The Portland Trail Blazers are on the lips of nearly every NBA commentator and pundit these days, thanks to the trade request of Damian Lillard and a cold war skirmish with the Miami Heat over the conditions under which he’ll be moved. It’s an unaccustomed position for the franchise from the hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest, but is more publicity automatically a good thing? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’ve been listening to alot of radio shows and of course have watched reports on the big shows. It seems every time Portland gets mentioned nationally, they get put down and clowned on. They’re even saying Woj is being influenced by the Blazers because he is saying we might wait to make the trade? First do you think that’s true? And second why does everybody hate us?
No, Adrian Wojnarowski is not in Portland’s pocket. At least no more than he’s in anybody else’s. But Wojnarowski is a little bit in everybody’s pocket. That’s one of the perils of modern, “source” journalism.
The idea here is pretty basic. Journalists cultivate relationships with sources inside the organizations they cover, using those sources for information. The benefit is obvious. The General Manager, Head Coach, and players of the Trail Blazers are going to give you a better, more informed look at the franchise than anybody else on the planet can. In most cases, three words from Joe Cronin will carry more authority and weight than three pages of anything I can type. ESPN writers will be far more eager to talk with Cronin than with me, and their public far better off from reading those quotes than reading the average article here.
The approach also has disadvantages:
- Primary sources tend to be biased towards their own point of view, often to the extreme.
- In the modern era, quotes and explanations from those sources are often published without extensive context, leaving the source’s statement as truth instead of something that informs our view of the truth.
- Several factors incentivize the source-based journalist to uphold their own source’s statement as complete truth, both in quality and when held up against other views. Keeping the relationship strong is one. Wanting to be seen as having the most authoritative sources—and thus the most journalistic clout/integrity—is another. You’re not likely to find a journalist contradicting their own source, or even bringing in a strong counter-argument that would call the information into question.
- Popularity matters. Under all but the most extreme circumstances, a statement from LeBron James or Adam Silver will receive more exposure, and be seen as “truer”, than a statement from the 12th man on the Trail Blazers, even if the 12th man is speaking truth too, alongside (or instead of) the glitterati.
We saw a mild version of this play out in Portland over the last season.
Multiple journalists now have access to Portland’s front office, loosening up informal restrictions held by the last regime. With that access comes more and better quotes, an increased level of transparency and democratization of information about the team. You can now turn to multiple radio shows, newspapers, and websites to get a fairly accurate view of the organization instead of waiting for Woj bombs and drip-drops of information during high-profile press conferences. Your local radio stations have as good of a view, and access to, the team as national journalists from ESPN. That’s generally a good thing.
With that increased access comes increased bending of stories towards the center of gravity. Up until Draft Night, 2023, local confidence was high that the Blazers would not only execute a trade, but that it’d be a big one. To the moment the Big Story broke on July 2nd, the most-repeated mantra in Portland was that Damian Lillard would never, ever, ever, (under any circumstances) (really ever) (and we mean it) ask for a trade.
Meanwhile, national pundits had been questioning for months how, exactly, the Blazers could get a big deal done. Given the players they hoped to protect and the draft assets owed, the margin was perilously thin. Doubly so for the Lillard trade situation. National commentators banged that drum like Todd Rundgren after a case of Red Bull. In Portland circles, even bringing it up was near-anathema.
It also plays out the other way. Because popularity matters and resources are limited, few national journalists develop relationships with entire organizations. They’ll be in touch with the highest-ranking people they can manage. Competition for those relationships will be fierce, with sources divided up among various journalists. Therefore national reports are usually tightly-targeted, representing a single point of view on a single issue, centered around the source. They won’t give a complete or unbiased view.
Without having to think hard, I bet you already know the single most authoritative journalist reporting stories about Lillard. If you were paying attention during Neil Olshey’s reign, you also know the journalist who was most likely to convey the assertions of Portland’s management team as straight news, unfiltered and without question.
In that sense, the accusation from Dan Le Batard about Wojnarowski being “in Portland’s pocket” holds some accuracy. It’s likely less so now than it once was. It’s also no more true about the Blazers than it is about any number of teams that Woj (or Shams Charania, or any other such journalist) has contact with. They’re going to give you the point of view of their source, period. It’s up to you to provide analysis and context.
No doubt, Le Batard was attempting to provide some of that context himself with his statements. We can’t completely ignore the fact that he is based in...where? Miami. You don’t have to dig very far to find articles describing Le Batard’s admiration for Pat Riley, or Riley guesting for Le Betard’s debut ESPN show. Le Batard certainly gets as much boost out of his relationship with Riley, the Archduke of NBA Nobility, as Wojnarowski would get from complete access to the village-outskirt Trail Blazers. Le Batard isn’t wrong, but he’s not outside of that system either.
Understanding all this, you can also see why your perception of national media “hating” the Blazers is so strong.
National media are going to identify far more with the high-profile teams that Lillard might be traded to—Heat or Nets, for example—than with the Blazers. National commentators even generated their very own “Lillard to the Knicks” rumor for a couple weeks, solely because New York is a huge, popular market.
When they speak of such things, 85% of national pundits will talk about the benefit of gaining Lillard instead of the return Portland might get for him. That’s going to leave you, a Blazers fan, feeling left out. And that doesn’t even count the grief you’re experiencing in these discussion, a factor the national media won’t credit a bit. It makes them seem callous.
Worse, in this case at least, the national media was right. Their common-sense foreshadowing depicted the eventual truth far more than team-sourced, local media stories about Dame’s loyalty and the Blazers’ intentions. Local dreams felt like a warm blanket next to the cold reality of a post-Lillard era. Accordingly, the national media’s stark analysis seems negative, or “hateful”. They don’t actually hate anybody, though. They just advance their point of view as they see it, right or wrong.
Here’s the big take-away: the news is not giving you the truth. That’s not their job, nor could anybody do that anyway. Ask two siblings who grew up in the same household what their upbringing was like. You’re going to get wildly divergent stories at certain points. Expand that to 30 franchises and a league office, and you have some approximation of the NBA.
The news is designed to bring you statements from one sibling or another. Each one is a point of information. It’s up to you to assimilate, judge, filter, and factor each into a systemic whole that comes as close as possible to a complete picture.
You’re under no pressure to do so, of course. Most “news” today is predictive, trying to anticipate events before they happen. That’s the genesis of 90% of conflicts and controversies. You can avoid them all simply by waiting to see what actually does happen instead of predicting (and thus presuming control over) the future.
If part of the fun of sports is looking ahead and guessing, you’re not going to be able to do it simply by listening to a source report and saying, “That is truth, end of story!” At best, you can say you’ve found a good piece of information that reveals more of the puzzle. Connecting it appropriately is still up to you.
Sometimes that’s going to be easy. The Blazers re-signing Jerami Grant this summer or trading Josh Hart last year were pretty easy to telegraph if you understood the team’s situation, finances, and direction. Sometimes it’s harder, though. You’ll hear the front office say, “We’re building around Dame!” but watch them assemble a 23-and-under World Junior club and go, “Hmmmm...”
Either way, the job of perceiving and weighing truth falls to us, as people who follow and invest in the league, rather than to journalists. News breakers are a huge, indispensable part of the process, but we’re long past the days when they were the process. People like Wojnarowski and Le Batard feed the whirlwind, but they’re not at the center of it. If anything, you are, as the league and the accumulated media around it are designed to sell to you.
Good luck sorting that out, my friends. Just remember to have fun while you’re doing it.
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