Bear with this post. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to weigh in on the matter between Jerod Morris (Midwest Sports Fans) and print journalism (Philadelphia Inquirer)
When Jerod Morris first posted his discussion piece about performance-enhancing drugs and Raul Ibanez on Midwest Sports Fans, I didn’t see it. When the piece was first brought to my attention – as the senior writer at a Phillies blog that weighs heavily in the sports blogosphere – I didn’t touch it. Usually I’d stash a blog post like this in an “Odds and Ends” post, since really, that’s all it was: An odd piece that ties a Phillie player having a career season to the age of PEDs.
When John Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Inquirer cited Morris’ piece in “Gonzo,” I still didn’t touch it. This wasn’t news. Gonzalez likes berating what some believe are “Phillie-haters” all the time – that’s his shtick. Then it was all brought to Ibanez’s attention. At that point the story became something Phillies Nation could consider “news”: A Phillie player spoke about a matter of some importance. Amanda Orr posted Ibanez’s quote. For us, end of story.
Even as the fervor continued with Morris and Gonzalez meeting on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” I didn’t care to give it any more space, because what started as a thoughtful blog piece about curiosity behind Ibanez’s season became the latest chew toy in the print journalist vs. blogger tug of war.
But since that appearance, already hundreds of bloggers and members of the mainstream media have reacted in their specific spaces. We’ve seen attempted lessons about integrity and ethics. We’ve seen cheap shots. Back and forth, like two mutts gnawing at a rubber bone.
It occurred to me, while watching this mess, that I am in an unusual position: I am an independent sports blogger (writing about the team related to the post) who is also a professional member of print media. Yes, in my non-Phillies Nation time I am an editor at a newspaper with a circulation just under 100,000 daily readers. I have learned how to be a journalist. I have learned how to write. I have learned how to get the truth. And I also, every day, write without access and resources about a baseball team.
Origins of the issue
Morris, who writes without access and resources, wrote a piece discussing Ibanez’s hot start.
[Now, I don’t understand why he would pen an article about Ibanez anyway – if Midwest Sports Fans is supposed to report on Midwest sports matters (JRod’s posts are almost all about the White Sox, with some Cubs and Tigers thrown in), where does Ibanez factor? (just as I wouldn’t write a post about Ken Griffey Jr. unless the Phillies were playing his team at the time)]
That noted, Morris’ post didn’t accuse Ibanez of taking performance-enhancing drugs. It mentioned the possibility, but merely as the “elephant in the room,” a discussion point, if you will. Is he allowed to speculate there’s a chance of PEDs playing a part in Ibanez’s productivity? Sure. Did he come to conclusions? No. He didn’t come to conclusions about ballpark factors (despite researching), he didn’t come to conclusions about trends (despite researching) and he didn’t come to conclusions about PEDs (and he researched, noting that Ibanez has never tested positive).
The piece gained some steam on the internet. Hugging Harold Reynolds (a blog with some Phillies allegiance) retweeted the post. Then more people read it. And it’s possible – and this is important – people with lesser knowledge of discerning intelligent writing read it. Soon word got to Gonzalez, who then wrote this in “Gonzo”:
Then JRod dismissed all the evidence of opportunism, pivoted like a second baseman turning a double play, and fired his conclusion into the mitts of conspiracy theorists and amateur drug testers everywhere: “Any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better than his career averages is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbers are not natural, that perhaps he is under the influence of some sort of performance enhancer. … Maybe the 37-year-old Ibanez trained differently this off-season with the pressure of joining the Phillies’ great lineup and is in the best shape he’s ever been in. And maybe that training included. … Well, you know where that one was going, but I’d prefer to leave it as unstated speculation.”
Morris didn’t dismiss opportunism; clearly, he was stumped by it, like everyone else covering Ibanez this season. I have been asked about Ibanez – and yes, I have been asked if he might be taking PEDs. My answer? He hasn’t tested positive. He’s killing the ball. He’s a great hitter. He’s seeing the ball well. That’s what we know.
Gonzalez’s “pivoted like a second baseman turning a double play, and fired his conclusion into the mitts of conspiracy theorists and amateur drug testers everywhere” is false and lazy. He’s writing that Morris threw all his prior investigation away. He didn’t. He simply left his findings to interpretation. Again, he made no conclusions.
And a second baseman? Come on, Gonzalez. If you’re going to write a piece about an outfielder, at least give us the “clutched the ball after it ricocheted off the wall, then pivoted and slung a laser right into the mitts of … blah blah blah.”
Moreover, whomever copy edited and added the brilliant headline “A cheap shot at Ibanez” is also quite lazy and is adhering to the school of “If it bleeds, it leads!”
Then again, it’s absolutely appropriate.
You see, the market is Philadelphia. And Gonzo’s market is the Daily News readership – the working class chest-pounding Philadelphia phan. Gonzalez is meant to give the Inquirer’s sports section a casual voice that can both cater to the fan and the player. He’s meant to bridge the gap between old-school ethics and new-school technologies. Heck, he even spelled it out in the column:
I’m not a blog hater. I’m not an old-school newspaper guy who fears the Internet the way children fear what’s under their bed. Far from it.
No, Gonzalez can be chummy with Enrico Campitelli and Bill Lyon at the same time. Really cool. Like me, he is likely schooled in traditional journalism and new media. So the Inquirer lets him spout off, cater to his fanbase and be a little flashy. That’s the goal: Make people talk. So the column, the headline, the “Outside the Lines” appearance: All of that pretty much accomplished everything Gonzalez was hoping to accomplish, at least somewhere intrinsically. It brought a slew of readers to the site and maybe introduced some more to page two of the Inquirer’s Sports section. Like my own newspaper, the Daily News (Philadelphia Media Holdings) is trying to stay alive. Despite every darned blog that creeps into the fold.
What about Morris? What did he accomplish? Well, he received internet prominence, a national television appearance and a bunch of hits for Midwest Sports Fans. Maybe he also gained some readers. Then again, he also has a collection of Philadelphians knocking down his proverbial door for his head. Which isn’t right. Read the post again, then ask yourself if Morris was accusing Ibanez of taking PEDs.
The larger issue
But the larger issue in all this is about responsibility and integrity, and about the ongoing fight blogs face with print and other mainstream media.
From an independent blogger standpoint, I absolutely try with all my might to be recognized by the Philadelphia Phillies. And yes, if I can be recognized by the mainstream media, that would be fantastic. I spoke yesterday with Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog, who has championed this ideal: He started a blog about the Mets, it grew in popularity, he reached an agreement with SNY and now works for the network. (Related, I made my TV debut, as a Phillies Nation writer … in the New York media. Not in Philadelphia, which is incredibly frustrating.) Has MetsBlog lost its mission? No. It’s still the best place to go for Mets news and opinion. But has Cerrone furthered himself? Absolutely. His entire life is devoted to his family and the Mets.
In my position, I want more than to devote my life to family and the Phillies. But that’s not the case right now. So I try, again, for recognition, but respectfully. I cite every story I post. I try not to base my opinions on things I don’t know, and if I don’t know things, I make sure everyone knows. And if I were to write a post trying to question Ibanez’s hot start, I wouldn’t conclude that he was taking anything, nor would I conclude that the ballpark is the reason, only unless I had specific findings, like any reporter.
Again, Morris didn’t conclude anything. So he kept his findings open. That was fine.
But Gonzalez went to town, and the Inquirer let the flash and zing of his column find print and online posting.
From a print journalist standpoint, I understand why Gonzalez and the Inquirer ran with the story. It sparked discussion, it catered to its audience and it garnered the Web attention any good opinion piece should in today’s digital world. Traditionally, the writing was lazy and the accusations were false in language. But these days tradition can take a back seat to Web hits. Simple as that.
The greater problem, however, lies in the reading of the mess. People failed to understand why Gonzalez wrote the piece, and people failed to understand the overall point to “Gonzo.” Instead, people redirected Morris’ accusations at his inability to deeply report a story. People seem to think Morris shouldn’t have posted anything because he didn’t have access to Ibanez, or knowledge of the steroid and PED issue. All Morris had were some Web links, access to Baseball-Reference, ESPNs Resources and FanGraphs. Like almost all of us.
People fail to recognize that independent sports bloggers are allowed to question and leave findings open. They don’t need to talk to direct sources to secure their findings because – guess what – they’re not given access.
[In fact, I spoke with Ibanez a few months ago. At a charity event. That Phillies Nation paid good money to attend.]
But a sports page in the Inquirer is – however – allowed to staff a writer who gets to both opine about issues and leave findings open (like a blogger) while also talk to players and front office people (like a reporter). Here’s one major misstep Gonzalez never even brought up in “Gonzo”: He never, ever allowed Morris his side of the story. Why didn’t he talk to Morris? Isn’t that the job of a reporter – to secure all sides of a story?
But, again, Gonzalez isn’t entitled to that. He’s only supposed to write an opinionated column, which he does, and sometimes very well.
Maybe the real culprit in all this is Jim Salisbury, who coaxed Ibanez for a response to Gonzalez’s findings. Then again, Salisbury is looking for a money quote from a hot player. How could that not get him more readers? Of course, Ibanez supplied Salisbury with a juicy line, complete with active, demanding language. Salisbury got what he wanted. Then again, maybe Salisbury, by asking his question, should’ve then gone to Morris for his reaction. He didn’t.
You see what the problem is: For all the high-headed heraldry print journalism tries to uphold, its members are still subjected to the same practices they’ve always held. If print editors want to expand the medium’s reach that’s fine, but they must keep with the standards of journalism. Gonzalez posting the blog on his column is one thing. But Gonzalez turning the blog’s post into vitriol isn’t correct. And Salisbury forgetting his journalistic standards is plain irresponsible.
Yet the matter becomes a widespread national story because of the basic battle it represents: Bloggers vs. print journalists. On one side are the unchecked men, women, boys and girls with opinions and plenty of Web space. On the other side are the checked men and women who earn a living by seeking truth. Simple as that. And the Inquirer didn’t live up to its standards.
Look: Bloggers don’t have the clout of print journalists because there’s too much chaff. Many public relations officials, front offices, players and coaches of this day still look at blogs as if they’re evil creations because, frankly, they’ve long lived in the print journalism era. And while the transformation from print journalism to internet continues, there will continue to be battles between the two sides as bloggers fight for respect.
I want respect. I’m sure thousands of other bloggers want respect, too. But instead of working with bloggers to ensure the battle for truth endures, print journalists — and not just the Inquirer — instead show instant disrespect.
And a major rule of journalism: Keep an open mind.
Practice what you preach.