Ask The Toronto MSMer Bruce Arthur Part 1

by TSM

You asked, Bruce Arthur answered. So long, I am breaking into 2 parts.

Here we go:

Hey Bruce, what sports have you played in your life and to what extent?

Tried most things, but was best at basketball, on account that I was tall — high school only, which tells you about how good I was at everything else. Was still playing until I had kids, and also had ankle surgery; hope to play again. My other goal is to break 60 on a par-3 golf course. Career best, at Dentonia in Toronto, is a 63, but haven’t played golf since the kids were born, either.

I know you are a big fan of the tennis player Marat Safin, who is now a politician representing Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party. My question is this: why do you think that no-one has confronted Safin about the fact that he represents a party that jails members of the opposition and kills journalists? It seems that most journalists find it cute that he’s “political” yet fail to recognize what his politics really are. Along with that, do you think it’s fair to criticize Tim Thomas for silly and childish Facebook comments and yet fawn over someone (Safin) who actively represents a system which commits human rights abuses?

Pretty ridiculous linking of questions, but here goes: First, if you read about Russian politics you know that the regime is tightly controlled at the top, and Russian society is largely corrupt and anarchical. I don’t know what Marat Safin is trying to accomplish; I just know he was the most fascinating athlete I ever covered. As for Tim Thomas, he and his team went into the tank around that time, soooo …

I’d be curious to know if Bruce has any aspirations to write a fiction novel. I think he’s the best sports writer in Canada. I’m not an expert, but I think he has the chops to do something like that.

Very kind words. I’d love to tackle a book, but I’d go non-fiction first, and probably only. Fiction seems very, very difficult — God, naming characters, much less creating realistic ones — and I don’t have any practice writing it, or extra time right now to do so. I turn all sorts of writing over in my head, though. With three young kids and my jobs, I don’t have time for any sort of book, since if I do one I’d really want to do it right. I have an idea for a non-fiction book that I’d be quite passionate about, but it would take a lot of work. And with three kids under three and one and a half jobs, I just wouldn’t be able to do it justice.

There is a perception that (Toronto) sports writing has traditionally been a bit of an “old boys club” but that blogs have had a democratizing influence on sports media in general, and Toronto in particular. As a younger member of the media, has it been your experience that there is a division between the veteran sports writers and the younger crop? Can you share any stories of being welcomed (or shunned) by established writers during your way up?

I haven’t experienced any division personally — there are a mix of personalities and approaches, but I’ve learned an awful lot from people like Cam Cole, Roy MacGregor, Stephen Brunt, Michael Farber, Steve Simmons, and many, many others. A lot of people have been very generous with time and advice, and in this business you spend a lot of time with guys in bars, or in press boxes; it’s all a learning experience.

That being said, I’m IN the media. There are a lot of people in my business who dismiss blogs, for their own reasons — me, I find it as lazy, as a practice, as bloggers decrying the entire MSM. There are some bloggers in Canada right now who deserve serious platforms, and I hope they get them. The democratizing effect exists, and I believe that the power of idea and expression exists regardless of platform. Not everyone does.

When are they going to update your beardless picture?

I have a long, long list of things to do, and that’s on it. I just keep forgetting. It costs money to do — there’s a real artist involved, in Quebec I think — but if you’ve kept the same changed look for a certain amount of time, they’re cool with it. I have, but again: I forget things. I will make a note right now.

Do you see traditional print media eventually dying a horrible death and everything moving to strictly online?

I think some aspect of print may survive, but the shift towards online isn’t stopping. I prefer to imagine newspapers existing forever in some glorious golden world of lawns and paperboys and sunrises, but the sands are shifting, and some things will get buried. Some people are gleeful about this, which strikes me as really stupid and/or selfish, since good reporting isn’t free, and newspapers do the best job of it. But there you are.

Bruce, I want to know why no one calls Brian Burke on his BS. Right after the trade deadline he threatens to impose a “trade freeze” on the Maple Leafs 10 days before the deadline. That’s crap. A question should have been posed: You mean to tell us (the media) that you would turn down a deal that would clearly improve the fortunes of your team based solely on principle? Yet the MSMers swallowed it like they always do.

Um, . Ninth paragraph. And others scoffed at that idea, too. Lots of people. I’m not sure what you’re reading, or watching, or listening to. Brian Burke has been heavily criticized in this town, and the way he has chosen to deal with some of that criticism hasn’t really helped. Some people report what he says, and some people opine on it.

if you could cover any sports story from history, which one would it be?

Just about anything involving Muhammad Ali. The greatest sports stories ever told.

Do you think the convergence between sports writers and radio/TV stations is good for the consumer?

Complicated question. Depends how you feel about the sports writers in question, really. If you love a guy’s writing more than his broadcasting and he stops writing to do TV or radio, then probably not, and that’s already happening. There’s certainly a possibility of conflict of interest, once Bell and Rogers officially own the Leafs; I’ve been very careful to avoid any change in how I approach my job, or even the appearance of it, and I know others have too, but so many sports journalists work for Bell or Rogers in full- or part-time capacities that there’s a real chance criticism of the local sports teams could be muted; if not overtly, then through an unspoken chilling effect. I hope it won’t happen, but it’s going to be impossible for everyone in the media to avoid completely.

What is your favourite sport to cover and why?

I love covering different sports for different reasons. Love writing tennis, because we’re in a golden age and it’s boxing without the blood; that might be my favourite, when it comes to Federer/Nadal/Djokovic. Love writing basketball, because of the personalities and athleticism and skill; love hockey for the speed and intensity and beauty of it, and the passions it inspires; love football for the ferocity and precision and outsized stories; love baseball for the little things, and the deceptive complexity.

The shared aspect is I love writing big games, with big stakes. The Olympics, for instance — man, the pressure those people are under, the one chance they have, the world watching: it’s hard to convey how much fun that is to try to capture. I’ve only done Beijing and Vancouver, but I don’t plan on missing another one. Someone once told me the Olympics are also the Olympics of sportswriting, and I’ve found that’s true. My first Olympics I worked about 17 hours a day for three solid weeks, and wrote one column after leaving the bar about four drinks in because I got a call at midnight. Ate two chicken sandwiches, drank some water, filed at 4am.


photo from here

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April 4, 2012 2:44 am

Bruce Arthur. One of the best. Just wish he was back on PTS, instead of the useless windbags that normally ride shot-gun for Bob. (Not speaking of Brunt, btw.)

April 4, 2012 3:50 am

Thanks to bruce for participating.

April 4, 2012 6:03 am

I’m starting to miss Arthur more as someone who will constantly challenge Bob. Brunt seems tired of it and will only do it on occasion. Also miss Grange for the same reason – he can have his moments with Bob.

mike (in boston)
mike (in boston)
April 4, 2012 8:06 am

thanks for taking the time Bruce. These are great and insightful responses.

It’s so refreshing to read Qs+As in more than 140 characters. The current trend towards liveblogs and Twitter sessions completely destroys the possibility of nuanced and thoughtful answers. This format is fantastic, so thanks to TSM as well for putting it together.

Raptors Devotee
Raptors Devotee
April 4, 2012 11:26 am

Amazing stuff! Thanks TSM. Bruce is someone to be cherished, as we are very fortunate to have someone of his calibre covering sports in our city and country. It is just such a shame he couldn’t stay and alternate with Brunt on PTS, and as a result get rid of the deadwood at the same time.

Another Steve
Another Steve
April 4, 2012 11:26 am

Wow, a “ridiculous” link of questions. Bruce, I am honoured by your perspicacity. Nothing like an insult to make your argument stronger. I suppose that your Twitter obsession encourages such insults rather than actual arguments.

For the record, I find a lot of people fascinating, including Marat Safin and the younger son of Gaddafi – the one who once wanted to be a professional soccer player but then turned his passion toward torture. Fascination does not mean obsequiousness, and I was generally curious about your thoughts regarding an athlete who is being used as a tool for a corrupt regime and how the sports media just lap it up without asking any serious questions – you included.

As for the Thomas connection, it was a spur of the moment link, but you have gone out of your way to mock him (and I don’t disagree with that, actually), so I wanted to see how you feel about an athlete you admire who represents a regime that actually kills people who practice your profession (journalists) rather than one who puts stupid quotes on Facebook.

Thanks for admitting that you don’t know anything about Safin’s current agenda and that you aren’t bothering to ask. You are officially a fan boy now.

April 4, 2012 12:38 pm

So, was that your question, Steve? 🙂 Not trying to defend Arthur, but perhaps he hasn’t covered Safin in quite some time and isn’t aware of his post-tennis political career. I don’t know specifically why Arthur finds him the most fascinating athlete he ever covered (he’s just a tennis player…), but I’m sure it has nothing to do with his politics (I doubt Arthur was even aware of it at the time).

Btw, whoever asked the Blog vs MSM “Old Boy’s Club” question, well done. Bruce gave a very good reply, I thought. I also liked the list of influences he gave, but was surprised Cox wasn’t mentioned. Surely, he would be an invaluable example of how not to conduct yourself in that business.

April 4, 2012 1:15 pm

Another Steve,

It WAS a ridiculous linking of questions. Not saying that the Safin point was not a credible one, but a convaluted one followed by a quick Tim Thomas one probably could have been phrased better.

Came across as a “smartest guy in the room” type missive.

mike (in boston)
mike (in boston)
April 4, 2012 4:26 pm

i think there’s a valid question that goes something like this: when an athlete takes a public political stance, a) is it appropriate for media to challenge the athlete on that stance, and b) are media criticizable if they do NOT challenge the athlete?

knowing nothing about the Safin case, i can’t pretend to know whether a) he has taken such a stance, or b) if he has been pressed by the tennis media on that stance. It seems clear that Thomas did take a stance (his protestations to the contrary not withstanding) and was roundly challenged on it by the hockey media.

those are my 2 cents.

Mike S
Mike S
April 4, 2012 6:04 pm

It might be a bit too easy for people (including Bruce) to blame the Boston Bruins’ long mid-season slump on the White House story…………….the poor play by Thomas and the Bruins actually began with the loss to Vancouver, which was more than two weeks before that story…………..I’m not saying the controversy didn’t negatively impact their performance, I’m just saying there were probably other reasons that contributed to the slump

Ami Angelwings
April 4, 2012 6:11 pm

Was that question really about Safin, or was it trying to expose the “hypocrisy” of Arthur in snarking about Tim Thomas and his supposed Liberal bias?

(I think the Occam’s Razor answer is that North American media care most about North American issues, and US politics and media tend to swallow up tons of attention in general as it is)

Ami Angelwings
April 4, 2012 6:16 pm

“mike (in boston)
April 4, 2012 at 4:26 pm

i think there’s a valid question that goes something like this: when an athlete takes a public political stance, a) is it appropriate for media to challenge the athlete on that stance, and b) are media criticizable if they do NOT challenge the athlete? ”

I think that’s a much better question. 🙂 I actually had a big issue with the way Grange and Arthur and pretty much all of the sports media and most fans handled the Tim Thomas situation because they presumed a lot into a small statement he said, especially since on the face of it, it’s not really a problematic statement. But it sounds like a dogwhistle for being a tea-partier, or a Libertarian, or an survivalist, or etc etc etc (why just the right though? Why couldn’t he be a left Libertarian, or an anarchist? ) and so people leapt on it and assumed all sorts of things into him, and I thought that was really unfair.

I think you can’t challenge somebody on their political beliefs if you don’t really know what they are, and Thomas really articulated very little, people just wanted to read more into what he said.

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