Saturday, October 31, 2009

S%*#-Stirring: A Primer

It is one of the duties of a professional opinionizer, in whatever medium, to occasionally piss off their audience. A commentator who fails to have at least a few provocative opinions is not doing his or her job properly, just as a commentator who's never glaringly wrong is also playing it too safe to justify their paycheck.

But journalistic ethics apply to opinions as much they do to the presentation of facts. There's a right and wrong way to send the audience's blood pressure up to 220/140. Boiling it down to a song title, you gotta be sincere.

Commentators have to believe in their comments. The opinion being expressed must be an honest expression of belief. It's EASY to make people mad, especially sports fans. Making up ideas to do so is wrong on a number of levels, not least the most basic moral level. People who get a charge out of irritating others are jackasses nobody wants to be around. There are commentators who do exactly that, not just in sports, and some of them are rich and famous, too. I wouldn't be them for all their riches. It's not my idea of fun, or life.

Upon review, the two columns I wrote at the Herald that angered the most people stand up to that test. When I wrote in 1991 that the Celtics, were they to avoid a long period of failure, needed to break up their team by trading Larry Bird, I acknowledged this would never happen. That's fair. And I believed with all my heart they had to break up the '80s team or face a decade in the wilderness. Older and in some ways more aware, I have a better understanding of how impossible that was for the team's management. History, however, has partially absolved me.

Now where I was flat wrong. In the latter stages of the 2003 NFL season, I posited that the Patriots needed to end their long winning streak in the regular season, because otherwise they would do so in the playoffs, as it was impossible for any team in our time to win 15 straight games. Boy, people hated that one! I was surprised, actually.

The Pats made me eat my belief and more power to 'em (although I looked dangerously close to being right in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVIII). But while I was wrong, I wasn't dissembling. My opinion, as stated, reflected my true beliefs and interpretation of the facts at the time. That's honest provocation. Dumb maybe, but fair to the angered audience.

Since I kicked the snot out of him last week, it gives me pleasure to come to the defense of my former colleague Tony Massarotti this morning. Tony wrote a column for that has pissed off Boston fans more than I ever did. He stated that Red Sox fans should root for the Yankees in the World Series. A New York title would shame Sox management out of complacency and spur on the franchise to new heights of free-spending genius in the offseason.

From my vantage point, Tony is about as wrong as he can be in his underlying charge against the Sox. I saw no evidence of organizational torpor in the 2009 season. The acquisition of Victor Martinez is enough evidence to find a directed verdict of "not guilty." The problems the Sox had this year were not exactly of their own making. In the regular season, the Yankees were better than they were. In the playoffs, the Angels were considerably better than the Sox. As they say at West Point, the enemy has a vote.

But I listened carefully to Tony's defense of his opinion this week during his and Michael Felger's radio show (well, I did for 15 minutes stuck in traffic on 128 one afternoon. Then I put in a Smokey Robinson CD). He meant it. His defense of his misbegotten opinion rang completely true, mainly because it got more coherent and detailed the more he was challenged. People who just throw an opinion out there haven't usually put enough thought into the idea to defend it by any means except repeating it.

Massarotti's audience should feel free to disagree with him as vigorously as they wish. I just did. But as a reforming s@#!-stirrer, I advise the audience that Mazz stirred in accordance with the standards of that odd profession.


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