Tuesday, May 6, 2008

This just got legitimately interesting...

The Sporting Blog has an interview with Buzz Bissinger, he of Costas Now and, um, other fame. If you'll remember my original post on all this (and why the hell wouldn't you?), one of the points I sort of made (I managed to sort of make about ten different points without actually making any of them) was that Mr. Bissinger's tirade included no real content, and as such was not an argument worth responding to. This interview, however, has content. Lots of it. Juicy, sexy content. Well, mostly juicy. Anyway, although I certainly would like to give Spencer Hall massive kudos for conducting a fair, reasonably hard-hitting interview, I'd still like an opportunity to go over and respond to Mr. Bissinger's points. You know how after every State of the Union, the opposition party chooses some hopelessly obscure leader to respond? Well, you can just call me Kansas Governor Katherine Sebelius, because that's what I'm here to do. Fair warning: this post may be a lot less joke-heavy than some of its brethren. Oh, and clear your schedule for the next week or so.

SH: Everyone, Buzz Bissinger, Pulitzer Prize-winner, author of Friday Night Lights, current writer for Vanity Fair, and blog aficionado.

BB: I’m not sure I would call myself a blog aficionado. (Laughs.) More of a blogger blower-upper, I think.

Blogger blower-upper? Sorry Buzz, I think we've got to reserve that title for the Schrutebag. Sorry, sorry, I've got to start taking this seriously. What's next?

SH: The term is used with some irony.

BB: But I’ve learned about blogs the past few days as a result of the whole flare-up with Will Leitch on the Costas show, and you know I mean it when I say I have learned a lot. I’ve gotten a lot of emails. Many of the emails have been predictable in their nastiness, their maliciousness, their profanity, their endlessly sophomoric and pathetically sexual allusions to me.

Considering his appearance on Costas Now was, to use his own words, "nasty", "malicious", "profane", and "sophomoric" - I'll leave it to you to decide whether his appearance was "pathetically sexual" - I hope he realizes this is something he probably richly deserves. Not that that necessarily excuses those emails, but I think Mr. Bissinger really has to recognize he invited such responses. He seems to be fairly contrite about his behavior, as far as I can tell, but I think it's a little inconsistent to take responsibility for his behavior and then be so appalled at the inevitable angry emails. But I don't mean this to be an ad hominem attack on Mr. Bissinger, so I'll continue.

But many emails have been smart, and cogent, and well thought-out, and said, “Hey, if you want to see a good blog, here’s one.” I’ve looked at them and realized there are some good information-based blogs out there, just as I still maintain that the majority of blogs are founded upon mockery and maliciousness. And yes, a lot of those are the comments, but the comments go hand in hand with the posts. I know the difference, and let’s face it, the more provocative the blog is, the more comments it gets, the more hits it gets, the more traffic it gets, the more chances you get of getting advertising, which is what all bloggers want.

Considering our site is (for now) named "Fire Everybody in the Whole World!", I'm pretty sure we fall squarely in the "mockery and maliciousness" camp. Certainly, other than Djmmm's Kenan story, we haven't produced anything that could even be considered close to information. So let's take a closer look at a few things...

1. Mr. Bissinger's primary - perhaps sole - metric for determining the worthiness of blogs is whether or not they are informative; in other words, if they are basically doing the same thing as newspapers. This is a valid, if somewhat limited, viewpoint, as it really does seem to preclude humor blogs, the other major category of sports blog (not to mention sites like Deadspin, which are hybrids of the two). Spencer Hall asks Buzz about this later, so I'll save my thoughts on this topic until then.

2. Mr. Bissinger appears to link "mockery" and "maliciousness" very closely together. Certainly, this site is based on mockery, as are most of the "Fire [X]" sites. But malicious? I'm not so sure. I mean, our first post ever was a two-sentence post where the second sentence was, "Man, fuck Peter King." Which, I guess, is malicious, but I'm not sure it's malicious in quite the way Mr. Bissinger thinks it is.

Sure, it's not at all nice to say "fuck Peter King", and all our posts, whether they say it or not, are basically expressing the same sentiment to whichever writer we happen to be skewering, just in a slightly more sophisticated fashion. But I don't think any harm is really meant. My colleague Passive Voice, who writes the bulk our anti-PK material, usually goes out of his way to point out Peter King remains a very competent writer when he keeps to football. And honestly, the title of our blog is so ridiculous that I'd like to think most people can realize we don't especially want anyone fired.

I'm reminded of what Penn Jillette once said of his unspeakably awesome show Bullshit!: "... we're fair and we never take people out of context. We're biased as all fuck. But, we try to be honest." I think those could fairly aptly describe the ethics of this blog, and I'm not sure it's malicious when we're simply directly responding to what has already been written. There are times when I have become quite honestly enraged by the columns I was making fun of - the works of Gregg Doyel spring to mind - but often it's really faux-outrage, and even more often it's just an excuse for my own brand of bizarre, tangential humor.

Put it this way: if Gregg Doyel emailed me tomorrow (never, ever going to happen, but work with me here) and felt offended by my posts about him - and I think he'd have a right to be - I'd respond civilly, articulating my points reasonably and rationally with clear explanations as to why I think he can and should do better. In other words, I'd offer constructive criticism. That is what I, or indeed any reasonable person, would expect from personal correspondence of that type. But if I made an entire blog out of constructive criticism, it'd be deathly boring. I guess if this were a newspaper, sites like mine would be ombudsmen, which carries with it its own ethics and responsibilities - but this isn't a newspaper. I have never and will never claim to be a journalist. I will claim that, on occasion, I'm funny, and that is my overall intent with this blog.

So is that malicious? Perhaps, but I'm not sure it's anymore malicious than the types of potshots that many columnists take against athletes. And if anyone started a blog called Fire Archie Micklewhite, I'd shut up and take my medicine. I'd like to think I'd laugh and take it with good humor, but who knows? I might be to meta-blogs what Mr. Bissinger has proven himself to be towards blogs.

I think this is my third conclusion, but the distinction on which Buzz and I differ appears to be that I think mocking people's printed output is a valid form of satire, and in that sense not malicious. It's a razor-thin distinction, perhaps, but I think it's an important one.

3. Really quickly after that fucking novel I just wrote, but I don't want advertising. Not really, anyway. I mean, if I could get paid to blog, I'd do it in a heartbeat, and I would like someday to be a professional writer, but I'm pretty sure I'm the exception there. I would like a readership, but so far the world has spoken and resoundingly said, "Eh...not so much." Meritocracy at its finest, I guess, although I think the whole world should have read Djmmm's draft post. Before we fired everybody in it, in any event.

SH: Let’s unpack a few of those and work with them. First, you say blogs are based on cruelty. How is that true of an information consolidator like the Drudge Report, or more pertinently a tech blog?

BB: I don’t think the Drudge Report is a blog because I don’t think he really does any posting of his own. The Drudge Report is a compendium of various sites you can go to and get news. I think Matt Drudge himself does very little posting of his own.

I think those sites are great. Those are the sites that I generally look at and get my information from. There’s a new one that I’ve come across that I really like that points you to legitimate news sources called Newser. It’ll point you to the AP, to the New York times, to the BBC, to the London Times, so that’s where I see the difference.

Blogs that aren’t news sites...there’s one for the Miami Dolphins that was really, really good. Now, I confess there aren’t many things less relevant to my life than the Miami Dolphins--they’re not in the top one thousand--but for those who follow the Dolphins, you’re gonna get a lot of news.

I have to admit Mr. Bissinger isn't exactly impressing me with his praise for The Drudge Report. Perhaps even more pertinently, his description that The Drudge Report "is a compendium of various sites you can go to and get news" more or less applies to Deadspin. Will Leitch posts much more often than Matt Drudge, sure, but a lot of the more objectionable content doesn't come from Leitch's posts, or at least not originally. Lost in the whole Matt Leinart issue was that the original story didn't come from a sports blog, but a self-proclaimed "reality blog" called The Dirty. Part of the reason Deadspin is so popular is that it aggregates the day's worth of interesting sports news in one location, and plenty of posts simply point you in the direction of another blog. That doesn't deal with Mr. Bissinger's criticism that none of that is news, of course, so keep moving.

What I did to Will Leitch was wrong. I’ve said that publicly--

SH: You said that on NPR last week--

BB: I’m a man of passion, and I speak what I believe, and I’m not doing it to spin it in my direction. It’s too late for that, and I’ve been killed all over the place. It was wrong to treat anybody that way. It was wrong to use the profanity, and here’s where my self interest comes in (because everyone’s consumed with self-interest), it subsumed the valid points I made and that could have been considered for discussion.

I'd like to think I'm trying to look beyond my own self-interest. I'm not sure how good a job I'm doing of that, but still. I appreciate Mr. Bissinger's mea culpa.

I thought that Rich Sandomir’s column in the New York Times put it very well. I came across as so angry and so prosecutorial that I did a disservice to myself and was not at all representative of who I am.

Having said that, I received a lot of emails saying “Right on, congratulations,” because they in particular find Deadspin to be snarky, and “wink-wink, nod-nod,” and the sexual allusions and the T and A, and full of the tone of mockery that young people think is funny.

If they find Deadspin particularly snarky, I think Mr. Bissinger's emailers would do well to widen their perspective a little. Much as I love With Leather (and its sexy, interview-granting editor), that site is at least 3.2 billion times snarkier than Deadspin, and that's not even moving beyond sports blogs to the wider blogosphere, with its range of snarky but readable blogs (e.g. WWTDD) and snarky and full of shit blogs (Perez fucking Hilton). Will Leitch, I'd argue, is one of the more responsible bloggers around in any medium, and his tone is often remarkably civil. Big Daddy Balls, of course, might be a slightly different case.

This comes down to connotations, I think. Mr. Bissinger calls Deadspin "snarky", which is negative. I call it "irreverent", which is positive. The difference in definitions isn't tremendously large, but the tone is. I'll also point out that I'm pretty sure "wink-wink, nod-nod" is a somewhat botched reference to Monty Python, all of whose members are older than Buzz Bissinger. I don't really think this type of humor is anything new, although it probably is something that people find harder to sustain with age.

SH: With that: if there is a lot of T and A, and a lot of what in some cases you might call irony, and in some cases what you might call sophomoric humor, if it does not come in the guise of “journalism”...then what is wrong with having that?

BB: I actually disagree in that bloggers want their seat at the table. They’re now arguing with various professional franchises like the NBA that we want to be credentialed. I guess what’s wrong with it is that I find them stupid. They add nothing to the discourse. They’re written so someone can hear the sound of their own voice.

Here's where I think Mr. Bissinger runs into trouble by treating blogs as a monolithic entity. If someone could name non-journalistic blogs that "want their seat at the table", that'd be one thing. But I'm pretty sure almost all of the blogs fighting for credentials are the news-gathering ones Mr. Bissinger professes to tolerate. Yes, Will Leitch and Matt Ufford did just go to the Super Bowl, but neither were really there as journalists. Of course, both were trumped by A.J. Daulerio's legendary gonzo coverage of Super Bowls XL and XLI, which definitely raised questions of journalistic integrity. Reprinting something that a guy explicitly said was off-the-record was, well, the balls, but it was most certainly ethically questionable, maybe even deplorable. The likes of Deadspin and With Leather exist at a very strange nexus between comedy and something approaching journalism, and their hybridization is something that merits further discussion. I might argue they're not doing anything people like Hunter S. Thompson hadn't already done (which carries with it its own set of controversies), but again, this needs a much more detailed exploration. Just not now.

Anyway, I don't believe very many of the humorous, "T and A" blogs care about credentials, and the blogs that do are generally of the relatively responsible, news-gathering variety. I'm sorry, but I don't think Mr. Bissinger's critique holds much water.

Deadspin, to its credit, has interesting posts and interesting links to other things where you might get some information. I hear a lot about democracy and the First Amendment, all of which is great, but that doesn’t mean that everything goes.

Short of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, I really think it kinda sorta does. But maybe that's just the asshole libertarian in me.

So I do think there are too many blogs--and there are 150,000 being created daily--

Really? That means that every American will have a blog within a decade. And why don't you hear our political candidates mentioning this unprecedented blog prosperity? (Blogsperity?)

Seriously, even if there are that many being created, I guarantee you that most of those will be abandoned after one or two posts. It's sort of sad to type it, but I'm pretty sure the Blogosphere is mostly a graveyard. Again, the meritocratic sorting mechanism is at work. From my own experience, I'll certainly say that this blog is a ton of work, and I'm pretty sure it would have died last month if Passive and Djmmm hadn't stepped up like the chiseled hunks we all know they are. Of course, I am nearing 100,000 words written. Actually, this post might well put me over the top. Updates as warranted.

(That's right! Even in my most serious post ever I'm shamelessly masturbatory!)

I just find too many of these blogs to be indulgent, they’re not funny, they add nothing, and they’re rooted in maliciousness and mean-spiritedness.

Again, most of those don't last. Nobody reads them, and they wither and die. Hell, nobody really reads us, and this blog is plenty guilty of at least indulgence (I mean, how fucking long is this post?), but we survive because it does add something. It adds to our enjoyment of life. Maybe nobody else's, but this blog was free. It didn't take anyone else's webspace. It took literally three minutes to set up. So forgive me if I think I have a right to blog for my own happiness.

I don’t think it’s about the First Amendment.

I respectfully disagree. And, by that, I mean I very, very strongly disagree, but in a relatively respectful manner.

Who does it hurt? It doesn’t hurt me, because up until recently I didn’t read them, and I won’t read them just as there’s some like The Big Lead that are quite good. The Big Leaguer concentrates on Philadelphia sports which is quite good. Redbird Nation, which was up until recently blogged by Brian Gunn, is quite good.

So if blogs like mine don't hurt you, and they help me (and maybe five other people), isn't that a net benefit? I hate to make this so personal, but I think that's how Mr. Bissinger keeps phrasing the discussion, so I'll follow suit.

But I still believe those to be the exception. But trust me, I know this now, they’re here to stay. They’re not the future, they’re the present. Collectively, they’re a tremendous force, and they’re gonna be with us as they become the new form of media. With that does come some responsibility, the missing element in many blogs. There are some exceptions like the Daily Kos, which is now hiring its own reporters, and has done some great reporting. What is lost mostly in a lot of this is the kind of reporting that made a book like Friday Night Lights whether you like it or not, or made a book like Three Nights in August whether you like it or not.

I haven't read either of those books - I freely admit I don't read enough, although I'll own almost anybody when it comes to Isaac Asimov (who did write 55% of all written material in the twentieth century anyway) - but Will Leitch vouches for Mr. Bissinger's work, which is more than good enough for me.

For the record, I don't think good reporting is going to die. With almost no exception, every post on this site has been, to use collegiate terminology (I'm putting off writing papers to do this post...thank goodness), a secondary source. Blogs couldn't exist without "real" reporters, and such reporting will live on in one form or another. Who knows? Perhaps, in thirty years, The New York Times will be wholly online, although frankly I doubt it. Either way, that sort of journalistic ethos will live on.

What blogs have arguably hurt are the columnists who spew ignorant, poorly-researched material and rely on boring cliches. There are sites like Fire Joe Morgan or Awful Announcing, which openly point out their folly, and then there are sites like, say, Basketbawful or Every Day Should Be Saturday, which simply do what they should be doing, just (in this author's opinion) much, much better.

The irony is that I acted like the worst kind of blogger toward Will Leitch, and for that I am ashamed and embarrassed.

SH: And as a blogger myself, I would agree. That is the worst kind of blogger.

BB: I sunk right into that. That’s shameful on my part, and I feel quite embarrassed.

I'm glad Mr. Bissinger recognizes this. His worst failing? He just wasn't funny. Not intentionally, anyway, but I have to admit if he had launched a perfectly-pitched tactical satirical strike that combined Juvenalian satire with the haterade of a Big Daddy Drew...well, then we might be approaching this differently. I've finally got around to watching the clip - it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought - but he just came across as strident, unfunny, and boring. Which is, by the way, part of the reason why I stopped reading The Big Lead. I could only read so many mountain-out-of-a-molehill posts on the latest ESPN gaffe before I realized I didn't care that much whether Mike Greenburg's use of "man up or woman down" was sexist.

Oh dear lord...I just checked how much was left of this interview. I'm like a third of the way through, people. I need to take a break. Whether I come back to the post will pretty much completely depend on whether I damn well feel like it. I am a lazy blogger, after all.

If this does turn out to the be the last word, I'll just say this - Mr. Bissinger, your points are not totally without validity, and I have attempted to deal with them at least semi-seriously. Although I must admit, a quick glance in the comments section of the Sporting Blog seems to say this better than anything I have previously managed. The very aptly named regularguy, take it away:

I think the missing link in this entire discussion is Buzz Bissinger's lak of a sense of humor. He doesn't get it because he seems to have the inability to laugh at anything. Those of us who enjoy blogs do so because we enjoy the lighter side of life. Yes, the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of Deadspin and With Leather and the crassness of KSK may not change the world, but when you're at a computer all day working your butt off, it might bring a smile to your face and make you remember that life outside work can be fun. Buzz Bissinger just needs to take Sgt. Hulka's advice and lighten up.

Yeah. That sounds about right.


Djmmm said...

Sorry, Buzz, but I think you're full of shit. I think the only reason he's sort of backpedaling now is because he realized that he embarrassed himself and looked like a horse's ass. Does anyone believe that as a "man of passion" he got caught up in the moment? Watch the clip again. If words could kill, Bissinger (whose writing isn't nearly as good as people give him credit for; not that I'm Mark Twain or anything but really? What the fuck?) would be on trial for the first degree murder of one Will Leitch, a crime premeditated and with malice aforethought.

Djmmm said...

Also, thanks for the compliment about the Draft post. I am rather proud of it.

Passive Voice said...

For what it's worth (nothing), I personally feel that any discussion of good blogs on any level needs to include Vegas Watch and Sunday Morning QB. They're like Derek Jeter, they're so clutch. Except no herpes.