• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

LET's DEMAND BETTER FROM THE MEDIA

Perhaps, if circumstances allow, you'll have a little extra time this holiday Labor Day weekend. If so, please give what follows a good, hard, honest think.

With fall's cooler temperatures, the American sports scene is about to heat-up with the NFL, college football, baseball's pennant races and post-season, U.S. Tennis Open, golf's FedEx Cup, and NASCAR's Chase. More eyes will be on TV screens, newspapers, magazines and the Internet, and ears on sports-talk and event radio.

We should look forward to the coverage of the excitement. In some respects, I'm dreading it.

Too many in the press boxes and the production trailers can't see it for their egos, but there is a true crisis in confidence in the media. Every public opinion poll proves it: Respect for, and trust in, the media-at-large is right down there with Congress, used car salesmen, and Yellow Pages lawyers.

I'm sorry to have to say this, but that also applies to the sports media, although far-too-often arrogance provides the foundation for denial.

As I've shared here before, the late Paul Newman once offered me an incredibly valuable sentence of advice and I'll forever be grateful for it: "Know your audience."

Common sense would tell you it's their job, but too many egos have spun so far out of control that they have lost touch with the real world. That is, their audience.

In a down-several-cylinders economy, how many vacation days have you been able to enjoy? ESPN's PTI co-hosts pretty much took August off to play golf, while the core of the viewership that put them on the ratings map were working more hours for less money, just trying to make ends meet, let alone have enough to go out to a game.

With full appreciation for our Constitutionally-protected guarantee of innocent until proven guilty, the felony arrest of Around the Horn mouth Jay Mariotti certainly wasn't a shocker given the self-adulation ESPN enables five days a week. Even less a surprise was the knee-jerk reaction of one of media's most offensive yaps, Dan LeBatard, who wailed over "seeing so many people enjoy someone else possibly get ruined." The comment itself demonstrated that LeBatard and his fellow pseudo-intellectuals exist in a different universe from the audience. Here's what's really sad: It wasn't all that long ago that the Miami Herald, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and other major newspapers would have told their employees such conduct was not acceptable.

To be fair to ESPN, let's say right now that Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer well-deserve to be high on anyone's list of Big Mouths in Empty Suits. (I'm still waiting for Wallace to apologize for his remark on rpm2night just a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that we all should "chill out.")

For years, the 6 p.m. (ET) SportsCenter was appointment TV for me. It's been so devalued, so gimmicked-up, that I haven't watched a total of three hours of SC in the last three years. There definitely are some terrific, legitimate reporters there, but the franchise has been dumbed-down by the "personalities." It would be fascinating to me to learn how moving a camera so we get to see the earpiece wires taped to the anchor's backs helps the viewers know more about A-Rod's hip, Tiger's swing, or Donovan's ankle.

The production people think we are so dumb we get this on the crawl: "You are watching the NASCAR Sprint Cup series on ESPN." All together now: Duhhhhh . . .

That once-proud Sunday staple, The Sports Reporters, is so old, so tired, so predictable, as to be unworthy of its founding host, the late Dick Schaap.

It's gotten to the unbelievable point where we can't even believe our own eyes: On the PGA Championship, Turner would have had us believe its analyst was standing three feet away from a golfer's drive, or two feet away from the ball's landing spot on the green. How far have standard's plummeted? It's now routine for production truck techies to electronically place words and things on the screen that aren't really there. (Yes, I know, fans like the first-down line graphic.) When we can't believe what we see, why should we believe what we are told?

Last weekend proved it again: The weakest link in all of racing TV production is pit reporters who don't know how to ask a meaningful question. They teach you that in Journalism 101, but somehow, the microphone holders didn't learn it or think it's Rocket Science.

I live in a market that has three sports-talk radio stations. What comes out of them too often is so insipidly stupid, that's it's actually difficult to find anything of use.

(Let me add: Political cable TV now is pretty much the theater of the absurb. Why do people hate the media? Classic example: Last Friday, on MSNBC, Chris Matthews -- whose image is that of an ego so inflated he thinks he's the smartest person in any room -- uttered not-so-veiled warnings of hatred, anger, racism and even violence at the Glenn Beck rally in Washington, D.C. When challenged on this by a guest who invited Matthews to attend the event, the host said dismissively: "I'll be out of town." By the way, how many people would bother to show up for a rally staged by Matthews or Keith Olbermann?)

The bottom line here is modern media offers us too little information and too much opinion. We get less on the actual newsmakers and more from the pundits. The egos, not the fact gatherers, are given the spotlight. News takes a back seat to hype.

We're all to blame. By watching, listening, reading, we have provided the numbers data to empower the decision-makers to encourage more-and-more nonsense. (And, please, can't at least a few advertisers step-up to support some smart, intelligent, quality programs?)

On this Labor Day holiday weekend, before the fall's big events, how about all of us thinking about the fall of credibility. Despite what the egoheads, living in their self-absorbed and insular worlds and smugly looking down on what they consider to be the lower class believe, they can't exist without us.

For the sake of the high standards that made America great, let's show them just that, and demand better. Let's insist on quality. Let's show who is the boss. Let's do it so we can believe again.

P.S. -- Maybe there's still hope. In explaining last week why he's leaving Fox News to return to print journalism, Major Garrett said: "I want to talk less and I want to think more."

FAST LINES: Perhaps drag racing journalism's last truly independent voice, Jon Asher, is skipping this weekend's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals for the first time since 1967. Asher, a journalist with 45 years experience, explains he's not going because, with the loss of the Pro Bike Battle and Funny Car Showdown sponsors and thus the cancellation of those special races, and the fact that the Countdown to 10 ended in Brainerd, Minn. (that changes next year), it's made Indy "just another drag race" . . . CompetitionPlus.com will still have the best online coverage of the Big Go, with reporters and bloggers assigned to each class . . . You thought NASCAR's 2011 schedule represented big change? Wait until 2012, when the NFL very likely will go to an 18-game regular season, pushing the Super Bowl onto the traditional Daytona 500 weekend. It says here NASCAR is no IRL, which all the way back in 1996, stupidly started its first season at Disney World the day before the SB and was so caught-up in its own self-importance proclaimed itself as adding to the country's biggest sports weekend . . . Last week's Forbes.com story on Danica Patrick was embarrassing in its shallowness. This "effort" at reporting tarnished that brand's proud heritage. These sentences from writer Kym McNicholas tell you all you need to know (bold emphasis mine): "Patrick has two big name bosses in motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a successful driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the legendary Mario Andretti is her team’s owner in the Izod Indy Car Series" . . . According to an AP story, USA Today will make the most dramatic overhaul of its staff in its 28-year history. The print edition will be de-emphasized in favor of increased efforts to serve readers and advertisers via mobile devices. About 130 layoffs are expected . . . Despite two days of reporting from Afghanistan recently, Katie Couric's CBS Evening News tied its all-time low in total viewers. When is CBS' senior-most management going to be held accountable for its $15 million a year Couric failure? . . . Something new for those of you who feel the need to know more: http://www.mediabistro.com/sportsnewser/

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]