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The Bissinger Syndrome

I've always stood at an odd intersection. Everyone who reads this blog knows me as cocknfire, the opinionated and irreverent blogger that runs Garnet and Black Attack, and before that Cock & Fire.

In my day job, I am a "real" journalist, writing about politics and government for an Atlanta-based media outlet. (No, not the AJC or CNN, for those of you might assume either.)

So when confronted with one of the occasional flare-ups between "real" journalists and bloggers, I generally end up coming down on the side of bloggers but with a little more nuanced view of the issue, I think, than anyone who's just a "real" journalist and anyone who's just a blogger.

(And the reason I enclose "real" journalist in quotemarks is because I consider many bloggers to be journalists, in the purest sense of the word. But I also believe calling everything not a blog the "mainstream media" is a cop-out, something I'll more fully detail in a minute.)

Yes, I'm also going to write about the Buzz Bissinger incident.

First of all, let me categorically reject pretty much everything Bissinger said. As a professional journalist, I was embarrassed by his childish, profanity-laden and illogical temper-tantrum. It was unbecoming, and let me beg everyone not to base their view of journalists on the -- and here I'll use a kinder word than Bissinger -- garbage that came out of his mouth.

More after the jump...

Bissinger represents the most virulently anti-blog arm of the media, and even seems a bit out of touch with many of the "real" journalists in the country.

"I think that blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they're dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they're dedicated to speed."

Whoa, there, buddy. "Dedicated" is a pretty strong word. I don't know of any bloggers that go out saying -- "Ah, it's time to be cruel, dishonest and fast." Well, maybe SEC blogs, but only the fast part.

Are some blogs cruel? Well, depends. If a player performs poorly, a blog is probably going to call him out. Is that cruel? Maybe. But when the player is raking in millions or will be earning millions of dollars the next year in the NFL, it's a small price to pay.

Not that 'real' journalists have ever been accused of cruelty.

Are some blogs journalistically dishonest? I don't know. Let me know when Jayson Blair starts a blog. Are some blogs dedicated to speed? Any more so than newspapers?

See what I did there, Buzz? I took few isolated incidents and used them to cast aspersions on our shared profession -- sort of like you did on the Costas show. Do most sports columnists write about athletes' mommies? Of course not. Do most "real" journalists concoct elaborate and untrue stories about grape stems and snipers? Of course not.


Bissinger then talks about who has read W.C. Heinz. "Who has a better ability to evoke a game and a moment?" he asks.

Here, kind of without knowing it, Bissinger has stumbled over the real argument here: Who gets to write about sports? Back to that in a moment. The main problem here is sort of a game of reader name-dropping that is truly bizarre.

Bissinger then talks about his son, who will almost certainly -- poor, misguided lad -- read blogs.

"What he's going to read is going to be glib, it is going generally to be profane, it is going to be quick, it is often going to be inaccurate."

I think Bissinger called his son stupid. Because if someone reads something that was repeatedly inaccurate -- or is unaware of its inaccuracy because they never read anything else -- that person is either willfully ignorant or stupid.

Glib? Any more so than a dozen sports columnists I could name? No, I don't think so. Profane? Depends on which blogs you read -- the Internet offers great choice, one of its virtues. Quick? Oh, c'mon, Buzz. Part of journalism is about speed. How long does your editor give you to come up with a column? (Hopefully, more time than you spent thinking of what you were going to say the other night.)

And after he and Costas bemoan the "gratuitous potshots and mean-spirited abuse" they say is the hallmark of blogs, Bissinger takes the opportunity to note that Will Leitch resembles "Jimmy Olsen on Percocet." Way to strike a blow against gratuitous potshots and mean-spirited abuse there, Buzz.


So what have we learned from this so far? Well, for starters, we know that Buzz Bissinger is no Neil Postman.

But second, we have yet another incident of one side of the media-blog wars spouting off about the other side while working from the thinnest of knowledge bases, or perhaps no knowledge base at all.

This is what I don't understand about Bissinger: I've labored as a professional journalist for several years under the idea that more information and more viewpoints are better. Am I wrong? I think not.


Back to what I called the central question of this whole debate: Who gets to write about sports?

In some instances, there are reasons that "real" journalists are the best sources for information. Someone who covers Congress regularly should have a better feel for the place, a better sense of what is news, an ability to notice things that the untrained eye might not. An environmental beat reporter ideally knows more about stream buffers, non-point source pollution and clean air standards than the average person. And so on and so on.

That's not to say that other people who follow and study those issues can't or shouldn't write about them. It's simply to say that a journalist that follows those issues or situations as part of his or her job is bound to come from a slightly more informed position than the average person on the street.

(While, for example, the environmental scientist might come from an even more informed position. And if he or she can write a blog the average person can understand -- a constant struggle for "real" journalists -- more power to that scientist.)


Writing about sports is different. That's because you and I can watch as many or more games than "real" journalists. We can watch the same games, beginning to end. True, we can't run down and get quotes from the players or coaches after the game -- and I can say from filling in more than once that sports journalism ain't always easy or fun. But that only adds context to the larger story of the game, which anyone can sit down, watch and form opinions about.

And, to an extent, there is less specialized knowledge about sports than there is in some other fields. For example, I've got a pretty good grasp of the rules and strategies employed in baseball, despite having never played organized ball. So if I and Buzz Bissinger watch a game, whose to say that his analysis is any better than mine? Or vice versa, for that matter?

Sports beat writers are valuable, as the Mayor has pointed out, for all the reasons that other "real" journalists are important. But to say that when it comes to sports opinion, some people who watched the game have more authority to analyze it than others who watched the same game defies logic. Why? Because you've been watching sports for longer? Because you're paid to do it? Because you used to read W.C. Heinz?

That is not to say that the blogosphere is perfect. Far from it. There are some bad blogs out there. Really bad. There are also some bad sports columnists out there. Really bad. All of us can name them, and maybe we should stop doing it. (I say that as someone who has regularly picked on a few and should probably reconsider unless I have an actual point to make.)


To my fellow bloggers: Don't wish ill for the "mainstream media." We would be far worse off without it. Without it, we would have press releases from the athletics department that we would be left trying to divine. There's something to be said for having a reporter on the scene to ask questions, poke and prod while the rest of us are off doing our "day jobs." Ever linked to a news item from any newspaper or television channel's Web site to point to needed information? I thought so.

And we don't all hate you. In fact, many political writers follow blogs to get a sense of what others are thinking and to pick up on a rumor or two. Why? To watch for when we can report it. Yes, there are differences between the standards for blogs and those for newspapers. In a way, I think that's a good thing.

Finally, think twice before talking about the "mainstream media." I assure you, we are not monolithic or any way organized. The idea of a vast media conspiracy becomes less and less plausible the longer you observe journalism from the inside -- trust me, most individual outlets do good to stay on the same page for more than an hour. A coordinated effort by journalism entities to present a certain version of events would make the Keystone Kops look like the models of professionalism by comparison.

No, you're supposed to write this week's 'Bush is stupid story.' I'm doing the 'Obama is Muslim' piece.

I might not be the best journalist or the best blogger. In fact, were I a betting man, I'd wager a pretty good amount that I'm neither.

But I like to think, in a way, I'm living proof that "real" journalists and bloggers can co-exist.

People like Buzz Bissinger don't help things. Seeing him as representative, though, of "real" journalists is setting up a straw man that just further divides two groups that should be natural allies.

And it makes us just as guilty as him.