Friday, July 11, 2008

"Everybody, look at me!"

The media has always thrived on sensationalism. Despite various claims of “fair and balanced” reporting, the media has an agenda just like any other enterprise. Controversial and stupid opinions lead to increased readership. Thus, newspapers clearly have an interest in “lighting rod” opinions since they lead to increased sales. That was the case 10, 50, and 100 years ago well before blogs dented print-media’s “bottom line.” Now, with the print-media seeing its readership shrink to unsustainable levels, the motivation for sensationalizing is greater than ever. That’s why we see things like Michael Rosenberg’s pathetic hatchet-job in Thursday’s Detroit Free Press. In fairness to Rosenberg and the Free Press, their tactic certainly worked. Brian at mgoblog clobbered the ridiculous column paragraph by horrible paragraph but the Free Press, in turn, got what it wanted: attention. As of midnight Friday, Rosenberg’s column was still the most popular story on the Free Press’s website.

So, should we just say, “job well done” to Rosenberg and move along? Well, no. The problem is that reputable news sources have—or at least should have—two goals: 1). make money, and 2). be credible. Based on Rosenberg’s drivel, it’s obvious that the former takes precedence when revenue is shrinking. Rosenberg’s column is in such contrast to the average reader in Detroit—as well as the other Detroit columnists who opined about the topic—that it was clearly an attempt at attracting an audience. Ever since Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, there has been an internet “flame” war spearheaded by disgruntled West Virginia fans. The only people in the country who seem to want to talk about how awful Rich Rodriguez is are the people from West Virginia. This process has been so drawn out that it has become a non-issue with everyone who isn’t 1). from West Virginia and, 2). affiliated with MSU, OSU, and Notre Dame. Rodriguez has been universally accepted by the Michigan fan-base. So, a column attacking Rodriguez with as little substance as Rosenberg's comes off as incredibly forced. No reasonable, unbiased person, reporting for a Michigan newspaper, could have such a skewed take on reality. Even Jim Carty—notorious for his attempt to bring down the UM Athletic Department with accusations of academic improprieties—has a reasonable view on the settlement.

Sensationalizing to sell papers might temporarily help the "bottom line" but it does so at the expense of credibility. I have always felt that Rosenberg was one of the better columnists in Detroit. There are plenty of writers in this city who write god-awful opinions. It’s unfortunate to see Rosenberg "sell out" just to get the Free Press a few lousy advertising dollars. In the end, the hit that Rosenberg’s credibility will take outweighs the extra “hits” his paper’s website gained from being lambasted by mgoblog.

Just like the dwindling numbers of the print-media aren’t specific to Detroit newspapers, sensationalism isn’t specific to Detroit newspapers, either. While Rosenberg’s column provided a great starting point for my post, I actually started thinking about this topic when the irrational storm of Marian Hossa-bashing swept through newspapers across North America after he signed with the Red Wings. In case you missed all of that, you can find some of it here, here, here, and here. Hossa-bashing is as indefensible as Rosenberg’s column and it shows. Hossa-bashers struggled to put together coherent arguments but spewed venom nonetheless which leads me to suspect sensationalism. I have yet to read even a single valid point by a columnist attempting to disparage Hossa’s decision to sign with the Wings.

Any time we’re talking about the sports world, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Clearly, Hossa is no hero or saint for turning down one multi-million dollar contract in favor of another. But, in the world of sports, what Hossa did has always been considered admirable. In fact, it is so admirable that nobody in his situation has ever done it. Karl Malone and Gary Payton signed with the Lakers in 2003 for less than market value in an attempt to win the championship that had eluded them for a combined 31 years but that was after they amassed more than $100 and $90 million in career earnings. They were 40 and 35 years old respectively and were tag-alongs. Since their earning power was limited, they sacrificed virtually nothing. Hossa is 29 and will likely be a pivotal cog in the Wings’ chances of repeating. His earning power is at its peak. What Hossa did is what fans have been begging professional athletes to do for years: don’t make it all about the money.

Hossa isn’t going to go bankrupt with the $7.45 million he’ll make this year. In fact, he will actually make more money this year with the Wings than he would’ve made had he accepted Pittsburgh’s 7 year, $50 million offer. Still, Hossa did what nobody before him had ever done. Guaranteed money is the gold-standard in professional sports. Hossa turned down $81 million in guaranteed money from the Edmonton Oilers for $7.45 million and a shot at the Stanley Cup. If Hossa suffers a career-threatening injury next season, he’ll have sacrificed $70+ million. To suggest that his sacrifice wasn’t really a sacrifice at all—as many columnists have attempted to point out—is to be ignorant.

What makes the attacks on Hossa so frustrating is that had he signed the $81 million contract with the Oilers, he would’ve been lambasted in Pittsburgh—and everywhere else in the NHL—for being just another greedy athlete in it for the money. Instead, he took an incredible risk over guaranteed money and he was still blasted. That just goes to show you that columnists will find a way to bash anything if it is controversial-enough to sell a story.

The Rosenberg-debacle and the Hossa-reaction are likely signs of things to come. Revenue is down. The existence of print-media as we know it is in question. The result will likely be in an increase in sensationalism and, thus, a decrease in both credibility and readability. Obviously, newspapers will attempt to cover the sensationalism in a veil of “fair and balanced” reporting. They can’t exactly admit that they’re flat out manipulating articles to promote more interest in their stories just like pharmaceutical companies can’t openly admit that they benefit by preventing cures or insurance companies can’t openly admit that they benefit by rejecting as many claims as possible. In fact, I’m sure editors have convinced themselves that there is no attempt to manipulate columns to increase sales. However, when a normally level-headed columnist like Michael Rosenberg comes out with something so over the top that it would make Sylvester Stallone proud, evidence suggests there is.


Big Al said...

Well said, Jake. I totally agree.

As for the local fishwraps and their sensationalizing to draw readers, it may all be moot sooner than we think. Last week Crain's Detroit Business reported the Detroit News is in deep financial trouble, with another round of employee buyouts coming soon.

Sensationalist crap like Rosenberg's can't save what is a dead and dying medium.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the shit Carty wrote in the AA "News" at around the same time. Of course, Carty has a anti-Rod bias, which explains his musings better than Rosenberg.


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