It was with some trepidation that I agreed to be on Mitch Albom's show last week during the jihad reaction*. But I figured, hey, what the hell, the worst thing that happens is some guy listening thinks I might be worth reading. So I go on, and express my point of view. Albom asks some pointed but fair questions, and I hang up. Fine. But the next 30 minutes or whatever are then dedicated to the proposition that I am just an example of Michigan fans "circling the wagons"; none of the points made are actually addressed. Instead I am dismissed as the Google Master from the MGoBlog… by Mitch Albom of the Free Press.
While the rest of the planet has moved past the idea of true objectivity, grizzled newspapermen still cling to the idea that a fact is a fact and the manner of its presentation and the context its surrounded with have no impact on how that fact is received. Albom asked me "do you think the writers of this piece have an agenda?" in a fashion that made it clear that this would be the journalistic equivalent of crossing the streams. Sure, they heard tell some guys down yonder tried it once but that's why there's this big smoking crater and everyone's kids have three heads.
I responded "well, agenda is a loaded word" because the context I was in—hey there you go—but my immediate thought was of course they have an agenda. Albom might as well asked me if I thought the reporters were robots. (A man without an agenda @ right.) People who are not robots have agendas, motivations, desires, and so forth and so on. They want to be tall and have hair and people who read their writing who can actually remember what the writer identifies himself as. Or they want a shiny prize. Or they want to jump off a sinking ship.
The most obvious and universal agenda to want your work to be important. I'm always annoyed when I've got this cool theory that the stats don't bear out. I then have to actively remind myself to present the full story when I (usually) try to make my case anyway. Most recent example: rugby punting reduces long returns. There's a natural tendency to ignore or downplay things that detract from your argument, especially when you've put a ton of work into it. Everyone wants their work to be meaningful.
So no one gets away without having their motivation examined anymore. No one. Jim Carty just put up an interesting post about "faith-based reporting," which is the idea that increasingly the people in the room at press conferences are working for GBW or the Wolverine or this site and make little pretense about being generally in favor of Michigan winning football games. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with large swaths of it (around 50%) but no section more than this one:
The suggestion that Rosenberg shouldn't have worked on the piece is nothing less than bunk, as I've covered above. He's a terrific journalist - just recruited to contribute for SI.com, incidentally - and one of the most fair people I know. Nothing he's written in the past would be cause for him to be removed from this piece. The suggestion that the Freep somehow took advantage of the freshman because it didn't fully brief them on their full agenda is similarly silly.
That's gone, man. The days when people could be expected to take it on faith that the reporters in question were noble just-the-facts truth-seekers, ma'am, has been steadily evaporating for 30 years and boiling off since the people formerly known as the audience started firing back. I do not care what people who personally know the guy think. I automatically suspect bullcrap in all ways that fit into conventional narratives or wishful thinking too easily, whether it's LOL NC$$ hates SEMO or Andrew Maxwell casually outing MSU on the MSU official site. There is no way I'm exempting a columnist who's regularly deployed false assumptions in the pursuit of Rodriguez or a newspaper that headlined said columnist's ill-researched Justin Feagin column "Win at all costs poor formula for Rodriguez." Carty interprets the Deadspin post defending Rosenberg's objectivity as legitimate; I don't see how anyone who's followed the Free Press' inflammatory headlines and snotty opinion pieces can come to that conclusion. A preposterously long breakdown of said article is at the foot of this post. I've thrown it behind the jump because it's tedious.
My base assumption is that unnecessary lack of transparency is always in the service of concealing dishonesty. And there are plenty of instances of concealment or outright dishonesty in the article in question:
- Misrepresenting quotes from two freshmen. Even leaving aside the questionable ethics of asking players questions about a piece you're planning without disclosing the unusual focus of the piece, the quotes from Hawthorne and Stokes are flat misrepresentations of what they said. At no point did they say any of the activities were "required," and in fact literally everything they list can and likely will fall under the NCAA definition of a noncountable hour. The problem with quoting the freshmen is not that they were not briefed on the agenda of the piece but that quotes were blatantly misrepresented.
- Providing anonymity for flimsy reasons. I'd be surprised if a single current player is one of the anonymous sources providing damning quotes. It's certain that at least some of them come from departures. And there are no potential repercussions for a departed player outside of what happened to Toney Clemons at Colorado, who was told "don't do that again" and directed to release a statement that made him seem like less of a dip. That is not sufficient justification for anonymous quotes in a story that you think makes a case for major NCAA infractions.
- Cloaking the distribution of current and former players. Even if you provide anonymity to the departed players, there's no reason to cite ten people interviewed for the story, drop the bombshell of "current and former," and not clarify whether or not the only current players in the story are the aforementioned duped freshmen. There is zero reason to not put "current" or "former" between the words "anonymous" and "player" after the anonymous player drops a damning quote.
- Ignoring the extremely obvious context. As previously stated, "everyone does it" is not a moral defense (which, IME, is unnecessary) but it's certainly a technical one.
In a media environment where you are always (rightfully) under suspicion it's imperative to show how the piece came together, to forthrightly address reasonable criticism, and provide the primary-source data that you used to construct the story.
The Free Press did none of this. Worse than that, there are sections of the story that are clearly disingenuous. That kills your credibility. That goes double when you are on record as the sort of extreme Rodriguez skeptic that would trot out a host of weak sauce in a column that slams Rodriguez for doing literally the exact same thing John Beilein—who you've never said a discouraging word about—did when he broke his contract. It goes triple when you couldn't be bothered to do the simple legwork of calling Justin Feagin's high school coach or checking his juvenile record before launching a broadside at the sort of kids Rodriguez is bringing into the program. (And don't give me that "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" stuff. Couching your work in disclaimers doesn't change the thrust.)
There was a way to go about this in a fair manner: disclose the names of the transferred kids. Clarify where the damning quotes are coming from. Provide appropriate context (45 hours a week) for the allegations. Don't misrepresent quotes from kids you're about to hang out to dry.
I've heard a lot about how I'm a Michigan fan. I've heard a lot about how I identify myself as Brian. I haven't heard one word about the actual content of my criticisms. Eventually, it becomes clear the lack of response is because they simply don't have one.
*(For the record: this isn't my jihad. The whole jihad bit is a reference to the first Jihad, which was way closer to an actual jihad. It was launched when an incredibly credulous West Virginia reporter announced that Rich Rodriguez had shredded every last document concerning West Virginia football.
I mean, really, which side here is a technologically deficient society bitter about its fading glory and hugely resistant to change? That's what I thought.)
**(Specifically here. I didn't want to do this but sometimes you just started writing a brief bit for UV and it expands to fill the universe:
Blogfight. Tommy Craggs responded to John Chait's response to Dashiell Bennett's response to Jon Chait's response to The Article In Question, and I guess this is my response to that. Woo internet. Quickly skipping to the snarky end:
I know plenty of people who say the very same things about Rodriguez. Sure, I guess you could say they're biased, too, but no one ever accuses them of secretly campaigning to undermine the program. That's because they're Michigan fans.
Those links go to diaries by BlueFront and the Barking Sphincter, both of whom got negbanged into oblivion and banned because everyone hated them. I have no idea how long it must have taken Craggs to dig up the bloated corpses he linked, how many pages and pages of Michigan fans who generally support Rich Rodriguez it took before arriving at his destination. Probably a long time. I do know how long he spent checking the general reaction to these guys: zero seconds.
The content of the post is a bunch of Rosenberg copypasta that purports to show Rosenberg is a critical but fair evaluator of the situation. An assessment of that:
- Articles before the infamous July 10 Vader hat column—all of which came before Rodriguez's first spring practice—shouldn't be part of the survey since there was a severe shift in Rosenberg's opinion after he caught a practice or two and got an earful o' swearing, leading to the "I find it sad that the University of Michigan is paying a man millions of dollars a year to humiliate some of its students" line that Craggs ignores. How can you ignore that without shooting your entire theory in the foot?
- Article 1: declares that Michigan fans should cease deifying Rodriguez; marks first appearance of fancy rhetorical device: "I'm not saying Rodriguez should be dipped in butter and thrown into Notre Dame stadium, but now that I've established I'm reasonable let's do that." States "free pass ends when team takes the field," which is… um… insane, right?
- Article 2: something on McGuffie after the Miami game. One paragraph is excerpted and no link is provided (not that it would matter since it's locked behind a paywall). It says nothing, really.
- Article 3: Headlined "SYSTEM FAILURE: THE EARLY TAKE ON RODRIGUEZ: ATROCIOUS." This one doesn't need explaining, I don't think, but was taken apart anyway.
- Article 4: About how Michigan's shift in offensive focus is helping Michigan State. True. Sort of negative and obvious.
- Articles 5 and 6 take their highlights from the Fancy Rhetorical Device, and are repetitive notes about Michigan not being very good.
- Article 7… later.
- Articles 8, 9: boilerplate I don't remember. It's just typical sportswriter talk like "Michigan obviously won't go 3-9 but how not 3-9 will they go?" Reads like it was rattled off in 30 minutes without thought.
- Article 10: The extremely well-researched and fair Feagin article.
On article 7: I missed this when it came out but it appears to be a direct response to this here blog. I try to be cautious about assuming someone is reading you or responding to you or plagiarizing from you when they've probably never heard of you—most ideas aren't so original that they cannot be replicated. But I think there's a case here. The extremely well-researched and fair Feagin article took a shot at "Rodriguez defenders" whose initial take to the cocaine FOIA was to assume Michigan hadn't run background checks as thoroughly as they should have because Rodriguez was scrambling to reassemble a Carr recruiting class and find someone, anyone to play quarterback. This site's initial take:
It's also one guy that Michigan apparently didn't run as thorough of a background check on—or possibly any background check on—as they scrambled to reconfigure Rodriguez's first recruiting class.
Article 7 is a response to "Rodriguez defenders" who noted that the "Get a life" quote was taken out of context, which this site did. Rosenberg thinks that lack of context lacks context:
Rodriguez's defenders say the comment was taken out of context. They are correct. It was taken out of two contexts.
First, of course, Rodriguez was definitely not telling all fans to "get a life." He was speaking to a small group of fans who go way over the line. Most of us agree that some fans are indeed rude, vulgar and hurtful.
But the second context is the question that Rodriguez was asked. I don't think many people have any idea what it was:
Q: What have you learned about yourself this year?
How do you go from that question to telling some fans to get a life?
This criticism, it will not surprise you to find out, lacks context itself. It gives the "full answer" as provided on this site but not the full answer as provided by Rich Rodriguez:
Q. What have you learned about yourself as a coach and as a person?
COACH RODRIGUEZ: I've learned. I think you've got to keep learning. There's probably a lot of fans that think I'm dumber than I was a year ago or two years ago, back when we were winning games. I'd like to think I'm smarter. We showed up on Saturdays. I think you've got to learn a little about personality, about your place. I've learned more about this place. I learned a whole lot more about our team which I think is important your team, your staff.
You know, obviously you've got to learn to have thick skin. But I learned that a long time ago with coaches. The last ten months, even before I started the season we've learned the effect it can have on your family, and the things that you've got deal with as a coach.
This is a public position. It's not like a politician, I'm not running for office. I mean, God bless them. They choose to have that public scrutiny. As coaches, we know it's part of the job, but we don't choose to have it. Most of us would rather not.
It's at this point Rodriguez starts into his disappointment at some of the stuff he's heard or read. He says "to make it personal to a coach or player" isn't right, emphasizes the players are amateurs, and makes it clear he's talking about personal comments not related to coaching or playing.
This is all about perspective, right? From my perspective, that's a guy who's talked extemporaneously (read: rambled) for a bit and found himself naturally drawn to something that's bothering him—attacks on his players and coaches—and attempts to defend them. This is not a character flaw to me. To Rosenberg it is, which is the entire point. He casts the world into "Rodriguez defenders" and… well, himself. He willfully interprets ambiguous things as negative. He won't let even the most off-base Rodriguez criticism go, instead hoarding non-events like team captaincy changes and kerfuffles over the #1 jersey like they're precious gold.
And he was put in charge of a major investigative piece that seems slanted to the point where national ESPN folk are calling it a "joke" and a "witch hunt." Chris Spielman(!!!) did the same on local Columbus red-meat Buckeye radio. So, yeah… very convincing there, Craggs. )