In a January 8, 2008 post titled How the Media Works--or Doesn't Work I wrote, "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." We have just seen another example of this with the recent online feeding frenzy regarding U.S. pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski and her coach Rick Suhr. In case you missed it, after Stuczynski won the silver medal, she walked over to the stands and NBC's microphones captured part of her conversation with Suhr. He offered what could be interpreted to be some harsh criticism and soon became the object of much scorn as ignorant people bombarded him with nasty emails or said hateful things about him on blogs and message boards. People wondered why Stuczynski put up with someone who seemed like such a jerk. The answer is simple: he's not a jerk, the NBC microphones only captured part of the story and a lot of irresponsible people went off half-cocked instead of having the sense and decency to find out the truth.
Stuczynski was indeed moved to tears--not by what her coach said or how he said it but by the visceral, vituperative and cruel responses that total strangers have made to Suhr. She told ESPN The Magazine's Luke Cyphers, "What he said to me is nothing that made me sad. I'm a 26-year-old professional athlete. I ask him to be fair coach. I don't ask him to be a cheerleader. I want you to tell me when I jump good, and I want you to tell me when I jump bad. I think a lot of people don't understand that this is my job. This is what I do for a living, and I have to be good at it, and I have to get better at it. And we celebrated it. But at that moment, I wanted to know why I didn't make that bar."
Much was made of Stuczynski's supposed downcast look after her talk with Suhr but there is a simple explanation for that as well: "There were all these things on the ground that I didn't want to trip over," including some of the NBC camera equipment that was filming her.
Cyphers' article concludes:
When the Internet storm erupted, Stuczynski felt powerless, and a little hopeless. She says Suhr has received countless angry emails from people who think they're protecting her. Meanwhile, her family and her coach's family have heard comments about whether the coach went too far, and wondering why Stuczynski is putting up with a guy who couldn't even say congratulations.
But she, her coach and her parents went out to dinner after the competition and celebrated. "And people don't hear the things he says leading up to the meet, or the texts he sent me all week saying, We can do this, you know? That's what's so frustrating."
Stuczynski, who gave the interview at the Beijing airport as she readied to travel to her next meet in Zurich, admitted the days after the medal were some dark ones.
"After this all came out I just wanted to go home," she says. "But you can't let outside stuff affect you. They say you have to have tough skin, it comes with the business, so I guess you have to take the punches."
She's always enjoyed the media, she says, but this will take some time to sort out. "It reminds me of reality TV," she says. "The clip wasn't cut, but you only see parts of it—you don't understand the whole thing. And it's like how can you fix it? How can you make people see the truth?"NBC showed this whole sequence on tape delay, so the network could have easily sought out Stuczynski and Suhr to clarify what happened during their exchange--but that would not make for dramatic TV.
I wonder if all the people who rushed to condemn Suhr and send him nasty emails feel proud of themselves now. Was it worth it to get a little more traffic for a website? Is there anything more stupid and hypocritical than claiming that you are sticking up for an athlete when you are really just rushing to judgment and ultimately causing the athlete the very kind of misery from which you say that you are protecting her?
I've never understood the rush to be the first to break a story, whether it's ESPN or a tiny blog. It seems to me that it is much more important to get the story right, to present the relevant information accurately and then add commentary that is well thought out. There are far too many articles, posts and news reports that are hastily thrown together and poorly considered. Also, the internet seems to provide a form of "liquid courage" for people to make declarations that they would never say to another person's face.