Friday, May 2, 2008

Buzz Bissinger Loses His Mind on "CostasNow"

Oh, hello, kettle? This is Monica. You're black.

- Phoebe, to the notoriously competitive Monica, calling her on complaining about somebody else being competitive on the “The One With All The Poker” episode of “Friends,” written by Jeffrey Astrof and Mike Sikowitz, originally aired on March 2, 1995.

Buzz Bissinger is full of shit.

Why am I being so graphic? Well, that takes a bit of explaining. Bissinger, a former newspaper sports writer who is best known for his book “Friday Night Lights,” went on HBO’s “CostasNow” on Tuesday night and took part in a roundtable discussion, led by host Bob Costas, on the current “sports media landscape,” including “the rise of Internet bloggers.” Costas introduced Bissniger; Will Leitch, founder and editor of sports blog Deadspin; and, for some reason only the good folks at HBO can explain, third guest Braylon Edwards, wide receiver of the Cleveland Browns.

(You can watch the panel here.)

After Leitch parried Costas’s opening salvo, which accused the sports blogosphere of being a place for nonjournalists to take pot shots at athletes, Bissinger interrupted the discussion to tell Leitch, “I think you’re full of shit.”

So if Bissinger can attack Leitch personally, I figured I should respond in kind. Why? Because I found Bissinger’s attack to be completely hypocritical.

I’ll explain. On “CosatsNow,” Bissinger’s profane insult of Leitch was just the start of his histrionics. With his voice taking on a decidedly uncivil, angry tone, Bissinger proceeded to launch into an attack on sports blogs, saying they are “dedicated to cruelty, they’re dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they’re dedicated to speed,” before getting even more angry and demanding to know from Leitch if he had ever read the work of sports writing legend W.C. Heinz. (Leitch said he had, in fact, read Heinz’s most famous novel.) Bissinger then launched into a defense of sports journalism, using Heinz as the point of reference and comparing it to sports blogging by reading, still filled with anger, one portion of one entry on Deadspin.

I think it’s a good rule of life that if you are taking the position that “all (fill in the noun) are (fill in the adjective),” you are probably doing something wrong. All of virtually everything is never always anything. (Say that ten times fast.) There are good and bad building contractors. There are good and bad modern abstract artists. There are even good and bad reality television shows. And yes, Buzz, there are good and bad sports reporters and good and bad sports bloggers. Bissinger’s absolutist attitude uncomfortably reminded me of bigots who will tell you: "All (fill in the ethnic group) are (fill in the insult)."

As I listened to Bissinger’s rant, I couldn’t help think that by his highly flawed rules, I could have made the exact opposite point he was espousing. I could have pulled out columns written by newspaper writers, even ones that are well-respected, that were shining examples of some combination of ignorance, carelessness and just being out of touch, while producing sports blogs that were insightful, artfully written and informative.

Even more importantly, Bissinger’s position misses a larger point, which is that newspaper sports writers seem to have lost their way in the last few years. Last August, I wrote in this space about the dying art of sports writing, and how the rise of these journalists going on television and screaming at each other on crapfests like “Around the Horn” had sullied a long tradition for which I had great affection.

Instead of going after sports blogs, Bissinger should be demanding that his own former profession live up to its ideals. As he went on about sports blogs, the quote from “Friends” I laid out above sprung into my head. In this day and age, sports writers have to be careful about pointing a finger at anyone else and complaining of shoddy journalism.

It’s not like Bissinger offended me because I write a blog. My sensibilities -- and my love of good sports journalism -- closely mirror Bissinger’s value system for content. But as someone who reads newspaper journalists and bloggers, I have come to a vastly different conclusion than Bissinger’s. Namely, sports blogs closely mirror modern newspaper writing, in that both media feature examples of the best and worst of what is out there.

For example, I could imagine Bissinger’s head exploding if he read Fire Joe Morgan, which is dedicated to critiquing and even mocking, often line by line, ridiculous articles and on-air statements by sports journalists. And yet, the analysis of the “CostsNow” showdown that appeared on Fire Joe Morgan was far more reasoned and persuasive (not to mention funny) than Bissinger’s emotional, disorganized and hostile argument on the show.

I remember learning in high school that in order to criticize something, you should learn about it first. As Bissinger fumbled with the pages he had brought on stage with him and struggled to identify the writer of the excerpt he was lambasting, it soon became apparent that he had little to no idea how blogs worked. And in the same way that he essentially accused Leitch of not being familiar with Heinz’s work, I would suggest (because I’m more reasonable, I will not just assume ignorance) that Bissinger has spent little to no time looking at sports blogs. One thing that jumped out at me was his apparent inability to distinguish between what the writer of the blog had said, and what is said by visitors commenting on the article and the issue.

Here is the dirty little secret about sports blogs that might make Bissinger feel better (assuming he can tone down his rage long enough to think clearly for a second): A lot of people don’t read the comments. I don’t. I might be interested in what a writer has to say, but I’m almost never interested in what the comment posters have to offer. You’ll notice that I have disabled the comment function on this blog, and you also cannot post reactions on Fire Joe Morgan.

While Costas argued that the blogger is responsible for allowing the comments to appear in his or her space, a better approach would be that if a reader doesn't like the comments, he or she shouldn't read them. I choose to read some sports blogs, and for those that allow posted comments, I often (but not always) just ignore the comments section altogether. Oh, and Bissinger might want to take a look at the online version of some of his favorite newspapers. Nowadays, in many cases, there is a section for people to comment on the stories, just like you can on a blog posting. And the posts can be every bit as ignorant and disturbing as what you might find on a blog. Should we indict newspapers for the user comments on the articles and columns? Hardly. I would suggest Bissinger do on blogs what I do on online newspaper articles: Ignore the comments.

The sad thing is, I share many of Bissinger’s concerns about our society. It pains me the way the art of language is being downgraded (or even eliminated) in the culture. I am extremely worried at the rampant anti-intellectualism that has grown in the U.S., to the point where being too smart is actually viewed as a bad quality in a politician. And I certainly agree that the tone of many message boards, blog comments and other public fora on the Internet can be abusive and destructive.

But Deadspin posting a photo of Matt Leinart in a hot tub with several women is not the reason that we’re experiencing a drop in the quality of discourse. The coarser elements of sports blogs are symptoms, not the disease. We have CNN treating sensational crimes and celebrity foibles like they're real news, and we have reality television dedicated to seeing real people and C-level celebrities at their worst. Sports blogs are hardly the only place we're seeing a drop in the level of discourse. These problems exist regardless of the medium in which they are expressed. And newspapers are filled with trained journalists who are sensationalistic and/or lazy and/or dense in ways that are often no better than the blogosphere.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that the Internet has brought a vast amount of information to our fingertips, some of it being extremely useful and/or entertaining, and a lot of it being garbage. To dismiss an entire medium of expression as responsible for, well, nearly anything is a dangerous proposition.

My advice to Bissinger would be to read some really good sports blogs and then try and tell me that Woody Paige and Jay Mariotti are better just because they work for major newspapers. But Bissinger’s mind is all made up. So I might as well speak to him in language he can understand. As he said to Leitch on “CostasNow,” Buzz, “I think you’re full of shit.”