Monday, January 15, 2007

Digging into the Past

My wife and I went away over this three-day weekend, and one of the things I did was reread a book I read long, long ago. It's called "I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally," by Jim Bouton. It's a sequel to his best-seller, "Ball Four." Ball Four was a ground-breaking book when it was published in 1970: a first-person description of a baseball season written by a major-league baseball player who told it as he saw it, including telling a lot of stories that were not terribly flattering about baseball and its players, including some of the biggest stars in the game.

Today, this sort of thing is commonplace, and we're treated to stories of stars injecting each other with steroids in the restroom and such. But 35 years ago, this just wasn't done. Bouton was ripped by many in the business, and arguably driven from the game prematurely because of the reactions to his book.

A year or two later, he followed up with "I'm Glad..." (the title comes from a discussion Bouton had with the sportswriter, Dick Young). In addition to tying up some loose ends, describing what happened during the baseball season after Ball Four was published (his last season in professional baseball, other than a brief comeback several years later). Bouton also described
the reactions of players, management, and sportswriters to his book.

A couple of lines jumped out at me from his descriptions and analyses as being applicable to the current discussions that surround blogging and the traditional press. Here's one bit about writers with pre-written stories:
...a lot of bad things happen when a reporter sets out with a story already written in his head. He is in fact acting as a roadblock between the public and the truth. There's something vaguely sad and at the same time hackle-raising about Marty Martinez, the Astro utility man, coming over to me and saying, "I always said something nice when they asked me about the book, but they never put what I said in the newspapers."
Clearly, a lot of what ends up in print these days is the result of writers already knowing what they want to write, and doing "research" that is a matter of finding material to back them up, rather than doing the research first to find out what's true, then writing based on that. It's true in the "mainstream media," it's true in blogs, it's true in academia. I see it all over the place, and it's lazy, sloppy, misleading, and just wrong. I have somewhat less of a problem with people who at least expose their biases and acknowledge them, but if they won't also acknowledge differing viewpoints, they do a service to no one.

Bouton also quotes extensively from a review of Ball Four by David Halberstam in Harper's, who wrote less about the book itself than about the reaction from the entrenched media toward someone having the audacity to enter their turf:
The sportswriters are not judging the accuracy of the book, but Bouton's right to tell (that is, your right to read), which is, again, as American as apple pie or the White House press corps. A reporter covers an institution, becomes associated with it, protective of it, and, most important, the arbiter of what is right to tell. He knows what's good for you to hear, what should remain at the press-club bar. When someone goes beyond that, stakes out a new dimension of what is proper and significant, then it is not the ballplayers who yell the most, nor in Washington the public-information officers, but indeed the sportswriters or the Washington bureau chiefs, because having played the game, having been tamed, when someone outflanks them, they must of necessity attack his intentions, his accuracy. Thus Bouton has become a social leper to many sportswriters and thus Sy Hersh, when he broke the My Lai story, became a "peddler" to some of Washington's most famous journalists.
This is a story we hear constantly these days about bloggers. Those in the mainstream press lash out at bloggers for being uncivil or for not having their journalistic expertise. Fundamentally, they resent being scooped, upstaged, or proved wrong. But it's nothing new. When a Jim Bouton or a Hunter S. Thompson comes in as an outsider or an amateur and outperforms those who are supposed to do the job, the reaction is rarely (at least initially) to question whether the job has been done right all along, but rather to attack the interloper.

And I suppose it's important to point out that Sy Hersh continues to break the stories that the rest of the press either ignores or hushes up.


Steve said...

You mention Sy Hersh and Hunter S. Thompson as examples of outsiders. It's worth noting that Sy Hersh keeps telling us that the Bush Administration wants to go to war with Iran, and he's constantly warning that it's going to happen by xxx date. For the past two years, his predictions have been consistently wrong.

As for Thompson, hey, what can you say about a guy speeding through the desert loaded on mescaline and telling us about the bats?

My point is, the outsiders aren't always right or believable either. And when they get things wrong, which they surely do at least as often as does the mainstream media, it just gives the professional journalists and bureau chiefs something to sneer about. Indeed, mostly what I see between bloggers and the mainstream media these days is sneers over the mistakes the guys on the other side have made.

Point being, either assume everyone is lying to you, or avoid current events altogether. I hear mescaline is good at keeping reality at bay....

Chard said...

Outsiders aren't always believable, sure. But Hersh did break the Abu Ghraib story wide open, and if you haven't read Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," you haven't seen the best coverage of that election. Wacky, yes, but insightful and accurate in ways that others never were.

My point was that the entrenched media always attack outsiders, generally for just being outsiders, or for not using the accepted style and other means.

But it's important to evaluate all these things on the basis of whether they provide accurate, useful information. Nobody's always right, but I have a lot more faith in those who name their sources and provide their reasoning, rather than spewing conventional wisdom the heard at a cocktail party.