Award-winning author Buzz Bissinger voiced his displeasure about blogs on last week’s Bob Costas HBO special. In a contrite and fairly candid interview with us, he sums up his television performance thusly: “I am a man of passion, and my passion got the better of me.” Our take on the kerfuffle can be found here and here. The full interview with Buzz – covering more than just blogs – is after the jump.
Q: The internet is agog over the HBO special. When you walked off the stage, did you have any idea of how big of a deal this would become? Did your cell phone blow up, and your inbox get clogged? And what was the overall reaction from friends and colleagues you spoke with? And what’s your reaction to the masses who think that you and Costas – longtime friends – were in cahoots against Will Leitch?
The initial reaction was quite positive, more than quite positive from those I immediately spoke to–fellow panelists and members of HBO with the exception of Costas (Bob was friendly but muted in his response to my performance. He is one of the most thoughtful people I know and I think he was mulling that I had gone way too far.) What I began to realize by the next afternoon is this: What the fellow panelists thought (at least the ones I spoke with) were not remotely a representative group. When I came home from New York, my wife simply told me that I had been over the top and undignified. Then I started reading emails sent to me. The majority were predictably vindictive — dickhead, horsefucker, douchebag, windbag, ugly, stupid, etc. But what struck me far more is that many of the emails were smart, not laced with personal invective, and made cogent points about sports blogs and the Internet. It was also abundantly clear that I had disappointed people who had been fans of my work. That hurt terribly. They were also right.
The more I thought about my performance, the initial glow of “telling it like it is” turned more and more into the reality of someone who had truly embarrassed himself and subsumed the very points he was trying to make. I believe in what I said (although the emails I received have also directed me to some excellent information-based sports blogs I was not aware of). But I made a terrible mistake in the manner in which I said it. I am a man of passion and my passion truly got the better of me. I should have considerably toned it down, in particular in terms of my treatment of Will Leitch. Without going into details, I have taken steps to remedy that. I have also publicly apologized on several radio shows that have been widely disseminated. Those apologies are sincere, just as my passion was sincere if terribly misplaced. I treated Mister Leitch like the worst kind of blogger.
I WANT TO EMPHASIZE (hence use of caps) there was no conspiracy between Costas and myself. We did not speak before the show. And his take on blogs is far more benevolent than mine. I got carried away as I often do because of who I am, not because of some clandestine plan to “get” Will Leitch. I am genuinely embarrassed by what I did and I need to reiterate that. It is not representative at all of who I am. I should also point out, just for the record, that I have gotten many emails applauding what I said because they feel that Deadspin in particular does routinely go too far. But still does not excuse profanity on my part. Although I am pretty sure that everybody watching the show, given that it is HBO, had heard the words “shit” and “fuck” before. After all, this is the network that has produced Deadwood and The Wire.
Q: We found the “blogs are dumbing down sports fans” argument to be highly debatable – the exact opposite could be said: With more research tools than ever before, fans are now armed with all the information they need to form coherent arguments about any topic they are passionate about. Sports fans have a choice – don’t like one blog, float to another. Don’t like a ribald radio host – turn the dial. But when it comes to sports on TV, there’s only one option – ESPN. Al Michaels called about the network’s incessant arguing “gasbags on parade.” How much blame should ESPN shoulder for the dumbing down of sports fans?
In the light of day, I think we are all guilty of the dumbing down not just of sports fans but of society. I was guilty of it on the Costas show. Too many sports blogs are vile beyond belief. Too many ESPN commentators and radio talk show hosts are equally vicious for the same reason–they think it will amass them attention, which will lead to increased viewership and listenership. On the other hand, one thing I have learned from this whole mess is the danger of making sweeping generalizations. As I have just answered, there are some very good information-based sports blogs out there written by bloggers who clearly have excellent sources, just as there are some ESPN commentators who think before they talk and some marvelous radio talk show hosts who know their information inside and out and also have real sources. Now of course I will contradict myself by making the generalization that as a society, we have become more petty and mean-spirited and nastier than ever. We revel in watching celebrities fall apart. We revel in mockery and that is true of every media outlet whether you define it as new or old or mainstream or the future or whatever. Sports blogs certainly do not hold the monopoly on being vindictive.
Q: There were many, many interesting reactions to the HBO special, but it was perhaps this one from award-winning KC Star columnist Joe Posnanski that caught our eye: “If Heinz was young today, if he was 25 years old in 2008, or 30 years old, you know what he would be doing? Yeah. He would be WRITING A FREAKING BLOG. Of course he would. If you love to write, if you want to be heard, if you feel like you have something to say, this is what you do … If Heinz was young, he would be writing words on the Internet just like everyone else, and he would probably have his own blog, and it would be wonderful, and cranky old people would be screaming about Heinz in pajamas.” At the risk of dealing with a hypothetical … do you believe this to be the case? Or would Heinz have been “noticed” during his college years and be at a newspaper/magazine already?
I think Joe said that because he blogs now and doesn’t want to piss off bloggers off (trust me on this on the basis of experience, he is smart not to want to piss off bloggers). I doubt W. C. Heinz would be blogging. My educated guess is that he would be writing for a newspaper or a magazine, because some people actually still do that. And he would have been discovered during his college days or some days or somewhere. The whole thing about what Heinz would be doing or not doing seems basically silly because blogs did not exist when he was in the business and the man is dead and it is the legacy of what he left behind that should be honored, not some open-ended hypothetical.
Q: Looking back on the show, it seemed a bit ironic for you to lament the obscene language in the blogosphere with a slew of profane generalizations. Do you feel like some of your argument – at least one blogger agreed with you – might have been lost in the presentation? And how do you feel about mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post and Miami Herald having to close comment sections because of unruly commenters? And though we’re not defending the use of the F-word or condemning it, clearly, there’s a place for it in blogging or journalism – for instance, it appeared 21 times in your Vanity Fair profile of Don Imus last year.
I am not going to go back to the article and count the number of times the word “fuck” was used. I can tell you this–none of the uses were gratuitous or spur of the moment. And as you also point out, the vast majority of them came from Imus’ mouth to capture his voice and general tone of anger at all things. To take them out would have been censorship for readers and an inaccurate depiction of Imus as I found him. What is ironic, and embarrassing, is that I directed gratuitous profanity at Will Leitch. And no question – that did undermine the points I was trying to make. Valid points in my mind.
Q: A post we did that angered a few people was about Tony LaRussa: On his watch, Mark McGwire “allegedly” juiced, Rick Ankiel juiced, one of his pitchers had a drinking problem and died in a car wreck, Scott Spiezio had a drug and alcohol problem, and LaRussa himself was arrested for DUI. Yes, grown-ups make their own decisions, but for all this to happen on LaRussa’s watch … are you surprised he still has a managing job? You know LaRussa as well as any writer – do you think these off-the-field incidents not really has problem?
I think to hold Tony La Russa accountable for the conduct of players who have drug problems or drinking problems is ridiculous. He is not a baby sitter. He is a baseball manager. He is not a traffic cop. They are grown men, not children. They know what they are doing. Tony’s job is to manage, not get players into AA programs. Josh Hancock’s death was tragic, but to link it to Tony’s DUI is absurd. Josh Hancock tragically caused his own death. Spezio’s problems are Spezio’s problems. I do not think Tony knew that Ankiel was taking drugs that might enhance his performance, except to the degree you can pretty much assume that at a given point in time, probably 90 percent of all baseball players were taking something given baseball back then had absolutely no policy of enforcement. He still believes that McGwire did not take steroids (yes, I agree that he is the only man in the world to think that and I do not agree with him). As for his DUI, he has been held accountable for it both in a court of law and by media new and old that have mentioned it and replayed the tape of his original arrest a thousand times. I know he is deeply ashamed by what happened that night and forever will be. Should he still be managing? Of course, because he is a brilliant manager, bold and innovative even when you don’t agree with him. He is good for baseball in the exact same way that Billy Beane is good for baseball because they break standard rules of what is basically a moribund game. Too many fans don’t like Tony because he appears not to be warm and fuzzy through the lens of press conferences, which is the way most fans understandably see him. He is not warm and fuzzy with the media when it’s the baseball season. He is not particularly approachable at times with the media. However, with actual fans, and I have seen him with actual fans on dozens of occasions, he is gracious and appreciative and humble and yes, actually has a pretty damn good sense of humor.
And what is he like as a man? He is one of the most decent men I have ever met. If you are looking for proof, see what he has done with his non-profit organization called ARF for the rescue of cats and dogs. He has singlehandedly raised tens of millions of dollars to build a state of the art facility in Northern California for their survival. He and his family have made their own significant financial contribution. How many people in the world of sports do you know who have done that? I am not an expert, but I would venture to say very very few.
Q: Take us through your reading. Are you a newspaper guy? Magazines? Surely you must occasionally poke around the internet. Does your diet of sports news come strictly from mainstream sources, or do you ever look to see what the lunatic fringe (read: bloggers) are saying?
Of course I poke around the Internet. Contrary to the way I came off on the Costas show, I do not exist in some bubble. But since I am not a sportswriter (I don’t know how many times that title has been incorrectly attributed to me. Just for the record, my second book, which was my best, was about urban America; the majority of my pieces for Vanity Fair have not been about sports; I was never attached to any sports department when I wrote for newspapers for 15 years; my Pulitzer was for investigative news reporting, and my next book is not about sports) I don’t endlessly catch up on all the latest sports news. I generally look at FoxSports and MLB.Com and from time to time I look at your own site. I have seen my fair share of blogs, some out of curiosity, some because I have been on the receiving end of them as the result of magazine pieces I have written or my books. Hence my generalization, too sweeping I admit, that sports blogs are dedicated to cruelty and mean-spiritedness. But just to reiterate, I have learned over the past few days that some are quite good and far from lunatic.
I mostly read fiction–Lush Life by Richard Price, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy are among the most recent. As for magazines, I read The Economist, The New Yorker, New York, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. As for newspapers, I soak up The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer in the print versions. I like holding things in my hands (I realize I have just set myself up for a whole spate of unfunny dick jokes. Fire away…)
Q: In an interview, you said you moved your family out to Odessa, Texas, to write the book Friday Night Lights. Can you talk us through how the book deal went down and how you convinced your family to leave Philly for rural Texas? Are you watching Friday Night Lights, the TV show? Why or Why not? We feel it is one of the five best shows on television, regardless of genre.
All I did was get up off my ass and give up the comfort of a safe newspaper job in the pursuit of an idea that I could not get out of my head–the way in which sports plays such a dominant role in American culture. I found Odessa, got permission from the powers-that-be to get the access I needed, wrote up a book proposal, and got enough seed money to make it through the year. It wasn’t hard convincing my family to go. There are plenty of smart bloggers out there who could do the same thing I did–publishers care the most about great ideas. Yes, you have to prove to a publisher that you can write, but a well-written blog certainly fulfills that task. What is required is a little risk and the willingness to report instead of endlessly expounding. I personally find opinion tiresome–a little bit goes a little way and rarely gets better with length. That goes for print journalists as well who have great ideas for books but are afraid to leave the comfort of their existence.
The television show is excellent, and I commend NBC for keeping it on the air next year. I do not watch it regularly, because other things come up in my life and the show bears little similarity to the book other than similar thematic material (a smart move by the way on the part of the creators of the show to set it in the present day). I also feel I have wonderful accomplishments in my life besides Friday Night Lights, which was written almost 20 years ago. I am enormously proud of my second book, A Prayer for the City, about Philadelphia when it was on the verge on a certain kind of extinction in the early 1990s and Ed Rendell (now the governor of Pennsylvania) became mayor and did an astounding job of reversing the city’s course. I am proud of Three Nights in August on Tony La Russa and the timeless strategy of baseball. I have written for Vanity Fair on subjects ranging from the killing of a gay solider on an American military base to Don Imus to the question of fabrications in Augusten Burroughs’ bestselling Running with Scissors. My piece on Barbaro was one of five finalists this year for an American Society of Magazine Editors’ Award among hundreds of entries. The piece I wrote on the fabrications of New Republic wunderkind Stephen Glass became the basis for the marvelous film Shattered Glass. So Friday Night Lights is not something I want to spend the rest of my life only talking about.
Q: You’re the sports editor of the New York Times. You’re losing writers to magazines and online destinations, budgets are being trimmed, circulation is shrinking and so is the newshole. Any strategies or solutions? Young people, by all accounts, aren’t picking up the newspaper. Are your kids? Are their friends?
I have twin sons. One of them does pick up a newspaper. The other, who suffered brain damage at birth, does pick up the paper but only because of certain names he recognizes. My youngest son, who is 16, never picks up the paper. So I have no solutions for the American newspaper, although it makes me terribly sad to acknowledge what appears to be their extinction in print at some point in time.
I became a writer because I loved the feel of a newspaper in my hands. I know saying that makes me sound terribly old, but it is hard to hold the Internet in your hands. But you guys are not simply the future; you are the present. All I ask, and I am pretty sure I have already said this somewhere before during this Q and A, is to take up your responsibility with seriousness and honor while not stifling what is the best part of the Internet, which is the way in which it gives a voice to everyone. That part of the Internet is truly exciting. As for us MMSers, we will continue to write and cling to print, and sometimes we will still do it pretty damn well. And maybe with some tolerance along the way and acceptance, we can co-exist and maybe even like each other instead of fueling the flames of hate as I unfortunately did with my appearance. But it will take more responsibility on the part of the blogging community and less maliciousness and sophomoric sexual references.
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