Thursday, May 1, 2008

the great bissinger-leitch debate

In case you missed it, Tuesday night's episode of Costas Now on HBO featured a fascinating exchange between noted author Buzz Bissinger and blog maverick Will Leitch. The topic? Something near and dear to the life of kings and all it stands for: The future of journalism, specifically sports journalism, in this here Internet age.

Costas, the host and moderator, is truly an admirable sort: an intelligent, enthusiastic commentator who speaks clearly and with an informed voice. He takes his subject matter seriously and is interested in genuine, open discussion -- though he's not above having a little fun even when having to ask a tough question. Such qualities seemed to make him the perfect guy to officiate this hair-pull, even if it's obvious where his bias lies. Alas, at least this time, he came up small. Bissinger, meanwhile, has written Friday Night Lights, a bestselling book about high school football culture in Texas, and A Prayer For the City, a remarkable account of then-mayor Ed Rendell's efforts at rescuing the city of Philadelphia in the post-Wilson Goode era. And Leitch? He's the founder of, a blog site devoted to covering sports in a way you won't necessarily find in your local newspaper. He basically represents the young, attitude-driven future of this business. Also appearing was Braylon Edwards, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns who was there to offer the perspective of the professional athlete.

Some thoughts:

1. Bissinger, quite frankly, comes across as a crotchety old coot. You'd think a guy with his intelligence and ability would know better than to open a discussion with a guy he thinks is dragging sports journalism into the toilet by saying something other than, "I really think you're full of shit." Unfortunately, Bissinger rarely gets any better from there on out.

2. What gives Leitch, and those like him, the advantage on this topic is that they know their audience. I know a lot of newspaper people who have the attitude that their way is the only way, to hell with however the world might be changing. But as Leitch makes clear, the pony express, the abacus and the horse-drawn buggy once had their place, too.

3. Bissinger scores points with his suggestion that blogging is hurting the quality of writing and contributing to the "dumbing-down" of our collective culture. What he overlooks, however, is how much bad writing and dead wood currently exists at newspapers. And our strange obsession with celebrities and our fascination with the prurient and the trivial certainly didn't begin with the Internet.

4. There is far too much attack-type stuff on the Internet, far too many cheap shots being taken by those with little or no accountability, but there's a clear distinction between reader-generated comments and writer-generated content.

5. Leitch was wrong to suggest (with a straight face) that he was bringing out "the human side" of pro athletes when he publishes photos of them boozing and cavorting with women. (The opening segment includes shots of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from Super Bowl week a few years back; Big Ben can be seen pouring drinks into women's mouths while wearing a shirt that says, in a play on Notre Dame's famous motto, "Drink Like a Champion Today." I found it funny then and still think it's funny now. But still.) Athletes are entitled to their privacy, and I do think journalists should respect that. I don't know how many times I've been out drinking in Doylestown only to have a person I'm introduced to freeze upon meeting me, as if I'm going to chronicle their entire evening for the next morning's paper. I didn't, I don't, and I won't.

6. Leitch is also wrong to openly "be a fan." One can be a fan -- Go Pens! -- and no one can be 100 percent objective, but readers deserve an effort at objectivity and honesty. A lot of journalism is credibility, and while personal relationships with players and teams can result, the only way to honestly convey information to the average reader is to honestly try to be as completely objective and detached as possible. Frankly, it's part of the reason I don't work in Pittsburgh.

7. Costas takes a swipe at a musing about Rick Reilly authored by A.J. Daulerio, a Deadspin writer. (Disclosure: Daulerio and I went to college together and once covered the same suburban news beat for competing newspapers. Just a few weeks back, we even indulged our shared taste for beer and tequila by having One of Those Nights in Center City.) Daulerio criticizes Reilly for essentially taking advantage of the access he is granted as a sports writer, suggesting that it's wrong because the average fan doesn't have such access. But A.J., bro, that's the point: The access allows the writer to see up close how an athlete talks, what his mannerisms are, what he thinks and how he's feeling just after the heat of battle. I, for one, have often found these sort of exchanges to be the best way to bring out the drama of a sports story, as with this. That access, however, should not be taken too far, and it's troubling to hear stories of journalists playing golf with subjects they cover, to cite just one ethically-challenged example.

8. The bottom line: The answer lies somewhere between Bissinger's Luddite desire to see newspapers survive "just because" and Leitch's more bare-knuckles approach. The Internet is the future of information, and if Bissinger and others like him don't wish to cede any ground to Leitch and his gang, they at least better start figuring out a way to do it better. And soon.

Check out the entire exchange on Deadspin's site here.

CLARIFICATION: Not long after this post went up this afternoon, I got a phone call from A.J. Daulerio, who wanted to point out that Costas had incorrectly attributed the Reilly-bashing piece to him, when in fact "Big Daddy Balls" is someone else. That Costas would come into this so unprepared is at once striking and revealing. Anyway, A.J.'s own reaction to the whole shebang can be read here. His references to the days when he covered zoning board hearings and the like harken back to a time when we worked together, and it was fun to relive those days when we threw a few back at Locust Bar and the P&P a couple of weeks ago. A.J.'s a good guy and a good reporter and writer with good intentions. Our own talk about this stuff was enlightening and cordial, and it's a shame the Bissinger-Leitch debate wasted so much time and energy bickering like a bad afternoon of programming on WIP.


Diaz said...

Nice piece!

Lookingforward to the Battle of PA after the Pens/Flyers finish up their series' this weekend??

the life of kings said...

Thanks, Diaz. And yes, Pens-Flyers for the NHL's Eastern Conference title will be great fun. The teams HATE each other, and the fans will be rabid. Let's do it.

Yoknapatawpha Kid said...

Dear Kings,

this is a great entry on the Bissinger/Leitch altercation! My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college student and writer who currently contributes to 'Too Shy to Stop,' an upstart online magazine focused on culture and the arts.

I found you entry, as it would turn out, while doing research for my own essay on the legendary 'Costas Now' episode. I focus first on how much I adore Bissinger, but quickly change focus to how wrong he is regarding his stance on blogging and why.

If you have the time, check it out! I’d love for you to read it and comment.


Peter Ricci