Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Buzz vs. blogs

I don't talk much about sports TV in these parts, but last night's special town-hall meeting episode of HBO's "Costas Now" was so memorable -- trainwrecky in spots, brilliant and insightful in others -- that I wanted to weigh in on it. If you didn't see it, HBO will be rerunning it a million times this week (starting tonight at 6:30 on the main channel), and if you're at all interested in the current state of sports media -- or in watching people get handed their lunch on live TV -- I highly recommend it.

Spoilers coming right up...

So, in the course of 90 very ambitious minutes, Costas attempted to tackle five different hot-button issues about sports media: 1)The increasing hostility of sports talk radio, 2)The rise of sports blogs, 3)The state of sports TV, 4)The increasingly strained relationship between athletes and the reporters who cover them, and 5)Coverage (or the lack thereof) of racial issues in sports.

That is a lot to deal with, especially since you could spend more than 90 minutes discussing each topic. In fact, when Costas had to cut short the racism discussion, just when things were really getting interesting, because they were out of time, he promised they would devote a separate show just to that subject in the near future.

Of the five, I thought the sports talk radio segment did the best job of covering all the bases in its allotted time -- or maybe I was just entertained by the spectacle of Michael Strahan owning local WFAN hyena Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, with whom Strahan has been feuding for eight years. (Maybe the best moment: when Russo tried to ingratiate himself with Strahan by noting that he and Mike praised his play in the Super Bowl, Strahan shot back with, "You had no choice!") But it was a frank and lively discussion, and Russo didn't shy away from the fact that his show thrives a lot more on the negative than the positive. My only real complaint was that, in the clip package that set up the discussion, the talking head they used to decry the hostile state of sports talk radio was the odious Jay Mariotti, whose work -- which largely involves taking potshots at Chicago sports figures while avoiding the locker room itself -- is basically the newspaper equivalent of all that he's decrying about radio.

The blogging segment, not surprisingly, was the one everyone wants to talk about on-line today, both because of its subject and because it was such a spectacular, ugly, weird mess.

For this one, the panelists were Will Leitch, who runs Deadspin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and sometime sports author H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger ("Friday Night Lights"), and poor Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who looked confused and terrified about how and why he got dragged into the middle of this.

Anyway, things didn't get off to a good start with Costas mocking/joking that he found Leitch "far more palatable in person." It went downhill from there, as not two minutes into the segment, Bissinger cut off Leitch and said, "I have to interject, because I feel really strongly about this. I think you're full of shit."

This the led to a long rant about legendary sportswriter W.C. Heinz -- which Leitch defused (not that Bissinger seemed to care) by pointing out that he knew of and had read Heinz's work -- and how blogs in general and Leitch in particular represent all that is evil and wrong. His evidence? Not any posts written by Leitch himself, but comments to posts, or excerpts from some of the other Deadspin contributors.

Now, I should say that I have some personal history with Bissinger, most of it not good, and I don't want to let my biases color my take on what happened. You can see the whole thing for yourself at Awful Announcing. And you can also read Leitch's own take on what went down.

But outside of whether Buzz was right or fair to pile on Leitch the way he did (and Costas didn't seem particularly interested in pulling him off), the segment suffered badly from its limited time and scope. To have Leitch up there representing all sports bloggers would be like having the editor of TMZ up there to represent all on-line entertainment coverage. There's a lot more out there than pictures of celebrities getting drunk and making fools of themselves, you know? Some of the best baseball stuff I read lately comes from blogs, whether it's from newspaper guys working on-line like Joe Posnanski or Peter Abraham, or non-pros like Alex Belth from Bronx Banter. There are sports gossip blogs, but there are also analytical blogs, beat blogs, and all kinds of other on-line sports coverage that does the job as well as, or better than, the traditional newspaper, radio and TV guys.

The clip package included some comments from Mike Schur, who when he's not writing for "The Office" (or playing Mose Scrhute) blogs under the name Ken Tremendous at, whose specialty is pointing out all the mistakes and hypocrisy you can find in the worst of mainstream sports media -- which, in its own way is just as bad as the worst of blogs. It's Sturgeon's Law at work: 95% of blogs are crap, because 95% of everything is crap. Had Schur not been otherwise occupied with his day job, it would have been interesting to have him up on the panel as well -- if nothing else, he could have agitated Buzz a little more by talking about that Tony LaRussa book Buzz wrote.

If Costas is going to do another 90-minute show just on race, he should see about also revisiting the Internet for its own show, because the way it played out last night left a bad taste in my mouth.

What did everybody else think?


Adam said...

Blogged about it last night, and found it fascinating and infuriating. Because of the time limitations and Bissinger's sanctimony, it wasn't until that last segment that it reached the kind of depth and nuance that the whole show could have. Bissinger should have been more sophisticated than to rail on the whole medium based on what one site's commenters (and a guest blogger) did.

Loved Strahan. Loved Tirico, Whitlock and Wilbon. And I felt really bad for Braylon Edwards, and have no idea why he was there.

Jake said...

Bissinger was a trainwreck. It was really sad to see the degree to which he doesn't get it. I mean, most of these guys seem to at least be TRYING to understand what's going on with blogs (even if they inevitably end up saying that all bloggers are grown men in their parents basements--enough of that stupid cliche already), but Bissinger basically just seemed clueless. Not to mention shockingly profane, considering one of his main criticisms of "the blogs". Really disappointing. Leitch didn't get a chance to say anything, which was also disappointing, since he was basically trying to say what everyone who has ever used an internet knows: there are LOTS of these blog thingies, and they aren't all the same.

Bobman said...

I love Deadspin and it was really a shame the Leitch had to take the brunt of Bissinger's complete meltdown.

I think the content of the argument speaks for itself - any intelligent person knows that in a world as diverse as this one, with the Internet giving free reign to everyone, there's going to be lots of bad mixed in with the very good. Most intelligent (or I guess I should say reasonable, since Bissinger is obviously intelligent but does not see this) people also can distinguish satire and humor from "news".

It seems the only people unwilling to accept these things are the maintstreamers who feel threatened or in some way maligned by the phenomenon.

Chris Littmann said...

I was floored when I finally got a chance to see it on AA today. Couldn't believe Bissinger, despite the fact that I was warned about how bad it was.

I couldn't help but find it ironic he was so hypocritical as to kill blogs for their mean-spiritedness, only to constantly curse at Will and scream at him.

Michael Schur put it best on FJM: Picking a random blog comment and wielding it as a club to bash "blogs" is like picking a random romance novel off an airport bookstore shelf and saying, "This book sucks. Fxxk you, Tolstoy -- your medium is worthless!"

Anonymous said...

Watching the sportsblogging segment made me so sad. I only wish that I could construct a narrative as well as Friday Night Lights, and to see Bissinger become so completely unhinged was scary and depressing.

I felt bad for Leitch, though I did feel as though he was a bit glib at times in his early attempts to spar with Bissinger. (Though, truth be told, I'm not sure what you do in that situation.)

The panel on race was also a huge missed opportunity, in no small part because Costas basically hijacked the panel to complain repeatedly about how hard it is for white journalists to talk about race in sports, instead of actually talking about race in sports.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to bash blogs as a whole (even sports blogs), since there are so many different kinds of blogs.

For niche areas of reporting, like sports and entertainment, blogs often provide more detailed coverage on a regular basis than print or TV by removing the word count or time constraints.

For example, Tom Gulitti, the Bergen Record's Devils beat reporter, blogs all of his reporting notes that are somewhere between source and newspaper article at Fire and Ice blog. The blog is reporting a level of detail more obsessive than the newspaper.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching the sports-blogging segment. Wow.

Bissinger was awful. I lost a lot of respect for him when he wrote that La Russa book and claimed that Michael Lewis' Moneyball and its acolytes couldn't possibly love the game of baseball as much as dinosaurs like La Russa. And we got that same reckless, clueless old-guard-vs.-new-guard attitude in his attack on sports blogs, which I'd guess he doesn't spend a lot of time reading. I suppose you could talk about blogging as a general trend, but as Leitch says and many on this board have seconded, not all blogs are the same and they're not so easily reduced. As for Deadspin specifically, I generally enjoy its mix of the thoughtful commentary and (occasionally juvenile) irreverence, which to me helps strip away the golden-hued, Field Of Dreams-like mythos that we see in a lot of sports coverage. (To which Costas, with his nauseating Olympics narration, has contributed.)

Sad that Leitch had to take one for the team, essentially. He comported himself as well as he could under the circumstances; I'd have called security-- or at least for a towel to clean up all the spittle.

Unknown said...

hey alan, wanna share some stories about those crazy bissinger encounters you alluded to??

(initially, i started writing this thinkpiece-style comment that tried to rationally discuss some of the valid points that bissinger did manage to make, almost in spite of himself--particularly the one about how the quality of a blog can often by judged by the quality of its comments section. but then i got afraid that i was being redundant and realized i just wanted some dirt on buzz instead.)

Alan Sepinwall said...

hey alan, wanna share some stories about those crazy bissinger encounters you alluded to??

Nah. It's between the two of us. All I'll say is that the way Buzz comported himself last night wasn't a surprise to me, given some of our history. (Not all of it; Buzz was also one of my better teachers at Penn.)

Anonymous said...

I found it embarrassing that Mitch Albom was there to discuss the "minimum standards" for reporting, and there was no mention of the fact that he flat out made up a story in 2005. I suppose the rules don't apply to him? I would think that's minimum standard #1 - make sure that things you write about actually happened.

Anonymous said...

I wrote about it when it happened last night (YouTube clip there too, in case you haven't see it yet), and I'm still just as floored today. We can all point to Bissinger and say "That guy's out of his damn mind," but it's scary to think that he isn't alone. Bissinger's rants reflected an attitude toward blogs shared by so many old-media types. Print media purists are being left behind, and many of them would rather go down with the ship then simply adapt.

Buzz was crazy, but he's not the only one who has these irrational fears of the Internet. Until people like Schur get their chance to explain to the world that blogs aren't written by basement-dwelling mouth breathers, most people's opinion of them will remain uninformed.
Bloggers + traditional reporters = a more well-rounded media.

Adam said...

I only caught the internet and television sections and thought Costas came off the worst. I'm more than aware of his traditionalist leanings, but when he wants to be, he's a great sports announcer and an interesting talk show host. However, this time around, he looked like someone whose industry had passed him by and he couldn't stop talking about The Way Things Used To Be.

The problem is, I agree with him about a lot of things he said, but he's so clearly out of touch about these things that it really devalues his argument to me. I thought this was especially on exhibit when he equated the Deadspin commenters to the writer he had on.

It seemed like Costas had received a pamphlet from the Ted Stevens School of Confounding Media and was determined to get to the bottom of this "Internet thing."

Anonymous said...

What Costas did to Leitch was no worse than Leitch has done to thousands of others on his blog - dangle some poor sap in front of an angry and unhinged fool like a piece of meat. Costas may have used Buzz Bissinger instead of a legion of deranged and puerile commenters, but the principle is the same.

The main difference is that Bissinger isn't nearly as impressed with himself as the average Deadspin commenter.

Prolow said...

The thing that made me so sad was that Bissinger is an incredible journalist as a lot of his magazine and non fiction book work demonstrates. The fact that he can't comprehend most of what he talked about does demonstrate a clear divide between the so called mainstream media and bloggers. Just the fact that Costas couldn't tell the difference between a commenter post and a blog post points out the failings of that discussion. I did think that Will Leitch did a good job of not taking any of the bait that Bissinger was laying out for him. It would be nice to see Costas do a full episode of "Costas Now" on blogging and actually do the prep work required to accurately discuss the topic. Maybe the most surreal twenty minutes of television of 2008 so far.

Anonymous said...

What all these criticisms boil down to is, "I should be the only one allowed to be a dick." Leitch comported himself well with that seething crank.

Anonymous said...

Bissinger looked like a fool during his bit. His aversion to blogs like deadspin stem from his knowledge that the internet is putting newspapers out of business, and he even admitted as much.

Instead of embracing technology, and what it can do for fans, Bissinger dismissed the entire genre as bad, which is just stupid. Bissinger himself could become a popular blogger, but he would rather be a curmudgeon and drone about the good ole days of sports journalism. "I spent years perfecting the craft..." What craft? You're a sports writer. You're not reporting on the Iraq war or what's going on inside the corridors of Capitol Hill. Sports is supposed to be fun, entertaining, involve arguing, and is to some degree a childish thing. I'm the biggest fan in the world, but I know it's a little silly that I put on a Marc Stall jersey and get all bent out of shape every time the Rangers are in the playoffs. You have to take yourself way too seriously if you really think sports journalism is a serious endeavor.

Blogs like Deadspin are part of the equation that makes sports fun and entertaining. If you don't like something then don't read it. If you want to do something serious then get out of the sports business.

Anonymous said...

In Bissinger's defense, he also wrote the Vanity Fair article on Stephen Glass that the movie Shattered Glass was based on. And he's probably written other non-sports stuff I don't know about. Leitch speaks highly of his writing, and seems sadly baffled by the man's behavior. Never meet your idols, right?

Sarah D. Bunting said...

"Had Schur not been otherwise occupied with his day job, it would have been interesting to have him up on the panel as well -- if nothing else, he could have agitated Buzz a little more by talking about that Tony LaRussa book Buzz wrote."

Which is a self-indulgent stroke job, and I admire Leitch's restraint in not pointing that out. Not that he could get a word in edgewise to do so. Embarrassing display by Bissinger, weak job of moderating by Costas.

Ben said...

I wonder what ol' Buzz would think of Deadspin today, in the wake of its reporting coup on the Manti Te'o clusterf***.