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Bissinger's Blog Bashing: Under the Bottom, and Off Target

The night Buzz Bissinger's head exploded, I was busy with the TiVo, attempting to capture the best possible ripped-from-the-TV photographs of DeShawn Stevenson wearing a Mike Vick jersey. The resulting post, somewhat depressingly, turned into the one of the most-clicked items I've ever posted on this blog.

And so even though several of you asked for my Buzzish thoughts, and even though I composed several hop-scotchingly brilliant ripostes to Bissinger in my head, I never managed to join the chorus responding to his anti-sports-blogging screed, because I was busy covering the most important aspects of the Cavs-Wiz series live from Cleveland: Soulja Boy, diss tracks, pizza giveaways, media jabs, hand waggles and funny t-shirts. The sort of things, coincidentally, that Sam Smith listed on Tony Kornheiser's radio show this morning while arguing that the Wizards were much more offensive to common decency than was the whining of LeBron James.

I mention Sam Smith because he also gave me my first reason for returning to the subject of Buzz Bissinger lo these many days too late. How? By answering one of Tony's questions like this: "It's not like media members are smarter than anyone else; they just have better seats."

The context, mind you, had nothing to do with blogs, and yet Sam seemed to have turn the corner from the days where he was ripping blogs by suggesting that media members are, in fact, smarter than anyone else, or, at the least, better-informed.

And then I read one of my colleagues, the usually reasonable and way-more-distinguished-than-I'll-ever-be Leonard Shapiro, whose Sports Waves piece this week focused on Bissinger and blogs. Like several other mainstream types--including Bissinger himself--Shapiro essentially argued that while the head-exploding tone was a bit much, the substance of Bissinger's argument was correct. Coming just a month after the Washington Post attracted a bit of attention for its treatment of a prominent sports blogger, Shapiro's latest perhaps gave the impression that the Washington Post sports infrastructure has mixed feelings about my type.

All of which convinced me that, horribly late or not, I might as well offer a few brief thoughts, as one of the relatively few people in America who has been both a full-time newspaper sports writer and a full-time sports blogger. In general, I'd argue the exact opposite of Shapiro: that Bissinger's delivery was marvelously entertaining, but that the crux of his argument made less sense than Emmitt Smith on mescaline. For example:

"I think that blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they're dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they're dedicated to speed."

Many, including Deadspin's Will Leitch, laughingly ceded Buzz's point on "speed." Not I. The last real newspaper story I wrote--this Super Bowl recap--was due literally five minutes after the final whistle. That's 1,150 words in 300 seconds. Now, I wrote much of it in advance, and I had a chance to re-file an hour later, but there is a reckless speed in such deadline work that I never, ever, ever have encountered in blogging. My blog posts might be juvenile, obnoxious and just plain dumb, but they're almost always more carefully constructed and edited than that particular A1 Washington Post story.

Beat writing hacks are constantly under the worst kind of deadline pressure, which seems to get worse as the industry suffers. Bloggers, on the other hand, have no deadlines, ever. If speed is a flaw, its one that newspapers struggle with much more than blogs.

"It is the complete dumbing down of our society, the complete dumbing down....I think the quality of the writing generally in blogs is despicable."

Bob Costas echoed this point, saying that "there's a very large percentage where the quality is poor." And it's a point that I could hardly refute. Except they were making this point in direct contrast to print-writing, with the sainted image of W.C. Heinz floating around their exploding heads. And so the implication--which Bissinger has since mildly backed away from--was that blog writing is inferior to paper writing.

Putting aside the most obvious counter-argument (that so many of the best sports bloggers previously worked in paper), I decided to scan a few newspaper Web sites this morning to make sure about the quality. There are many hundreds of excellent sports writers working for paper, but there are also things like this, which I just randomly grabbed from random paper sites in about 20 minutes.

* "Hard work pays off and can reap dividends for many years."

* "He twisted, twirled and lifted his lithe frame into moments of prodigious acrobatic excellence. His technique was a flawless assembly of what the body can do when trained for years and years -- his skates were sharp but delicate, his motions limber but powerful. In moments, he transformed the ice -- a slippery nightmare to most of us -- into a canvas upon which he could paint his flare and reflect his sheen."

* "Tim Leslie must have the magic touch. Either that, or he's a really good high school baseball coach."

* "At 5:38 a.m., the orchestra begins to tune. The concertmaster bugles from offstage. His raucous, booming staccato is the alarm call of the first crane to proclaim the morning. Within minutes, the rest of the orchestra joins in, creating a rising cacophony of musicians preparing their instruments. None is yet to be seen. The greatest of all houselights are still dimmed....As the clock ticks past 5:58 a.m., there's a pause. While this orchestra is well-rehearsed, it begins and ends movements at its own whim, independent of any score."

* "The competitive fire that burns inside Kristin Erb has her wanting to be in the thick of the action as much as possible."

And no disrespect to any of the authors; I've penned some true crud in my day. But if you're arguing print vs. blog, you're not allowed to make it W.C. Heinz against My Swog is Phenomenal. Print is a canvas to paint your flare and reflect your sheen; and so your print team also includes all of the above, at which point "Who's Better?" becomes a bit murkier.

"You do it to humiliate him!"

Buzz was particularly outraged by the Matt Leinart beer bong pics, a story that became as mainstream as they come, even appearing on a site Costas might be familiar with. Buzz charged that the only purpose of those pics was to humiliate Leinart. Perhaps. But I'd ask whether Leinart felt more anger and/or humiliation upon seeing pics of himself having a good time with young co-eds than presidential candidate Hillary Clinton did upon reading that "to display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation." Words written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. In a newspaper. An analysis of Hillary's cleavage might very well be brilliant and newsworthy; it might also be humiliating.

"Now these are posts, this isn't you, but you don't stop these posts from following what you put up there."

That's Costas, declaring that anonymous comments left on blogs are fair game and can be used to discredit the blog itself. Yeah. Well. I figured I'd try to find an offensive comment on this very mainstream print-related Web site. Took me a really long time 20 seconds:


"Actually, the reason there is a press box is because you have a certain vantage point of the game, and it seems to me what you're saying is I don't want facts, facts inhibit me, facts get in my way so I'm gonna sit in my little room and I'm gonna give this nebulous fan's voice."

This, frankly, is the most ridiculous thing Buzz uttered. You cannot go to a major sporting event (save, perhaps, for the NCAA tournament), without seeing reporters jostling for the best view of a television screen. Why? Because watching on TV is the only way to tell what actually happened, in slow-mo, close-up, over and over. My seats at Wizards playoff games are up on the first concourse, behind one basket, and essentially useless. I sit there and watch the game on a television screen in front of me. Others, like Mike Wilbon and Tom Knott, don't even leave the media room, so they can see a bigger television screen and hear the audio.

My seats at Redskins games are even worse. That "certain vantage point" celebrated by Bissinger is often among the worst vantage points possible. And television partners receive injury updates and sideline reports and shots from around the stadium, things that print people just can't replicate. Maybe it's unfortunate, but "facts" are a lot easier to come by when you're sitting at home watching on TV than they are when you're in some crowded, noisy, bad-vantage-point press box.

All of which is not to say that there aren't problems with many big sports blogs. (For example, covering big issues, at horrendous length, eight days too late.) Buzz's targets, though, were not those problems.

By Dan Steinberg  |  May 8, 2008; 2:14 PM ET
Categories:  Media  
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