Real Bad News

Originally Posted
2010-04-01

One Major Flaw Down in Bristol

It came to me last Thursday night in a White Russian-driven inspiration. At Tommy Doyle’s, sometime after midnight, I was ordering my third or fourth White Russian of the evening. And it was confirmed last Friday with another dumb headline reported by the major sports websites in America. The headline was this:

Report: Eagles want Top-42 pick for McNabb

Are you kidding me? Top-42? Why not Top-44? Or Top-47 for the prime number freaks out there? Obviously, I’m being facetious here, but it’s such a random thing to focus on the number 42 and stick it in a headline. Most avids get the importance of 42, but there’s no context to back it up in a headline. And if the actual story sucks, then no one really learned anything, as in this case. Later on this week, there were reports of a source of a second-hand conversation that was overheard in the bathroom that the Raiders wanted Donovan McNabb AND they have two top-42 picks? How stupid are we for accepting this ridiculous promise? One phrase that I keep coming up with these kinds of stories is: story non-story.

Report: Most people don’t care if Todd McShay has nothing to say. Yet they’ll listen to it because it’s background noise.

A typical story non-story. The eureka moment came to me at the bar as I was trying to watch a soccer match while the NCAAs had just ended (and we’re talking about that wonderful Xavier vs. K-State game). I think I finally understand what the national sports media in America has done so brilliantly (and so coldly at the same time). The news is being sold one sentence at a time. Twitter has the market cornered on this new phenomenon, but the major sports sites (ESPN, SI, Yahoo! Sports) and the sports TV networks (ESPN, mainly) have focused on condensing everything that the viewer wants to know about in one sentence. The limiting or dumbing-down of information is a potentially scary trend.

One sentence at a time. Divided out over hours, days, or sometimes weeks to just hook in the paying, and usually unwitting, customer.

The “One Sentence Is Good For Business Model” works for a few reasons. The ESPN ticker is one of the greatest innovations in recent memory by providing up-to-date scores and stats. Literal up-to-the-second scores and statistics are quite wonderful as I find them to have a great deal of significant value to me. Also, there’s no misinterpretation of a score or a statistic for me (and for most others). However, when headlines, blurbs, or quotes become part of the ticker, awful interpretations are opened up for the viewer.

Reading the headline “Eagles Want Top 42 Pick for McNabb” with no context plays on a common emotion here. The instant gut reaction is: “let me delve further.” And then you read a bogus one sentence recap with the words “source” or “report” in front of the headline. I’m betting most people’s reactions would be to then say “McNabb’s going to the Raiders” or “the Eagles got the 42nd pick for McNabb” as they then play telephone with a friend. Drunk telephone definitely sends out faulty info to other people. This is how false information spreads. This is why the ESPN ticker is probably the worst innovation in sports of the last ten years.

Also, I would say that the entire headline would not be considered a real story if journalistic standards were actually applied at ESPN (*a far greater issue for Mickey and The Gang…what happened to stories not being reported unless there were multiple sources?) Still, the major problem at play is that our society has coached down to a LCD: The Least Common Denominator. We break things down to the simplest of terms so all people can understand. In many ways, this is a good thing. However, a lot of people are not challenged by this approach of presenting information. In turn, many of these people never challenge the information at all as a dangerous status quo of believing everything you read or see has been created. (Compare CNN ten years ago compared to now. It’s an absolute joke because they offer up “debates” that take away peoples’ abilities to analyze. See the former show Crossfire…we just watch that show in every other program that’s on now, with maybe one or two exceptions. People are fed an opinion as opposed to creating their own after analyzing facts. What sucks is the opinions presented usually have no merit. It’s bulls***.)

ESPN is a reflection of our society as the sports-crazed hoop-heads like myself. I tune in because I love sports. I’m obsessed with basketball. (Why else would I keep stats all over Cambridge to play in free leagues?) So many other people I know feel that way. There are a few of us that play at least three times a week and we follow the NBA and the NCAA tournament. There’s an insane amount of passion involved. So it’s really hard to turn away from ESPN and other sports networks. The people who run the show at sports networks know this fact. This is where I get pissed off because those of us who love sports, in general, will unquestionably put up with the antics of ESPN to enjoy the overall product, whether it’s football or basketball.

I’m very hopeful that the ship will turn around one day and the serenity of a basketball game will be on the television without all this filler crap going on at the bottom. We’ve been inundated with a bunch of crap that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. The only scheme here looks like a pyramid. It involves making money off Twitter, the website, and television as some people are addicted to the Internet (I’m not making this up, sadly.) Information one line at a time with the hook of the next line is a pyramid scheme. It’s a false bill of goods, at least on a intellectual level.

Lastly, I really feel that most of us are too smart to be peppered with information that really doesn’t matter. Yet, we accept it like there’s no choice. If a source says Donovan McNabb is being shopped around (not traded, mind you…I would be OK with info of an actual transaction on an information bar), that’s fantastic. I can seek out that information if I want to check my computer or my Blackberry. That’s the beautiful thing about the Internet, information can be searched and found within a matter of seconds (active media vs. passive media arguments can begin here). Instant gratification is served. But it’s also opened a Pandora’s Box (great Aerosmith album, btw) of filler information that can drown us in garbage because there’s no real value in speculative information. Instant gratification can be a terrible thing, in the same regard. The truth may not be seen if people’s thoughts or rumors are presented for public consumption. A frightening path has been opened up. And most of us are OK with this. Because it’s what the current landscape is. Sad times for an American sports fan right now.

This is my suggestion to ESPN. Take that damn ticker off my TV screen and let me drink my White Russians while I watch basketball in peace. For a lot of us, that’s all we want. Is this asking too much? No. If I never hear of what a source says or what a report says about trade talks while watching an NBA playoff game years from now, I’ll probably die a slightly happier person. Until then, ESPN is doing a great job at competing with their rivals at TMZ. Hopefully, they wake up sooner rather than later as they start becoming a presenter of sports again very soon.

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