photo credit: Sportsnet
Good morning sports media watchers. We’re heading in to a busy next few weeks in sports with the start of baseball, hockey and basketball playoffs, the Master’s, and the NFL draft. A lot of eyes and ears will be on sports over the next while and hopefully we’ll see some standout work from the media covering all of these events. Here’s a look back on the week that was in sports media. As always, if I missed something, drop a note in the comments to put it on the agenda for discussion. Also, if you’re a reader but not a commenter, consider being part of the discussion this week. Fresh voices keep things interesting.
As I wrote last week, I though the conversation between Brunt, McCown, and regular PTS guest Bob Ryan did a fantastic job of getting into the nuances of the Ortiz/Shaughnessy story. I was, however, left with many questions so I reached out to the one and only Stephen Brunt. He very kindly agreed to answer my questions. Here is our conversation.
Why did you give up your hall of fame ballot?
SB: I’ve talked about this and written about it at length, so will keep it brief here. It goes back to covering Mark McGwire’s first press conference at spring training the year after he broke Maris’s home run record. I happened to be there because the Cardinals shared a facility with the Expos. One of the reporters in the crowd asked a question about the andro story from the year before – and remember that the reporter who wrote that story was widely attacked by the baseball press. The hostility towards the guy who asked the question that day was obvious, and when McGwire dismissed the question as irrelevant, no one seemed to disagree.
I wrote a column asking what the difference as between Ben Johnson and McGwire, one a pariah, the other a hero. In the Olympic drug testing regimen, andro was a banned substance. And remember that the Bash Brothers emerged in Oakland the year after Seoul. The reaction to that column from readers was almost universally negative – they’re two different things, two different drugs, why are you trying to pull McGwire down, etc, etc. Made it clear to me that the absolute moral line regarding doping in sport was in fact completely arbitrary. Never mind the fact that ballplayers had been using amphetamines – which are clearly performance enhancing, and which were also banned under Olympic testing – for decades.
The moral panic that erupted around drugs in baseball (and not in any other sport….) came about because of the Congressional hearings, which were a politically-motivated sham. But it caused a whole bunch of baseball writers with Hall of Fame votes to suddenly find religion. “What should I tell my children?” they wrote. Well, what did you tell them when you and everyone else in the sport right up to the commissioner happily turned a blind eye and let the home runs fly?
So the short version….I chose not to participate in a straw poll focusing on who may or may not have used substances that were technically banned but not tested for in a sport in which everyone was complicit in their use. That was a personal decision. I simply gave up my ballot. I do think that it’s becoming increasingly clear what a farce the Hall of Fame voting has become. How can you have a Hall of Fame without Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in it? How can you assess players based on whether their numbers don’t quite look right, or on whether they had back acne or whether they seemed convincingly contrite, a la Andy Pettite?
Did you face any criticism from the BBWA or its members?
SB: Some grumbling, but nothing direct.
Bud Selig is regarded by some, myself included, to have dragged his feet and held baseball back on a number of issues (drug testing, pace of play, instant replay, umpire training, minor league wages). But, like Gary Bettman, he has done a great job making money for his owners in spite of these issues. Will we see a change of culture under Rob Manfred?
SB: Commissioners work for the owners. That’s always the bottom line. And if they deviate from the owners’ wishes, rightly or wrongly, they get get fired. As it turns out, once the baseball owners stopped obsessing about getting a salary cap, the sport began to thrive as a business, and Bud gets some of the credit for that – especially in areas like new media and the World Baseball Classic. Like Bettman, he was an expert at strong arming owners behind the scenes so that he knew the outcome of every vote before it happened. Manfred, presumably, has a slightly different set of allies, but I would think he’ll operate in the same way. My guess is that he will try to put his stamp on the game with further pace of play initiatives and with international expansion – which is good news for Montreal if they can get a stadium built.
The Players’ Tribune has been criticized for being in its essence a promotional vehicle for the players. On the other hand, it is also being praised for being a venue where athletes can tell their own stories in their own words without needing a journalist’s blessing. In your opinion, can the site be journalistically credible if there are no “neutral” voices?
SB: My main reaction to the Players Tribune so far is that the content is fascinating. The Bautista piece was extraordinarily thoughtful, and Ortiz’s story gave you a real insight into how players think. Of course it’s from their point of view, and it’s going to be self serving. When you ask people questions about themselves, they tend to be self-serving. Welcome to human nature. And I’m sure it will be buffed and polished and edited. But just take it for what it is – which is the way consumers should take everything they read or hear or see.
The notion that reporters – especially newspaper reporters – are the holy gatekeepers of the truth is just not…well…true. There’s no such thing as pure journalistic objectivity. Everyone brings their biases to the table when they write, and with columnists, that’s part of the attraction. They’re supposed to have a strong point of view. Personally, at this stage, I’m more interested in what David Ortiz has to say than what Dan Shaughnessey has to say on the subject of PED’s. Someone else might feel differently – as Bob Ryan clearly does. But the fact is, old media folks (and I include myself in that group) can’t just sit back and say this is the way it’s supposed to be because this is the way it has always been. They’ve used the same logic to dismiss bloggers. It’s a pick and choose world now. Everyone with a computer – or a phone – has access to the means of production. The rules have changed.
As a reader, the Ortiz/Shaughnessy dialogue prompted by the Players’s Tribune was great — I was able to get some insight into how Ortiz views the world, and I was able to get a journalistically sound response. Do you see a significant change in sports journalism if players, rather than writers, are the ones setting the topics for discussion?
SB: I think that by and large, we don’t really hear from players anymore. Access is extremely restricted and they tend to stick to the script when they’re in a “scrum”. It’s very hard to have a normal conversation with an athlete in those circumstances – which is one of the reasons I love spring training, where there is far more informal contact. I’m not sure how far The Players’ Tribune model will go, but it is a place where they might feel more comfortable weighing in on subjects beyond the sound clip reaction to whatever happened in the game that night. And again, it will be self-serving, and you’ll have to judge for yourself what you believe. But you’re more likely to hear what a player actually thinks (the Bautista piece on players tribune being a good example – and he’s certainly intelligent enough to have written that himself) than you are when a bunch of people are sticking microphones in his face after a game.
Which of the 6 young Jays (Castro/Osuna/Norris/Sanchez/Pompey/Travis) do you see having the best season?
SB: I think that Pompey and Travis will be fine – not spectacular, but they shouldn’t have to be spectacular in this line up. If they play above average defence and have good at bats, that will be enough. Castro has ridiculous stuff, and he’ll be the closer sooner rather than later. But the two guys who I am most excited by long term are Norris and Osuna. They don’t just have great stuff – they understand the art of pitching in a way that most 20 or 21 year olds certainly don’t. That said, I would expect that some or all of the young players will hit bumps in the road this year, and may get sent down for a spell. That’s the rule rather than the exception in baseball.
Thanks to Stephen for taking the time to talk to me. I am fascinated by his point that there is no such thing as pure journalistic objectivity. It’s a bold and controversial and probably unpopular opinion. Of course he’s right that no human being is totally free of bias. But his argument that people want strong opinions and that this naturally pulls in a columnist’s bias is not something I had considered before. We tend to get very queasy with the idea that journalists have agendas — FOX News being a good cautionary tale — but maybe Stephen is right that we should make our peace with it and just focus on the work itself.
I guess my first reaction is that reporter bias makes it hard for the reader to separate out the truth in a story. I have to distill the facts from the agenda the piece is pushing. Take the Feschuk Kessel “uncoachable” story from training camp. The biggest obstacle for me was whether this piece was motivated by some beef Feschuk had with Kessel. The fact that the piece relied on anonymous sources substantiated that concern. All of this feels like too much work for me as a reader. But maybe there is no actual alternative, and any pretense of pure objectivity on a story like that one would be fictional or deceptive.
I’ll have to do some more thinking about this. Over to you: have we set impossibly high standards on journalistic objectivity? How are you enjoying the pick and choose world of sports journalism?
TorontoMike first reported that Blundell’s first month ratings with males 24-54 remained flat (4.4) when compared to Brady & Walker’s final month. One way to look at this is to say “at least he didn’t lose anyone” but that’s not really accurate, since the news of B&W’s demise was announced in January. Unsurprisingly, their February numbers (4.4) were down compared to their January score (4.9). So the better comparison is to January, and here we see Blundell’s numbers below B&W. To make matters worse, March is a busy month where historically radio numbers are on the rise. For example, March 2014 B&W were above an 8, which was an improvement on their February numbers. Add to that the fact that Blundell debuted on one of the busiest sports days on the Canadian calendar, Trade Deadline Day, and the picture does not look good for Dean and his backers. David Shoalts has more detailed numbers in his piece, and though they differ from TorontoMike’s, they paint a similar picture.
All of that said, let me make my usual disclaimer: I don’t believe Numeris’ sample sizes generate statistically reliable data for radio. The most straightforward analysis of these numbers is this: no one with a PPM in the male 25-54 demo changed his AM listening habits from February to March. For all we know, droves of people switched over to Dean, just not anyone with a PPM. For all we know, tons of women without PPMs tuned in to be shocked by what Dean thinks about them. Further, given that people with PPMs are likely already established radio listeners, there is good reason to think these numbers couldn’t possibly tell us very much about switchers. (For the record, if there had been a big numbers spike I would have dismissed that too. For all we know, that spike could reflect a change in the listening habits of a handful of people, and thus would not indicate that Blundell Mania was spreading like wildfire through the streets of Toronto.)
Let’s game out where we go from here. According to all my sources, Rogers was expecting a big Blundell bump based on listener curiosity. That’s a reasonable thing for them to have assumed. Dean has a high profile in this town. I reckon they were also banking on being able to sell at higher rates based on that bump. This changes all of that, and will make life harder for some people at the FAN.
What this doesn’t change is the way forward for this incarnation of Blundell & Co. The spike that didn’t happen would have been short-lived anyway. They still need to find a way to be a credible sports show that mixes in traditional guy talk. There’s dozens such shows all over the U.S. and many of them find an audience. The problem here is that Richards has claimed a big chunk of that market. One option for Dean is to focus on local politics. The Rob Ford saga kindled more of an interest in what goes on at city hall, and there may be 1010 or 640 listeners who could be wooed over to 590 with some bike lane and pot hole talk. That would be a way of increasing your audience, though it wouldn’t be the tasty young demo that advertisers crave.
Overall, I’m not in a position to judge how close this result is to a “worst case scenario” for Rogers. Talk radio is a capricious animal and chemistry is hard to concoct. TSM and I will be reaching out to our sources to find out how this news is being absorbed over at Rogers HQ. So, in the meantime, I’ll turn that question over to you: is there room for growth for Blundell & Co without blowing up the show? What segments do you like/don’t like? Who is your favourite member of & Co?
David Shoalts continues his controversial role as a media critic for the Globe (15% owned by BCE) by reporting that the first round of the playoffs will proceed without Ron MacLean performing any hosting duties. Here’s Shoalt’s take on the decision: “With Rogers broadcasting eight first-round series, Stroumboulopoulos will be carrying a heavy load. While the expected decision to not bring in MacLean to host some playoffs series seems curious, it may be designed to lessen the pressure on Stroumboulopoulos. During his first season as the main host, Stroumboulopoulos showed himself to be a polished broadcaster. But it was evident he is not as well-versed in hockey minutiae as MacLean, who eats and sleeps the sport. And this, combined with MacLean’s formidable skill and popularity as a host, might spark unkind comparisons in the minds of viewers if the pair were to appear on alternating broadcasts.” If this is the logic over at Rogers, I don’t get it. Choice is good for the consumer. If some people really like Ron, why withhold that from them?
Sarah Spain is a sports anchor for a radio station in Chicago and has written a very compelling piece for ESPN responding to a string of recent sexist comments by male sports media. She chronicles the kind of casually misogynistic talk that makes its way to air or to sports Twitter and nicely explains its impact on women who care about sports. “For female listeners, it’s not about being uptight or not getting the joke, it’s about not wanting to have to put up with sexism in order to get a daily sports fix.” As this relates to Toronto sports, even if you don’t buy the egalitarian basis of her argument, you’d think that someone would recognize that having zero female radio co-hosts and zero female sports columnists (apologies to Rosie, who is not full-time in sports) might be cutting you off from a potentially valuable segment of the market.
With the Jays home opener a few days away, Brendan Kennedy (whose quality work has been appearing in this space more and more often) reminds us of the fact that the only statue outside of the stadium is of Ted Rogers. No Alomar, no Carter, no Stieb. Just Ted.
BCE president Kevin Crull made news for trying to meddle with the news wing of the company. He would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for journalists doing their jobs. His apology was not enough to save his job, as he has been let go from BCE. Good move by Bell, but the damage has already been done.
The Ryerson Review of Journalism has a nice profile on TSN’s Rick Westhead.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)