Questionable Calls in the Sports Department

by Walter Brasch

With the opening of the high school football season, local newspapers and TV stations have again been running lists of what they believe are the top teams.

Most lists rank teams in the “top 10.” One Pennsylvania TV station, whose on-air number is 16, runs the “Top 16.”

There are several problems with these lists. First, we don’t know how they got those rankings. We don’t know who makes up those lists or what criteria were used. It could be a sports editor and her grandfather. It could be a bunch of station personnel sitting at a bar, throwing back vodka slammers and team names.

Even if we know how the lists are compiled, a second major question arises. Why? Yes, why? Why does it matter? Aren’t won-loss records good enough? Shouldn’t the only rankings that matter be who enters and wins in the playoffs?

Some newspapers have a half-dozen staffers and a couple of subscribers make predictions of the upcoming high school, college, and pro football games. Winners get prestige and, sometimes, gift cards from local advertisers.

Some newspapers run the odds on upcoming games, apparently so their subscribers have basic, although seldom accurate, information to assist them with bets. While betting on college and pro games is fairly common, and mostly illegal, should anyone be betting on high school games?

Several sites rank teams from throughout the country. USAToday runs a pre-season ranking of the Top 25 football teams. With one million boys playing football on 14,000 teams, does anyone think anyone, even those with access to a super-Cray computer, can accurately define the “top 25.” USAToday during mid-summer also does a composite score of four national sites which determine the “Top High School Prospects.” These are, supposedly, the “top 100” high school players, and top recruits for a college football scholarship.

The rankings don’t stop with football. USAToday also ranks the “top 25” teams in almost every sport, including girls lacrosse and boys soccer.

Do these rankings and predictions give the sports departments something to fill time and space? Do they make the sports editor appear to be powerful or intelligent? Are the lists something to allow fans to believe their team is good enough to be ranked? Or to complain that their team was cheated and should be ranked No. 3, instead of No. 17?

Related to rankings are the persistent countdowns of the “Best Play of the Week” and “Athlete of the Week.” These TV clips are loaded in favor of quarterbacks throwing balls to receivers or running backs sidestepping two tackles to score from 20 yards out. Usually overlooked is a great block that springs the running back loose. Or, maybe a quarterback sack that stops the other team’s momentum. But, every week there’s some play that someone-we don’t know who-and we certainly don’t know the criteria-decides for the rest of us.

On Saturdays, we shouldn’t care who was ranked or what the best play was from the night before. We should care that the teenage boys did their best, played hard, and enjoyed their time on the field.

After all, it’s only a game.

[Dr. Brasch began his journalism career as a sports writer and then as a sports editor before turning to public affairs/investigative reporting and in-depth feature writing. He is the author of 20 books. His latest is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

 

The Boss Who Fought for the Working Class

by Walter Brasch

He was born into poverty in New Hampshire in 1811.

His father was a struggling farmer. His mother did most of the other chores.

He was a brilliant student, but the family often moved, looking for a better life-a couple of times so the father could avoid being put into debtor’s prison.

At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a printer’s apprentice, sending much of his wages to help his family.

For several years, he worked as an apprentice and then as a printer, his hands covered by ink, his body ingesting the chemicals of that ink.

He worked hard, saved money, helped others achieve their political dreams, became the editor of newspapers, and soon became an owner.

In the two decades leading to the Civil War, Horace Greeley had become one of the most powerful and influential men in America. His newspaper, the New York Tribune, was the nation’s largest circulation newspaper.

But instead of becoming even richer, he used his newspaper as a call for social action. For social justice.

In 1848, as a congressman fulfilling the last three months of the term of an incumbent who was removed from office, Greeley introduced legislation to end flogging in the Navy, argued for a transcontinental railroad, and introduced legislation to allow citizens to purchase at a reduced price land in unsettled territories as long as they weren’t speculators and promised to develop the land.

The Homestead Act, which Congress finally passed 13 years later, helped the indigent, unemployed, and others to help settle the American west and Midwest.

But in his three months in office he also became universally hated by almost everyone elected to Congress. The social reformer in his soul had pointed out numerous ethical and criminal abuses by members of Congress; his party didn’t ask him to run for a full term.

He called for all American citizens-Blacks and women included-to be given the rights of the vote.

In 1854, Greeley became one of the founders of the Republican party. For more than two decades, he had been a strong abolitionist and now the new political party would make the end of slavery one of its founding principles. He was one of the main reasons why his friend, Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped become president, finally relented and two years after the civil war began, finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

More than 225,000 Americans (of a nation of about 35 million) bought his relatively objective and powerful history of the civil war, making the book one of the best-sellers in the nation’s nine decade history. In today’s sales, that would be about two million copies.

Unlike some editors who pandered to the readers and advertisers, he maintained a separation of editorial and advertising departments, and demanded the best writers and reporters, no matter what their personal opinions were. Among those he hired were Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Karl Marx. And at a time when newsrooms were restricted to men, he hired Margaret Fuller to be his literary editor.

He believed in a utopian socialism, where all people helped each other, and where even the most unskilled were given the opportunity to earn a living wage.

He demanded that all workers be treated fairly and with respect. In 1851, he founded a union for printers.

When his employees said they didn’t need a union because their boss paid them well and treated them fairly, he told them that only in a union could the workers continue to be treated decently, that they had no assurances that some day he might not be as decent and generous as he was that day. The union was for their benefit, the benefit of their families, and their profession, he told them.

In 1872, Horace Greeley ran for the presidency, nominated on both the Democrat and Liberal Republican tickets. But, his opposition was U.S. Grant, the war hero running for re-election on an establishment Republican ticket.

Weeks before the electoral college met, Horace Greeley, who lost the popular vote, died, not long after his wife.

The printers, the working class, erected monuments in his honor.

And everyone knew that the man with a slight limp, who usually dressed not as a rich man but as a farmer coming into town to buy goods, who greeted everyone as a friend, who could have interesting conversations with everyone from the illiterate to the elite, was a man worthy of respect, even if they disagreed with his views. For most, Horace Greeley was just a bit too eccentric, his ideas just too many decades ahead of their time.

On this Labor Day weekend, when not one Republican candidate for president believes in unions, when CEOs often make more than 100 times what their workers earn, when millionaires and billionaires running for office pretend they are populists, when even many in the working class seem more comfortable supporting the policies and political beliefs of the elite, the nation needs to reflect upon the man who knew that without the workers, there would be no capitalism.

[Dr. Brasch has been a member of several crafts, arts, and trade labor unions. He proudly sees himself not as among the elite but as a part of the working class. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster]

 

The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

by WALTER BRASCH

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag.

Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism-and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence-with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials-there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast-the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”

For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”-on some stations it makes no difference-using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.

One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.

Time for more commercials.

At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.

Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.

By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club-as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting-how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled-and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.

At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather-who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be-explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”  

There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations-local, regional, broadcast or cable-have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.

[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

Latest Book: Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution

(www.greeleyandstone.com)

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