This is not a piece about Rudy Fernandez. I've said my piece about Rudy Fernandez. In fact after all that's been said (and re-said) about the Fernandez situation this summer I was mildly surprised to hear about Rudy's European agent going on 95.5 The Game and even more surprised when he fired off an e-mail to a whole bunch of Portland media-types. Why the Rudy uproar when Portland finally had on-court stimulus to chew on and a good performance by Fernandez to talk about?
Fortunately I didn't have to dig far to identify this piece by Jason Quick as the catalyst for the affair. It was an article that Fernandez' agent Gerard Darnes claimed he disliked "from the beginning to the end". Upon closer inspection you can count me in that group as well. My reasoning has nothing to do with Rudy. It was a bad call on Jason Quick's part, a truly regrettable venture.
Sportswriters deal in two commodities: reportable fact and opinion. Here at Blazersedge both Ben and I dabble in each commodity but in general Ben, employing media credentials and greater team access, reports more facts and gives fewer opinions. I, on the other hand, offer opinion and analysis and break fewer stories. On the occasions when we do engage in both reporting and opinion-sharing at the same time we try to follow one, golden rule: the two must be separated. Sometimes they are differentiated between separate posts. Sometimes they are differentiated by spacing within the same post. Sometimes they are differentiated by verbal cues indicating, "Here starts my opinion on this matter as distinguished from the data." However we do it, we try to be meticulous about keeping our leaps of interpretation--passionate or dead-on as they may be--out of your facts. As soon as you can't tell the difference between the two--or worse, perceive that we can't tell the difference between the two--our credibility evaporates. The moment opinion and fact become interchangeable in our eyes we become the story in place of the sport or the team. At that point we become useless to you. I'm not saying we achieve our goal 100% of the time but respecting the line is high on our priority list.
Writers have to take that line seriously because writing is a serious trust. Even though sports leagues allow more access than they ever have the pool of people with their eyes on the inside workings of a given team remains small. However passionately you want to, however overjoyed the team would be to let you, 99.9% of the people reading this will never walk into the locker room or ask direct questions of the coaches, players, and team officials therein. The information you get comes almost exclusively through media sources like ours. If you cannot trust us, where does that leave the relationship between you and the team? I'm not saying that every media consumer buys into every word that's printed. Your job is to think critically about what we present. But even that critical thinking requires a basic level of trust that both the information and the process are sound. Guarding the fact-opinion split is one way we maintain that soundness.
Professional journalists once employed mechanisms to ensure this same split and that same health. In general beat writers were tasked with covering the team: obtaining data and reporting it without overt editorializing save that which goes into any decision about which facts to publish or leave out. Beat writers occasionally forayed into human interest stories, cases where the data itself was rife with judgment. But even in those instances the writer still reported the story rather than offering opinion on it. That commentary was left to the columnist.
Columnists also had access and sources but they traded on their own interpretations rather than simply relaying facts. They'd deliver interpretation, vigor, maybe a little controversy. Sources would speak to a columnist knowing the nature of the game. Readers would judge the writing on correctness of opinion and skill in presentation while at the same time realizing the whole was an angle on a story, not the story. The story was still available for your interpretation through the access to relatively unblemished data provided by the beat writer. As long as you had that data you could write your own column alongside the professional columnist. That power was still in your hands.
Alas, those days are rapidly departing from professional journalism. We've talked before about writers branching out into television and radio where demand for controversy-generated ratings colors the presentation of stories. Neither the radio host with two hours to fill nor the television commentator with thirty seconds to make his point can rely on delivery of information alone. There's no room for a classic beat writer in those fields. Increasingly, though, the blurring of lines encroaches internally. The hunger for new material in all forms of media has made every reporter into an expert. Stories are written, re-written, talked about, expanded upon, and (most crucially) interpreted...all by the same writer. Once this happened over a period of days or weeks but in this new fast-twitch media world it happens almost instantaneously. Often it happens before the story is even written. In those cases what comes out is far from dry fact, rather processed analysis feeding you not just the facts, but how you should understand them. Data and opinion are married before you see either. Alternate facts and interpretations become bridesmaids, never making the big dance.
This brings us to Jason Quick's piece on Rudy Fernandez. The factual elements of the story are accurate. We've had sources telling us the same all summer. Rudy Fernandez' agents have been putting pressure on the Blazers, including multiple, at times incessant, phone calls. You already know that both Rudy and his agents have made public statements to other media sources regarding his wish to return to Europe. Those facts are not in dispute.
The issue here--or at least it's an issue to me--is that these facts have been dolled up in heavy layers of pointed, freighted opinion. Examples:
A solution to the ongoing saga between homesick Rudy Fernandez and the Trail Blazers can be bought for $2.39 at your local Fred Meyer store.
It's right there on Aisle 8 at my Freddy's: A box of 200-count Kleenex.
That's right, Rudy. Dab those eyes. Wipe your nose. In essence, stop acting like a baby.
Portland is a great situation for Fernandez, whether he and his agent will admit it or not. The fans love him. His teammates accept him. And his coach wants to play him. On top of it all, the Blazers figure to be a very good team.
By talking to Fernandez in the piece instead of about him, by deciding for both the reader and Rudy what "great situation" and "accept" and "wants" and "good team" mean, Quick has conveniently removed any need you or I have to talk to Rudy or think about his point of view. Conveniently he has used his own definitions and desires as the yardstick by which everyone else's perception should be measured.
Under those circumstances, though undoubtedly a futile gesture, I am not surprised that Rudy's agent took offense and then took to the offensive in the media. From his point of view I'm sure Rudy's story was being defined not by Fernandez, not by readers, not by basketball fans, but by Jason Quick himself. Who is Jason Quick to do that?
That question needs to be considered literally. Who is Jason Quick? After a story like this, I'm not sure I know.
Of old Quick would have been termed a beat writer...the professional readers depend on as their eyes and ears...the representative who brings them the facts for their review and subsequent discussion. On that level this piece fails miserably. Through the invectives and his own interpretation Quick has put himself squarely in the middle of this story. The piece says little about Fernandez and a whole bunch about what Quick thinks of Fernandez. Rudy has no say, as the verdict has been rendered. Even if we agree with the judgment, how confident can we be that new data would change it or allow a retrial? Does anything else besides Quick's opinion matter? More to the point, how do we know that such judgment isn't being rendered in more stories? Are we getting as full of a version of each story as possible or are we getting the $2.39 pre-packaged Kleenex version?
Alternately one could absolve Quick of the strictures of the beat writer by arguing that he is putting on a columnist's hat here. Interchanging the two freely is perilous (and I'd argue a bad idea for all of the reasons just mentioned) but let's go with it. How does this piece stand up as a column? How provocative, intriguing, and controversial is it?
The subject is old. Blazersedge readers were yelling at us to stop talking about it a week ago even when there was new information available. There's nothing new or revolutionary in Quick's opinions. Most of Portland has already said what he did. At this point I'd roll my eyes at those same assertions if they showed up in the Blazersedge sidebar, figuring they were the musings of a hackneyed troll.
Under other circumstances Quick could be commended for taking a stance against a player, contradicting the perception of mainstream media folks getting buddy-buddy with the teams they cover. But this is no heroic stand. Quick names General Manager Rich Cho and jumps on his side so quickly he'd make waves in a spring mattress. And what about Rudy himself...the guy against whom Quick pits himself? We reported months ago that Rudy had no leverage or power, that he's basically a non-entity with regards to his wishes or demands. His on-court position can be filled by Wesley Matthews. Off the court he's alone, apart from friends and family. He's not even making money. Yes, he has a contract and position that most of us would consider "great" but we're not Rudy Fernandez. The real Rudy Fernandez is at one of the lowest points in his personal and professional career. What can that Rudy Fernandez do to Jason Quick? He's got no leverage, no standing. He probably won't even be a Blazer for long. There are no repercussions for this. It's is the writing equivalent of kicking a guy who's lying prone in the gutter.
For all these reasons this piece fails on the level of provocative column as much as it did as a report from a beat writer. Either way you go this doesn't work.
Believe me, this is not meant to be a polemic against all newspapers, nor against the Oregonian's writers, nor the latest salvo in the oh-so-tiresome "Mainstream Media versus Blogs" battle. I enjoy, depend upon, and respect mainstream journalists. Mike Tokito, Brian Smith when he was here, Helen Jung when she covered sports...those are just a few of the names which come easily to mind as exemplary sources of information. Some of Jason Quick's pieces rise to the level of art, so this is not even a wholly irredeemable condemnation of him. But this is a specific case of a specific writer whose work deserves greater scrutiny and perhaps criticism...criticism at least equal to that doled out to Rudy Fernandez and his agent and their ill-fated but perhaps understandable counter-attack.
This is also an example (neither the first nor the last) of mainstream media making a wrong turn, one ultimately fatal unless corrected. This kind of invective, these "expert" pronouncements in place of textbook journalism, this mixing of fact and opinion as if they were the same...this makes the entire industry less reliable and ultimately less relevant.
I believe that, ironically, this devastating trend has ridden the wave of success of online journalistic sources. It's no secret that consumption of online news has risen while that of mainstream news sources is shrinking. The reaction of those mainstream sources all too often turns out like this...an ill-considered, shoot-from-the-hip attempt at relevance, emulating the stereotype of online activity. The irony is that most good, trusted, respectable online sources don't do this kind of thing. Professional journalists reacting to the stereotype hearken to actors in blackface trying to copy something they haven't bothered to understand--something much richer and deeper and with more ontological integrity than they imagined--a predicament which would be ridiculous if it weren't so sad.
Mainstream media sources and the journalists they employ have a choice. If a journalism degree and its standards are important, relevant, and irreplaceable--and I'm still naïve enough to believe, or at least hope, that they are--then they should be upheld by their owners no matter what the medium: newspapers, blogs, radio, television. If they're not...if all the tradition and responsibility and training amount to is judging a 25-year-old by standards that aren't his, thereby exalting your own opinion as "news"...then we've crossed a line that impoverishes us all and lost part of what made this country's media great. In that case there's no need to mourn the decline of mainstream journalism. It's already dead.