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Bloggers vs. MSM: Nobody Wins

The segment on Bob Costas' HBO show this week that pitched sports blogger Will Leitch of Deadspin against Buzz Bissinger representing the mainstream media is burning up the internet, and having had the privilege of press access to some splendid NHL games back in the late 1990's while writing for In the Crease, I can't help but share my two cents (which, thanks to Blogger, comes to you free of charge).

Do sports blogs "dedicate themselves to cruelty" and "journalistic dishonesty", as Mr. Bissinger asserts? While "dedicate" is too strong a word, I think what he's getting at is that reckless sensationalism is the meal ticket for far too many blogs (including, like Deadspin or Kissing Suzy Kolber, the most celebrated ones). That indictment says more about the readership than about the content providers, in my opinion. The sad truth is that there is an insatiable appetite for lewd & crude material, and bloggers have the agility to pounce on tantalizing bits that come available, resulting in surprisingly strong daily readership.

Take, for example, the Matt Leinart "beer bong" pictures that were run on Deadspin and other sites recently. Braylon Edwards makes a fine point in the discussion that an isolated picture says nothing about Leinart's work ethic, yet that's exactly what the Deadspin headline called into question. Does the Deadspin crew owe Leinart (or their readers) journalistic "due process"? Mr. Bissinger would seem to indicate that they should.

The problem, I think, is that Deadspin and other sensationalist sports blogs aren't trying to be the Sports Illustrated of the 21st Century. Rather, they are more like a combination of Howard Stern and Dennis Miller; not so much interested in actually analyzing a game, but instead looking for a chance to stitch together today's sports scene with pop culture icons and blue humor in a steady stream that brings readers back day after day. Think of it as Talk Soup meets ESPN Sportscenter.

Another criticism that Bissinger levels is that the quality of writing on blogs is generally abysmal, and frankly, I'd have to agree with him on that one. Personally, I would love to work with an editor who could help tighten up my work; the nature of personal publishing allows for anything to get online, and since most readers don't place a premium on quality writing, the overall level sinks lower and lower. In a way, that creates a niche for blogs which are exceptionally well written, the first of which that comes to mind being Theory of Ice.

One of the main reasons I've enjoyed chipping in on the New York Times' Slap Shot feature is that Jeff Klein gives us parameters to work within, such as "give me 25 words on what went wrong for your team in Round One." Having a limitation like that forces you into refining your work; sometimes it's quite difficult to get my point across within the space given, but I usually find that as I trim extraneous phrases the core thought emerges much more clearly, like a statue found within a giant block of stone. It's an exercise I'd recommend to just about any writer; take your first draft of a piece, copy it into Word to get a word count, and try to reduce that total by 20%; you'll be surprised how much better your piece will read afterwards.

Overall, I thought Leitch represented himself rather poorly; it might have been that he was understandably flustered by Bissinger's raving diatribe, but he failed to respond strongly to either that or when Costas read some of the comments from a typical Deadspin article. Leitch should have replied that objectionable or outright obscene comments can be found on just about any website (including mainstream media like ESPN), and while some of those may employ moderators to prune the worst offenders, independent bloggers don't have those means available.

Of course, the other impression I was left with was that for a guy who is seemingly concerned with public profanity and professional decorum, Bissinger came off as a foul-mouthed, anachronistic, contemptuous bully. It's really too bad that things descended into the gutter so quickly. Costas obviously wanted to shine his spotlight on the seedy side of the sports blog world; a pity, considering the fact that the CBC did such a fine job a few months ago highlighting the value that hockey blogs are bringing to the table. Aside from some throwaway comments that "yeah, there are some blogs out there that do a good job," this segment was a decidedly pointed attack against Leitch and others like him. In the interest of journalism, it would be good for Costas to provide a followup segment featuring the best of the best as well.

For any of you who haven't had the chance to see the piece in question, here it is, over at Awful Announcing. This is HBO, so there's plenty of language used you won't hear on broadcast television, so if that's not your cup of tea, don't click.

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