I got caught up in the air on the air Thursday. Wanted to put my hands to my shoulders during my radio show and get a 20-second timeout as I spilled clumsily over the sidelines. The shifting ground had moved under me again, changing the rules where I worked as I worked, and it was allegedly Brett Favre’s penis, of all things, that knocked me out of bounds this time. I’m not allowed a time out there, of course. The journalism game is moving faster than ever, and I’ll get left behind if I slow down.
So I have two bad choices in this spot when allegedly confronted with Favre’s penis (what a great phrase, that one, and one that works as either a fantasy-team name or the title of a Northwestern journalism thesis): Ignore the story and take some sort of arbitrary moral stand using a journalism principle that the marketplace makes more antiquated every day at this pace — and eventually lose to faster people who club typewriters to death with Twitter. Or descend into the pornography, and try to resume the conversation there.
I chose poorly but profitably the other day. I talked about the alleged Favre penis photos while wondering out loud if and why I was talking about it and coming dangerously close to castigating others for wanting to talk about it. It was a ridiculous position, soaked in hypocrisy, trafficking in smut while railing against smut-trafficking, and I didn’t even realize as it was happening that I may have been informing people about a story they might not have even known about if I wasn’t railing against it.
And now I’m writing about it here in much the same way. Which kind of makes me as much of an alleged dong as Favre’s alleged dong, only a little bit larger.
Anyway, I can’t stake claim to the moral journalistic high ground while slinging feces, never mind selling it, and I can’t complain too loudly about porn while watching it and profiting from it. And this was, almost literally, sports porn. (Metaphorically, ESPN’s 30 for 30 movie about the University of Miami was sports porn, but this was allegedly Favre’s actual Green Bay Packer.) And, I must admit, the discussion was more stimulating to me than Roy Halladay’s no-hitter or the Randy Moss trade (only intellectually!). And funny. I’ll almost always follow the laughter, as will most people, but here’s the problem with the ground shifting at this speed:
ESPN can ignore this stuff, for a time, even as social media changes mainstream media at the roots and cracks at the foundation. ESPN can afford it as a monopoly for the moment, although competition can arise simply from that decision to ignore, as blogs have shown by gathering footholds in covering things newspapers don’t.
Far as I can tell, as fewer and fewer people read newspapers, Deadspin wouldn’t/couldn’t exist in its present form at least without newspapers, so much of the information coming from the reporting of others. And what happened with Favre being exposed – and being asked about it at the Randy Moss press conference – was like watching journalism and its principles being hunted for food by TMZ.
And, very often, it tastes good. But, at the risk of sounding like your grandparents, is it good for us? And aren’t we headed toward the place where an unhealthy amount of the consumption and appetite is for junk food? I know. I know. Don’t tell me what to eat. Give me what I want. The restaurant that tells you what to consume isn’t full Friday nights, or even in business. But the junk food is going to inevitably contaminate the organic section. And the people who prefer organic are going to bitch about that.
This isn’t about my arbitrary morality. It is about the morality taught in journalism schools and practiced at newspapers that are endangered while aspiring to be fair. Once Greg Oden apologizes publicly for his penis, giving famous and public voice to an Internet whisper, newspapers and ESPN are forced to jump into the race with both feet, already behind, just like the New York tabloids have jumped on Favre’s alleged dong. And what that creates is a pressure to be at the start of the conversation, or to start the conversation, that can trample innocent people under all our laughter.
Favre? No, he’s no innocent. We can argue all day about whether it is right or wrong for Deadspin to publish what it did, whether Favre deserves whatever he gets when he allegedly sends photos of his penis, and whether the marketplace deserves whatever it pleases (even if it feels invasion-of-your-privates-y). But what inevitably gets lost in this transaction, in the speed of it, is the kind of reasoned fairness and respect that used to protect against the trampling of Favre’s wife and kids, who didn’t really do anything to deserve any of this.
Sure, Dad is responsible for his own behavior. But the current climate makes it easier than ever for the mainstream media to step on its own dong when confronted with the sight of Favre’s. ESPN ignored the stories of Tiger’s infidelity … until it couldn’t any more. And that’s the pressure we’re all under, and that pressure is going to lead to mistakes all over the place, mistakes that don’t make Favre’s wife and kids feel any less shame if and when we apologize if this is all a misunderstanding.
Look, I’m not here to rail against blogs. I’m glad fans have more of a platform than ever before. It creates more media and coverage of something we all love and holds the media accountable in the way we demand of others. And it forces all of the media to be better, even as it, in instances like this, makes media worse. I’m just telling you that I was genuinely confused on the air the other day and remain genuinely confused about where we’re headed with all this because we all realized together, rather suddenly, in all the time it took Tiger Woods to crash in the middle of the night, that there is a great deal of profit in the TMZ-ization of sports.
Maybe that doesn’t bother you. Maybe you want your invasions of privacy public. Maybe you don’t think celebrities deserve the kind of fairness we’d all want for ourselves. Maybe you would be 100 percent accountable if your worst private-public moment defined you without blaming anyone other than yourself. That’s cool. But my point is that the speed of the game, and the public desire for this stuff, is making it very hard to see clearly what is fair game and what is fair, period. The pressure this applies everywhere in the sport-tainment business ends up turning the famous and their families into cartoons, not human beings.
And it doesn’t matter at all if I can and will and should do better.
I’m outnumbered by demand and pressure and lust and profit and marketplace and views as audience and reach become the currencies of value.
And, eventually, inevitably, my choice is very quickly, very quickly, very quickly becoming either to give in to it or lose.
[Photo via Getty]