Debating sports coverage with Ralph Nader
THE WASHINGTON POST
Posted at 04:39 PM ET, 06/28/2011
By Dan Steinberg
So Ralph Nader swung by The Post newsroom on Tuesday afternoon to talk sports with a few editors and reporters. He wanted specifically to discuss a new consumer advocacy group he’s launching for sports fans, and the lengthy fan manifesto that will help guide that group’s work over the next few months.
Now, some of these issues are quite interesting, and many of them — academic corruption, commercialism, performance-enhancing drugs, the professionalization of youth sports, publicly financed stadiums, the BCS — have been covered extensively by The Post, in a variety of places.
Still, one of Nader’s focuses touched a bit close to home: how we reporters all theoretically want to make the world a better place, but how we might sort of be dragged down to some more pedestrian spot by incessantly covering, you know, sports. As in, who won, who lost, and who failed his conditioning test over and over again.
Not to subject you to the dialog from this meeting, but it’s the kind of thing I often debate myself over a fourth pour of Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, when I’m wondering whether transcribing a LaVar Arrington interview with Warren Sapp about Albert Haynesworth is a noble way to help readers pass a few minutes at work and allow me to pay for my daughter’s college education, or whether I’d be of greater use to society by harvesting organic kumquats.
This all sort of started when Nader observed that our little corner of the paper is really “the spectator sports page,” and when he wondered “if the ethos of the [sports] page is more just entertainment” or something grander.
“You’re covering the scores, the games, the managerial shifts, all that, and there isn’t that much coverage on these themes I just mentioned,” Nader said, referring to the serious consumer and societal issues in his manifesto. “We don’t get coverage, we get blacked out, because it’s not part of the routine of the sports pages. It’s sort of out of sync. It’s supposed to be a fun sports page, not a lot of gloom and doom and all the rest.”
And later, this all got even deeper.
“It’s time for introspection, is what I’m saying,” he told us. “And what we can do is we can put out our reports and recommendation and get feedback, but around the country the sports pages have got to look at themselves in the mirror and basically say, aren’t we able to do better? Aren’t we reflecting something other than [the desires of] the advertisers and the managers and all the rest of them?
“I mean, there’s more [written] about what happens after the game when reporters get in the clubhouse than there is on a lot of these subjects, that are far more important,” he said. “And the one I can really excoriate The Post for, I can’t even remember this guy’s name, but he showed up late for practice and there were like three, four articles on it.”
Now, I’m not sure who exactly we were talking about here. Elijah Dukes? Haynesworth? Kwame Brown? Mike Green? To keep things simple, I like to assume all issues of overcoverage revolve around Haynesworth, and that’s what Mike Wise suggested to Nader.
“Him, or someone before that,” Nader said. “You know, give me a break. You can give people sugar, and people like sugar, we all like sweets, most of us. But you give ‘em too much, they get diabetes. They get tooth decay. Same thing for the mind.”
“He needs page views,” sports editor Matt Vita joked, with a nod in my direction.
“It’s a complicated question,” I piped up, as my daily existential career doubts began to swirl in pleasing shades of gray around my ears. “But the thing is, a guy on the Redskins shows up late to practice, and we could write 15 articles in a row, 15 days, and our web traffic would indicate that people still want more of that.”
“That’s true, because that’s the fallacy of the Sensuality Ladder that you have to resist,” Nader responded.
“Of the which ladder?” I asked, while Wise made some sort of joke about getting more sensuality into the sports section.
“The fallacy off the Sensuality Ladder is it lets you get away with it, up to a point where you deteriorate everything that you do and the people you are reporting [about],” Nader continued.
“Yeah, that happened a couple years ago with me,” I agreed.
“So, the fallacy is for example, let’s take politics, right?” he went on. “The biggest issue of the last four weeks in Congress was Weiner, because that is on the low rung of the Sensuality Ladder. And that’s true of food. How do they market food to kids? Taste, texture, easy to chew, pretty to look at, maybe you get a doodad here or there. Low on the Sensuality Ladder.
“Any time a society goes down – and in the scholarly literature it’s calledExtreme Hedonism – any time a society goes down to that level… it’s irresistible because for the short range, it works. You get [web] traffic, right? Any time it goes down to that level, watch out. It’s like an empire that doesn’t know when to stop. All empires devour themselves, because they don’t know when to stop. So we’re not asking for a complete evolutionary upside down turnaround, but just some balance. And you have the talent. That’s the tragedy. I mean, you have the talent to really break through again and again and be a model for other newspapers around the country.”
Well, maybe we do. Certainly I get requests all the time to write more about fan treatment, and ticket sales, and misleading marketing efforts, or to highlight more noble amateur athletes who are dying for the slightest bit of recognition. And instead, I transcribe radio interviews about conditioning tests and nights out at Caddies and tall Czech kids smooching their girlfriends. But this all sort of relates back to something Nader said earlier, about how we’ve constructed this little oasis in the sports world, where we sort of pretend we’re living in a fantasy land, absent injustice and pain and war and suffering.
“You’re living an ideal life,” he said of game-reporting sports folks. “Sports and the arts are what people would do in a perfect society. What are they gonna do with their time, right?”
I suggested they could also do organic gardening or pickling or something like that, but Nader said that counts as the arts, since our idealized people would be doing it for enjoyment rather than sustenance.
Either way….I mean, I don’t know. Yes, this is a consumer-driven business. Yes, we still aspire to do good. Yes, we know that sports are sort of silly. Yes, we also acknowledge that sports generate real news issues, and that the press can influence certain outcomes for the better. No, we probably won’t win the Pulitzer for posting photos of Jim Riggleman in a Bethesda bar, but yeah, we sure do get a lot of page views for something like that. And remember, there’s still that paying for college tuition thing.
Anyhow, I’d like to reflect some more about this, but I heard Donovan McNabb said something about John Beck’s throwing motion during a radio appearance in Topeka, so I gotta run.
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