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Drama and the Media

One of the things I've been asked about this week is my perception of the Dramagate following Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick's recent radio announcements about drama surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers and the subsequent, anti-climactic newspaper piece "revealing" well-known (and well-trodden) trade scenarios surrounding Rudy Fernandez...a process for which Quick took a considerable amount of flak.  I'm not as keen on addressing the specifics of this case as I am talking about drama, sports, and the media in general, of which this situation is a prime example.

Drama has taken over our cultural landscape.  That's a nearly inarguable fact.  Turn on the TV and you will see a multitude of once-normal acts--cooking, dating, living in a house, sewing clothes, going to parties--infused and impregnated with dramatic storylines and overtones and presented as "reality".  While most people are able to make distinctions between this fare and actual daily life the message is clear:  if it's not dramatic it's not interesting, not fit for consumption, and perhaps not "real".  I get to observe this phenomenon daily among teenagers dating, people conducting marriages, parents raising children, folks trying to advocate a political stance or effect change in the world, even folks overheard chatting at the grocery store or on the bus.  More and more drama takes the place of substance, making us feel alive and our actions feel important.

With society and its members trending this way, it's no surprise that the media has followed.  Dramatic stories lead.  Non-dramatic stories that must be reported nonetheless are mined for their most dramatic angles.  The weather today?  HOT HOT HOT!  Also the Florida Keys are bracing for a HURRICANE and we have the live footage right after the break!  Look at this reporter blowing sideways!  Look at this microphone stuck in the face of this guy who just lost his home!   Story on A3!  Follow up tomorrow!  Don't miss a moment!!!  It's even less surprising that the fantasy/entertainment-based world of sports has been caught up in this dramatic whirlwind.  We don't observe outcomes and give credit and analysis anymore.  We root for the story.  We assign blame.  We make snap judgments about who is the best and what went wrong and what might have happened in alternate universes where the real reality didn't transpire.

Personally I find sports plenty dramatic enough without the extras.  That's not to say that excited takes and giddy rushes of analysis are absent from these pages.  Of course we take the ride.  But in general I go with what the sport brings.  It's a more subtle form of drama.  You have to wait for the right moment, the big shot, the set pick than most people missed, the longer trends that most people don't have the patience to follow.  It's like the rich build of a symphony instead of 22 blaring guitar riffs in a row...a carefully-prepared meal instead of a platter of hot dogs.  But to me, it's worth it.  I trust the sport to provide its own drama.  I trust that well will ultimately stay productive even if it appears to be lowering on certain days in July and August.  If I don't trust that the sport will bring stories worth telling without embellishment or dramatic over-painting from me, why am I doing what I do?  The facts, trends, analysis, and opinions...the game can be beautiful if you take the time to see it that way.  If you just consume it, nom-nomming your way through each day and belching up a cloud of opinion before heading on to your next dramatic moment it's never going to give you much. 

For me, I hope you find plenty of drama and interests in these posts.  I hope it's organic drama though...information you can dive into and learn from, pieces with texture and grit, not just something to get titillated by and then yell about.  If that means lower ratings, so be it.  But so far it hasn't.  In fact I believe most people are looking for just this kind of approach because few media outlets take it anymore.

Newspapers used to pride themselves on being the bastions of information, truth and professionalism over drama.  I think many of them do admirably well still, in many ways even our own.  I hope that they continue to trust in that creed and in the sport they cover.  I fear that in their haste to be relevant, to reach people and sell product, they are abandoning that stance.  We're all the poorer for it.

The blurring of lines between media hastens this process...another point I have mentioned before and find near-inarguable.  When beat writers and columnists were occasional guests on other people's shows they could provide information and insight.  When they started getting their own shows they were now responsible for generating ratings and interest in that medium.  Theoretically in the newspaper gig, at least in its classic form, you should be able to generate interest by having accurate information in a timely manner and being seen as trustworthy.  That's not the radio gig at all.  Radio thrives on controversy, argument, sensationalism.  They don't want information, they want angles and noise.  When a newspaper guy takes a radio gig his mission changes.  Perhaps the two callings can be juggled if they're kept scrupulously separate.  But that's infernally difficult because the reason most newspaper guys get hired as radio hosts is precisely their access to information.  The lines get blurred.

From what I understand we saw this phenomenon in spades in the case in question.  Teasing the next segment is a common and necessary practice on the radio.  You over-sell what's happening in the next 15 minutes so listeners will remain excited and tuned in.   It's good policy...part of the drama of the medium.  But when applied to a newspaper story--a medium on which readers have traditionally relied to be fair, even, professional--the over-selling feels like betrayal.  Drama trumps information.  Credibility goes by the wayside.  The whole ends up seeming more like self-aggrandizing gossip than important information, let alone truth.  That's only partially a function of the person delivering that information and only partially a function of the quality of information itself.  A large part of the angst comes from the differences between two media types that should not be mixed in cavalier fashion.  Had Jason Quick said, "At the top of the hour (or on tomorrow's show) we're going to clue you in to upcoming drama in the Blazers' organization" nobody would have batted an eyelash no matter what the news was (or wasn't).  As soon as he invoked the paper it took on the gravity and formality of that medium, characteristics which neither the story nor the teasing of it lived up to.  Thus listeners and readers felt let down.

Drama is an inevitable part of every story relayed in the modern environment.  Not all drama is created equal, nor are the various media through which the drama, and the stories behind it, are conveyed.  Creating more out of less is an art which requires careful consideration, timing, and a deep empathy with an audience and what they're looking for.  It's an art that should also be employed sparingly, lest the artist become more of a story than the art or its subject.  

Let the sport be the sport.  It has drama enough for all of us.   Part of the attraction of sports is precisely the feeling of being out of control...of everybody watching together not knowing what will happen within the boundaries of the court or of league rules.  At its worst manufactured drama robs us of that sensation in favor of scripted reality controlled by a few.  We forgo experiencing life with all its bumps and bruises and imperfections for a series of controlled, plastic encounters.  We abandon our own eyes in favor of someone else's view, looking through the helmet-cam of a hang-glider and calling it flight, watching the thumbs up or down in the movie review then saying we've seen it.   We argue about trivialities, forsaking reality.  Even when pre-packaged hype, the camera view, and the trivia seem exciting and reality mundane, that's a bad exchange.  When it comes to a choice between drama and life, life should win.  Maybe I'm naive, but I still believe our media, as the public voice and clearing-house for our thoughts and communal conversation, should reflect that.

--Dave (