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Media and Baseball, Part 1: Bias & Frankness 
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 12:37 PM.
Since baseball season has started, I've seen (participated in most, and started a couple) several threads dedicated to complaints about the media, and the quality of ESPN, FOX, and local broadcasters. As a former radio sportscaster (the highest level I reached was a small D2 college in the south), I thought I'd take a look at all the different factors and what's changed with media coverage of sports in this day and age.

First off, let's look at local sports coverage. Most local broadcasters of professional sports are hired by the teams, and not the stations. The advantage to this, is if a station loses the right to your team (most contracts are bid every 4-7 years for exclusive rights), you don't lose the "voice" of your team because now they're on Comcast sports instead of Fox Sports, or went from AM 580 to FM 101.5 back to AM 710 over 12 years. The perceived disadvantage of this it's hard for announcers to be impartial because bashing the team is akin to bashing one's employer. But is it true? Yes and no. We'll come back to this, when we talk about how to be candid and how to notice announcers being candid.

The second part of most local coverage is a newspaper. Sadly, newspapers undermined themselves when they embraced the internet. I've never tried to sell web advertising and it sure seems prevalent enough, but newspaper websites didn't sell enough to support their staffs. I happen to believe some of the best American writing across allgenres comes from the Sports pages,and it tears me up to think that we may lose more and more of this traditional coverage. In part 1, I'm going to only discuss beat writers and other reporters(columnists are not supposed to be unbiased). Because these writers are working for independent media outlets, they are "more" neutral right? I do not believe so. In a newspaper environment, if a Yankees beat writer pisses off A-Rod, the reporter will be blackballed. Now, there are 24 other Yankees to write about, but the other 2 dailies will have 25; and that 25th Yankee is by far the most fertile ground for an article. If a paper only has one beat writer, and he gets blackballed; the paper is screwed, and the writer is out of a job.

The third part of sports coverage is local sports talk radio. If nobody else can be unbiased, at least these guys can, right? Well, no. Because local hosts need interviews with local athletes, and local journalists. Sports radio does have one advantage though. The broadcast day usually involves about 16-17 hours of programming before syndication airs (5am to 10 pm), and those 16 hours are split up amongst 10-12 producers or hosts. I think most athletes probably choose to blackball hosts and not stations. This is okay, because in the end, WFAN for example will still get to interview A-Rod, and they can replay that interview in any time slot they like. There is one exception to the enhanced frankness that sports radio would seem to provide, however. When your sports radio station is the flagship station for the team it covers.

I'm from Seattle, so I will use Seattle as an example. The Mariners when I grew up were on 710 KIRO-AM for about 18 years , a powerhouse News/ Talk station that can reach into Vancouver B.C. and down to Portland and across the state on a clear day. Basically three hours' drive in any direction, give or take. They had a two hour sports show on weeknights, but mostly it was political talk and morning and afternoon news,at the time. They may have gotten a couple exclusive interviews, but nothing to speak of. The coverage always seemed fair to me, and not to full of "fluff." Well,in 2003, 1000 KOMO-AM (which was 24 hour local news) paid the Mariners around $10 million a year for the broadcast rights. They assembled their sports team (which included one of my friends), with strong instructions not to be too honest. After that kind of monetary investment, KOMO couldn't risk being a reporting agency...it was in their vested interest to sell the Mariners and say everything is great all the time, etc. etc. This year the Mariners are back on 710-AM (now branded ESPN Seattle). They paid a little more than half what Fisher paid, and do not seem to be running coverage that is too beholden to the Mariners. In fact, they seem to quite adequately separate the in-game broadcast from the air-day. Yuniesky Betancourt's benching is getting a lot of support from the staff. I think in radio and newspapers that a willingness to criticize, or report deficiencies in, the hometown team comes from the management.

So where does one find honest coverage? I feel the blogosphere is great for it. I only follow a couple blogs, and don't know much about it, so I can't say much, but generally, I come away pretty impressed.

During the game, there are clues to when the color commentator is trying to present honest opinion without going overboard. I don't think you'd ever hear someone say "That Left Fielder is just trash right now," but you can hear certain things that are as close as you'll get. These things are usually along the lines of , "The Mariners would like to see him be more patient at the plate," or, "That's a play he has to make if he wants to take his game to the next level." If someone disagrees with a managers move, he can say "another option may have been for Torre to stick with him and if he doesn't get Gonzalez out, then make the double switch." Unfortunately, and disappointingly, we live in a world where the most "unbiased" announcers on a local broadcast are just the ones who refrain from being total homers. You'd think that a little acrimony would be good for ratings, but in the media era editorial content has to be disgustingly sleek, and designed to sell a product. The problem is especially significant with color commentary, as it takes a turn toward a more generic "sidekick" role, and gets away from analysis. I see this as a wrong turn for broadcasting; it's resulting in everyone trying to have a "personality" instead of a personality. And that's why we have replaced stories of old baseball lore between pitches with "woohoo!" It's also why every player has a nickname, and every announcer a home run call.

In part II we'll look at why the quality of coverage has declined and become watered-down with the proliferation of media outlets.
Comments
# 1 badpoet @ Jun 10
Good read and pretty much spot on. I did the radio broadcasting thing for a few years, mostly local sports and some minor league stuff (I've broadcast everything from baseball to basketball to football to lacrosse to soccer to softball to golf). Its sad but true that at this point, the having a play-by-play announcer or color commentator that isn't a complete hapless homer is considered a blessing. I live in MN where we are "lucky" enough to be blessed with perhaps the most prolific homer announcer I've ever heard (Paul Allen from KFAN who does the Vikings games - his "work" is best described by this clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_wfYAGosi4 ). On the upside, I'm a Lions fan so its much less bothersome to me than it would otherwise be.

I think that pro sports commentators have to be closer to high school commentators in the past. You never just criticize the hell out of a kid in the broadcast, because he's in high school and its not like he's being paid for his performance. Pro sports has become more and more like that, with very rare real criticism of the athlete's performance, for the reasons you mention.

I still say there's really no better media sports experience than cruising down the road at night in your car with the windows down listening to your favorite team on the radio. Especially if you are or were lucky enough to have a really great broadcast team (or even just a great play-by-play guy like Scully, Gowdy, or Jack Buck).
 
# 2 badpoet @ Jun 10
As a side note, I'm going to miss AM skip once it goes full HD (whenever that will actually happen). It was great catching a game from St. Louis in Wisconsin.
 
# 3 RaychelSnr @ Jun 10
Great blog!
 
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