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From 1988: Bart Giamatti on the serious business of sportswriting

Editor’s note: This address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors by A. Bartlett Giamatti, later the commissioner of Major League Baseball, was published in America on July 2, 1988.

I am delighted to have been asked to address this particular coven. I have heard a great deal about you. While I am not sure you always enjoy, or that you are meant to enjoy, your role as the New Witches of our society, you have achieved the status of supernatural beings. You are the mysterious manipulators of our daily and common life, possessed of a knowledge that is beyond the reach of mere mortals. You are said to possess a power that is feared as much as your favor is sought.

We were talking of your status as the New Witches, feared, courted, regarded with a mixture of awe and terror, thought to be in possession of a power hitherto reserved for unseen deities; perhaps for the Transcendent One: The power to change reality. But like Faustus, who first made a source of the Prince of Darkness, you walk among us; you are available—if beyond us—possessed of benign countenances, handsome consorts, country-club memberships, in short, all the appurtenances of ordinary successful life, while beneath it all possessing that power over the rest of us: the power to shape reality by making events happen and then telling us what we sublunar creatures think of it.

Bart Giamatti: “I think there is more sheer talent for writing English well on the sports pages than anywhere in the paper.”

Such is the power historically ascribed to witches and now ascribed by a cowed populace to you. You are misunderstood. I want you to know that I know it, and that I feel just terrible about it.

As a result, I am not even going to mention certain topics. I am not going to mention that the press is constantly perceived as being unaccountable, that unlike doctors or lawyers or dentists or accountants or morticians, journalists are not licensed by anyone, and are, therefore, viewed as performing a crucial function in society without being accredited or accountable, without being forced to meet a set of high standards approved by the public. I am not going to mention that the press is rarely seen to apply to itself the same investigatory techniques, the same level of scrutiny, the same principles and procedures of disinterested, skeptical examination that it applies to everyone else, every day.

I am not going to allude to the charges of management of the public’s knowledge, rather than promotion of its right to know; I am not interested in reviving the constant charges of a liberal bias because I read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post every day and know there are other forms of bias, too; I do not think we need even mention the fact that most people I know believe that the press, particularly in its television version, creates events rather than reflects them; that the new breed of post-Watergate reporter instinctively believes everyone is lying to him, that no institution has any credibility by definition, that all figures in authority are the enemy rather than the object or the source; that tape recorders have ruined the young reporters’ capacity to listen and choose the key phrase because once they turn the machine on they do not listen at all; that the level of writing skill of 75 percent of reporters under 35 is marginal.

You know all this—I speak of perceptions by the public—so I will not go into it, anymore than I would raise the deeper issue that in a nation which in fact does depend upon a free, independent and vigilant press, and which is willing to honor constitutional and other safeguards, the worst enemy the press has is portions of the press, members of the profession itself; that the best stay against any kind of improper or destructive external regulation or intrusion is vigorous, professional self-regulation that is perceived by the viewing or reading public to be vigorous and professional and applied. Ombudsmen on newspapers who examine the paper’s lapses have helped a good deal, believe it or not. So have weekly or occasional columns in the newspaper by an editor critiquing not individual reporters but “the paper’s” coverage. It would be good to have A. J. Liebling again— to have some credible, strong, professional criticism of the press by a professional, respected member of the profession.

Bart Giamatti: “I ask you, precisely because I do take what you do so seriously, not to take sports for granted. Its support in every sense will help to support the nation’s newspapers.”

The fact that you have heard all the complaints about the press I have just enumerated by way of praeteritio and the fact that I could also recite—not as well as you, but recite and believe nevertheless—your responses to my concerns; the fact you have heard all the qualms and I have some grasp of the realities and know somewhat the responses means in fact there has been some communication, there has been at times a mutually useful exchange, limited or partial or sporadic as it may be, about a profession—journalism—and the deeply important institution essential to the culture, a free press. There should be much more education of us by you about what you do and why. Not defensive justification, but education.

Because I wish to assure you of my awe and my good will does not mean, however, that I do not have a complaint—high-minded and serious—to bring before you. In the last year and a half in particular I have thought long and hard about it. In the last year and a half I have had an extraordinary amount of contact with a vast variety of journalists, and I read now on a twice-daily basis reporting on my industry from all over the country. My high-minded and very serious query is: Why do you not pay more attention to your sports sections?

As background to my concerns, I have tried to inform myself. I have read a good deal of your industry’s market research—a 1984 study by Clark, Martire and Bartolomeo for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, a June 1986 Newspaper Advertising Bureau study called “Readers Rate Their Daily Newspaper, Measuring Images and Performance” and a January 1987 study by the same group called “Daily Newspaper Page Openings: Pages and Sections Usually Read-Demographic Segments,” and I know something of what you know.

• That 80 percent (88 percent of men; 72 percent of women) of those who do not read every page (63 percent say they do) read the sports pages.

• That of all the topics covered in the paper, the highest proportion of readers (96 percent) of any topic rate sports coverage a “Very Good” and the lowest percentage (4 percent) express dissatisfaction. So while black females like sports coverage least, most readers are happier with sports coverage than with any other major category.

• That 67 percent of total daily newspaper readers polled wanted more sports coverage, especially in the larger markets; that sports leads all other subjects in readers’ desire for more (45 percent men, 59 percent women), and that the desire for more, recorded in 1984, was up from 1977 by 8 percent, tied with the same increase in desire for consumer news, behind only school news, of which sports is part.

I differ in two ways from this and the other persuasive data that shows how intensively, thoroughly, frequently and happily your sports pages or sections are read: I don’t want more—there is enough; I want it better. I am in the dissatisfied 4 percent.

I am not unhappy at the balance of pro/amateur, of national/local, or college/high school sports, or unhappy in other ways. Nor am I necessarily unhappy at all the information you find it necessary to print for gambling—the endless data about dogs and horses; the relentless odds and picks and lines. Because I do not gamble and do not like gambling, I find it simple to ignore. It might as well be in the real estate section.

Bart Giamatti: “How a culture chooses to take its leisure is fully as important or serious as an index to that culture’s overall health as how it goes about its work.”

My concern, which is very real, springs from an impression rather than from data. It is the very strong impression that editors generally ignore the sports section in the sense, and it is important, that the same set of editorial standards—for accuracy, for competence, for distinguishing fact from opinions, for imposing standards of all kinds of rewriting and editing—are simply not applied as consistently or rigorously to the sports sections as they are applied to all other sections of the paper. This impression is nourished by some very specific instances to which I will return in a moment.

Accompanying my impression of benign neglect in matters of what I would generally call editorial attention is my equally firm impression—here rooted in my own training and former profession—that there are more good writers in the sports section—or more good writing—than in the same proportion in any other section. I believe more beat writers on given sports write well than general assignment reporters write well, and the sports writers have tighter deadlines. I know that in six daily papers my wife and I read at home—three from New York City and three from around New England—and in the papers I read around the United States all the time, more sports columnists write well—logically, clearly, analytically, strongly—than the aggregated national and local columnists elsewhere in the paper write well.

I think there is more sheer talent for writing English well on the sports pages than anywhere in the paper, and I have the impression it is less attentively or well edited, given less scrupulous (or unscrupulous) care, is less subject to editorial scrutiny of any kind than any other part.

Let me tell you why I have come to believe this and then close by telling you why I so strongly object.

Over the last several years, the owners of major league baseball were charged—formally by the Players Association, informally by others—with colluding or conspiring not to sign free agents. An arbitrator has since ruled that this was the case in 1985, that the owners acted in concert in an inappropriate fashion in violation of the labor agreement forbidding such activity in the matter of free agents. But he ruled in September of this last year— seven months ago.

This is essentially a matter of law, determined (and continuing to be determined for subsequent years) in a judicial-like proceeding, involving words like “conspiracy” or “collusion” that have tremendous force and precise meanings in law. I do not mind the millions of words on this subject over the past year and a half, the reams of speculation, indignation, fantasy, reportage or opinion. That is all fine. What I found extraordinary in the months before the arbitrator—or judge—ruled was that I do not remember reading—before it was “proven”—the word “alleged” before the words “conspiracy” or “collusion.” Do you really think that if it was said by a union that owners or C.E.O.s who compete in any other industry had “colluded” that you would have left out the word “alleged” before there was a definitive ruling? If the banks or brokerage houses in your market were charged with conspiracy by the clerical union, or the newspaper publishers of New England were charged by a truckers union, or the manufacturers of computer parts were charged nationally by any union with conspiracy to set prices that you would have left out the word “alleged” in your stories on the front page or in the business section? Of course not; not if it was unproven. Why is this story different? Because it is baseball, or sports, and therefore, not serious? It is a matter of law and due process. Is that serious? Why aren’t sports—as a business—as serious as crime or computers or anything else?

Let us say there is a strike in baseball, as there was, alas, recently in football. Who will cover it? Why, the beat writer and the columnists. Do you have any idea how unfit your fine sportswriters are to cover a labor story? Let us say there is a strike of stage hands in the theaters of New York. Will or should The Times send Mel Gussow or The Post assign Clive Barnes to cover the strike simply because they review the theater? Of course not. If all the school teachers in your city go on strike, should the paper send the part- or full-time education writer? If there is a labor stoppage in the local textile mills, do you send the fashion writer?

Then why are sports writers covering the financial or the legal or the labor issues of this major set of major industries that make up professional (and some “amateur”) sports? It would not happen in any other part of the paper. Of course, I think I know why editing is so sporadic, if present at all; why sportswriters are put into situations beyond their competence as no one else is. It is because you think this is sports, the toy department. You believe the rest of the newspaper is serious; this is play. The rest of the newspaper is school; this is recess.

Bart Giamatti: “You think this is sports, the toy department. You believe the rest of the newspaper is serious; this is play. The rest of the newspaper is school; this is recess.”

This is not the big stuff—the real stuff—like arms control or the weak dollar or a bad fire or multiple murders. If a man owns a sports franchise, he is hardly as important (you seem to believe) as someone who owns a supermarket or clothing store or a car dealership—people who may even purchase advertising. After all, an organ transplant or a little girl in a well in Texas are real stories, but rich players on strike? I can hear you say, “C’mon.”

When a basketball player named Len Bias died of cocaine at the University of Maryland, then there was a story. And for a week, serious reporters pushed the stories, and the resident moralists on the Op-Ed pages turned from solving South Africa’s problems by remote control or solemnly dissecting the latest slight to women by the Supreme Court and suddenly deplored the state of Western Civilization in Maryland—but death does not offer the only index of seriousness. (Ironically, the people covering big-time basketball were the best qualified to report or opine on Len Bias because that was a story about black athletes and their exploitation by big-time sports factories, and those who knew the most were shoved aside. )

But at least in my opinion, the sports section is worth the same standards of editing and carefully rewriting because there ought to be one set of editorial standards and quality of rewrite in a paper—at least, insofar as possible. In fact, I think how a culture chooses to take its leisure is fully as important or serious as an index to that culture’s overall health as how it goes about its work. Humankind has always gone to work in the same ways; how it chooses to recreate, to produce and consume leisure, to take its pleasure—and from the Greeks on, sport has been crucial to that pleasure—is immensely varied and important. The sports section—whether the athletes like it or not, whether the sportswriter likes it or not, whether you like it or not—the sports section is the only place in the paper where there are any heroes—where a modern society finds authentically larger-than-life figures who can do something better than anyone in the world. Object to the hero worship; deplore the values involved; say what you will: Millions of people, and not just children, will live in awe or have their lives changed by the image and the valency—by the supramundane aura—of these athletes. The power of any very great athlete in any society in the world is immense, and it has been thus for millenia. Anyone who can raise the general mass of humanity out of itself, even for a moment, by doing something that teaches us again of how free from mortal constraints we can be—and still be seen as one of us—deserves all the awe he or she can get.

And if the argument from a kind of seriousness—seriousness of a kind precisely different from ordinary, working seriousness—does not persuade you to take the sports section more seriously; if your readers who like what they get and want more do not persuade you to do it better and hold more readers across all the demographic spectra; if the nurturing of your best pool of writing talent, some of whom may move to covering really important things like bond issues or the state capital, does not persuade you to pay more attention to the quality of editing and level of support in the sports section, then let me appeal to your professional pride—your sense of craftsmanship and paper-wide competence—and ask you, precisely because I do take what you do so seriously, not to take sports for granted. Its support in every sense will help to support the nation’s newspapers.

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