No Joy In Huntsville

Or, the utter fatuousness of sports fans, the gutlessness of editors, and what’s really wrong with journalism today.

Here’s how it began: A sports writer refused to rank his home football team highest in an Associated Press poll. The reason? He felt another team was better.

When home team fans, who make freepi look like reasonable participants in public debate, deluged him with e-mails and threats, the writer told them, in the bitchy deadpan only really good sports columnists can manage, to go fuck themselves. Which he was perfectly within his rights to do, and frankly, as somebody who’s been on the receiving end of malicious e-mail campaigns, I think he was admirable in his restraint:

OK, Auburn fans. You’ve filled my e-mail box with about 300 requests, wanting to know how I can be so stupid as to not vote your team higher in the poll. Or at least higher than the Oklahoma Sooners, a team that’s been so bad this year that it has the same 12-0 record as your beloved Tigers.

You wanted a rationale. You wanted an explanation.

Here it is.

I think Oklahoma is the best team in the country. I think Southern Cal is the second-best team in the country. I think Auburn is the third-best team in the country.

So they complained to his boss.

She wrote this:

We were wrong, and I’m sorry. So sorry that my column, which under typical circumstances would run in Sunday’s Forum section, needs to be offered to you today.

I apologize to you readers for the column entitled “Suffering from my cold, not my vote” that ran on the front of Monday’s Sports section. As several of you have pointed out in e-mails, voice mails and face-to-face conversations, the tone of the column was mean-spirited and callow, brushing off the opinions of hundreds of Times readers with its “I really don’t care what you think” attitude.

We Times employees do care. A lot.

The column’s tone stung me when I read the paper Monday morning. It stung as I considered the volume and the validity of criticisms of the writer, the sports department, the newspaper. It stings today because I can’t take back what was probably written during one writer’s bruised, end-of-season weariness. Sadly, the psyches of many local football fans and readers are bruised. And in some cases, readers’ weariness has turned to anger.

Excuse me, but bruised psyches of football fans now warrant this kind of prostration? Did people die? Were there mass suicides in Alabama as a result of this writer’s (extremely sharp and funny) hissyfit? Anything that would prompt such weepy theatrics? It could be, I suppose, that this editor is just a very bad writer, but apologizing for not being “sensitive” enough to football fans? Football fans (and I am one, though not of the college game) watch a game in which people beat the living shit out of one another, and cheer. Now they need to be coddled by Newspaper Barbie here?

Which brings me to my point about journalism. This editor’s taking a round drubbing over at Romenesko, and rightly so. What she did was reprehensible. It’s vile. And it betrays the job she does and the people she does it with and the people she does it for.

She said to her community, “Our journalism has so little value that we can take it all back right now without blinking an eye, no harm, no foul.”

She said to all her readers, “You can only trust us to tell the truth (and what our columnists believe to be the truth) so long as we think it will make you happy.”

She said her employees, all of them, “I don’t give a flying fuck about how hard you work or why. If somebody comes after you, don’t look to me for help. I’ll be under my desk, hiding from the abuse I ask you to take for a fraction of the pay I get.”

We talk a lot on the blogs here about political bias, politically motivated shading of stories to favor one person, one party, one point of view. This isn’t that. This is worse.

This editor pandered to the loudest voices in the room. Unfortunately, those voices weren’t those of her writers and reporters, nor even the voice of her own conscience. Those voices were Bob and Pete and Sally down at the tire barn, threatening to withdraw their advertising if “their” paper didn’t print what they wanted. And the editor, instead of telling them to grow up and deal with the fact that a writer expressed an opinion they disagreed with, said, “Okay” and knuckled under.

Serious allegations of bias in news stories shouldn’t be ignored of course, and not every critic is wrong. But reasonable people can distinguish between people raising issues of fairness, and people bitching because they didn’t get it all tied up in a bow like they wanted. A reasonable editor should have seen that there was a disagreement on opinion here, not fact. A newspaper isn’t, shouldn’t be, Burger King: You don’t get it your way. You get what you need, not what you feel like.

That’s what readers of a paper deserve: enough respect to be told no, I’m not going to back down just because you’re pissed at me, I’m going to honor your opinion with honest argument, and I’m going to defend the people who work for me.

They won’t get that in Huntsville. Not today.

A.