Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bissinger Vs. Leitch: How to Look Like a Fool to a New Generation

Above: Buzz Bissinger, a man about to have no job.

From what I understand, and from what my friend Hudi tells me, Buzz Bissinger is a reputable commentator and writer in most respects. He writes about sports in many conventional newspapers and magazines, or old media outlets. He is also responsible for the sports-media steamroller, "Friday Night Lights," which, in addition to being a book, became a movie and then a television show. The man is arguably making a lot of money off of the fact that subjects transcend media and can find incarnations in at least three different forms of media.

But why would I bring up that last bit? Why does it matter that Bissinger's money and fame depend at least in part on his ability to create something that can succeed in multiple different media?

The answer lies in a prominent viewpoint that he frequently expresses, most vitriolically on a sports show called "Costas Now" with well-known sports blogger, Will Leitch. In this segment, Bissinger expressed what Wikipedia calls his "self professed 'abiding hatred' of blogs" via personal attacks on Leitch, the founder and operator of popular sports blog Deadspin.

You can watch the video for yourself to get a taste of the kind of hateful, personally-directed language Bissinger used. And new media bloggers and news outlets have had a field day criticizing his rhetorical methods. Indeed, apparently even people who agree with him feel his message is lost in his caustic speech methods. But I'm here to tell you that, even if Buzz Bissinger were level-headed and even remotely likeable, he would still be on the wrong side of this issue, intellectually and, interestingly enough, morally.

First of all, from an intellectual standpoint, Bissinger finds himself arguing an indefensible point. His argument is that the print media and traditional sports coverage methods are superior to blogs, most notably because the blogs are mean and focused too much on entertainment and not on sports analysis. He insists that blogs are just plain wrong. Here are the three reasons why this viewpoint cannot be sustained:

1. Sports are entertainment. Sports analysis and coverage are to increase that entertainment. People who think it is fun to analyze the numbers and talk seriously about the coaching and managing decisions of their favorite teams go to sources that do precisely that. And they go to those sources because they are entertaining. People who go to blogs that talk about how stupid certain coaches are and how certain players are behaving off the field/court/ice/etc. go there for the same reason that people go to Bissinger's old media: to be entertained. The goals of the two media are no different; they are there to make sports more entertaining in whatever way works for their audience. Without this goal, sports writing wouldn't exist.

2. Blogs are mean, but so is traditional sports coverage. Bissinger complains that blogs waste time spewing "hate." But what should blogs be using this time for? The same thing that, for instance, "Costas Now" does, which is often registering distaste for people in the sports world? The only distinction between television and magazine sports coverage and blog sports coverage is a matter of degree, not a matter of one being hateful and the other not. And that degree is, again, determined by what their audience can stomach or even what their audience wants. And that brings me to...

3. Blogs, unlike most old media, are interactive to the level that modern media consumers demand. Books were fine as dominant media for a generation that didn't expect immediate results from their media. Newspapers were more immediate next, but that wasn't good enough for the television generation, which came to expect "breaking news updates." Now, in the post-breaking-news world, people expect to be able to comment on their news and to link people to it and to have an almost infinite selection of choices for how they get their news, be it sports news or otherwise. In Bissinger's world, this normal upswing in demand for interactivity should stop with his generation. What he needs is a dose of reality; his generation will eventually not be alive anymore, and the generation that he keeps criticizing will have the option of dismissing his generation's output, an outcome that looks increasingly certain the more he demands that media not evolve and audiences stop having expectations.

And that's only on the intellectual foundations of Bissinger's argument. He even has shaky ground to stand on from a moral standpoint. Remember how I mentioned that Bissinger's most succesful property was "Saturday Night Lights," something which gets him book royalties, movie royalties, and even still-running television show royalties?

Well, the natural development of the "Friday Night Lights" story from true events into book, then into movie, and finally into television, is a result of the precise new media conventions that he is criticizing. His high-minded story of triumph book became a populist drama story of triumph on the big screen, and it wound up a pretty straight populist drama on television, all because this is what the audience wanted. In essence, the kind of audience-driven content that Bissinger criticizes is what lines his pockets on a daily basis. There is a moral hipocricy in saying that his method for audience exploitation is somehow better than a blog's method to the same ends.

All told, Bissinger, in addition to coming across as a blowhard with a chip on his shoulder, comes across as an ill-informed relic of an almost-gone era of media. His tirades in support of the finer quality of print sports coverage and old media sounds more like the cries of a man that fears his job is almost gone. He has his supporters, but, thankfully for anyone that likes their media responsive to their demands, those supporters are dwindling. The world of blogs like Deadspin is growing, and the world of magazines, newspapers, and fossils like Bissinger is shrinking fast.

If Bissinger still wants to have a job in five years' time, maybe he should start a blog.

Related: a sweet post from the Washington Post, old media giants, via their blog. This particular writer has the unique position of having written for the newspaper and for their blog. It's great. Here it is.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Stars,

    this is a great entry on the Bissinger/Leitch altercation! My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college student and writer who currently contributes to 'Too Shy to Stop,' an upstart online magazine focused on culture and the arts.

    I found you entry, as it would turn out, while doing research for my own essay on the legendary 'Costas Now' episode. I focus first on how much I adore Bissinger, but quickly change focus to how wrong he is regarding his stance on blogging and why.

    If you have the time, check it out! I’d love for you to read it and comment.


    Peter Ricci