Friday, September 19, 2008

'God Save the Fan': How Will Leitch Was Almost Beaten to Death with a Manual Typewriter by a Guy Wearing a Green Visor

Some internet fans might know Will Leitch best for founding Deadspin, arguably the most popular sports blog. But those who don't care for bullies or who advocate the democratization of information and commentary might know and love him best for his famous non-confrontation with swearing, screaming Pulitzer-prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger. Although he'd written it before meeting Bissinger, Leitch's new book, God Save the Fan, makes a lot of the arguments Bissinger didn't give him a chance to.

Bissinger and Leitch appeared on Costas Now — the HBO show of sanctimonious sports midget Bob Costas and not the chat show of noted frankenstein Aussie heartthrob/creature Bob Costas Mandylor — for what amounted to a kind of half-assed symposium on sports journalism and the blogosphere. Only Bissinger absolutely torpedoed the atmosphere of faux academia. Before the discussion could really get started, he tore into Leitch with what seemed to be a desire for personal retribution, blaming Leitch for everything between the decline of newspaper circulations, the degradation of national discourse and the poisoning of his own child's mind. His one-dimensional blowhard routine still stuns even the repeat viewer, months later.*

* — If you have fifteen minutes, I really can't recommend watching this enough. Especially the very beginning. You can tell exactly what the producers wanted the story to say, irrespective of what the interview content was. Dozens of windows frenetically pop up on the screen of an iMac. Oh no!—the internet is out of control! Skynet's gone sentient. Meanwhile, the camera flies by the empty desk on which the computer stands, as if the speed of the internet has taken control of the real world, too, making the camera swoop. And what's that? Are—are those fretful violin arpeggios? My God, is this... is this what the internet has done???

Also, you have to wonder what TV programs about the New Journalism would have been like if studios had the same effects to work with in the 1960s. Can you imagine glossy black-and-white surveillance photos of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter Thompson? They're scattered on a bare desk. Suddenly, the soundtrack makes a BLAAAARRRRRRMMMMMMM noise as the picture freezes and starts slowly rotating counterclockwise, the men's profiles teetering strangely off-center as a voiceover intones, "Who is Gay Talese? And why does he think he's the story? They call it the 'New Journalism,' but is it even journalism at all? Arthrito McCobblepot, editor of the Motleigh County Superannuated thinks they should call it 'The New Narcissism.' BLAAAARRRRRRMMMMMMM."

Despite its being mocked to death, it's worth noting again the several flaws in Bissinger's argument:

1. "I believe that blogs are dedicated to cruelty."
This absurd generalization doesn't pass the laugh test. Making this kind of statement is as irresponsible as going to a Kroger to buy some gum and, while waiting to pay, announcing that all print journalism is dedicated to seeing celebrities who are pregnant, Bat Boy, and celebrities knocked up by Bat Boy. Eventually Costas is able to coax a concession from Bissinger that, yes, some sports blogs can be quite good. However, he offers his praise with such faintness and reluctance — to say nothing of his inability to name a single supposedly good one — that he'd have been better off simply stating, "But—but, some of my best friends are sports blogs! They're one of the good ones!"

2. "They're dedicated to journalistic dishonesty."
Again, an absurd generalization, as valueless as looking at Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and dismissing print journalism as the work of frauds and con men. Scattered and unaffiliated irresponsible blogs certainly also carry significantly less of the moral weight of failure than, say, the vast majority of sports journalists, who:
a. lined up to canonize Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during statistically and athletically highly improbable record-setting years;
b. went so far as to help McGwire's coach Tony LaRussa lambaste a fellow journalist when he had the temerity to report seeing a bottle of Androstenedione in McGwire's locker; and
c. suddenly, years later, wrung their hands like Captain Renault in Casablanca and shrieked, "We're shocked!—SHOCKED!—to find steroids in this establishment!" — i.e. every single team in the sport they allegedly covered.

3. "They're dedicated to speed."
Pretty much every mainstream sports journalist will admit to writing columns and articles about ballgames before the ballgames have even finished, even going so far as to decide ahead of time the type of story they want to write. Then they have to file those stories somewhere around fifteen minutes after the game ends. By comparison, most bloggers have no deadlines and thus don't have to file anything even that night; moreover, they don't have to decide "the story" of a ballgame before it ends and thus don't have to trade in the sort of distortion mainstream journalists can employ (cf. #2).

4. Apples and Oranges.
To prove his point, Bissinger has to compare W.C. Heinz to a random commenter on a Deadspin article. Not the author of the article itself, mind you: someone totally unaffiliated with the journalistic organ who just happened to offer his opinion in a reply field. This is like claiming that the New Yorker is a better magazine than the Atlantic because Malcom Gladwell writes for the former, and you found a the blog of an Atlantic reader who calls Obama a "coon." In fact, it's a pity that this analogy didn't occur to Bissinger or Costas (who patronizingly explains to Leitch that blog comments sections affect the blogs posted — via proximal osmosis or God knows what, since he doesn't explain his gnomic declaration), because they might have realized how absurd it is to blast any journalistic organ based on its reader feedback, when even the talkback pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times feature virulent racism about Barack Obama before being scoured by moderators. The proximity of moronic commenters in their feedback sections seems to have no effect on the quality of either paper. As stated before, when they debase, manufacture or under-report news, seasoned professional journalist can be found standing behind each error.

5. False Dichotomy
Going back to the W.C. Heinz thing, Bissinger seems to think that blogs threaten to win a zero-sum game with print journalism, where the popularity of people with crass names will wipe all sober professional writing from the face of the earth. Not only does this rely on the logically fraudulent, it also relies on bullying and frightening the audience with intimidating language (cf. #6): "You're either with quality print or the barbarians of the blogosphere."

6. Heal Thyself, Part I
To argue his point that blogs promote reductive thinking and abusive language, Bissinger (seen erupting below) explains that blogs "piss him the shit off," says "this is fucking clever," declares to Leitch, "I think you're full of shit" and slaps a stack of printed Deadspin content after violently wagging his finger like a palsied old crank. (Starting at about 14:10 remaining on the video. Costas Now edits this part — and all of Bissinger's profane tirade — out of the clip they license Youtube to run, which is hardly surprising, since Costas spent most of the show reiterating Bissinger's point in less explosive language.)

7. Heal Thyself, Part II
Bissinger grinds his axe about the inaccuracy of blogs, since the writers don't have "access" and can only "watch on TV" and can't get the "real story." However, any journalist will admit that sometimes that access can choke off the real story just as well as a lack of it. Consider the poor political beat writer who has to devote half his article on a clear-cut case of corruption to the fatuous lies of the guilty parties, effectively sabotaging the effectiveness of his own story by clogging it with spin that can only serve to misinform his audience. Think of every baseball beat writer* who's seen two paragraphs that could have had thoughts in them get axed to make room for, "Coach says we gotta come together," and, "I gotta be honest, I just wasn't feeling it out there today. But tomorrow's always a chance to start over." The great part of having "access" is being close to people who can give you fantastic information that becomes the backbone of an informative story. The great part about blogs is that, on the 364 other days when those people don't have that, you don't have to quote them.

* — Or, better yet, consider Bissinger himself. The link provided details the systemic misinformation Buzz Bissinger relied on for an entire long-form piece in the New York Times' Play Magazine. Why did Buzz repeat a bunch of "facts" that were obviously wrong? Because Buzz is a "journalist" and not a "ballplayer" and as such must rely on other people's ideas and opinions to inform his article, because his own analysis takes a backseat to "expert insight." Also, Buzz obviously really likes Tony LaRussa, based at least in part on his writing a very good book about Tony LaRussa telling him what he thought,and he likely thought that no harm could come from uncritically repeating exactly what Tony LaRussa told him. It should be noted, though, that almost every thing LaRussa told Bissinger about pitching statistics proved to be the sort of received-baseball-wisdom hogwash that professional journalists love taking at face value because it fluffs up the egos of the coaches to which they have access — or because, as is often the case, they're incurious people who evidently have decided that, now that they have their job, no more learning will be necessary. Nonetheless, Bissinger could have figured out that he was peddling falsehoods in about five minutes by using the internet to look up baseball statistics.

This was later done. By bloggers.

Leitch makes less specific version of this last point in several parts of his book: you, the fan, do not need intermediaries. God Save the Fan celebrates fandom and its simplicity but also the simplicity of the games themselves and how they figure in our lives. Leitch contends that there's nothing about baseball you can't understand just as well as a professional sportswriter with a $150 MLB Extra Innings package and a couple of bookmarks to team blogs. To illustrate his point, he tells his story of being a sportswriter and getting all that access: he spent most of his time with his face just a few feet away from naked athlete penises.

Points like that make Leitch's book very winning. Most of the insights never approach earth-shattering. More often than not, he advocates something you've likely thought yourself, only he does it in a more thoughtful and funny way. (For example: it's not that it's silly to get very patriotic and root for the U.S. during the olympics; it's that, if we really loved underdog stories in sports as much as we claim we do, we'd aggressively root against America. We're the freakin' Yankees of world competition. Sure, it sucks that we aren't ever going to be 100% dominant in world basketball anymore, but shouldn't we feel good that the Greeks won in 2004? Look how much more it mattered to them.) Probably the funniest parts of the book involve the egotism of the mental lightweights who dominate ESPN. The book includes a kind of glossary of moronic and sexist staffer behavior. To anyone who's sat in disgust at how a network so insultingly stupid and arrogant ever came to monopolize sports, Leitch seems to be saying, "You're with me, Leather."

As the title would suggest, though, the lion's share of the book outlines the meaninglessness of mere games and the entertainment value of fandom. This thesis requires including ESPN both for the laughs but also to indicate how unnecessary ESPN really is for those who just want to enjoy the game. ESPN relies so heavily on the canard that sports are very, very important because otherwise all those people shouting opinions about them for 24 hours per day aren't actually experts; they're morons. (Ding ding ding!) Leitch wants us to believe the latter because chances are, if we're really big fans, we probably possess as much expertise.

Leitch seeks out any example of the sportswriter-as-intermediary concept and annihilates it. Sports, after all, don't really matter. They're there to take our minds off our lives. So having someone who presumes to interpret them so that you can have meaning just galls anyone with sense. Leitch takes a comically awful example from the days following September 11, 2001:
Woody Paige, Denver Post: "Miss Liberty bowed her head. From on high and nigh, she witnessed the horrifying cataclysm. There were tears in her eyes. And the nation cries with her. Denver was not torched, but it has been touched." (Four years later, Paige, while wearing a dunce cap and wacky glasses, would eat dog food on live television.)

Jay Mariotti, Chicago Sun-Times: "Our local baseball managers have addressed the idea of a white-flag mentality and suggested players might not be inspired to resume the season, a folly when you consider firefighters and rescue teams are working around the clock and risking their lives."*
Leitch then quotes Skip Bayliss, the clown prince of sportscasting dumbfucks, who condemns overpaid athletes and fat-cat owners who, naturally, might not have wanted to go hang out in large potential-terror targets and play games just days after the attack. The point isn't that he's right or wrong (he's wrong): it's that if you possibly cared at the time, you'd subscribed to an utterly broken conception of where sports belong in your world. Meanwhile, sportswriters are paid to have their minds broken, to peer through this fractured prism every day.

* — From Wikipedia, some facts you should know about Jay Mariotti:
1. Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen once called him "a fag," and the rest of the sports media sided with Guillen.
2. When writing for a Denver paper, once called Denver hero John Elway "a punk."
3. When he resigned from the Sun-Times, his editor Michael Cooke said for the record in the paper, "We wish Jay well and will miss him — not personally, of course — but in the sense of noticing he is no longer here, at least for a few days."
4. Roger Ebert wrote him a letter, which was also printed for the record in the paper, in which he said, "You owed us decency. The fact that you saved your attack for TV only completes our portrait of you as a rat."

In fact, Leitch suggests that it's just such intermediaries sent to enlighten us who actually ruin sports for fans. He cites the steroid controversy as particularly alienating and particularly the fault of sportswriter prejudice. Most of us, he posits, admit that football players probably use unbelievable amounts and types of artificial supplements. But because the physical abilities and skill levels demanded by football are so exceptional and specialized, we don't take offense at others' supplementing: their lives and bodies are already so hopelessly beyond our ken that "cheating" can't wound us.

But with baseball, where even an obese smoker like John Kruk could play first base (then, despite having an IQ identical to his waist size go on to become a commentator for, you guessed it, ESPN), virtually every sportswriter in America probably still nurses a vague fantasy that given the breaks, they could have played the game. More importantly, even if they hold no illusions now, they held them long into adolescence. Baseball was their game because it was the game of possibilities. Because it represented their chance, they protect it now and indulge in this notion of themselves as the defenders of its purity. All of which is so much insufferable horseshit once you take even a cursory glance of the history of baseball's institutionalized racism, ownership collusion, illegal national monopoly and dozens of other nauseating impurities that, in some cases, stained and stain the national character beyond the boundaries of just the game. But sportswriters resist sermonizing about this sort of perpetual and categorically evil shit because nothing is duller than perspective. Having a histrionic and disturbed take about one thing now, though: that'll sell papers and get you a chance to eat some dog food on TV.

The only point at which Leitch's devotion to fandom logically breaks down involves his theory of expertise. Leitch acknowledges virtually no expertise at all and even suggests no one else wants any, either.
Which raises the question: What, in fact, does make an expert? You could say it's someone like ESPN's Ron Jaworski, who spends hours analyzing game film before he describes the surprisingly complicated world of football in easy-to-understand terms. Want to know why that guy was wide open? This guy missed an assigment and the safety didn't cover in time. A=B=C. It's analysis and descrition and insight. Unfortnately, nobody cares what actually happens during a football play anyway. We just see the quartback throw it, we see the wide receiver catch it, and hey, touchdown! Was that guy on my fantasy team?
This part seems like carrying an argument too far — like a man sickened by a factually unjustified ex-jock culture of "expertise" running too far in the opposite direction. It also unfortunately sounds like a kind of culture-of-mediocrity argument.

Many people adore Jaws' analysis precisely because he's pretty much the only ex-jock whose professional experience informs analysis and not clich├ęs and openly narcissistic nostalgia. (For instance, Joe Theismann, the guy he replaced, liked to compliment the distance quarterbacks twenty years his junior could throw the ball by saying, "I can throw it that far.") Rather than rest on the old lie that his having played the game made his verbal wandering vital to a broadcast, he actually does research to try to understand and explain the game on multiple levels. There are sports fans who worship him for this. But Leitch's dismissing this as too eggheaded sounds like someone saying, "History books? Nobody who wants to sit down and read is going to read schoolwork. Now where's the book about the dragon-wizard that has sex with ladies?" The argument is too reductive and too dismissive: sometimes people really do love researching their hobbies, even if they know they're frivolous.

Ultimately, the reader should come away with a happy sense of frivolity. While Leitch makes sincerely and deservedly angry points, he strives for comedy far more than outrage. A reader likely won't find life-changing insights, but he should find earnest ideas thoughtfully and humorously rendered.

He'll also find an absolutely hilarious interview with John Rocker.

Rating: 3.5
A perfectly entertaining book of observations, great for reading while having a beer, keeping in the car to read before appointments, excellent plane-reading. Driven into above-average territory for the humor and the mockery of ESPN personalities (and the Rocker interview). Extremely light on material from the Deadspin website, although no more than a handful of pages of previously printed material makes an appearance.