- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2008

Too often these days, the media don’t react, they overreact. They overreact to the Duke lacrosse case — cranking out more than a year of breathless, rush-to-judgment coverage — only to look foolish when the three players are exonerated. Five months later, they take the Spygate football and run with it, lend credence to the unproven charge that the Patriots filmed a Rams practice the day before Super Bowl XXXVI and are embarrassed yet again.

What will be the next “scandal,” the next hot-air balloon the folks in the news gathering business foist upon their customers, all in the name of public service … and profit? Fear not, it’ll be along soon enough — like the next bus. And as with the previous buses, it’ll wind up in a heap on the side of the road, waiting for the tow truck. With too many in the media, you see, it’s more about the trip — the continuing saga, the filling of nearly limitless air time and newspaper space — than the destination.

The 24-hour news cycle, after all, is a monster that must be fed, and sometimes the entree is filet mignon and sometimes it’s Mad Cow. Lately, sad to say, there’s been a lot of the latter on the menu. Enough to make you wonder what they’re teaching in our journalism schools. Enough to make you wonder whether the media have lost their sense of smell. Whatever happened to the journalist’s most prized asset, his/her built-in, uh, poop detector?

The Boston Herald, the newspaper that broke the “story” about the Patriots spying on the Rams, apologized in large letters yesterday. This came after Matt Walsh, erstwhile cameraman for the team, told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell he had never taped St. Louis’ walkthrough and didn’t know anybody who did.

In its mea culpa, the paper admitted — stunningly so — that before running the article, it “neither possessed nor viewed [such a] tape … nor did we speak to anyone who had. We should not have published the allegation in the absence of firmer verification.”

In other words, it was too good a “story” not to print, no matter how flimsily sourced it was.

Just as the Duke lacrosse case, which also got the Saturation Treatment, was too good a “story.” Why, it had everything — race, class, gender, violence, everything but proof. Sure, you can blame former district attorney Mike Nifong for filing bogus rape charges in the first place, presumably for his own political gain, but that still doesn’t excuse the guilty-until-proven-innocent tone of much of the reportage, especially in the early stages.

On the same day Walsh met with Goodell — which was also the same day the Herald prepared its “Sorry, Pats” apology — Tom Brady discussed the issue on a Boston radio station. In the process, he ripped ESPN for making too much of the Patriots’ spying, for exaggerating the advantage it gave the Pats.

“It’s just kind of the environment right now,” he said. “They just say the craziest things. That’s what ESPN has become. ESPN, to me, is like MTV without the videos. They just have highlights instead.”

ESPN as MTV. There’s certainly some truth to that, to the idea that the Worldwide Leader has turned sports into a cartoon, a special effects extravaganza. Most of the sportswriters shouting at each other on “Around the Horn,” I can attest, become exaggerated or alternate versions of themselves when on camera. The medium, it appears, makes them so.

And it’s the same with news. A mildly disconcerting report quickly escalates into a scandal, an outrage. Why? Because there’s no business like show business. Because scandal and outrage are what sell.

Perspective and balance, on the other hand … What quaint notions.

As for waiting for all the facts to come in, who has the time for that anymore?

I’m reminded of a speech a presidential candidate gives in “Primary Colors,” one that addresses this very subject. I’m going to quote it at length because, to me, it rings so painfully true. The candidate is standing in a hall filled with cheering supporters — wildly cheering supporters — but rather than just bask in the glow, he smiles knowingly and says:

“I wish everyone would just calm down a little. And when I say everyone, I mean the press, the TV crews … I think we need to calm down some.

“You know, this is a terrific country, but sometimes it goes a little crazy. And maybe that’s part of our greatness, part of our freedom. But if we don’t watch out and calm down, it all may just spin out of control.”

The media’s coverage of campaigns, he goes on — and he could just as easily have been talking about sports here — is “all to keep you excited, keep you watchin’, like you watch a car wreck or a wrestling match. In fact, that’s exactly what it’s like, professional wrestling. It’s stupid and it’s fake and it doesn’t mean anything. … But it seems it’s the only way we know how to keep you all riled up.”

People definitely got riled up over the Duke case. And they got riled up again over Spygate. That, increasingly, is what the sports media do — rile people up, appeal to their emotions rather than their intellect. Anything to keep ‘em watchin’, keep ‘em readin’.

The other day, for instance, a columnist at a major paper went off on the Chicago White Sox for trying to break out of a hitting slump by displaying two naked female dolls in their clubhouse — and inserting a bat in the backside of one. By the end of the piece, the columnist was making a “connection” between the Sox’ clumsy, insensitive act and HBO’s disturbing documentary, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.”

Extreme? Yeah, I’d say it’s a little “out there” to compare the “violation” of an inflatable sex toy to the mass violation of women in war-torn Africa. But we live in extreme times, and sports coverage is no exception. Readers/viewers have so many more choices now — so many more Web sites to be drawn to, so many more TV channels to watch. Extremism is a way to be noticed, to be heard.

Perhaps, if the tempest swirling around NBA-bound O.J. Mayo worsens, he’ll be the next victim of the overreacting media. Here’s how you do it: Paint him as All That’s Wrong With Amateur Athletics — and totally ignore the fact that tuition at Southern Cal is $35,810 and room and board another $10,858. Like every other kid on scholarship, Mayo was a professional the moment he walked on campus, having sold his services in exchange for free admission to college. The rest is just accounting.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide