Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We're Not Biased...Except When We're Biased

One of my first thoughts when I saw Mike Gundy's diatribe at Jenni Carlson (right after thinking "Coach Knight would be proud of you, Mike") was that Gundy has made a cardinal mistake: he's taking on the media. Unless you have the backing of an entire apparatus of TV, radio, and print minions to back you up in this endeavor (and I'm not making any sort of political point here [heavy sarcasm]), it is never a good idea to declare war on the media. Why? Because they're the media. They always get the last word. They have the ability to shape perception. It was not at all surprising to see a number of college football writers close rank by defending Carlson and arguing that Gundy should be fired/suspended/censured/drawn and quartered.

One such writer is our old friend Stewart Mandel. However, Stewart being Stewart, he defends Carlson in such a ham-handed way that he ends up contradicting himself and confirming the distaste that many college football fans have for the media. Here is his discussion of writers and their biases from this week's Mailbag:


Regarding Mike Gundy's postgame rant, it seems that sportswriters have almost all condemned Gundy's overly emotional defense of his player and fail to grasp the distinction Gundy was trying to make between fair criticism of on-field performance and petty personal attacks. Your response was admittedly measured, but other national writers have gone as far as to suggest that Gundy be fined or fired. Meanwhile, almost all fans, players, and coaches support Gundy. Could it be that the actual bias in sports media is actually in favor of ... other sportswriters?
--Russ, Manhattan


Ding, ding, ding. I've tried futilely over the years to diffuse the wide-spread notion that mainstream journalists hold "biases" toward certain teams in the same way fans "hate" their rivals. I gave up on that lost cause long ago, other than to occasionally point out that if you truly believe a professional journalist would let his "inner-fan" hold more sway than the most basic tenant of his profession -- objectivity -- than you might as well assume your doctor is sharing your confidential medical information over drinks with his colleagues, and that your bank teller is secretly "borrowing" half that deposit you just made.

That said, writers are humans, and we like to be treated with the same level of dignity as any other humans. So yes, when Gundy steps out in front of a podium in a room full of people, points his finger at a specific writer and screams at her for several minutes with the kind of maniacal look on his face that suggests he's so angry he could hit somebody, is it any surprise to see fellow writers rallying behind the attacked journalist? Maybe that's how he dresses down his players in the locker room or on the sideline, but what person in any other walk of life voices their professional displeasure toward someone in that manner? Gundy's certainly entitled to disagree with her, and he's certainly entitled to defend his player, but I don't believe anyone -- from writer to football coach to stock trader to busboy -- deserves to be treated with such lack of basic human decency.

From the moment I first saw the Gundy clip, I knew immediately that such extreme-reaction columns as the ones you mentioned would soon be spewing forth across the country, regardless of whether or not Gundy had a valid point. It's the same "defense mechanism" that causes many writers to hold "grudges" against schools whose coaches or sports information staff have treated them like crap. It's human nature. And it's a much more likely cause of "bias" among writers than any team allegiance.
When I read that first paragraph, I was trying to decide whether I should take the time to write a post explaining why Mandel's analogy was so inept. He compares sportswriters letting their biases affect their writing with instances of outright illegal conduct by bank tellers and doctors that involve intentional malfeasance. Stew, I'm interested to know how you made it into Northwestern in spite of what must have been an 0-fer on the section of the SAT that tests analogies. I'm also interested in how sportswriters have "tenant[s]" that govern their professional conduct, but the rest of us have "tenets."

By the time I got to the third paragraph, I was wondering whether SI.com has editors, whether those editors read Mandel's work, and finally whether they have any sort of requirement that arguments be logically consistent. Mandel first argues that writers do not let their biases infect their work and compares that to employees stealing, violating federal law, or acting in violation of the basic ethics of their profession. He then says that writers do indeed carry biases against coaches or SIDs who don't treat them well. That's comforting. The next time that Mandel writes something unfairly negative about Michigan, I'll be much happier knowing that he's doing so because Lloyd Carr or Michigan's SID didn't give him cookies and punch as opposed to the fact that Mandel went to Northwestern and therefore doesn't like the Wolverines. (I don't think that Mandel has it out for Michigan; I'm speaking hypothetically here.)

It's hard for me to get my head around the notion that Mandel actually advanced this argument with a straight face. He inadvertently explained exactly why I don't like a lot of college football writers: they get paid to do work that most college football fans would do for free and yet they do a piss poor job of it. Why can't I get paid by America's pre-eminent sports publication to argue that college football writers aren't biased, except when they feel disrespected by a school's SID, in which case they are and I'm supposed to be fine with that.

7 comments:

Live and Let Blog said...

forget the media bias, i couldnt hardly watch dungy's rant...ugh that was horrible

Ed said...

Stewart Mandel has a problem with logical consistency…?! Let's see.

Compare and contrast these sections of Mandel writing about the Gundy outburst:

That said, writers are humans, and we like to be treated with the same level of dignity as any other humans. So yes, when Gundy steps out in front of a podium in a room full of people, points his finger at a specific writer and screams at her for several minutes with the kind of maniacal look on his face that suggests he's so angry he could hit somebody, is it any surprise to see fellow writers rallying behind the attacked journalist? Maybe that's how he dresses down his players in the locker room or on the sideline, but what person in any other walk of life voices their professional displeasure toward someone in that manner? Gundy's certainly entitled to disagree with her, and he's certainly entitled to defend his player, but I don't believe anyone -- from writer to football coach to stock trader to busboy -- deserves to be treated with such lack of basic human decency.

Hmmm….let’s see, Gundy’s face betrayed a “maniacal look.” He looked “so angry he could hit somebody.” He treated Ms Carlson with a “lack of basic human decency.” Wow, sounds like a raving lunatic up there on the podium. I’m surprised somebody didn’t rush the stage in order to restrain him. And this treatment of somebody with a “lack of basic human decency” is especially troubling. It sounds as if Gundy would have been in his element marching into Nanking in 1937, incoherently mumbling prayers to the sun and chrysanthemum as he raped and pillaged.

But that’s not really how I saw it. Certainly Gundy was screaming at her, but it all seemed pretty controlled. I can’t help thinking that Gundy lied just a bit when he later stated that his rant was off the cuff. It seemed a little staged to me, like he had planned not only his tirade, but a great deal of what he said in it.

I guess Mandel and I would have to agree to disagree on this. Except that Mandel wrote the following just after the tirade on Sunday.

Gundy’s speech was obviously deliberately planned, more articulate than "crazy," and so riveting that it drew a round of applause afterward (not sure from whom) as he left the room. (His final words: "That’s all I’ve got to say. It makes me want to puke.") It was the kind of monologue you usually only see in a movie (think Nick Nolte’s character at the end of Blue Chips, or perhaps an angrier version of Tom Cruise’s "wig out" speech in Jerry Maguire).

Wait a minute, what happened to the idea of the out-of-control coach here? Gundy was a Hollywood actor on Sunday, and a lunatic possibly veering towards violence on Wednesday. Very interesting.

By the way Michael, I agree with your comments about the media closing ranks. I think you also need to consider how Carlson’s gender plays into the media defense. Would they be so vituperative in their protection of Carlson, if she were not the vulnerable woman verbally assaulted by the angry male football coach? Would a male journalist received such defense? Dennis Dodd comes right out and levels the charge that, foremost, Gundy “verbally attacked a woman,” before, of course, making the absurd claim that Carlson wrote “a fair and balanced column”. I have seen other defenses of Carlson’s outraged honor from male journalists who deem Gundy ungentlemanly for attacking a woman.

What makes this last bit rather appropriate, I guess, is that the brunt of Carlson’s attack centers on very traditional definitions of ideal male behavior to which the OSU quarterback falls short. Bobby Reid is a sissy-boy because his mom hands him a drumstick to supplement his meal after a football. Obviously he’s a coddled wimp. He also lacks the warrior’s “fire,” because he doesn’t express public anger that his coach benched him in favor of somebody else. Oh, and he gets very nervous too. Certainly he doesn’t have the qualities that would make him a good leader.

But it also causes a problem. Carlson writes an article that, fifty years ago, quaintly would have been defined in that value-system as “attacking a guy’s manhood.” But, consistent with that value-system, the author is, in turn, impervious to attack, because calling her out involves doing something that, yet again in the not-so distant past, quaintly would have been considered “ungentlemanly.” The trouble is that Carlson’s very ability to write this column signifies that this value-system is defunct, because many years ago Carlson might have been many things: a secretary, a housewife, a professor, a writer, and so on…but she certainly would not have been a sports columnist. And she NEVER EVER would have been that type of edgy, provocative sports columnist who derides a college quarterback for being, heaven forbid, the object of maternal affection.

In other words, Carlson's very presence as sportsgal provocatuer undermines both the substances of her attacks and the notion that it is beneath Gundy to call her out. So it seems like there is another problem of logical consistency here. And I've rambled enough.

peacedog said...

I tried to comment on this yesterday but I couldn't get my eyes to stop bleeding due to post-Mandel trauma.

Klinsi said...

"I've tried futilely over the years to diffuse the wide-spread notion that mainstream journalists hold "biases" toward certain teams in the same way fans "hate" their rivals."

"Diffuse" - a verb? "Wide-spread"? "Tenant"?

Hmmm - I thought perhaps a basic tenet of journalism was at least some command of the English language . . .

Senator Blutarsky said...

Isn't the "wide-spread" the offense that Urban Meyer runs?

Michael said...

Ed, good catch on Mandel's inconsistency. I like the point that Carlson used traditional definitions of gender roles in her column, but those traditional roles would prevent her from being a sportswriter in the first place. Then again, she would counter by saying that some gender stereotypes are more acceptable than others.

Blutarsky, there's a tired Lohan joke to be made there.

redux said...

Why does everyone keep getting drawn into this fight instead of analyzing it? It's not a real fight. C'mon, pay attention.

Start with what we know: Starting QB loses job. Rumors circulate that he's a spoiled mama's boy. Reporter runs snarky article that repeats heresay anecdotes. Coach goez berzerk, with carefully-orchestrated, well-planned rant. Stupid sports reporters looking to fill column space rise to the defense of their colleague. Coaches rise to the defense of their colleague. Fans waste time arguing about who's right, who stepped over which line.

Notice the missing step here: people say, write, and publish snarky things about players all the time. Coaches don't have choreographed hysterics all the time. "How dare you accuse my player of being fed chicken by his own mother?" Seriously? That's the sort of accusation that will leave a coach frothing at the mouth? I don't think so. Save it for the false accusation of crimes or academic cheating. So what's the explanation?

My guess (I'd call it an inference, but "guess" is more fair): QB and/or his mother came crying to coach in hysterics of their own, threatening to transfer or raise a stink about how the coach doesn't stick up for his players. Article was probably dead-on accurate. Coach was probably putting on a show to mollify insulted QB and doting mother. Coach wants to provoke negative press (knowing full well that's what it will take to convince prima donna QB that coach is on his side against the world). Reporters play right into it, since they have word-counts to meet and it's easier to spout off on this than to, you know, research something. Coaches know full well what their colleague is doing, rally to his defense because they all want a reputation for sticking up for players against the press (why should Gundy get all the credit with potential recruits?).

And you guys buy it. Like it's a real controversy. And argue about who's right. Seriously? And you want to argue over Mandel's opinion of what happened? Life is too short.