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Mariners blog

Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

June 11, 2009 at 7:26 AM

The difference between real journalists and “basement bloggers”

raul-ibanez-2009-5-20-22-21-12.jpg
Figured it was about time we had this discussion, given all the fuss about Raul Ibanez and his comments on that blogger who raised the “issue” that he “might” or “might not” be on performance enhancing drugs. Besides, I’ve since gotten emails from student journalists pleading with me to inject some reality into this debate. So, here goes.
Back in 1998, I wrote a story about a guy who lied about having served in the Vietnam conflict. His name was Tim Johnson, and he managed the Blue Jays to 88 wins in his only major league season as a field boss. The reason he managed only one season in the majors is because of me and nobody else. I’d been getting tips about what he was telling players and, after a trip to the Dominican Republic right after the season, in which I spoke to several Blue Jays and was given more avid detail, decided to write the definitive piece about his one year as a manager. I got players quoted on-the-record, including former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen. It took legwork. I knew what I was doing.
In my previous life as an investigative reporter, I’d helped get an escaped murderer recaptured and jailed for life in Lorton, Va., by publishing his claims of innocence. I’d pointed an accusatory finger at a Hell’s Angels associate who targeted a police informant — one of my sources — for execution and had him shot five times in a downtown street (the guy somehow survived). Had that Hell’s Angels “associate” vaguely threaten to kill me later on, after the story, but fortunately, somebody else got to him first and blew him away in a Montreal restaurant.
I could tell you more, but don’t want to bore you. The bottom line is, in this business of professional journalism, if you do it right, there are consequences to everything you publish. If you don’t figure that out, you’re a a fool.
The day before my Tim Johnson story was published on the front page of the Toronto Star sports section in October 1998, I sat with a college buddy at a Toronto Argonauts CFL football game, trying to enjoy an afternoon off. I told him about the pending story and said: “This franchise will never be the same.”
Nor would Johnson’s life. I told him that, too. I understood the consequences. Knew I was about to ruin a man’s life and career. Knew the franchise would be set back years because of it. And it was. Everything I predicted came true on all counts.
My story caused a firestorm the next day. The big Canadian national TV sports network, owned partially by ESPN, led their broadcasts with my story, showing pictures of the actual newspaper. Toronto is a competitive newspaper town, with four dailies, and not every writer out there bought what I was writing. That’s natural in this business. Nobody likes being scooped. I had my reputation questioned by some, especially since it was my first year on the beat.
But I was ready for it and answered all comers. Johnson held on pleading innocence for a month until the late Boston Globe columnist, Will McDonough, wrote a column mentioning that Johnson had previously told the same lies when he was a bench coach in Boston. That was really pre-internet time and it took a while for news to spread from city to city. Once my story that Johnson — who’d claimed he’d never told any players he’d served in Vietnam — was corroborated in a second city, he had no choice but to ‘fess up. At the winter meetings that year, he issued a tearful apology and blamed his lying on a psychological condition called “survivor’s guilt”. It does exist, and maybe he did have it. But it didn’t matter. The Blue Jays brought him to spring training the following February, then fired him after a month because the players he’d lost in 1998 were now ridiculing him behind his back even more in 1999.
It was inevitable. And I knew it before I wrote the story. I knew Johnson would not survive what I published. How could he?
And because I knew that, I had to make absolutely certain that I was writing what I was for the right reasons. Had he really “lost” the players on his team? After all, they’d won 88 games — despite being sub-.500 right up to the final month of that season. I was told, privately, by coaches and players that it was a team in turmoil, despite the outward appearance and bushload of wins when the team was all but out of the playoff race. That players were making “cuckoo” signs behind Johnson’s back because they knew he’d never served in Vietnam but continued to tell war stories. That good coaches were about to be fired because they’d clashed with Johnson about his lies. That team management knew little about the severity of the inner-clubhouse problems.
So, I wrote my story. And I ruined Tim Johnson’s major league career. All these years later, I believe Johnson has been unfairly ostracized from a game that tolerates criminals and cheats, just not Vietnam liars. But I also understand why he can’t come back. He’s spent years managing in the independant leagues and in Mexico. Heck, he had Chris Jakubauskas with the Lincoln Saltdogs right before the Mariners signed him. For the record, Jakubauskas thought he was a good manager, as do many of the players who served under Johnson. Doesn’t matter. He’ll never manage again in the majors. His career .588 winning percentage as a manager is the best in Blue Jays history.
Do I feel guilty at times? Of course. But I don’t dwell on it. I knew what I was doing and knew he’d never manage again before the item went to print. I walked into his office the following spring, a few weeks before he was fired, and told him we’d both have to live with each other. But I looked him in the eye when I said it. He wasn’t thrilled with me, to say the least. Told me he respected that I could look him in the eye and talk to him man-to-man. And I could. Those words meant something. But even if he didn’t really mean it, or if he’d thrown me out of his office, I didn’t need his blessing on that. I had my own, from within. This was no hit-and-run job. I believed in what I was doing, didn’t go at it halfway, and was ready to take the consequences.
In the end, he suffered far greater than I did. Why? Because I was right.
Now, can the blogger who wrote about Ibanez say the same thing? No, he cannot. Because he never really takes a position.
He throws some innuendo out there, under a provocative headline, then couches it with a bunch of well-researched statistics on park factors, and the like. Makes it all look like a fact-finding mission.
But come on. Baseball is a game played by men. When you cover this sport for a while, you realize that these “issue” pieces some writers try to hide behind when they passive-aggressively go at a different topic really won’t fly. Everybody knows what the “elephant in the room” is beforehand. So, no matter how much research you couch it under, the real issue is what everybody — especially media-seasoned ballplayers — is going to focus on.
And in this case, the blogger really didn’t have a leg to stand on. That much was clear when he was eviscerated on national television by Fox Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal, a longtime baseball writer for the Baltimore Sun. I’ve seen some commenters to various fan blogs the past 24 hours try to say the blogger “held his own” but let’s get real. It was ugly. I give the blogger — I won’t mention his name because I’m reluctant to give him his 15 minutes — credit for going on with Rosenthal. If it was me on the air instead of Rosenthal, I would have torn the blogger to shreds in much the same way. Maybe even worse. I know Rosenthal and spoke to him at the ballpark yesterday after his ESPN appearance with said blogger. When you go on TV and radio a lot, you learn how to destroy people like the inexperienced blogger on-air. It was like that Korean dude pounding on Jose Canseco in Japan the other day.
But I give the blogger props for standing up and taking his blows like a man. There is not enough of that in the internet world these days. Not enough accountability. And the fact he was ready to stand up for what he believed in gives me hope that he can one day rise to better things. That his blogging career was not just ruined by this one misstep. I don’t think his was. It took some guts to wade into this topic.
But when you go all-in, you’ve got to go all in. He didn’t do that. When you write about topics like killers, or Hell’s Angels, or major leaguers and steroids, you can’t pussy foot around. You’ve got to go at it hard, directly, with no b.s. and be able to defend yourself afterwards. This blogger couldn’t because he went in only halfway. He tried to raise the “steroids issue” then claimed he really wasn’t pointing a finger at Ibanez.
Maybe he didn’t read his own headline.
I taught journalism at Concordia University in Montreal from 1996 through 1998, before things like blogs were even envisioned. Much of what I see written in the blogosphere today would have failed my very rigid course. There are students I had, now working as professional journalists, who, I hope, learned something from that.
Most of all, I hope they learned that if you’re going to try to be a big man, or woman, and go after big game, you’ve got to have your ducks lined up.
Because these half-baked insinuations I read online just would not fly back then, nor should they now. We can call it “citizen journalism” or “grass roots democracy” or any other cute label you want. But it all boils down to this: can that blogger look Ibanez in the eye and make a case for what he did? He was scrambling to sound coherent in a debate with Rosenthal, so I sincerely doubt it.
And that’s where we’re at. This is not about journalists “protecting their turf” against bloggers. We have some excellent bloggers in Seattle, who write all kinds of interesting statistical analysis, some correct and some a little out there. But it’s a good blogoshpere. And still, there is a serious distrust of these bloggers by players and teams themselves because of the accountability factor. Anyone can take shots from a distance. But can you look someone in the eye? And that’s what it boils down to.
Local bloggers have tried to gain access to the Mariners clubhouse. I’m obviously not out of touch with the local blogosphere. I see where it is, where it’s going, and as local BBWAA chairperson, I’m not entirely opposed to limited access even though some of my bretheren are. But there would have to be limits. In no way would I ever open the floodgates and let everyone with a “dot.com” address into specialized “press” areas as some sports have contemplated. I’d like to see some kind of formal training involved. Some bloggers are highly passionate and dedicated and might be considered “journalists” had they ever obtained some type of formal training. Heck, in the right circumstance, I might even hold the journalism classes for them, my past experience as a college lecturer being of use in this case.
But there is a training that has to occur. You either learn it in school, or learn it on-the-job at a paper before going out in the field. Or from me. But you have to get some training before you head out there. That way, you don’t embarrass yourself nationally, as this blogger just did, or risk ruining a ballplayer’s reputation when you may not be right.
Again, can you look somebody in the eye? It’s as simple as that.
It’s no different from being in the schoolyard in fifth grade. If you’re going to talk smack about someone, be prepared to stand up for yourself and ride out the blows. That goes for writing about Ibanez, or Yuniesky Betancourt, or John McLaren, or Bill Bavasi. In this business, you can’t afford to give in to momentary fan frustration and lash out at players and team officials. Sure, some people do it in this business. Nobody is perfect. But there is always a price to be paid. It’s not as simple as doing it from your “basement” or “office” or whatever. You have to have the defense ready in your head, and be prepared to defend your reputation in any forum, when you venture potshots at people from my position.
And that’s why you see mainstream media taking fewer potshots than bloggers. Because at the end of the day, reason and fairness has to win out. Nobody’s perfect. But it’s always better to err on the side of caution — and do a little more legwork — than to have Ken Rosenthal destroying you on national TV, when your only defense is mere cliches and half-hearted insinuations.
It’s rarely about us “soft pedaling it” or currying favor with the people we cover, either. I laugh at those suggestions, which I still see made by bloggers who have no idea what they are talking about. I get accused of it from time to time by bloggers too lazy to try to consider why I might be saying something. Folks, I took on an 88-win manager in his first season of a multi-year contract when I was a rookie beat writer 11 years ago because the circumstances warranted it. Do you seriously think I cared whether McLaren liked me or not? Time to get real. There’s a difference between being fair and critical and being an attack-dog. You learn things like subtlety and nuance when you do this for a while.
Some writers pander to the blogosphere, focusing on popular stats or topics, or targets, to curry favor. Trust me, I know exactly what to write if I want all Seattle baseball fans to like me and worship what I print. But it’s never about that. It can’t ever be that way.
This is serious stuff. When you have the power to ruin reputations and change lives, it can never be abused. Or gone at in a half-hearted way.
And the ability to think about those things beforehand, truly, is what separates real journalists — serious ones, not Jason Blair types — from basement bloggers. Speaking only for myself, I would never let things deteriorate to the point where I’d be scrambling around on TV like that blogger yesterday. I’ve written some controversial stuff over the years, some well-received, some not, by the public.
But I’ll defend it to the day I die. I can and have looked folks in the eye.
And that’s really, when you cut away all the nonsense about “the fan’s pulse” that I heard on TV yesterday, what we’re talking about here. Accountability. Not just to others, but to yourself. Can you, in your heart of hearts, defend what you did? Because when you strip away the b.s., you’re all alone on something like this. There won’t be any friends there to save you. No editors to hold your hand. When stuff blows up, it’s you out there against the world. And if you don’t truly believe in your story and yourself, it’s a lonely place to be. So, if that belief is waning, the trained professional truly thinks twice. If you can’t live with the consequences of what you do, don’t do it. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’ll have to wind up on a national TV stage with a too-bright camera light making you look even more nervous than you already are,

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