Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mike Gundy is Right to Ask, "Where Are We At In Society Today?"

You have probably already seen the instantly famous press conference rant by Oklahoma State University football coach Mike Gundy. It is easy to mock Gundy's over the top method of making his point but he is absolutely correct to ask, "Where are we at in society today?" in the wake of a third rate column that consisted of nothing but rumors and innuendo about quarterback Bobby Reid (forgive me for not using a link and giving this writer even more undeserved fame than she has already gotten).

Perhaps Gundy could have handled this situation in a more civil manner but I have no problem with authentic, righteous indignation. Here is one sentence from the offensive column: "Tile up the back stories told on the sly over the past few years, and you see a pattern that hasn't always been pretty." That poorly written mess is characteristic of the style and tone of the piece. Her "back stories told on the sly" have nothing to do with Reid's performance on the field but simply portray his personal character in a negative light. At one point, she asks, "Does he want to be coddled, babied, perhaps even fed chicken?" Gundy correctly labeled this article to be "garbage" and the editor who permitted it to be published "garbage."

This writer is simply following the not so proud standard set by people like Dan Rather, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and many other prominent journalists who decided that facts should not get in the way of the "higher truth" that they want to convey to their audience. Whatever your political affiliation, you should be appalled that Rather would go on the air and broadcast undocumented, unverified information as though it is the absolute truth and you should be even more appalled that he continues to defend this conduct by reasoning that even if the particular evidence he cited is false that the overall story he told is true. Maybe this does not bother you because Rather did not gore your proverbial ox but the media is supposed to be the public's impartial watchdog; the democratic process is mortally wounded when journalists decide to abandon objectivity because they believe in the importance of their message. That is the height of hubris.

Of course, the story that Gundy vehemently protested is not nearly as important on a cosmic scale as the Rather affair but the same faulty journalistic practices are at work in both cases; this approach could be summarized with the phrase "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The Oklahoma writer believes that Reid lacks toughness, so she wrote a column filled with rumors to "prove" this, just like Rather went on the air with since discredited information to "prove" his case. The point is not whether or not Rather or the Oklahoma writer are correct in their beliefs; it is irresponsible to portray rumors/undocumented assertions as though they are facts. Although the Oklahoma case is less important than Rather's story it is in some ways more reprehensible because, as Gundy noted, the writer went after the personal character of an amateur athlete. Harsh criticism goes with the territory of being President but what the Oklahoma writer did is completely out of bounds even if she could document her assertions; she should stick to reporting on what happens in the games and not try to do psychological profiles of college athletes.

The Oklahoma writer has responded to the controversy by acting like she cannot fathom what Gundy was so upset about. She complains that she has asked Gundy repeatedly to document what factual errors she wrote and that he will not do so. Here's a hint: go to about the 2:39 mark on the above clip. Gundy emphatically states that the coaches never said that Reid was scared and that the decision to bench him had nothing to do with Donovan Woods allegedly threatening to transfer.

The sad thing is that in today's society, fame--not talent--is the most valuable currency; Blair parlayed his dismissal from the New York Times for plagiarism into a book deal. The writer who Gundy correctly berated is now nationally known and will probably end up working for a big media outlet like ESPN; hiring her will boost ratings, because everybody tunes in for controversy. It will not take long for this story to get twisted until she is viewed as the victim; the Chicago Sun Times' Carol Slezak questions whether a coach would similarly go after a male writer, apparently unaware of numerous instances of coaches and managers having confrontations with male writers. I applaud Coach Gundy for taking an unapologetic stand against shoddy journalistic practices--and if you listen at the end of the clip, you will note that at the end of his press conference his audience literally applauded him. It is not clear if the applause came from media members or not but if it did maybe there is still hope for the profession of journalism.

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