Face WHOSE Music?

Disclosure: Auburn journalism faculty member and season ticket holder here. You can judge from this and other writing if I live up to my claim of promoting responsible journalism over fandom.

Coach Gus Malzahn’s decision to remove quarterback Nick Marshall from Auburn’s SEC Media Days roster for today met with much disappointment.

The decision came after Marshall was cited on Friday in Georgia for marijuana possession. (“Cited, not arrested” became something of a mantra.)

Those who criticized claimed that it would be more appropriate for Marshall to “face the music” from the media in attendance today and that his appearance would “clear the air.”  Now, they say, the story will not go away.

This concept of the media as some kind of required ordeal for a college athlete to endure troubles me.  No doubt it derives from the media’s traditional role as a watchdog.

A public official might need to “face the music” of a press conference after investigative reporting or government inquiry reveals misdeeds that demand response.  A watchdog press is representing the citizenry in asking tough questions that need to be asked.

In other cases, however, the demand for someone to “face the music” also presumes a lot.  Here, most of that presumption comes from the media members who demand it who are demanding a go at Marshall.

With this story, there is no dogged investigative reporting.  The information might be entertaining to the audience, and First Amendment-protected.  But for many (but not all, I stress) of those who will be in attendance, this is an easy story that dropped in their laps and will give them the opportunity to hound a young athlete.  A textbook Media Days circus.

That circus dominates at a situation like this.  The serious questions of a young man who allowed what could be a storybook season to devolve into preseason drama?

Too weighty for an unethical credentialed amateur wishing to make a name for himself/herself with a condescending question sure to get meme’d, GIF’ed, and Vined.

The preseason drama beast demands fresh meat, and if Auburn will not feed Marshall to the beast, it’s more convenient to blame the school than to turn and address that annoying beast.

Some have compared this to the Jameis Winston story (the sexual assault accusations, NOT the crab legs caper).  The two don’t match up.

First, the Winston story has grown beyond FSU, though crucial questions still remain, to address a nationwide culture in which colleges mishandle sexual assault allegations, particularly where athletes are involved.

Second, Winston has not been charged in the incident, so any questions of his own involvement would be futile, given the competent legal advice he and anyone in a similar situation would receive.  If the story had broken three days of head of ACC’s media days, a similar decision would have been wise.

(Though I would add here that I supported Heather Cox’s questioning of Winston on ESPN after the ACC championship game.  Her questions were relevant, and he was handling them well until whisked away.)

Would an appearance by Marshall have defused the story?  Will the story continue from here, as many claim?  That question will be answered by the sports media members from here.

In the absence of new information, the story survives only if the media continue to serve it up under the pretense of new angles.

Nick Marshall will speak to these accusations, and he certainly should.  But at a venue like Media Days (too much) a mere three days after (too soon), not a wise decision.

And if it deprives some in the media of an easy target for a quick take — that’s not a problem worth solving.

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I Used to Think That It Was So Easy

See if you can guess which ESPN personality made the following statement:

“[The] principles and the integrity associated with [print journalism] serve as the backbone for all that I’m about and hope to be professionally.”

Anyone guess Stephen A. Smith?  Granted, the quote is from way back in 2007, in a textbook, Strategic Sport Communication.  Even so, my students are always amused to hear that.

Smith can still shows his reporting chops.  He beat everyone (including his fellow ESPN-er Chris Broussard) on the Dwight Howard-to-Houston story.  But that’s not what he is known for today

But Stephen A. is not that bad.  Even he has to suffer through First Take with Skip Bayless.  Smith gets more substantial offerings from the chunks that plunge through the ceiling in his Oberto Beef Jerky commercials than he gets from Bayless.

No doubt, Bayless (who also started in newspapers) and Smith have found a profitable shtick. Apparently ESPN has.  But where does that leave sports journalism, particularly for the generation that will practice it in the next few decades?

We have been told that journalists must learn a variety of multimedia skills to survive.  Do we also need to bring a variety of writing styles — news, opinion and everything in between, often in the same article?  To what extent are we expected to sound like a smarter version of Bayless?

With social media, talk radio and traditional media, your favorite sportswriter has a lot thrown at him/her.  It creates a professional minefield, where words written quickly under deadline pressure, then taken out of context, can easily come back to haunt.

When I joined Twitter and started blogging, I did so as an extension of my teaching and research, which centers on sports journalism, particularly its history.

My blogs address issues in sports journalism, often to criticize, it might seem, but more to instruct.  I try not to drop random, pointless bombs, even when I’m harsh.

I could declare that on Twitter I do not troll, but given the response I got from some Auburn beat writers when I said that in class, I’ll amend it to, I do not intend to sound like an ESPN pundit, and I certainly don’t offer it as constant fare.  Sometimes my wording fails me, and yes, rarely I will just drop something because I find it amusing.

What some might assume to be trolling is often a sincere criticism of something I’ve read.  Often I’ll follow up by praising the writer the next time around, and folks will respond, “I thought you hated him/her.”  My response to them is that I criticize content, not individuals.

Overall my guiding principle is, “Don’t be that guy,” and I commend the same philosophy to my students and anyone who asks.  Even within the context of the previous grafs, I feel that I have upheld that principle.  And I feel no motivation to move into Trollville, just to get more followers and clicks.

I want the same from my students and every other future sports journalist.  I will always be a future sports journalism reader, and I want the content to be informative and analytical, without the rhetorical level of an Around the Horn fool-fest.

But those students coming up are getting mixed messages.  And they are writing to audiences that include those who cache their columns and scan their LinkedIn profiles for shriek fodder.

In my 1970s student days, it was easier. You either wanted to be a sports cultural essayist like Paul Hemphill, a columnist like Furman Bisher, or a beat reporter like the ones you grew up reading.  Now, students can aspire to be all three the same day.

And they do so serving a dangerously empowered audience.  Readers/viewers have more choices.  They know it, and the media outlets know it — particularly the local ones.  Offend readers with basic shoe-leather journalism, and they will cry “hater” and find another site.

Fans always have somewhere else to turn, more than in the past. And it’s just another complexity that today’s sports journalists must face.

It would seem glib and useless to say that each sports journalist must simply set his or her moral compass and stay true to it, but even that is more difficult today.  All of the choices were simpler back in the day, the moral options were clearer, and the profession — whether through ethics codes or our fellow professionals — helped keep us in line.

In that sense, Twitter has provided an unintended benefit.  As Ty Duffy noted in his musings a couple of weeks ago, Twitter has brought journalists (perhaps more than other groups) together into a community that shares jokes, true, but also discusses issues.  Sometimes it’s by direct message, sometimes readers join in for better or worse, but at least the open discussions are there.

Even so, the Venn Diagram has so many circles that I don’t envy the coming generation.  They definitely have the technical skills to navigate the new media landscape.  Will the way be as sure for them ethically as it was for my generation?

Probably not. But good writing will continue and readers will read.  With that foundation, the craziness of everything else will have a harder time taking hold, as the long-term value of “that guy” and his drivel becomes clearer.