• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, April 28, 2013

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Following-up on what I wrote about here last week:

Where the media-in-general got into Big Time Trouble (read that: MISTAKES) in covering the Boston Marathon bombings was the over-use of unnamed sources. A very high percentage of "breaking news" and "exclusive" reports were based on anonymous sources. And, as we saw and heard, many of them did not have the true facts.

Anyone experienced in reporting on such an event should know the most-informed source of information comes from the top or those in charge. In Boston, the FBI quickly assumed jurisdictional command, and that meant the local police instantly became the least in-the-loop source. Sure, there's something to be said for "local knowledge," but when the feds take over, they husband the information. People like CNN's embarrassed and discredited John King should have known that. But, if you look back, you'll see how many of these inaccurate reports cited "local law enforcement sources." 

It was like cocktail party chatter: One person tells something to someone else, who tells another as if he/she were the one in the original "know," and it just keeps spreading. The second "source" really possessed no facts, just ears to hear what someone else said, and a mouth (and ego) to repeat it as if gospel.

I'll also bet you that when "federal" sources were mentioned in Boston stories, that meant congressional staffers. Honest and experienced reporters should understand people in this group often don't know anything happening outside their own office, always have their own agenda, and are usually looking to grease the path for a better job. The bad info that comes from congressional staffers is legendary and journos who went with this clearly don't know the business very well.

I wrapped last week by saying the sports journalism community is affected by the same problems as their news-side friends. Even a casual review of NASCAR reporting of recent years shows the trend toward the more sensational, the showbiz dramatic, get-it-out-first (and, in some cases by certain people), hope it turns out to be right. Social media has come to play a big role in this. I can tell you from first-hand conversations some of these press pass holders are obsessed with how many Twitter followers they have and that leads to shoving out stuff without proper verification.

Back when I started at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1974, the rule -- and this included sports -- was for at least two separate, and independent from one another, sources. Three were better. Well, that standard is as out-of-date in current journalism as a fountain pen. Far too often, one person saying one thing to one reporter is considered good enough to go with.

Therefore, you -- as a news consumer -- must be aware of whose byline is on the report. Has that person proven to be accurate over a significant time? Or a rumor repeater? Someone actually out there talking to the newsmakers or just copying off press releases and pit notes? Does he or she give an indication of the "quality" of the source? Warning: sourcing from a "garage area insider" is not sufficient for comfort. Sourcing from a driver, car owner, crew chief, track operator or other significant player is much better -- and believable.

It's all about who you can trust and who has credibility.

Full disclosure: I've been an anonymous source for racing stories many, many times over multiple decades. I understand the game, having been on both sides of the competitor/media fence. My own policy that applies to anything I report here or in other outlets is this: I only go hard with information from a single source if I know, for sure, that source has direct and first-hand knowledge of the situation. If not, or I'm not convinced, I've got to have at least one other source and independent of the first.

Yes, go ahead, call me old-fashioned.

But before believing what you read or hear, please do yourself a favor, and consider the source. The sad reality is not enough journalists these days do so.

[ more next Monday . . . ]


Sunday, April 21, 2013

JOURNALISM 911

About two months ago Rasmussen Reports conducted a national telephone survey which showed 42 percent of Americans don't trust the news media. If you think that number is shocking, well, 12 percent believe the news reported by the media is not at all trustworthy

The "news" coverage of last week's Boston Marathon bombings show why.

I was in a position to be able to flip from NBC to ABC to CBS to Fox News to CNN to ESPN to CNBC and, God forgive me, even a little MSNBC. Victims of the violence in Boston weren't the only ones who needed to call 911. The American viewing public, the consumers of information -- and thus the customers of the networks -- should have been calling Journalism 911.

(Or, as I did on Twitter-- @SpinDoctor500 -- calling them out.)

What a disgrace. Yes, print media had its failings, too, but for now I'm talking TV.

The need to fill air time -- and the insane imperative to be "first"  (right or wrong be damned) -- led one talking head after another to embarrass a once proud profession with bad, wrong, inaccurate, false information. Now, the rush to "report" -- and get it wrong -- isn't new. When President Reagan was shot in 1981, ABC News told its audience that Press Secretary James Brady had died of his wounds. When that proved to be inaccurate, an angry (and well respected) anchor Frank Reynolds admonished his producers and reporters, “Let's nail it down, let's get it right.”  

Given that the attack took place at an important and iconic sporting event, ESPN correctly pre-empted other programming and went with a live newscast. I wasn't surprised old pro Bob Ley was a calming and informative presence. Maria Bartiromo smoothly went from telling what was happening in Boston to saying what impact it had on the stock markets (CNBC is a business channel.)

I had it with CNN when its national security analyst Peter Bergen said the attack could have come from a right wing, anti-tax group. John King, his own show recently canceled and fighting to save his career and impress new boss Jeff Zucker, was front-and-center with his "exclusive" that an arrest was about to/was made. It was a bad, Bad, BAD day for CNN because its historical reputation has been as the network of choice for Big Breaking news.

MSNBC's Chris Matthews (the man obviously needs help) also pointed to the right wing. FACTS? NONE! This immediately reminded me of when leftists accused Sarah Palin has having some responsibility for the Tucson shooting that involved Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Over at Fox News, prime anchor Shepard Smith repeatedly said he wouldn't engage in speculation, but then his producers provided him with one guest after another who did just that. The following day, anchor Megyn Kelly was reversing herself about every 15 minutes: An arrest is imminent. An arrest has been made. No arrest has been made. She should have left the set that day feeling very, Very, VERY embarrassed and excuses about "this is cable" were nothing but CYA. In fact, when Bill Hemmer followed her, he began by saying, "We're going to take it slow and get it right," which came across to me as a rebuke of Kelly. On Bill O'Reilly, Kelly described what happened as "unfortunate." To say the least!

Noted control freak O'Reilly complained for two nights that Boston wasn't a "tragedy," all the while network promos for his show asked viewers to watch him for the latest on the "tragic events." Monday, O'Reilly asked guest Peter King, the New York congressman, to come back the following night. King said yes. Next night, no King, and no explanation. We all could have done without Sean Hannity's knee-jerk finger-pointing. That was predictable and he should have been parked that night (and Friday) for a straight news show. In fact, shockingly, self-absorbed Hannity started to get into details of how a home-made bomb could be created, and had to be warned off that talk by a guest. It was bad, Bad, BAD for Fox News because it's the top-rated cable news network.

It used to be huge news stories like this one were an all-hands-on-deck situation. But Smith disappeared off his normal shows Wednesday and Thursday. Martha MacCallum, perhaps Fox News' most empathetic anchor and just back from a vacation, wasn't seen until Friday.

Tuesday, Fox News was the only network not to provide live coverage of President Obama's remarks on the defeat of gun control legislation. This was during The Five -- a few seconds of the president were shown, then it was right back to the yappers. It was an unbelievable lapse of news judgment, but reflective of the current cable TV mentality, where what the pundits say is considered by management as more important than what the actual newsmakers say.

As far as I can tell, CBS was the only one to get it right.

For all the excuses made for all of the mistakes, the truth is there is no true excuse. It's a sign of the times in the media. With the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination coming this November, I will point you to watch what was reported by CBS, NBC and ABC that day in 1963. No pundits, no speculation, just confirmed FACTS.

If all of these networks, and the major journalism schools and organizations, don't conduct a full-scale analysis of all that went wrong -- and then take concrete corrective measures -- that will be yet another signal that the death of real journalism is at hand. In particular, Zucker and Fox News President Roger Ailes had best strongly address their internal problems.

April 15 and 16 were days which will live in infamy for journalism.

And if you think credibility and trust aren't problems for the sports journalism community, too, you are wrong.


Here's the problem for NASCAR and the NASCAR media: On one hand, we're told the drivers have become too corporate, only say what their sponsors like. On the other hand, when someone like Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski launches on the sanction post-Texas, Fox's Larry McReynolds' reaction: "He (Brad K) needs to figure out that the less you say, the better off you’ll be. What he said the other night at Texas can do nothing but hurt him."  Which is it? Make up your mind, guys.


From Bob Margolis:
http://sledgehammerblog.com/2013/04/17/a-confession/


I thought it was a terrible mistake -- a slap in the face of the rest of the racing world -- when some continued to issue routine news releases in the days after Dale Earnhardt's death. But the worst I've seen since then came last week when the company that sells HANS devices cited NHRA Super Gas driver Derek Sanchez's fatal accident at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to encourage use/sales of its safety product. The release cited Sanchez by name and noted he was not wearing a HANS.  I know HANS President Jim Downing was and is frustrated that all drivers don't use such a safety device. But I'm nearly shocked Downing would authorize and allow his name to be used in such an insensitive document. Disgusting. I don't know whose idea this was, or who wrote it, but the listed contact is Gary Milgrom, a HANS VP. Other than a public rebuke, though, I'm not sure what consequence will follow.


[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 14, 2013

B & P of R

HIGH FLIER: Looks like Courtney Force got one of the last Blue Angels' VIP flights. The Navy last week canceled the Blues' performances for the rest of the year due to budget cuts. I arranged and was there when Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi flew with the Blues in 1997 -- A Great Day -- and Great PR for all involved. (Photo courtesy of John Force Racing.)

As I've said for years, you can't claim to be an in-the-know racing fan without knowing something about the Business and Politics of Racing. Sure enough, B & P of R elements ran through a number of last week's major news stories:

Texas Motor Speedway's one-year title sponsorship with the National Rifle Association was a lock to be a hot potato from the moment it was announced. Not surprisingly, the media asked NASCAR drivers about it, with Brad Keselowski saying,"I really just wish Tony Stewart or someone would throw a helmet or a punch so it wouldn’t be a story." As timing would have it, the NRA 500 ran the same week the U.S. Senate took up new gun control legislation and thus was a major national news story. Sen. Christopher Murphy (D, Conn.) played to his liberal contributor base by writing a letter to News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, asking that Fox Sports not televise the race. One reason cited was the track's tradition is for the race winner to fire trophy six-shooters (blanks) in victory lane. The letter was, in its own way, as ridiculous as the one from PETA to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway calling for the Indy 500 winner not to drink milk. Apparently the good people of Connecticut, still understandably moved by the Sandy Hook school shootings, have elected themselves a senator not familiar with basic constitutional and commerce issues. Bottom line: You can say the letter was as appropriate for a Connecticut politician as the NRA deal and pistol tradition are for a Texas sporting event. But it does show us sponsorship can be a tricky, controversial, matter -- that problem didn't leave racing with the tobacco companies. The ever-increasingly politically correct NASCAR is reviewing its sponsorship policies.

On another NASCAR front, the pit stop contest that has been staged in Charlotte before the All-Star race was canceled due to lack of sponsorship. Now, I'm all for a chance for the crew members to have their moment, but the appropriate way to do that is the Carb Day contest before the Indy 500 or the old Unocal challenge that used to be held at Rockingham. Moving the competition into a sterile sports arena took away the essential racetrack atmosphere needed to make this make sense -- and feel right. I've said for years the All-Star race should be scrapped because its original purpose -- putting NASCAR into the national media during May when the Indy 500 used to dominate -- no longer exists. The pit stop contest was just more TV programming filler and never made sense in that setting. Bottom line: The modern economic reality is there are limits to how much NASCAR the public wants to watch . . . and how much sponsors are willing to pay. Best bet would be to renew the contest next year as part of a major race and at a big venue, like Daytona, Las Vegas or Texas. Better yet would be to let tracks bid for it and rotate it on a yearly basis. 

While Izod officials decline to discuss the status of the company's IndyCar series sponsorship after this season, they are all-too-happy to talk-up their new and aggressive promotions and sponsorships in golf. Sports Business News detailed that program last week. Bottom line: When the seemingly inevitable announcement comes, will the chatroomers call for an Izod boycott as they did so many of the companies that bailed-out on CART/Champ Car starting in the late 1990s due to lack of meaningful Return on Investment? (None were driven out of business.) Last week I asked a former open-wheel racing Big Time sponsorship manager if he knew of any major decision his employer made based on chatroom chatter. His answer: "No. There aren't enough of them to make a difference."  And, a former GM of a speedway that hosted NASCAR and CART pointed out to me anyone can be considered an "expert" on these forums simply by posting a lot. Too bad for Izod they didn't think to pull the plug last week, as the chatroomers were otherwise busy commenting on an inappropriate, anonymous post about a prominent national motorsports writer -- A fine example, indeed, of the Internet sewer.

Red Bull Formula One said there will no longer be team orders. Bottom line: See ya, Mark Webber. And, possibly, team principal Christian Horner, who obviously is not able to control his drivers. 

NASCAR published the format for the July 24 Mudsummer Classic Camping World Truck series race at Eldora Speedway's dirt track. It includes qualifying heats and a feature separated into segments. Bottom line: Cost saving rules for teams and a track with no SAFER barriers.

Twitter: @SpinDoctor500

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 07, 2013

THE DANGEROUS EXPECTATIONS GAME

It's sure difficult to live up to expectations. 

But, then, it depends on how you play the expectations game. A presidential candidate can actually claim a "win" by losing but doing better than expected in a primary election. It's happened plenty of times -- Bill Clinton went a long way toward becoming No. 42 by besting the pundits' predictions in the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

For close to a quarter-century Indy Car racing has been looking for a CEO "savior" to lead it to the promised land. I -- and you -- are still waiting. It's absolutely a case of "here we go again" as Hulman & Co.'s new non-family boss, Mark Miles, contemplates who will run IndyCar. We've already tried lawyers, marketing gurus, car owners, mechanics, promoters, biz guys, family members and even a cowboy.

I'm saying it might be time for a different approach. How about Miles himself taking on the "savior" mantle and hiring some experienced, racing savvy administrators to handle the more routine and day-to-day matters? Some solid, if not rock-star spectacular, managers seems to make a lot of sense to me.

Meanwhile, a case study on raising expectations to unrealistic levels is in front of us in the form of NASCAR's Gen-6 Sprint Cup car.

Lay that square on Brian France. The NASCAR chairman talked-up this car as not only as good looking as Jennifer Aniston but also as results-oriented as Warren Buffet's investment advisor.

Going back to mid-season last year, France put the bar at metrics such as more side-by-side racing and more passing and more "Wow" moments. He had the sanction go all-in on Gen-6 with the media and public and that's why in an Arizona Republic story earlier this year about competition VP (and Gen-6 point man) Robin Pemberton, I wrote: "The person under the most stress to succeed in NASCAR this year might not be a driver."

The car and the drivers and crew chiefs trying to figure it out  haven't reached the France-established level. Not yet. We live in a society with little patience. A thrilling Texas and Talladega are looking more and more like a near "must" for NASCAR to keep its expectations game going.   I think the smartest thing I've heard this year came from Clint Bowyer during an interview I did with him in February. Let me quote the 5-Hour Energy Toyota driver.

“The thing is, society changes. It’s like in motorcycle racing: When I grew up, throwing the thing sideways was the biggest ‘wow’ factor you could get. Now, a double back-flip doesn’t even impress people.

“NASCAR might have had 100 passes back in the day, and that satisfied the fans. If there’s 1,000 passes today, that doesn’t necessarily capture the audience and keep them enthused. It’s hard to create what society asks for, no matter what you do.

“People grow to expect bigger and better and more, and that’s a difficult thing to deliver when racing at 200 mph.

“To me, that’s a ‘wow’ factor all it’s own.”

In talking about the stomp to Bristol ticket sales since the track was changed from NASCAR's beatin'-and-bangin' Coliseum to two lanes, Jimmie Johnson said:

"For the longest time we didn't think the racing was all that good from a competitor's standpoint. But, we had a sold-out event here with a long waiting list. They change it, drivers are happy, the track is very racy, but you can't sell out the spring race. Last year's race, we were all fighting for one lane which was at the top instead of the bottom. Somebody throws a helmet and it's considered a good race. So, I'm not sure racing and entertainment kind of go in the same piece."

Well said by both Bowyer and Johnson. I agree.

It's essential for racing's Powers-That-Be to consider how their words and actions will impact the expectations of fans, sponsors, drivers, owners, promoters and media BEFORE actually speaking or doing.

I'm not sure much of that is going on, though.


My new CompetitionPlus.com column is about what live TV means to NHRA and includes some revealing Business of Racing numbers:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/24661-michael-knight-what-live-tv-means-to-drag-racing


I'll have a notebook in this Friday's (April 12) Arizona Republic or find it at AzCentral.com or on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500

[ more next Monday . . . ]