The best tool that any consumer of media information can have is a healthy amount of skepticism. This is true whether the source is the internet, television, radio, a newspaper or any other platform. Truth, accuracy and fairness are rapidly heading toward extinction in favor of ignorance, bias and the rush to break a story first. Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy was widely ridiculed after his famous press conference rant but while most members of the media were delighted to mock him and thus not have to face the serious message that he delivered (albeit in an over the top fashion), I immediately wrote that he was right on target with his complaint.
My post titled "Why is the Media Out to get Terrell Owens?" presented a case study in how the media shapes the news instead of just reporting it. Owens' life story and the obstacles that he has overcome are every bit as inspirational as Brett Favre's. The only reason that Favre is celebrated as a hero and Owens is denigrated is because media gatekeepers have decided that this is the way each story should be framed. Favre has made mistakes--involving alcohol, painkiller addiction and meddling in a teammate's contract dispute, to name just three off the top of my head--but those incidents are either glossed over or portrayed in ways that emphasize how Favre overcame his difficulties; Owens' mistakes--you know the list, so I'm not even going to mention them again--are held up as reasons to ridicule him and question his value as a teammate and his worth as a person. Truth, accuracy and fairness demand that the media tell stories in an unbiased fashion, providing all the information so that the public can make its own judgments; ignorance, bias and the rush to break a story first demand that stories be thrown together quickly and packaged in a way to heighten passions--often in service of a biased agenda.
In "Keyshawn Johnson Versus Terrell Owens: The Real Tale of the Tape," I explained one popular technique that I strongly suspect was used to try to make Owens look bad. On ESPN's Sunday Countdown show, Johnson said some complimentary things about Owens but advised him to not publicly knock Bill Parcells, the Dallas Cowboys' previous coach. The next thing you know, Owens is on SportsCenter firing away at Johnson. How did that happen? In my post, I quoted Owens' comments, as broadcast on SportsCenter, in their entirety and then made this comment:
Those Owens quotes come straight from SportsCenter and the ellipses (...) indicate portions that any careful viewer can tell that ESPN edited out (a technique that the network learned from 60 Minutes, among other shows). That means that we don't know everything that Owens said or what questions prompted his answers (sorry for shouting, but that is a very important point). We also don't know if Owens actually even heard exactly what Johnson said. In fact, I would not be surprised if Owens did not even see firsthand what Johnson actually said and that Owens' comments are responses to questions posed to him in the locker room. This is what athletes mean sometimes when they say that they are quoted out of context even if their responses are on tape--if Owens was misled about what Johnson said and that is not shown on SportsCenter, then Owens' seemingly brash comments are indeed being taken out of context. For instance, suppose that a writer said to Owens, "Hey, did you hear how Keyshawn ripped you on Sunday?" Perhaps if Owens had a different personality then he might simply say, "No" and leave it at that--but what would you do on the spur of the moment if someone told you that a good friend of your ex-boss who you did not get along with said something bad about you on national television? This is an ESPN manufactured "controversy" in which ESPN analyst Johnson will not only get the last word but in which the questions posed to Owens and Owens' answers will be edited before you ever see them. Just keep that in mind--not just in reference to this story, but in general. This is a fine little case study about how the mainstream media works.
If you don't believe that this is how the media often operates, consider what just happened in Chicago. On Wednesday, Rick Telander--a writer who actually does endeavor to get his facts straight--devoted his Chicago Sun-Times' column to explaining why he submitted a blank Hall of Fame baseball ballot this year: "No erasing empty feeling."
That afternoon, a Chicago radio host used the technique that I described above to try to incite a problem between Telander and former Cubs' outfielder Andre Dawson. In his Thursday column titled "Clearing the airwaves," this is how Telander explains what happened:
It's a pity that such a noisy brouhaha had been made out of my simple piece by a morning-radio talk-show host, who read a trifle of it to Dawson on air around 9 a.m, called me cowardly, then screamed to Dawson, "He screwed you!"
Dawson had responded that if I'd said what it seemed I'd said, to his face--that Dawson might have used steroids--what would happen next "wouldn't be pretty."
Telander contacted Dawson and cleared the air. It turns out that Dawson never read the column but just heard the radio host's interpretation of what Telander meant. Telander read the entire column to Dawson, who then replied--referring to Telander's disgust with MLB's ongoing steroids crisis--"I understand you now. I know that regardless of what I've accomplished, it doesn't count. Because nobody is trustworthy.'' Telander's original column in fact said that Dawson should be voted into the Hall of Fame; his message bore no relationship whatsoever to what the radio host irresponsibly screeched over the airwaves. Did the host simply not understand what Telander meant or did the host intentionally distort Telander's message just to create controversy? In the end, it does not really matter, because a lot of people who heard the show will never read Telander's follow up column that straightens everything out. That radio host literally and figuratively poisoned the airwaves. The sad thing is that this happens every day.
If you ever meet Mike Gundy in person, instead of snickering, shake his hand and thank him for trying to stem the massive tide of sewage being dumped on us by various media streams--and the next time you hear a radio host bellowing vile or inflammatory comments at the top of his lungs or the next time you read a story about how bad a person Owens (or anyone else who is on the media hit list) is, pause for a moment and use the most vital tool for any listener, viewer or reader: skepticism.