Before the NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament gets too far in the rear-view mirror, I want to explore an event that made big waves over championship weekend and has ramification for sports journalism across diverse leagues, including the NBA.
You've probably heard that last Saturday night, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams went on what many journalists are deeming a "tirade" against sports media. As described in this article by Ryan Phillips of TheBigLead, Williams responded to a question from John McCann from the Durham Herald-Sun about media second-guessing coaches as follows:
"Well, take this the way it's intended, not to be critical. But I'm a hell of a lot smarter about basketball than you guys are. I mean, I'm serious. What do you do after basketball season's over with? You cover baseball. What do you do after baseball is over with? You cover football. I don't take any breaks.
"This year I heard more than ever announcers and writers question things more than I've ever heard. One of the other guys said we're not in the locker room, we're not at practice every day. If you asked me if I'm as smart of a sports fan as you, I'd say probably not because I don't work on those other sports. But I do see our guys in the locker room every single day.
"The last question, I wasn't paying attention to know who asked it, but we want to be a balanced team. I have to have some contributions from everybody that plays. It is something to listen or read - I haven't read very much this year to be honest with you. I haven't read many articles. But that's the best answer.
"Do you know how many practices we've had? Ninety-eight practices. Not just you, because John I liked the way you asked the question. You didn't hit the wrong buttons or anything, you did it nicely. How many of you guys came to any of our practices? Michael came to one. Somebody else came to one. I mean, you think about that. I would never criticize somebody about something that they know a heck of a lot more about.
"Bill Guthridge has the best statement: Do not condemn thy neighbor unless you've walked in his moccasins for two full moons. I have to explain that to my guys to explain what moccasins (are) and how long moons lasts.
"But it is, it's journalism to a certain degree today. So (my decisions) weren't (made out of) stubbornness, it was intelligence. And if we get beat by Villanova Monday night it's not going to be because of stubbornness, it's going to be because Villanova played better."
The article in TheBigLead has embedded video if you care to check it out. Williams' tone was even throughout, neither elevated nor filled with venom. Despite the depiction of the statement as a "rant", Coach Williams actually a point that's being buried under all the hubbub. The crux of the assertion can be summed up as follows:
Journalists aren't experts in anything except the field they've been trained to be experts in: journalism.
Somebody probably needed to say it.
The Rise of the Expert Media
The mid- to late-20th century brought a wave of professionalism across most career paths. By the time I hit public school as a student in the 1980's, being a decent teacher and conveying the "Three R's" were no longer enough. Educators were trained in theory and discipline. It was the age of new math and specialized pedagogy. Specificity trumped generalization. The way parents traditionally taught their children was deemed inadequate. The inner workings of schools and most professional institutions became less accessible as the voice of the common man broke against the rocks of professional privilege.
The advent of the internet, communal conversation, and 24-hour publicity in the 21st century carried a measure of revenge for inveterate members of hoi polloi. Professions remained specialized--perhaps even more so--but their perceived value became determined less by technical accomplishment and more by how that accomplishment was perceived. Nowadays teachers are not only tasked with educating students but placating parents. University presidents are judged on fundraising accomplishments as much as administration. College coaches don't just draw out X's and O's, they hobnob with boosters.
Expertise is no longer determined by skill and training alone. It's derived via ballot: thumbs up or down from individuals in the expert's orbit. We discover great chefs through Yelp. NBA All-Star starters and Coaches of the Year are voted on by people outside the profession.
In this environment those who control access to information and those who can explain it become gatekeepers to, in many ways arbiters of, expertise. Whomever holds the microphone, holds the power.
Quick test: who do you remember from American Idol and Chopped, the brilliant and talented contestants or the judges who explained their work to you? How do you know a movie is good? Do you follow particular directors and producers or is your opinion influenced more by critical reviews and friends?
In venues where subjective opinion rules--art, music, increasingly politics, and particularly sports--media will fill the vacuum left by our inability to access or comprehend the work of expert operators. Journalistic expertise will substitute in the popular consciousness for actual talent and acuity, their imprimatur overlaying the field as surely as logos or hash marks.
Chances are you know Doc Rivers is a pretty good NBA coach. Chances are you also have no clue why...what specific processes and plays have led to his accomplishments. You do know, however, that most experts consider him gifted. The experts you're citing are almost exclusively media members. The coaching profession itself is so specialized that analyzing it is beyond your power, but opinions about it are right in front of your face, ready to be consumed anytime you choose. The "expertise" of the people delivering the story eclipses the experts in the story. That the media says Rivers is a good coach is proof enough. Repetition provides its own reward as commonly-held opinion becomes widely-accepted truth.
Who do media members interview nowadays? 40 years ago if you wanted to know about welding, you'd interview a welder. If you wanted to know about politics you'd interview a politician. Increasingly media members interview other media members, establishing them as experts in the field. In most cases those media "experts" have, themselves, talked to welders and politicians. We don't get to see that side of the story. Fewer primary, identifiable sources make air or print. When they do quotes are brief, seldom complex, and inevitably in support of the story's main thesis. When a true expert goes on the air, interviewers often pitch softball questions or direct to a singular point, after which they will return to media colleague for the "real analysis". The media makes itself look smart before it'll make anyone else look smart, if necessary sacrificing the credibility of the interviewee in favor of its own.
Former coaches and players--accredited experts--dot the sports media landscape but their ability to correct bias is limited. Trained in a different field, adopting journalism as a second career, few possess the combination of charisma and skill to emerge over voices that rise to the top through media merit. How many media panels start and end with 3 minutes of talking head analysis in between which the former players get 30 seconds of airtime each to make their points? Players and coaches who do succeed in the media world are still bound to the conventions of their new environment. The discussions they have on-air are different than those they'd have behind closed doors with their peer group. Their voices change and adapt to media strictures; media does not adapt to them.
The demands of journalism shape stories, perceptions, even the questions reporters ask and analysts address. The Lakers Phenomenon is a shining example in the NBA. When the Lakers are doing well the media asks, "Can they win a championship?" When they're doing poorly the media asks what's wrong with them. They're never a non-factor. Though they're a far better team sporting an unusual, break-out star, the Milwaukee Bucks would need to win a title or two in order to receive the kind of coverage L.A. does in a 16-win season.
Journalists trade in distinctive stories. "It's a mostly sunny day and everything went normally" is not news and therefore cannot be written about even when that describes today better than any other assessment. If we're going to write about sunshine we have to talk about the dangers of tanning or depleting ozone or the solar system exploding four billion years from now. That's news.
Boring is the cardinal sin of sports coverage. Whatever angle generates interest will get airtime and column space even if it lies on the far end of the bell curve. "The other team has a better defense" might describe 60% of losses but it'll be printed in 0% of outlets. Highlight-reel dunks, splashy threes, locker room drama, and supposed coaching errors make for a better story.
The more media expertise dominates, the louder the edge-of-the-curve clamor grows and the more real it seems. It's worth noting that the same article cited above deemed Williams' statements "insanely arrogant". Williams has a 79% winning rate in 992 games coached with 7 Final Four appearances and a pair of national titles. Knowing more than journalists about NCAA basketball doesn't seem like a stretch. Apparently it is.
In Williams' comments we can hear the personal bitterness of a true expert forced to endure less-expert people defining his work...a necessary consequence of working in an entertainment-related field but painful when taken too far. Reading media analysis can be likened to attending a party where you watch the in-crowd talk loudly amongst themselves even though they're not the most informed people in the room. If you buy into the cultural subset it's great. ("I got invited to the swanky party and the cool kids are talking about me!") From a detached perspective, it's stupid. Occasionally the real experts get to pull us up short and point that out, whether we like it or not.
Coach Williams saying, "You aren't at practices, you don't know, you don't think about this all day, every day like I do," is another way of saying, "You're not really the experts here, yet you write and speak as if you are." If he's suggesting that sports media causes us to lose touch with reality as much as they help us see it, he might have a point. It's possible that that we've lost touch with reality ourselves, that we should follow our own advice and stop believing our own headlines.
The Failure of the Common Corrective
Seeing this perspective and empathizing with it are one thing, balancing out the issue quite another. You'd think giving technical experts more opportunity to speak would clean up the problem. As we've seen far too often, asking the media to avoid analysis and repeat the words of the true experts doesn't solve much.
This week Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce pointed out this Pacific Standard article on science reporting. Its basic conclusion: reporters don't know enough about science to critique experts so they've fallen into the trap of parroting them, leading to rampant misinformation published as "news". Consider these quotes from the piece:
Today, science journalists' motivations "align very nicely with what the scientists themselves want, which is publicity for their work," says Charles Seife, a veteran science reporter and a professor in New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. "This alignment creates this--almost collusion, that might even be unethical in other branches of journalism." In short, more than other fields, science journalists see themselves as working in partnership with their sources.
Approaching science as an exercise in purity, divorced from other incentives, Seife says, "ignores the fact that science doesn't work perfectly, and people are humans. Science has politics. Science has money. Science has scandals. As with every other human endeavor where people gain power, prestige, or status through what they do, there's going to be cheating, and there are going be distortions, and there are going to be failures."
Here's the uncomfortable side of this story: A substantial portion--maybe the majority--of published scientific assertions are false.
Substitute "sports" for "science" in those paragraphs and their veracity remains unchanged. Plenty of journalists become direct conduits for the opinions of powerful and influential figures within their sport, gaining prestige and knowledge thereby. Stories based on single, anonymous sources aren't unusual; they're distressingly normal.
Even assuming no self-interest and the purest of motives, no individual has a monopoly on truth. Each individual can only relay their own perspective. 30 NBA General Managers, 30 NBA Head Coaches, 30+ NBA Owners, and more than 400 players will each approach the game differently. None of them are wholly right. Add in the inevitable self-interest occasioned by "power, prestige, and status" and one can assume that in sports as in science, a substantial portion--maybe the majority--of published assertions are false. Or if "false" is too harsh, at least biased enough that they cannot be swallowed without vivisection.
It's no accident that teams disseminate their version of the truth by creating their own media departments to spread the organizational gospel. Nor is it surprising that as time passes and relationships intertwine, distinguishing between traditional media outlets and the team's version becomes difficult. There are limits. A scandal, for instance, would cause the traditional media to activate in ways the team's PR arm would not. Absent that undeniably newsworthy, "edge of the bell curve" event, most "informed, inside" sources will look and sound like each other and the organization they cover.
Establishing media as the ultimate arbiters of truth isn't the right answer, but neither is accepting the word of the technical experts without perspective or relief. Unfiltered messages from those in power--even power earned by virtue of superior skill--doesn't equate to better understanding, but propaganda.
Stuck Between Two Poles
Now we see the two poles of modern sports media coverage. At one end you have the "expert" opinions of writers who, aside from their ability to craft words with excellence, usually end up no better at analyzing their subject than a decently-informed fan. These Roy Williams decries. On the other end you have journalists who source directly, often anonymously, from prominent figures without the inclination (and often with disincentive) to approach the information they glean critically. Williams may feel more respected by their style but even illustrious coaches aren't right all the time. Without anyone to question him and his colleagues, we'll never know the difference.
Eliminating the shortcomings of the first approach, we inherit the faults of the second. Mileage may vary, but with few exceptions sports reporting lives at one flawed extreme or the other.
Ironically enough, the press conference in which Williams made his complaints public is one of the few venues in which the common observer has a chance to overcome the dipole system and its shortcomings. All major press conferences are taped...no backroom, half-hinted conversations allowed. Everyone gets to hear the questions asked and the full responses. At their best, press conferences inform and democratize at the same time...revealing truth in a way we can't get at otherwise for all the critical thinking or lack of same.
This is also the reason that as soon as an organization drifts into choppy waters, they'll seek to limit press conferences and the questions asked during them, preferring to feed back-alley sources without being attributed. That media members participate in this, let alone earn the designation of "expert" because of it, is a shame.
Either way, the enduring lesson of the Williams outburst might be that it's good an unashamed question got asked and it's good that Williams responded so candidly. The stupidest query made at a publicly accountable event can illuminate more than the smartest question asked behind closed doors in not-for-publication or "anonymous source" fashion. The audience gets to hear who's asking the question, its quality, and the expert response, judging all three in context. Those opportunities are rare and valuable.
Despite the outcry, this event wasn't a breakdown of the media process, but a ray of hope for it in an increasingly cloudy environment. Living between two poles and refusing to be bound by either one is always messy. But truth comes through chaos and struggle far more often than it comes through pat answers and easy, but slanted, explanations. We need more incidents like this, not fewer. They provide affirmation that the media is doing what it's supposed to do, or at least being transparent in its failures and taking appropriate lumps for them. They also affirm that occasionally a true expert can get a message through the mess. Even if this one was wasn't about basketball, it was a start.
Roy Williams was exactly right. He illuminated a truth that we wouldn't have examined otherwise. If we weren't allowed to question him publicly--even if those questions seem baseless and stupid to him--we wouldn't have had the chance to hear that truth. It wasn't a happy experience for anyone involved, which is why most descriptions of the incident have been disparaging. The moment was important nonetheless, a victory for the journalistic process even with its failures and weaknesses on full display.