When, sometime in the future, historians trace the rise of the blog as the dominant journalistic form of the 21st century, they’ll pay close attention to two recent developments:
1) In February 2008, Joshua Micah Marshall, founder of the left-leaning political blog Talking Points Memo, won a Polk Award for legal reporting. Previous Polk Award winners include such revered media luminaries as David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Mary McGrory, and I.F. Stone.
2) Two months later, in a joint appearance on Bob Costas’s HBO show, Buzz Bissinger — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Philadelphia court system, but is best-known for Friday Night Lights, his fantastic book on Texas high-school football — squared off with Will Leitch, founding editor of the irreverent sports blog Deadspin. In the ensuing one-sided exchange, Leitch was cast as a harbinger of the coming journalistic apocalypse. “I think you’re full of shit,” Bissinger told Leitch at the outset; things went downhill from there.
It’s a loaded juxtaposition, of course. In terms of winning mainstream recognition, Marshall’s Polk Award represents perhaps the blogosphere’s finest moment. And Bissinger’s screed against Leitch and sports blogs in general was unique in its ferocity.
But Marshall and Leitch’s disparate receptions from journalism’s old guard point to a bigger, somewhat bizarre phenomenon. For the most part, the pre-Web media establishment is slowly making its peace with the very technology that will either destroy journalism (if you’re pessimistic) or utterly reshape it. The Boston Globe editorial page prints a regular blog round-up; the mainstream media chase the dubiously obtained scoops of Huffington Post muckraker Mayhill Fowler; Riazat Butt, religious correspondent for the Guardian, reflects that “I thought online journalism wasn’t journalism because they would just read the wires and rewrite it. Now it means more to me to get stories onto the Web than in the paper.”
For some reason, though, this coming-together of the typewriter and podcast sets doesn’t extend to sports. To an extent unmatched in any other journalistic subgroup, the (mostly) men who write stories and columns on the world of sports seem to regard their Web-based successors (also mostly men) with a potent mix of contempt and rage. In an angry column written after his employer, the Boston Herald, apologized for falsely reporting that the New England Patriots had videotaped the St. Louis Rams’ walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI, columnist Tony Massarotti portrayed bloggers as homer-ish losers (“[Y]our pathetic, repressed middle-aged neighbors wear[ing] their Tedy Bruschi jerseys on Sundays . . . blogging and posting on message boards while spending hours on hold so they might hear their voices on the radio”). In a piece on the renewed Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan called ESPN’s Bill Simmons a “False Prophet” who was spreading bad information “in his dot.com forum.” And when ESPN The Magazine’s new hire Rick Reilly (who made his name writing for Sports Illustrated) was asked about Simmons, his new colleague (who made his name writing online), Reilly concluded as follows: “I’m more likely to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. He’s a blogger. I still love reading him.” If that sounds innocuous, remember that, in Reilly’s world, “blogger” tends to be a synonym for “no-talent hack.”
In turn, plenty of online sports commentators acutely resent their old-media peers. That’s no surprise, since criticism of the mainstream press is a blogosphere staple. Still, there’s an edge here that’s missing elsewhere. Several sports blogs, like firejoemorgan.com and stopmikelupica.com (“Daring to challenge the dullest mind in sportswriting”), were founded to criticize specific sports journalists. And in a column written a couple years ago, Simmons introduced a quote from the Globe’s Ryan thusly: “You can practically see the spittle flying out Ryan’s mouth as he writes the following words . . .”
What the Sam Hill is going on here? Why do a bunch of guys who love sports, and love writing about sports, fear and loathe each other so much? And just how long can this ugly little internecine feud last?
The interactive gangbang
Buzz Bissinger is contrite. For one thing, he says, his enraged tone in the now-infamous confrontation with Deadspin’s Leitch was out of line. “I was just way over the top,” he tells the Phoenix. “I was too heated up. . . . Will Leitch was just treated with disrespect. You shouldn’t say to someone off the bat that they’re ‘full of shit.’ ”
What’s more, Bissinger admits, he didn’t know as much as he should have before appearing on Costas’s show. “There are some very good blogs dedicated to single subjects,” he acknowledges; his examples include Beerleaguer, dedicated to the Philadelphia Phillies, and profootballtalk.com. They’re very informational. Their goal isn’t to play a snarky game of gotcha, or to be malicious and cruel. They’re great.”
But this contrition has its limits. The good blogs, Bissinger maintains, are the exception. The bad blogs — the ones that privilege glib snideness over reporting and analysis — are the rule. They’re also the most popular. And according to him, they represent the future of the medium.