Revised rules of engagement and objectivity (or: when to shut up)

So, stirring up trouble again?

I get asked that question quite a bit. It’s not really my goal. It’s an unintended consequence.

I do ask provocative questions. But unlike cable “news” outlets that use fear to keep you tuning in (or keep you voting out of paranoia), my goal is to push the discussion forward. Sometimes I do a good job. Sometimes I aggravate people. Sometimes both.

(NSFW language alert here …)

The quality of my questions and my suggestions for pushing the conversation forward is for others to judge. But it’s safe to say I think about these things a lot. And now that I’m launching a new project designed to give parents the information they need to make better decisions, it’s time to re-examine everything. Again. Do I want to continue arguing with people on Twitter? Is now the best time to publish material that gives me reactions like this?

My skin is pretty thick. I paid my dues in local journalism, where people who hate your news organization will tell you to your face or over the phone while you’re trying to work. At my first newspaper, I dealt with callers who accused our sports staff of being alumni of one particular local high school (none of the five of us went to high school within 100 miles), callers who said it was just like the liberal media not to send a reporter to the middle-school lacrosse game, a caller who was pissed that I wouldn’t drive out to his farm and deliver a missing paper, and a cross-country coach who apparently just walked right into the newsroom past our alleged security and started yelling at me because I was the only person in the sports department at that hour. I can deal with a septuagenarian New Yorker who doesn’t like his thinly researched opinion questioned — at least until he’s elected president.

And I grew up believing in old-school journalism. Just the facts, maybe with some lively but impartial observations.

I got a wakeup call in 1994. Polls showed voters were getting their information from opinionated media, specifically talk radio in those pre-Internet-on-my-phone days, and they still believed — erroneously — that the country was still in recession. No matter how you feel about the Republican wave in that year’s midterms, you have to admit — that ain’t good. So I started to think telling the truth required a bit more force and persuasion than we were using.


(We miss you, Susan. The annual training sessions at the Duke student paper are named in her memory.)

A few years later, I was finishing up grad school at Duke, balancing academic work with my job. On my 29th birthday, I turned in an independent study on the history of objectivity in journalism. The quick summary: Objectivity is generally driven by business practices. In the 1800s, partisan scandal sheets dueled for attention — media historian Mitchell Stephens described them as summaries of info from the mail fleshed out with “musings, conjectures and diatribes.” That approach drew readers but maybe not advertisers — see today’s boycotts of Breitbart advertisers. Then telegraphs offered astounding opportunities to transmit news from place to place, but the start-up costs were immense, and “wire” services needed to sell their news to everyone, regardless of partisan politics. Hence the proud tradition of the reliable, if occasionally bland, Associated Press.

No matter how well-intended, a singular approach has flaws. African-American journalists rose up in the late 19th century (maybe before — the example I found in my research was that of Ida Wells, and by sheer coincidence, The New York Times posted an obituary of her yesterday) to challenge the reporting of white journalists who clearly didn’t understand the perspective of the African-American community. Then journalists challenged their own work when they realized Sen. Joseph McCarthy was taking advantage of their system of getting “both sides” of a story — and, in many cases, leading with whichever “side” spoke most recently. Edward R. Murrow — a proud son of Greensboro, where I was working when I started grad school — was the forerunner of a modern fact-checker, firmly dismantling McCarthy’s wild claims with the cold, hard truth. (Yes, he’s the subject of Good Night and Good Luck.)

But Murrow wasn’t just wildly slinging mud, and there are still a few aspects of “objectivity” that are important. From my paper:

The common thread in these definitions (of objectivity) is that facts, not opinions, are given prominence.

Part of the distinction, also a big part of my paper, is the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Let Thomas Friedman explain:

Nathaniel intuitively understood that there was a difference between skepticism and cynicism. This is a lesson a lot of us have forgotten. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible. Cynicism is about already having the answers — or thinking you do — about a person or an event. The skeptic says, “I don’t think that’s true; I’m going to check it out.” The cynic says: “I know that’s not true. It couldn’t be. I’m going to slam him.” There is a fine line between the two, but it’s a line Nathaniel always respected.

So by this point, I was firmly on the side of skepticism.

A year later, I finished that graduate degree with a thesis — still available online in a format showing off the height of JavaScript circa 2000 — about the way new media is changing journalists’ jobs. The conclusion: We’re all doomed. I was right.

But there is a certain amount of freedom in story-telling these days. The Daily Show, John Oliver and even The Onion are able to tell the truth in ways traditional journalists envy. In John Oliver’s case in particular, his show does as much research as any documentary-maker, then presents that info with a bit of humor for easy digestion.

You may argue that Oliver’s takes are one-sided. But while being fair is still important if you want your work to be taken seriously, being balanced leads to problems. It may be a coincidence that “both sides” is abbreviated “b.s.,” but it’s so apt. On everything from climate change to vaccination to evolution to gun laws’ effectiveness to whether promotion/relegation is the only factor that differentiates the USA from other countries, one side has thoroughly vetted facts on its side and the other does not. (They’re not always the same “side.” People are complicated.)

What does this have to do with me, my Twitter arguments and Ranting Soccer Dad? Glad you asked.

I left USA TODAY — which, like the Associated Press, was purposefully bland so it would appeal to the widest possible variety of business travelers who got it in their hotels and airports — in 2010. I liked a lot of the work I was doing, but I was spending too much time in the office or on the road doing too many jobs. I had kids. If I hadn’t left, I might still be Ranting, but I wouldn’t be much of a Soccer Dad. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to sign up to coach except as an occasional assistant who would miss a few games to sit at a desk or cover a UFC card.

So when I left, I gained a bit of freedom. I still don’t campaign for political candidates –the only time we’ve allowed ourselves a yard sign was for a nonpartisan school board race — and I didn’t push myself full-bore into “musings, conjectures and diatribes.” But I could at least be a bit more argumentative than typical USA TODAY content.

I became, in short, aggressively objective.

In many cases, I’ve challenged facts and analysis of my own affinity group or “side.” The best example is in women’s soccer, where I’d love to be able to tell you everything the women’s national team said in contract negotiations was correct and fair, but it wasn’t. I’ve had my run-ins with some women’s soccer players, all of whom I respect but none of whom get a free pass to mislead and demean anyone else just because they’re heroes to a lot of people.

So now that I’m doing a project that I want to appeal to parents (and players and coaches and everyone else) of all opinions and all backgrounds, am I going to imitate the Associated Press or USA TODAY of old and shy away from being adversarial?

Well … some. It’s not quite in my nature to close up entirely.

Besides, I’m writing/podcasting about youth soccer. Youth soccer has an awful lot of b.s. Therefore, if I turn off my b.s. detector, I’m not doing my job.

I’ll try to avoid repeating the more ridiculous arguments on Twitter. If you offer up some fact-addled point about promotion/relegation or anything else that demonstrates a lack of knowledge of U.S. soccer history, I’m going to refer you to my soccer bookshelf or possibly my previous writing on pro/rel. (I may one day summarize it in an FAQ.) If you have something new to add to any of these topics, great, but I might ask you to do so on my blog rather than exchange 280-character bites. (Or I might invite you to my podcast.)

I’m also through dealing with accusations and assumptions. Someone recently told me I should check out an NWSL game, so I sent her a link to Enduring Spiritmy NWSL book. (I didn’t hear back.) And we should certainly be well past the notion of assuming the “others” on Twitter must be paid by MLS or George Soros or anyone else. (Yes, I wrote some fantasy soccer columns for the previous management of MLSNet back in the Dark Ages. I wrote fewer columns than Eric Wynalda. Go call him a “shill.” I’d pay to see that — I mean, I’d be interested in seeing that.)

And if you must resort to petty insults, please remember: I’m not a wanna-be. I’m a has-been. And now I’m doing something else that I hope will be constructive and productive and something that makes us a better soccer nation. And better parents. And better people.

So if you want to know what “side” I’m on, the answer is simple. Yours. Speak up. Let me know what’s going on in your soccer community, and I’ll put it all together for us all to share.

Rant on.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s