Thursday, January 10, 2008

How the Media Works--or Doesn't Work

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.


vednam said...

Here is the 5th paragraph of the AP recap of tonight's Lakers-Bucks game:

"Bryant's under-the-weather performance wasn't quite as over-the-top or as significant as Jordan's was in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, when the flu-ridden Chicago Bulls guard got out of a sick bed to shoot 13-for-27 and score 38 points in 44 minutes to lead his team to a 90-88 win. But it was impressive nonetheless."

It is as if the media cannot say anything good about Kobe without adding, in some way, "but he's not as good as Mike." Why was it necessary to compare tonight's regular season performance to a playoff performance by a retired player 11 years ago? (Is it natural to do that all? I didn't see anyone making 1984 Bernard King comparisons or anything after MJ's flu game.) Is MJ's game the only instance in NBA history where a player has played well through sickness? Do people really not know that Kobe himself has played well through sickness and/or injury numerous other times?

MJ's flu game was basically brought up out of nowhere by a bunch of writers with an agenda. Lots of fans claim Kobe goes around trying to "copy" MJ, but in reality it is the media which constantly makes unnecessary MJ/Kobe comparisons.

David Friedman said...


Many members of the media will not deviate from a certain script, no matter what actually happens. That script could be that Kobe must always be compared unfavorably to MJ--or that Gilbert Arenas is "quirky" but Terrell Owens is a bad guy. It is very frustrating that some of the people who have the best access to newsmakers--not just in sports, but in other areas, too--feel compelled to push a personal agenda that defies what they see with their own eyes and what they hear with their own ears. We heard plenty of nonsense before the season about how Kobe would sabotage the team this season. Anyone who has followed his career knew that was absurd but in the wake of the Lakers' success most of the attention is being focused on the development of the rest of the roster; those players--particularly Bynum--deserve a lot of credit but Kobe is the best player on the team (and in the league) and his mere presence on the court attracts a lot of defensive attention that opens up opportunities for his teammates. There should be tons of stories touting him for MVP. Perhaps people are waiting to see if the Lakers will collapse like they did last season but the media was awfully quick to anoint Arenas as an MVP candidate around this time last season--and the Wizards' record during his prolonged absence this season has enabled everyone to see exactly what Arenas' true value is.

Anonymous said...

I agree that what the morning talk show host did to incite a situation between Dawson and Telander was wrong and sensationalist. BUT there is an alternate side to this story that many people would not get from reading your piece. You may not be aware of the reasoning for the whole episode. The reason the talk-show host took exception to Telander's column goes beyond his decision to leave his ballot blank. Telander's "follow-up article" which supposedly clears the air in why he did what he did only served to paint Mr. Telander as extremely hypocritical. He made a statement about players in the steroid era not being trustworthy, while the bulk (no pun intended) of Dawson's career took place before what is now recognized as the "steroid era". Also, Telander previously voted for Jose Canseco & Ken Caminiti for the Hall of Fame......AFTER they both admitted steroid use! That was the real reason Mike North was so irritated by Telander's column. If Telander could cast his vote for these 2 unworthy candidates that everyone knew used the juice, why couldn't he cast a vote for Andre Dawson who is 99.9% likely to have never used steroids? North asserted that Telander should have his voting privledges revoked, yet never once resorted to outright name calling like Rick did in his public forum. Telander was crowned "Jag-bag of the Day", but that dubious distinction goes to a deserving candidate on a daily basis, and they are only referred to as such during that one segment. They are not called that name repeatedly all during the show. So while I do not agree with North's methods, I do agree with his position.

David Friedman said...


Telander's point in his second column pertained to how North took what Telander wrote out of context to incite Dawson. When Dawson actually read what Telander wrote, Dawson had no problem with it. I drew a parallel between that media "technique" and what I believe happened regarding Owens and Keyshawn Johnson; this "technique" is in fact used quite frequently: I've seen firsthand when interviewers ask someone a question about a player/coach and then literally run to find that player/coach to say "So and so said such and such about you. How do you respond?" The problem is that "so and so" often did not say quite exactly what he is quoted as saying or only talked about the subject because he was asked about it, which is not the same as just saying something on one's own.

The issue of Telander's blank ballot this year versus who he may have voted for in previous years is certainly a worthy subject for discussion but is completely separate from the issue that I am addressing, which is how media outlets use deception, distortion and sensationalism.

Do you really think that North was interested in having a serious, intelligent discussion about the criteria for Hall of Fame voting? North's primary interest is creating controversy to spike his own ratings.

Also, do you know for a fact that Telander voted for Caminiti and Canseco? I don't believe that either player ever received many HoF votes.