Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rabbit Ears

For those of you under 30, or maybe under 50, the title of this post is an anachronistic baseball expression. It refers to a player who is overly sensitive to crowd abuse and bench jockeying (does that even exist anymore?). It was not thought to be an attribute of winners.

Rabbit ears, many of them longer than Bugs Bunny's, are one of the main flaws of the news business. It's a serious problem, one I believe is a main reason why fewer and fewer people are bothering with traditional news mediums. Simply put, the public believes my former profession can dish it out but not take it. That's not good for the old quarterly earnings report. Nobody wants to buy something from people they think are punks.

To find stuff out, reporters must be snoops. To be a worthwhile commentator on current events, one must occasionally voice strong and unpopular opinions (not always, but sometimes). But if that's your business, then you had better be prepared to expect that your customers will demand to look in all your closets, and to occasionally, you know, BE unpopular. You'd better be able to stand the gaff.

This used to be understood. Look at the movies of the '30s with newspaper people in them. They were portrayed as people who were proud to be hard-boiled. Their pride gave them thick skins. This was fiction, sure, but it had to have had some connection to reality, or audiences would have rejected the image and laughed AT Hildy Johnson, not rooted for Rosalind Russell.

Somewhere along my life's passage from young Turk to old fart, this changed. Journalism today is so sensitive it appears to be auditioning for the role of Blanche DuBois. Oddly enough, this is counterbalanced by an increase in aggressive, annoying, unprofessional journalism. Psychiatrists call this "compensation."

The Internet, which has facilitating bitching on the grand scale, has brought the complaint department to every journalist's attention. Back in the day, the desk had to handle phone complaints while the reporters went about their business. Those were good times for scribes, albeit times built on delusion. Now, unhappy customers have an outlet.

In a sane business, the reaction of management and labor would be "Good for them!" The key word in the phrase "unhappy customer" is the noun, not the adjective. In journalism, the reaction has been fear mixed with contempt. In what other business on earth are people allowed to cite consumer complaints as EVIDENCE they're doing a good job? Yet in political and sports reporting, this is done on a regular basis.

Earth to newsies: If everyone thinks you suck, it may be because you're operating as you should without fear or favor. Or it may be that you do suck. Take the time to check out which it is. The customers don't expect you to be perfect. They do expect that you won't pretend you are.

As a sports columnist, dealing with opinions, I was wrong more than once. Negative feedback is never pleasant, but if dealt with in good humor, most critics come away satisfied their voice was heard. If you can't take a good razzing, librarian might be a better line of work. It's only freakin' sports after all. A certain amount of occasionally abusive give and take is part of the game. Fans are insane. So what? I was a Philly sports fan before I was a newspaperman, and I was as insane as you'd ever want. That's the point of fandom. It is a socially acceptable form of lunacy.

Economic pressures are creating a skewed set of rewards and punishments in my old business. If the best thing that can happen to a sports columnist financially is to get a gig yelling real loud on ESPN, it's no surprise to me or Adam Smith that we see an increase in the number of columnists who write loud. If there's no punishment for putting paid government propagandists on your TV news show to lie about a war, then the percentage of your broadcast composed of lies will go up.

The people left inside my old racket know this better than anyone. I think their rabbit ears stem from old-fashioned guilt. Without self-respect, there's no respect at all.


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