Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today (The Big Lead’s parent company) and commentator at CNN, ABC, PBS, and NPR, is this week’s podcast guest. We started the conversation by discussing Greg Hardy. What would he need to do at this point to get cut by the Cowboys? After that, we talk through our disagreement about whether and to what extent NFL investigations should supersede the (flawed) criminal justice system, and then about the dynamic of in-house NFL reporters breaking news that emanates from the league office, and what this means about how journalists and readers should perceive these stories.
Finally, we talked about Brennan’s career, how she balances writing with her various television and radio engagements, and what advice she gives to the journalism students that she interacts with today. (This was taped before everything that occurred yesterday in the piece below.)
There was a lot of conversation on Twitter and blogs on Monday about the Povich Symposium, a recent event at the University of Maryland to honor the legendary and early-progressive writer Shirley Povich. The panel was moderated by Maury Povich — Shirley’s son — and later George Solomon, the former longtime editor of the Washington Post sports section, and current head of the Povich Center, which is Maryland’s sports journalism program. Also on the panel were Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Jeremy Schaap, Christine Brennan, Sally Jenkins, and Chelsea Janes. As I was in attendance, I have some thoughts about how the tenor of the evening has been mischaracterized:
1) To get disclosures out of the way, I profiled George Solomon last month, have sat in twice on PTI tapings and pre-production, and my last two podcast guests were Michael Wilbon and (obviously, since you’re here) Christine Brennan. I wouldn’t say I know Wilbon, Kornheiser, Jenkins, and Brennan, but I’ve had several interactions with them where I was treated with respect.
2) The discussion, if you want to call it that, started with this tweet from John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal:
Again, having met and communicated with Wilbon, my first reaction to seeing that is actually to smile, even though I disagree with his assessment of the blogging profession. Wilbon off TV is exactly like Wilbon on TV. He’s not inauthentically playing a character, and he’s traditionalist in his media consumption. Because the “mother’s basement” trope is tired and was unnecessary, the buzzword has been wielded by many to reflexively dismiss the substance of his argument, which is unfortunate. This was his advice to young journalists:
“Learn how to talk to people face to face,” Wilbon said. “Stop texting for a minute, stop emailing. Learn how to have a conversation with people. Learn how to pick up a phone and do it if you can’t do it in person…let them see you. You see them. Personal interaction. This is a people business. And learn how to tell a narrative. And you don’t need advanced analytics to do it. Learn how to tell a story…if you can’t tell a story without relying wholly on statistical information, then that means you can’t tell a damn story. The best storytellers in my life were people who weren’t journalists. They were people, old folks, who could sit by the fireplace and just keep you riveted. They didn’t have any stats.”“Learn how to talk to people face to face,” Wilbon said. “Stop texting for a minute, stop emailing. Learn how to have a conversation with people. Learn how to pick up a phone and do it if you can’t do it in person…let them see you. You see them. Personal interaction. This is a people business. And learn how to tell a narrative. And you don’t need advanced analytics to do it. Learn how to tell a story…if you can’t tell a story without relying wholly on statistical information, then that means you can’t tell a damn story. The best storytellers in my life were people who weren’t journalists. They were people, old folks, who could sit by the fireplace and just keep you riveted. They didn’t have any stats.”
3) Wilbon, Kornheiser, Jenkins, and Brennan all came up in an age where you had to pay your dues reporting for newspapers before earning the right to opine as a columnist. This is an element that Jason Whitlock and Stephen A. Smith have covered recently. Before condemning the messengers, read:
The work that real sports journalists do is being devalued by kids given platforms meant for adults or truly gifted journalists. King and Wilbon and a bunch of other folks had to learn things, experience things and accomplish things before they were granted the privilege of trying to influence public thought. And after they earned the privilege, they had to get their thoughts through experienced editors who pushed their thinking to a higher level.
Stephen A. Smith also said that the previous model coming up through print was that you first reported, then earned your stripes to be able to move on to editorializing.
4) The Ourand tweet linked to a story written by a student reporter, who should not be castigated here. The student wrote a fair story about the dialog of five minutes of a 90-minute conversation, which was mostly lighthearted and had an audience of 400 or so laughing often and listening intently. But, the way the student story spread from there wrongly made it sound as though it as mostly doom and gloom about the state of the industry — which it was in the part excerpted, but not necessarily in aggregate.
Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz (who I have met briefly, and is a nice guy) took the snippet from the Povich Center website — which featured Wilbon’s “mother’s basement” remark, additional criticism of Internet outlets from Kornheiser and Brennan, and a defense of contemporary publishing and outlets from Sally Jenkins — and ran with it. Part of that focused on Wilbon doing very little in-person reporting and mostly opining from a distance.
Not that Wilbon needs to be defended by me, but he does still go out on the road a decent bit for ESPN’s NBA coverage. I’ve seen him go 10 deep with names on rosters of even awful teams like the 76ers off the top of his head, and his rolodex is filled with players, coaches, and management across sports. At various times he worked beats covering NCAA, MLB, NBA, and NFL. You can vehemently disagree with Wilbon’s opinions — and given our longtime exposure to them, all of us often do! — but they’re not ill-informed.
Two weeks ago, we talked about his oft-stated distaste for advanced analytics, and it’s not that he’s against their existence so much as the fact that they’re wielded in some circles in a way that they crowd out the human elements of the games. In the podcast, he was not entirely down about new media, which he noted has helped the ability for different voices to be heard, and the platforms they can be heard on. But, he said, everybody just wants “nuggets” of information now, and the depth of what gets read or watched or listened to in full has gone by the wayside.
5) Awful Announcing conflated Christine Brennan’s commentary from the evening. At the symposium, Brennan did not come out against all blogs or everything about the way things are today. She did lament that writers are able to take shots at prominent figures in sports and media without having any accountability for them. However, she also marveled at the ability to file a story to USA Today about President Obama’s niece receiving a bomb threat before a basketball game, have it run right away, and broadcast commentary on CNN immediately thereafter. She’s also aware of some of the more positive aspects of the blogosphere.
As we talked about this week, I often disagree with Brennan’s opinions as a columnist. Many voices on blogs and Twitter — and I know I’ve been guilty of this myself — are not adept at disagreeing without being disagreeable.
6) What happened in the conversation yesterday was the exact scenario that the panelists were criticizing. A student’s short report about an hours-long event was aggregated, further stripped of its context, and analyzed without any apparent follow-up research. Part of that is the world we live in now. You have to rush to get your take out there before the conversation passes it by. But, it was profoundly strange for me to see an event I’d witnessed be so mischaracterized.
After the conversation concluded, the panelists stayed for 45 minutes and engaged the students, and whomever else wanted to talk to them, with advice and general sports talk. Wilbon had a semi-circle of about 25 people around him, all enormously excited with their access.
PTI has been on television long enough that Wilbon and Kornheiser are more recognizable stars than all but the most elite players they cover. Think about how bizarre a dynamic it must be to get stopped everywhere by people wide-eyed and enthusiastic to be in your presence, and then, in Wilbon’s case, go online and have your mentions constantly flooded with vitriol. What would be your impression of that landscape? Would you want to sift through it all to find the smartest content, or would you stick to the network of sources and informers you already spent decades assembling?