Mainstream Media Versus Bloggers: The Leitch/Bissinger Episode

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Mainstream Media Versus Bloggers: The Leitch/Bissinger Episode

Much has been made of the dustup on Bob Costas’s show between diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan and blogger Will Leitch of Deadspin and Buzz Bissinger, sportswriter and, most famously, author of Friday Night Lights.

Much has been said already at every other sports blog on the web, so a recap should be easy to find.

The central issue seems to be the meme that the mainstream media (MSM) is dying and that its members lash out at bloggers in fear and anger.

That is certainly what Bissinger did, taking full advantage of the fact that HBO is not censored. He trotted out the standard material we’ve all heard: that bloggers are the rabble of the earth, living in their mother’s basement and “spewing” out invective by the truckload.

There also has been talk of a generation gap effect, and that’s part of it. Leitch isn’t doing much novel work over at Deadspin, though, as his site is basically a sports tabloid with humor articles sprinkled in. It just happens to be online instead of on the newsstand.

The core of the conflict is between those who understand the Internet for what it is, and those who don’t.

A Brief History of the Internet

The Internet grew out of the US military’s reaction to Sputnik. As time grew on, it became more and more academic, and later, social.

By the end of the 1980s, the most popular part of the Internet was Usenet, a distributed system of newsgroups where people exchanged messages. Someone would post something he thought was interesting, and people would discuss the topic by replying to it. Usenet is where a lot of Internet culture was born, including concepts such as FAQs and spam.

Usenet was divided into categories, ranging anywhere from academic discussions of science and math to discussions of nonsense and unspeakable horrors. It was where the things such as the World Wide Web, Linux, and Mosaic (the first graphical web browser) were originally announced to the world. It was the main influence for message boards and chat rooms as we know them today.

For the most part the Internet was a place of libertarian ideals, where there was no censorship, a naturally-occurring etiquette and slang, and in most places, no one to chide you for being profane.

It was its own little world; aside from a few kooks and trolls, no one bothered it and it didn’t bother anyone. Whether you wanted to be rude or civil, there was a place for you.

That still remains true today. Many of the people who have shaped the Internet along its journey through the Endless September and corporatization grew out of that culture.

Many of its most popular destinations, from Something Awful to 4chan to Fark, follow those same veins of discussion without censorship. They are bastions of poor taste and lively discussion, where ideas, regardless of what they are, flow freely. You really have to have a thick skin to get through it all.

Blogs

If you’re unfamiliar, the word “blog” is just a shortening of “weblog.”

The practice predates the term, as it began mainly as people keeping online diaries or routinely updated special-interest sites. I can remember there was a big debate in high school shortly after the turn of the century about whether LiveJournal or Xanga was better.

It was another way for people to communicate, and people have always been communicative creatures.

Blogging began to hit the mainstream around 2001, and mainly in the political category. The first time many mainstream outlets covered their existence was in the reaction to Trent Lott’s infamous statements about Strom Thurmond.

It should not be surprising that politics was where blogging hit its stride, as that arena tends to provoke some of the strongest feelings and most heated debates.

Most of the popular sports blogs (such as Deadspin, EDSBS, and SMQ) began in 2005 and 2006. It was only natural as sporting endeavors also provoke strong debate. Sports also lends itself to satire and poor taste, so that trifecta is right up the Internet’s alley.

The Inflection Point

I don’t have any hard evidence, but I believe the real inflection point in the mainstream media’s reaction to blogs was when Dan Rather got fired.

It’s one thing when people are being immature, trading funny pictures and throwing barbs at each other for dozens of pages. It’s another thing entirely when the anchor of a Big Three network’s evening news is fired over a false story that was exposed mainly by bloggers.

Dan Rather had been a staple of the traditional 6:00 news for decades, but some random person on the Internet brought him down by exposing a story Rather ran as a fraud.

The correct reaction would have been to marvel at the speed of information exchange and try to figure out a way to harness the masses of educated people who now had a voice. The reaction instead has been to periodically attack what they don’t understand.

Sports

The sports media in particular should have seen this coming. I’d argue that a forefather of sports blogging is George Will, a political journalist and commentator who is also a skilled baseball writer.

If a political columnist could be a good sportswriter, why couldn’t a lawyer be one too? Or an English major? Or an IT worker? Or anyone else? Heck, Warren Buffett is one of the most highly regarded writers in America today, and he’s a full-time investor and financier.

Whether he realizes it or not, Leitch is simply following in the 30-year-old tradition of the Internet. In pseudo-Usenet terms, he’s running the “rec.sports.deadspin” newsgroup where only a small number of people can post news but anyone can reply. There is no censorship, a naturally-occurring etiquette and slang, and no one complains about profanity.

The big change of course is the scale. More people read Deadspin in a month than were probably even on the Internet for much of the 1980s.

Sometimes blogs break news; that fact shouldn’t be too surprising since traditional media outlets have only so many eyes and ears out there. Some major sports sites, such as Fox Sports and the Sporting News, have even integrated blogging by fans as a part of their sites.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, I think core conflict is between those who understand the Internet for what it is, and those who don’t.

I don’t know if Leitch consciously knows the history he’s perpetuating, but he certainly feels it intuitively. Bissinger, Costas, and a bewildered Braylon Edwards all clearly did not.

The Internet is truly a libertarian’s dream. Everyone has a voice, and the marketplace of ideas lets the cream rise to the top. Bissinger and Costas lamented the large volume of bad writing on the Internet, but those who understand the Internet for what it is know how to use search engines, social networks, and link aggregators to find that cream.

Leitch runs a well-written supermarket checkout tabloid for the sports world. He provides gossip, paparazzi-style photos (usually from Facebook or MySpace), humor, and some real analysis.

It’s not Pulitzer material, but it never claims to be. It has its place in the world and it occupies it with glee.

I wish though that the majority of the sports bloggers out there would get over themselves and this mythical battle with the mainstream media for The Future that they keep talking about. They are not the Future, but today’s embodiment of the Internet’s past. Plus, there’s no Future that can realistically exist without professional journalists anyway.

Besides, worrying about the future is for business analysts and actuaries. The greatest cultural achievements that people make usually are those that come naturally as a result of people scratching an itch to satisfy themselves and their inner drive, not those looking to cement something for future generations.

Just keep reading and writing. Just keep exchanging your ideas. If you’re worth it, your message will be heard. If not, then at least you tried.

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