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Ferguson, Journalism, and the NBA

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The events in Ferguson, Missouri, the role of journalists covering them, and the response of the government to media intrusion call into question our conduct and consumption of public information. Explore how these events shake our foundations, even in the humble field of sporting news.

Scott Olson

Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware of the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Anyone with a Twitter account or a penchant for talk radio would have trouble avoiding the news. For those who come to a website like ours for relief from such topics, apologies. This matter touches all of us, including the NBA and sports journalists, and I can't help but spend a few minutes with it today.

As always when approaching Big Societal Topics, I'll acknowledge the limits of my viewpoint. I don't have answers. I may not even have decent opinions on the matters at hand. I just feel the need for discussion. Sometimes that's enough.

This story began with a tragedy which should not be forgotten: the loss of a young man. No matter what else comes out of Ferguson, Michael Brown and his family deserve to be remembered. Prayers and condolences to all who feel his loss.

I didn't know Michael Brown myself. I can't touch the outrage that African-American people in his city are expressing. I can't rightly perceive the echoes that ripple through similar communities across the land. It's beyond my experience. I've been stopped by cops. I've been in racially-charged situations. But I always sat on the more accepted side of the fence. I wasn't asked to go face down on the ground. I could leave the neighborhood and be perceived differently. That escape route takes away my ability to walk in the shoes of someone who always gets asked to step out of the car, who would likely be perceived the same whatever neighborhood they moved to. The best I can do is direct you to this amazing article by Greg Howard, filed at Deadspin. He illuminates issues I don't even know exist. It's mandatory reading.

Even from my relatively ignorant seat, though, I can't avoid asking what these things mean for us here at Blazer's Edge, the folks who apprehend and enjoy and in some ways live for (and through) a professional sport played predominantly by young, African-American men.

I don't have an answer for this. I don't have a wise philosophical viewpoint, a call to action, and a tidy bow to wrap around them. I feel frustrated. I feel helpless. I feel ignorant. All I have is this gut feeling that to ignore one reality while sitting down on my couch to enjoy the other would be a soul-robbing level of wrong.

I feel like I want to rip off the cultural band-aid that many employ, "Yes, the NBA is full of young, African-American men but they're talented African-American men, they're rich, they're entertaining." As if somehow that made NBA players different than...well...different than whom? The people splashed across our Twitter feeds today?

Dare we draw a line? Do we not all look at our children and say, "You have a gift my son, my daughter. You may not be rich or famous. The world may not even recognize it. But you're special and beautiful, unique and talented..."? A? Do we believe that guys with a 40-inch vertical leap are special and talented but average African-American people, not so much?

Stuck in my mind tonight are long, tortuous conversations about dress codes, tattoos, and cornrows. NBA players are acceptable as long as they don't look and dress and talk "too black". We can't have images of Fergsuon messing up our shiny mid-court logos. We have to make sure the dividing line is secure before we can relax.

Maybe that's an overstatement. I get that. We don't want to feel that way. But "want to" and what we're culturally predisposed to (or just find convenient) are two different things.

This is serious. Ferguson has made that apparent. If you take Greg Howard's words at face value, that dividing line we're tempted to draw--the cultural assimilation we're tempted to enforce--doesn't just demarcate the line between respectable/talented folks and the rest, it's the line between who we'll shoot and/or tear gas and who we'll let be. Jump for us, play for us, give us something we can live through vicariously and we'll let you live...reward you, even. Your poster will hang on our wall. Otherwise, it's the evening news.

I cannot sit down on my couch, nor talk about this sport, nor write at this site, without at least considering these things...that I might be part of something that's devastating us as we speak. I have no solution, but I am challenging myself to listen, to hear the cries of protest, to try and understand these things better. The way I see it, that's my price of admission to the NBA experience...not a ticket or a cable TV subscription, but the affirmation that this game is played by people and that those people need to be honored and respected. Even with the best intentions we might not be doing so. We should think about that.

Keeping the discussion open, remembering to ask questions, avoiding the urge to defend the status quo or one's own purity, letting go of the need to make knee-jerk judgments about acceptable vs. unacceptable cultural markers, taking time to LISTEN to people instead of just using them for entertainment and disposing of them when convenient, that's not too much to ask.

A second disturbing development from Ferguson came to light today: police detaining journalists, limiting their ability to chronicle events, establishing "no-fly" zones to eliminate aerial observation. Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post were put into custody for failing to leave a McDonald's restaurant where they were working, as chronicled by Matt Pearce of the L.A. Times, Jon Swaine of The Guardian and others.

I never made a claim to being a journalist when I started this gig but I've become far more like one than I ever envisioned. Blazer's Edge prospers, in part, because you can trust us. That trust comes from our adherence to journalistic standards. We cite religiously. We don't run stories off of single sources even if it would profit us to do so. We make every effort to get comments from people we write about if the story is going to impact them negatively. We've sat on stories when we weren't absolutely convinced that the way we obtained them was clear and spotless (unintentionally coming into privileged information and such). I can tell you for a fact that we've lost stories this way, either by not running them or by watching the people we've asked for comment give away the scoop to someone else while we were waiting to hear back. To us, keeping integrity at the possible expense of drawing extra eyeballs that day is a fair trade-off. So yeah, I think we've earned some right to stand in the penumbra of journalism, if not to stand firmly among those who also do this for a living. We've paid for that with countless hours of work, research, and agonizing over tough ethical decisions.

Some will object, "But you lack the journalism degree!" And they're right. The truth is, most of the time it doesn't matter. Most of the time. The incidents in Ferguson show exactly why it still does. Even in an internet-heavy, opinionated, crowd-sourced world we need professional journalists with their particular calling, mission, training, ability to get at multiple sides of a story, and courage to keep on telling the truth even under the most adverse of conditions.

We're never going to know exactly what happened on the day Michael Brown was killed, let alone in the chaotic days that followed. We'll hear multiple accounts. Most will be truthful but none will wholly encompass the truth. Some will lean towards the self-interest of the speaker. A few will try to take advantage of the situation, using it as a platform to move themselves forward. These stories will echo through the halls of Social Media, told and retold with layers added according to the perception and whim of the messenger. Again, most will be sincere. Some re-tellers will be concerned and horrified, others striving for justice, others skimming self-importance off the surface of the drama.

Those most deeply involved in Ferguson's malaise will have the most incentive to slant their stories. Governments, unions, individuals; anybody whose actions could offend will want to make sure that their version of the story prevails. Blindness aids wrongdoers. At some point failing to see the truth will become as much of an offense as the original wrong. One gives permission and confirmation to the other.

If not for the professional journalists--their cameras, their keyboards, and their training--how can we make sense of reality in the midst of this chaos...not just the chaos of events but of their unbridled retelling, impregnated with agenda? How do we perceive, let alone correct, wrongdoing if we are blind?

Professional journalists matter precisely at the moment an entity says, "You must leave for us to guarantee your safety; you must turn off that camera to ensure our comfort and yours." They matter when they respond, "Truth is more important than safety, the ability to see more important than comfort." Better than any among us they have the means and the skill to live out those words, to show us why those standards are indispensable.

As people who benefit from journalism--also as people who, in this new age, have taken part of its mantle upon our own shoulders--we should credit and celebrate the journalists with the courage to uphold these definitions. We need to follow them, engage with them, assess the information they bring us.

We should also remind ourselves (and journalists, their editors, and media outlet owners) that their job isn't supposed to be about ratings and hits, becoming talk radio experts, scooping each other for bragging rights, pandering to popular opinion, manufacturing a huge social media footprint, getting tight with those in power, setting up opposing camps and watching them fight for our amusement, or any of the thousands of other impulses that have come to define the field. None of those things distinguish them. We can do those things ourselves (probably better, even). Define your journalism career by those standards and you'll end up irrelevant...the exact turn professional media has taken in the new millennium.

We've known for a long time that sports coverage has drifted into dangerous territory. Too much of it depends on getting close to coaches and executives, getting the inside quote and portraying it as truth, regarding the story they want told as the most prized...that which separates true media from the unwashed masses. Access, stability, and increasing one's influence have become the holy trinity of sports journalism.

Apply the same standards to Ferguson and you'd have reporters walking in, getting cozy with authority figures, getting the inside scoop, and then proclaiming it as the highest truth (and themselves the highest experts) over the airwaves the next day.

Sports coverage is hardly unique in this. Entertainment "journalism" has gone the same route as have most of the soft sections of the newspaper. Television news programs today resemble Jerry Springer 20 years ago. Radio is an agenda-filled joke. Political coverage holds on by a fingernail in isolated enclaves...maybe.

With the entire media process falling like an ill-made soufflé, need we wonder why authority figures in Ferguson expect to tell reporters to turn off their cameras, move out of town, and be obeyed? We barely know the difference anymore between the inside story of the empowered and truth. Even when we set up a conflict in the media, it's seldom between those in power and the non-empowered. It's between two empowered people on different sides.

Real reporting is supposed to enable change. I wonder if we're aware of that anymore. Can we engage in complex debate and find solutions together or are we doomed to watch talking heads spew polarized nonsense in separate television boxes? Does public discourse have a point beyond just being entertained and titillated; a point beyond nodding in agreement or foaming in rage or laughing at the people who actually believe this stuff; a point beyond finding the next thing to Tweet about?

I sure hope so. But if it's going to happen, it needs to happen now. Ferguson is going to become a dividing line in our generation. Either we're going to stop the slide into irrelevance and stand up for something larger or we're going to throw this into the same media wood-chipper as we throw everything else, crushing important issues and people into vapid pap for our pacification and passing amusement...more blood sport and horror for the 6 o'clock news. If we don't reverse course here, what's it going to take?

The journalists on the front line in Ferguson provide a slim toehold, our chance to turn around. We need to support them and to listen as they report. We need to do more than consume our media. We must see it as an agent of change, the last resort in a battle against complacency we've been fighting for decades without knowing it. Then we have to take those lessons and start demanding more of ourselves and our journalists: political, televised, radio, and yes, even sports journalists. This ought to be a wake-up call to all of us, showing us what happens when we settle, when we replace curiosity and vigilance with popularity, security, and cheap entertainment.

That the events in Ferguson are going to define our relationship with race, culture, politics, and government is readily apparent. Before any of that gets settled, though, those events are going to define our relationship with journalism and journalists. Wesley Lowery, Ryan Reilly, Matt Pearce, Jon Swaine, and the other reporters in Ferguson at this hour probably have a pretty good sense of what's at stake. We need to realize it too. This day ought to resonate with, and in some ways check, every member of the media no matter what field they cover. It ought to change how we think of media as well, awakening our sense of dependence on journalists and the corresponding standards to which we should be holding them.

--Dave Deckard blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard