systemic preferences (a fair amount of writers surely don’t favor a playoff; I don’t want to suggest that the media has a monolithic voice, or that it should), any college football journalist, on a primal human level if not on a professional level, wants to see all the really big games play out in reality. I’m sure that anti-playoff journalists, while opposing a playoff for principled, far-ranging and well-developed reasons, would still--as persons, as fans--want to see Utah play both Louisville and Auburn, and for Auburn to play USC. This brings up a simple but vital point about the inner workings of journalism: the truly powerful people in journalism--be it sports or entertainment or hard news or any other dimension of the profession--are the owners and publishers. The people who set the editorial vision; who own the newspapers, websites and broadcast outlets; who assemble their staffs; and who shape the TV deals that fuel the industry--they are the ones in control.

Yes, there are a few journalists who rise to such heights that their heft and leverage become truly and legitimately powerful in their spheres of work, but those exceptions prove the rule. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were rarities in broadcast journalism, as was Grantland Rice in college football’s earlier years. Those men were journalists who dominated their professions to the extent that the world, to a significant degree, reacted in response to what they did. Today, college football has no such journalists of that sort. The closest thing to Granny Rice today would be found in the three folks on College Gameday, given the exposure and publicity they enjoy on a weekly basis. If anyone who loves college football is not watching an actual game on Saturday, chances are they’re watching the Gameday boys, or perhaps Rece Davis, Trev Alberts and Mark May. But mere exposure should not be confused with supreme power.

Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit spent much of 2004 bemoaning the BCS for yet another season. That point cannot be denied, and it can’t be overlooked or glossed over. True, Corso and Herbstreit (but not Fowler) did paper over the system’s flaws after the SEC Championship Game, when--in a rush to satisfy ABC, their ultimate corporate master and the broadcaster of the Orange Bowl--they already began to talk up the USC-Oklahoma matchup. But when you get beyond that journalistic misstep, a quick and easy look at the bigger picture puts this whole issue of media power in proper perspective.

The Gameday crew’s disgust with the BCS throughout 2004 and, in fact, each college football season is a clear indication of their desire to want championships decided on the field--certainly as human beings and football fans if not as journalists (though I don’t think it’s a big logical leap to conclude that the Gameday boys, as journalists, are also in favor of some kind of playoff or bowl-plus-one system). Therefore, if Chris, Lee and Kirk had real media power of the highest order, they would be able to pull the levers that would bring about a new and different system. But of course, they don’t. The real power in college football resides with the conference commissioners and university presidents who preside over the BCS. Big XII boss Kevin Weiberg, the rotating chairman of the BCS, has been the public face of college football’s government over the past month, and he’s said, flatly and authoritatively, that a playoff simply won’t happen. The power resides with him, the Big East’s Mike Tranghese, the ACC’s John Swofford, and the other chieftains of the sport who conduct the high-level dialogues with university presidents who--in their own right--are invested, financially and otherwise, in opposing a playoff.

To even pretend that the Gameday crew has real power, or that the publishers of college football websites or offseason annuals have genuine pull in the sport (the way publishers of big city newspapers have control over politics in their areas), is laughable enough in its own right. To then think that sportswriters, the people at the bottom of the journalistic-industrial food chain, have any power whatsoever is an even more hilarious idea. At the end of the day, national college football writers like me will rip the BCS to no end, but then--without any real power to change things--shrug our shoulders, make predictions when our editors and publishers ask us to (and we’ll obediently comply... unless we want to get fired from a job that, while low-paying, is still a dream for just about any price), and go about doing our job within the incredibly limited journalistic context that is forced upon us.

Hopefully, understanding the limitations of national college football journalists--their minds, their level of power, and their ability to report on real games instead of hypothetical matchups--will enable college football fans to realize what journalists are up against. If we journalists give opinions, it’s only because of the industry in which we work. If we’re wrong, it’s only because it’s unavoidable. If we speculate, it’s only because we’re not given enough debate-deciding games or compilations of objective evidence with which to make finite conclusions. Believe me: we’d like to see--and report on--more games. But we’re not calling the shots here... not even close. Wanting to cover more games--such as USC versus Auburn--is just about the only real bias most national college football writers truly have.

Chapter Six: The Two Kinds of Analysis--Recommendation-Based and Predictive

Another overarching problem that writers and fans experience in their relationship with each other is the inability for fans to understand--and writers to convey--the difference between straight reportage and news analysis. The inability to distinguish between reportage and analysis is what creates so many conflicts--individually and institutionally--between fans and sportswriters, between readers and the media.

Straight reportage is what you see in the Associated Press, basically. There are light touches of literary color, but for the most part, AP stories have a simple, cookie-cutter format: who, what, when, where, and why, all in a concise, no-frills manner. Straight reportage tells you the simplest, safest facts of the game without any editorializing. Players and coaches are quoted in a tight, bare-bones story that is written without any individual voice and is meant to generate no emotional reaction at all.

Analysis, while employing journalistic principles, is not straight reportage. Analysis--such as the “instant analysis” of games right after they end each Autumnal Saturday--involves looking at a game (or issue) and not bothering to report all the exact details of the story; that’s what a“straight report” is supposed to do. Analysis, on the other hand, assumes a reader knows the basic facts and tries to make sense of the event on a larger level. When an “instant analysis” piece is written, I’m assuming that readers know what happened, that they watched the game along with me. Therefore, my job is not to tell the facts, but to explain them in a piece that involves more literary flourishes and captures the drama of the moment as well as its pure football significance. Whereas straight reportage looks only at the event itself, analysis looks at the event and places it in a larger context. Sometimes, the context is immediately connected to the Xs and Os of football; on other occasions, however, the analysis must necessarily deal with the bigger picture, in an attempt to put the game--its significance, meaning and future implications--into perspective for both teams, and perhaps their coaches and star players as well.

Naturally, then, a reader expecting “straight reportage” will then be upset if s/he reads what is truly an analytical piece. Conversely, people expecting analysis will be bored stiff if they read a “straight report” on a game they already saw.

Perhaps the issue that really confuses readers is the fact that analysis has two distinct dimensions that, in the world of college football, are often hard to separate from each other, and which--moreover--are different from the way politics is analyzed.

On one hand, analysis must consider the question of “what will happen?” with respect to a given event. On the other hand, analysis must also consider “what should happen?” as the result of a given event.

What’s confusing is the fact that, in college football, what will happen in the BCS and the polls is often just as unclear, and just as subjective, as the matter of what should happen. When a writer like myself says something like, “USC should not be docked for its performance in the fog at Oregon State,” after the Trojans struggled against the Beavers because of what I considered to be the limitations posed by the weather, many readers looked at that statement as inappropriate editorializing for a game report.

See how confusing this is? First of all, the story was a game analysis piece, not a “straight report.” Secondly, though, that conclusion--which could easily be viewed as one writer’s personal agenda--was nothing more than a product of a careful journalistic evaluation of the environment in Corvallis that night. Based on the conditions--viewed through the lens of both the television camera and the commentary of Fox Sports Net announcers Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis--the appropriate verdict, through this one pair of trained journalistic eyes, seemed to warrant--on the merits--a soft judgment or assessment of USC’s performance. My journalistic sense of what should have happened with respect to USC’s poll position is that it should not have been docked. What would happen in those polls the next day? I didn’t know, and therefore couldn’t make any analytical comment on that issue.

In the world of polls, there’s no way to get inside the minds of other college football writers and coaches, so I could only address the “what should happen?” side of the story. I could not answer the question of “what would happen?” after that USC-Oregon State game in Corvallis. Yet, many readers thought that my remarks precisely represented an analysis of “what would happen” in the polls.

Some Auburn and Oklahoma fans--enough for me to notice, at any rate--thought that I was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which my analysis of what "should" happen in the polls dictated to what I thought "would" happen in the polls. In other words, Auburn and OU fans believed that the writers who thought USC "should" stay No. 1--such as myself--were the same writers who thought USC "would" stay No. 1 when the polls were released. By saying that USC should not get docked in the polls, I was supposedly“making news” according to Tiger and Sooner fans. I was, in their eyes, “establishing a personal market-based media agenda” that would be verified the next day, when--in a conspiratorial event--the poll rankings would magically coincide with my personal recommendation as a national college football journalist. Auburn and OU fans thought I was making news, and then shaping the news according to my own biases.

Why does this inability to distinguish between recommendation-based analysis (a personal view of what should happen) and predictive analysis (a personally detatched and more objective assessment of what will happen) persist? Let’s once again deal with journalism as it relates to national electoral politics and other elements of hard or “serious” news.


Whereas college football--like other sports--is still innocent in the sense that it cannot be confused with a life-and-death issue, the realms of politics, diplomacy and legislation--given that they touch on issues such as abortion, the Iraq War, and health insurance coverage--are matters of incredibly substantial importance: to people, nations and the great questions of morality that human beings must always confront. These realities touch upon a larger matter of journalistic ethics and methods that has been addressed in previous chapters.

Simply stated, the importance of national political, military and economic issues demands that the media peel away the layers of spin that shroud such issues, enabling the public to see the facts of these issues for what they are. This dynamic stands in near total contrast to college football journalism, which does cover a business, but merely an entertainment business, something not nearly as important as geopolitical relationships and government policies. The importance of “serious news” in comparison with college football demands that journalists treat these two decidedly different animals with clearly different methods. The fact that college football journalism--though the fault of the BCS system and not the journalists themselves--is a necessarily opinion-heavy industry is precisely what confines college football journalists to a reliance on opinion. Serious news, however, demands a reliance on fact-checking and an unvarnished, unfiltered presentation of bottom-line realities that people need to know when they plan their budget, send their kid to college, seek a doctor, go into the voting booth, and do various other things that affect their lifestyle, overall security, and the future direction of the country.

The problem I face as a college football journalist, then, is a problem that I did not create. Because of the horrible way that journalists cover politics, the military, Congress, and all other dimensions of what is ostensibly supposed to be hard news, I and my other national college football journalists bear the brunt of public anger toward “the media,” an all-encompassing giant that is not viewed contextually within certain fields of expertise.

I can’t blame people for having this view of the profession of journalism, because it’s undeniably true that the profession not only possesses a horrible reputation, but deserves it. When it comes to the most important elements of human life--the issues and questions that determine our health, our economic security, and our relationship with the rest of the world--journalists have unquestionably dropped the ball over the past 30 years. A full examination of these problems, outside of the realm of college football, is another book for another day (and certainly not for publication via CFN’s website!). But a few things must be said about hard-news journalists, in order to compare them to college football journalists while also explaining why the public can’t seem to separate between the two camps, given the sorry state of journalism as a whole.

One particularly central point to be made, then, about hard-news journalists is that they simply don’t cover the stories or issues that matter to people. This cuts in all directions, both in favor of and against all political and ideological persuasions.

Why is this the case? Very simply, the Watergate scandal, which culminated in the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon, ironically represented a death knell for journalism... or at least a period of long and silent hibernation in the profession. At the time of Watergate, the reportage of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post caused journalism’s popularity to skyrocket... at least to the extent that Hollywood superstars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford made a fine movie about Woodstein’s journalistic adventures. But in the ensuing three decades, it has become painfully apparent that Watergate--by making journalism and journalists so noticeably popular--has created a celebrity culture among journalists, especially those in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Watergate has fattened the bank accounts of journalists while giving them dramatically increased exposure and visibility. As a result, journalists have become the story or, at the very least, much closer to stories than they should be. The professional distance and objective separation that are supposed to define journalists’ relationships to the issues and people they cover no longer exist. While Watergate was not a sexual scandal, one could legitimately say that the watershed event in American politics and journalism represented a turning point in the coverage of sexual scandals.

Before Watergate, politicians and journalists maintained a healthier separation of on-the-record and off-the-record interactions. Matters of state were treated with the businesslike seriousness they demanded, while sexual episodes were considered part of the private sphere and not worthy of journalistic examination. Lyndon Johnson, the last president before Nixon, had his share of adulterous affairs, but you never heard about them. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter--the first president after Nixon--caused quite a media stir when he merely said that he “had lust in my heart.” After Watergate, sex--as shown in the frenzy over Bill Clinton’s adventures with Monica Lewinsky--became front-page material. It only stood to reason that, in a larger journalistic and political culture where many journalists enjoyed celebrity standing, the trivial issues would become more important while important issues would become more trivial.

This overarching reality coexists with another media dynamic in which powerful and well-moneyed journalists fail to do courageous reporting or ask tough questions precisely because they have real power themselves. If political journalists, editors and publishers were overly critical of politicians and governments, they would lose their leverage and status in Washington; the media establishment that feeds their hand would suddenly become hostile if they, as journalists, suddenly tried to challenge or confront it. Precisely because a lot of power, money and prestige are at stake for high-profile celebrity journalists these days (journalists, it must be said, who work for news outlets that are now expected to make a profit, unlike the days of Murrow and his contemporaries), the majority of journalists--more obsessed with access to power than with raw truth-telling about the powerful--fail to live out their job as watchdogs who will sift through the self-serving spin of Beltway politicians, staffers and think tank directors.

In hard-news journalism, all too many journalists become the stories and serve as the newsmakers themselves. This is precisely what college football journalists are accused of being each Saturday, when they write supposedly biased stories that favor one team or conference over another. But stop yourself for a moment and consider: is there any college football journalist who enjoys power on a level that even remotely begins to approach what Bob Woodward, Wolf Blitzer, Aaron Brown, and a few other mainstream writers and broadcasters enjoy? Grantland Rice used to be the kind of kingmaker in college football that prominent journalists are today in the nation’s capital, but people like Rice no longer exist in college football. No college football journalist pulls the levers or calls the shots on the order of what Rice used to do. The Vanderbilt alum, practically on his own, shaped college football journalism and gave the sport national appeal in an era before America valued a college football playoff over the tradition and pageantry of New Year’s Day bowl games. Today, no college football journalist wields the raw power or insider access that defined Granny Rice’s storied and industry-shaping career.

C’mon, who would it be? Chris Fowler? A respected voice of wisdom, but is the BCS going to be reformed according to his wishes? (Has it been? Clearly not.)

Lee Corso? A longtime coach who makes some credible observations about the game, but who, at the end of the day, butters his bread on the basis of his grandfatherly old-time-ball-coach humor, along with his place as the helmet/logo/mascot-donning guy on the College Gameday set.

Kirk Herbstreit? A sharp-eyed and observant perceiver of the sport of football with sound journalistic instincts, but nothing close to a journalistic heavyweight. His failure to reassert his season-long displeasure with the BCS after the SEC Championship Game, in a clear attempt to quickly sweep the Auburn controversy under the rug and talk up the USC-Oklahoma Orange Bowl, revealed Herbstreit as a man who still needs some polish and, moreover, who exists as one voice within a larger media landscape. Herbstreit showed on the night of Saturday,Dec. 4, 2004, that his journalistic presence does not dominate the world of college football. He doesn’t cast much of a shadow over anyone else in the sport.

And if the College Gameday crew doesn’t make the cut, who would? Keith Jackson, Mister College Football, is an aging man who covers just one conference (the Pac-10) each season to cut down on his travel and keep him close to his wife, Turi Ann. It’s an outrage that what I’m about to say is true, but I regularly do encounter more and more negative criticism of Jackson each season since he stopped covering the sport beyond the Pac-10, after the 1998 campaign. Fans write to me each season to register increasingly alarmed statements about how Keith Jackson is biased against their own team.

But on an even more important level, what is essential to realize about Jackson as a college football power broker is the fact that, for all the many reforms Jackson has advocated in college football over his many years of broadcasting the sport, few have been implemented. Get Jackson in a smoke-filled room, and he’d be sure to roll off an extremely long list of recommended changes to the sport’s governance. The fact that so much of a Keith Jackson remedy for college football remains untried and unaccomplished only proves that he wields little political power the way a connected Washington “uber-journalist” can (by accessing the Oval Office, commanding book deals, hosting Georgetown dinner parties, and generally maintaining a chummy relationship with highly-placed government officials).

When you get down to it, college football journalists, at the very most, interview head coaches, assistant coaches, players and athletic directors. Hard-news journalists interview presidents, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, agency directors, and other people in places of truly lofty and weighty power and authority. No one in college football journalism has a place of power that can even begin to approximate the heft enjoyed by the best-placed Beltway journalists. This is what enables hard-news journalists--in a celebrity culture where journalism isn’t practiced well--to become the stories themselves. But in college football? Hah! To even consider the notion that any college football journalist is a story unto himself, a newsmaker rather than a news reporter--either through personal ambition or the workings of the profession--is beyond absurd. Hard-news journalists are the culprits here, and there’s a clear historical explanation as to why that’s the case.

In older, better days for political journalism, facts would be reported and wars--such as Vietnam--would not be sanitized on the evening network news. Today, spin is what’s reported on, and wars—Iraq—are in fact sanitized.

By reporting what other people (such as government or military officials) say, journalists maintain cozy relationships with their sources and give the appearance of presenting something important. Yet, they simultaneously avoid the much more difficult and threatening challenge of digging up the truth and wiping away the layers of spin and political posturing that obscure the real value of stories on the important issues of our day.

In a culture of celebrity journalism, where the lines between entertainment and journalism are blurred, it makes sense that, as a matter of reality, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, and Jon Stewart would be the main stories who garner an overwhelming amount of publicity in their own right, while the issues of the country--the business of the day--get ignored or at least relegated to the back burner. In very simple terms, the deterioration of hard-news journalism into a quasi-entertainment culture (if not a pure entertainment culture) has created a situation where the realm of opinion, of spin and edgy, ideologically-based interpretation of events, has become more important than the events and realities themselves.

In light of this reality, let’s go back to the discussion about college football analysis, and the inability of the public to distinguish between recommendation-based analysis (what college football journalists personally think should happen after a given game or event) and predictive analysis (what college football journalists believe will happen as a detatched assessment of the sport and the workings of its polls and other mechanisms). In any context where journalists are newsmakers themselves, it will be genuinely impossible for the public to legitimately determine whether a journalist is giving a recommendation or a prediction, because in the world of electoral politics, predictions of victory often (though not always) overlap with recommendations on policy.

When an election campaign arrives, political operators--and the journalists who merely (and irresponsibly) parrot the spin--constantly find themselves giving both recommendations (what should happen) and predictions (what will happen). Sometimes, the recommendations dictate to predictions, and sometimes it’s the other way around, but in the end, you have the same thing: pundits talking and trying to create stories on their own, removed from the realities of the track records of politicians and the true status of a given issue or piece of legislation. In college football, however, no one--not a single writer, broadcast journalist, coach, player or fan--has the heft, leverage or status to affect or change the welfare of the sport the way a political journalist can (through poor performance as well as positive performance) possibly affect an election or something similarly significant. We college football journalists might personally crave incredible power, but even if that’s the case, we don’t command that kind of prestige right now: we couldn’t make ourselves the stories and centerpieces of our own analysis of the sport, even if we wanted to.

When one then considers just how bad journalism has become in Washington, D.C., and specifically because of the centrality of opinions, and not facts, in the shaping of news coverage, it becomes much easier to realize why people not only hate the media, but why college football journalists--despite existing in a media world very different from that of the White House, the Pentagon, or Congress--are lumped in with those other journalists who have truly failed to uphold their profound public responsibility. Because college football journalists necessarily have to deal with opinions, it’s extremely understandable to see why the American public--realizing how prominent (and corrosive) opinions are in the realm of hard-news journalism--would then blame college football writers for including so much speculation in their articles. It becomes easier to see why the public can’t distinguish between recommendation-based analysis (what should happen) and predictive analysis (what will happen).

What all these explanations and background details serve to illustrate is a very simple thing: when it’s all said and done, the fault in this larger media landscape lies not with a public that is getting cheated in terms of the quality of journalism it receives on a daily basis. And it also does not reside in the corner of college football journalists whose industry is necessarily opinion-based. No, the fault in all of this--the reason why college football journalists are lumped in with the national media as poor practitioners of journalism--rests with hard-news journalists, who--upon being assigned to cover the worlds of political, military and governmental machinations, which demand a dedication to facts and an opposition to spin--have wound up promoting the opinions and not the truth. Therefore, when college football journalists work within an industry where opinions are sadly but undeniably more central to the national championship stories that unfold each season, they get fingered as lazy, sloppy and biased journalists.


As a postscript to the whole discussion about different kinds of analysis, one comment is merited about the very word "should."

When considering the analytical question of "what should happen?", some readers will take the word "should" in different directions. Some will view "should" as a very technical or mechanical word, as in, "If fold A is inserted, then slot B should be filled." On the other hand, some folks will view the word "should" as a moral directive or imperative, as in, "Notre Dame should use higher standards in handling the employment status of its coaches."

This whole controversy about the word "should" explains why so many comments on college football--from me or any other college football journalist--generate such strong emotional reactions from all fans across the nation. When I say something such as, "USC should not be docked," or "Oklahoma should not be criticized for winning by only seven at College Station,"or "Auburn should not be penalized for struggling in the Iron Bowl," it's hard to separate the mechanical assessment from the moral imperative. Why is it very hard? Because the line between mechanics (the system's operations) and morality (what a fair result should be) is almost always blurred, if a line ever exists at all.

So let's have this simple rule from now on, shall we? If the subject matter is football itself--such as an instant analysis piece--assume the word "should" to be a mechanical use of the term, not a moral commentary. Moral commentary applies to issues beyond the white lines, such as the firings of Ty Willingham and David Cutcliffe. Does that make it clearer?

Journalism is a complicated business, especially in college football, and even more particularly when analysis--and not straight reportage--is at issue. Hopefully, the above explanations will make it easier to interpret future stories in their proper light.

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