Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?
Perhaps by now you’ve seen (or heard) the rant Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price went on earlier this week (This is probably NSFW, even though it’s mostly bleeped, but I feel like I need to give you a sense of how displeased he really was). He was unhappy a Reds beat writer from the Cincinnati Enquirer had reported a player wasn’t with the team — a move he felt helped the Reds’ opponents, but hurt the Reds.
As much as I enjoy a good managerial rant (paging Lee Elia — again, VERY NSFW and NOT bleeped, but the best rant by a manager ever), Price brings up a point I don’t think enough people in sports understand (including Price himself): It’s not the media’s job to boost the team (and in the middle of Price berating the writer, the writer speaks up and says it’s not his job to promote the Reds or help them win).
I wrote a few weeks ago about the tendency toward what you might call “homerism” in sports writing: the idea that you can get so close to a team than objectivity wanes. Bryan Price is actively advocating for this — he feels he DESERVES the media’s help. But the opposite is true — and any writer who does that should have their press pass revoked.
There is a fine line, however, between writing every little tidbit one learns (an accusation Price makes with some very flowery language in his six-minute soliloquy) and posting only the most newsworthy items. And it’s a line that’s been blurred in the age of Twitter and the 24-7 news cycle. I don’t envy single-sport beat writers, frankly — theirs is a job that’s never been tougher or more cutthroat, in many ways.
But for us, working at Purdue, there are also questions about whether we can have an office on campus and still act as an independent news agency. In fact, when a story of ours aired on Morning Edition this week, host Steve Inskeep went to great lengths at the end (listen to the whole story, but pay attention to the last 13 seconds or so) to point out that we were not in the business of being a Purdue mouthpiece.
In the past, NPR has had a policy that if you worked at one of the hundreds of member stations set on college campuses around the country, you could not file a national piece about the university for which you worked. I had this happen to me when I was covering the Jameis Winston sexual assault case at Florida State University.
NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman called me at my desk one day and wondered if I could do some work on the story. I told him I’d be happy to and went to get copies of the hundreds of pages of documents filed with the county prosecutor’s office. But later, Tom had to call me back and explain the policy. He was as nice about it as he possibly could have been and he apologized profusely. But there I was, sending the documents to his home in Oregon so he could do the story, while I was already on campus.
As you may know, we’ve just completed our first season of our sports talk show, Off The Field With Morgan Burke, where I spent half an hour every other week with Purdue’s athletics director talking about the big issues in the wider world of sports. When Morgan and his team agreed to do the show, it was with the up-front understanding that it wouldn’t be a promotional piece for the school. We set that out before any tapings were done, just so everyone was on the same page. Inevitably, we talked about a lot of Purdue goings-on, but we always tried to steer back to how athletics departments have to make some tough choices in today’s world of intercollegiate athletics.
Understand that Morgan has been doing his job for a long time and is plenty shrewd — he did a good job of shoehorning in points he thought were positive about Purdue. It’s part of his job to be the biggest booster Purdue athletics can have. But that makes it all the more important that I do my job and ask tough questions — in some cases ones he probably doesn’t want to answer.
This gets us back to Bryan Price. He could have said whatever he wanted in his interviews with the beat writers. He did a much poorer job strategizing than he could have. Interviewees can say whatever they want and journalists can ask whatever questions they want — those are the rules of most good interviews. And it’s only when someone chooses to step out of line (either through homerism, through berating others’ job performance or through trying not to answer questions they feel are too sensitive) that it becomes obvious when one side isn’t doing its job well enough.
All this to say: hold WBAA News to a high standard when it comes to covering Purdue. Odds are our standards are even more stringent than you realize.