Trolling for clicks. Pushing a narrative, what Cubs Twittersphere regularly refers to as #hottakes.
These are all phrases we've heard in regard to the style of journalism that has become popular at ESPN in recent years. It's not exclusive to the major networks, either. I went out of my way to go after Gordon Wittenmyer a while back. While I received mixed reviews, the point was that many fans don't care for the style of writing that is intended not to inform but garner page views.
Reading honest reporting is like a breath of fresh air in any type of journalism these days. With sensationalized news being the thing that brings the most views (and therefore the most money), there is increasing pressure among journalists to write negative, scathing bile that appeals to the lowest common denominator. It's why bloggers have become an important part of sports coverage; whether you click my story or not doesn't change my bottom line (despite what that one guy on Twitter thinks).
Even the journalists that have been around forever and that were once very well respected among readers and other writers fall victim to the culture that pushes the narrative first and truth second. Rick Reilly, once very highly regarded, has basically been a shell of himself the last decade of his career. Take for instance the fact that he got caught plagiarizing...himself.
An example a little closer to home would be Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander. I don't know how long, exactly, that Telander has been around; I assume it's forever. I've been reading his stuff since I was a kid. But these days, the Sun-Times desperately needs people to click their stuff, and the headlines and stories read like a newspaper that is begging for readers.
Telander knows that his biggest audience is the casual fan, or the one that may not know a lot of the positive changes behind the scenes in the Cubs organization. Which is a sexier story: informing about the positive changes in the minor leagues, the internal organization, and the level of technology used to evaluate baseball, or pointing out flaws in the Major League roster of a team that's under .500?
The sexier story is also the one that's the easiest to write. It takes little time or research to gather some quotes from Theo Epstein, look up the win-loss record, and make some baseless assumptions. Here are a few excerpts from a Telander column that ran at the end of June, when the Cubs were in Boston:
I won’t bore you with Theo’s stats of deceleration, but the Cubs have lost 82 more games than they’ve won since he took charge after the 2011 season. During his tenure, they have finished last, last and (likely) last again in the National League Central, a quaint division made up of small-market teams in much smaller cities.
That's all true. Solid lead in, if you're intending to inform about the progress underlying the Major League record.
Consider, if you will, that neither St. Louis, Cincinnati nor Pittsburgh has an NBA team. And Milwaukee has no NFL team, unless you count Green Bay. Just consider those facts, is all. At any rate, Epstein is here on a rich five-year deal, and he has not lost heart, and he thinks — as he says endlessly — the Cubs are headed in the right direction.
I'm sorry, what is the point? Weren't we talking about the Cubs a minute ago? Yet, anyone who watches closely can see the difference between the dregs they put out in 2012 and the young, legitimate prospects they are fielding in 2014.
But are they? Only a mole could call their trajectory upward.
The fork in the road. This is the moment where he chose “narrative” over “truth.”
They have played reasonably well in their last 24 games — going 14-10 — but that doesn’t do much when you started off 20-36. Epstein has minor-leaguers who look really good — Kris Bryant and Javy Baez — but all we can say to that is, remember Felix Pie?
I'm sorry, how is that not an upward trajectory? Seems like they improved mid-season. Remember when I said the thing about appealing to the lowest common denominator?
I didn't want to simply attack a Sun-Times writer without getting a response, so I emailed Telander to ask him a few questions about the state of journalism today. I waited a while and got no response. So I did the next best thing; I emailed his colleague Rick Morrissey (who also sometimes writes headscratchers) to ask him the same questions. Here is what he told me.
On whether he would write something just to garner clicks or get attention:
“I try to write columns that have an opinion, that take a stand on something. I look for topics that people are talking about and then think about what I want to say. Whatever I write is the way I feel. I don't choose a side because I think it will be more provocative or sensational. I think that's dishonest, and I think the columnists and TV personalities who do that end up losing credibility. Readers know b.s. when they see it. You might not like what I write, but you can believe that I believe it," Morrissey says.
On whether he would ever intentionally paint someone in a negative light, or "jump on the pile" because someone is an easy target that may not deserve it, he continues.
"(That) question goes beyond a columnist being dishonest and into him or her being immoral. I don't attack people for sport, but I will criticize them if I feel it's warranted. If you criticize someone, you had better have a better reason than because it's fun," he says.
I pointed to the cake fiasco with the Cubs as an example. If you don't remember, the Cubs had a 100 Year Anniversary cake made as a model of Wrigley Field. They had it on display for a whole day at Wrigley, and had planned to donate it to the Field Museum. Someone at the museum decided to just toss it out, and take a few pictures along the way. The media piled on the Cubs, which was unfair.
“I'm not sure how the cake issue fits here. I didn't see it as piling on the Cubs. I saw it as funny at a time when the Cubs couldn't do much right. I'm not sure if I wrote about it, but I wouldn't have had any moral struggles about whether to add it to a column," Morrissey said.
I think it's fair to say that Morrissey at least believes the stuff that he writes. After reading through some of his stuff I found that, while I disagree with a lot of his opinions and how he conveys them, he doesn't necessarily push a false narrative. He's not out there claiming the Cubs aren't making progress while citing specific progress that has been made.
But I would be willing to bet that, had Telander responded, he would have told me similar stuff. I think many of the writers and TV personalities that push sensational stories or leave out facts to push a narrative think they are putting forth legitimate journalism. Wittenmyer has said in the past that he asks the hard questions about debt because no one else does, and there is some merit there.
It's unfortunate that it's become so hard to get the complete story on the inner workings of the Cubs from the major news outlets in recent years, but there are a few that still do a great job keeping the information fair and accurate. Patrick Mooney and Bruce Miles come to mind. Outside of that, quality coverage can be found at a growing number of blogs (just kidding, only at Cubs Insider).
As the world changes and social and online media become more and more popular, there is a chance that blogs and bloggers will have a massive takeover of sports coverage in the next decade. Newspapers are folding up shop left and right these days. Websites and blogs, with content devoted to a single, specific topic, are becoming a more viable way to make money.
Maybe someday I'll have some narrative I will be pushing, like appeasing the interests of my employer, getting you to click on ads, whatever it may be. Until then, I'll keep writing for fun. But journalists no longer get paid to provide information, they get paid to provide page clicks. Those that have both a high level of integrity and a high volume of readers are the most impressive.
Now if only someone would pay me to write all of this.
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