Access: It’s a prize, but it comes at a price
Access is one of the best and most seductive things about covering sports. It’s also a minefield.
Access is a prize. Access to games, to practices, to athletes, coaches and press boxes. One of the most frequent questions we get at Bleacher Report from the writer community is “Can you get me a credential?”
But access isn’t always for the best. There’s real wisdom and philosophy behind the slogan of Deadspin, one of the most popular and important sports sites in the United States: “Sports news without access, favor, or discretion.”
Two recent stories illustrate some of the pitfalls of access, one from sportswriting, the other from political journalism.
The sports story comes from the University of Kentucky, where Aaron Smith of the student paper the Kentucky Kernel wrote a story Aug. 29 about two walk-on players joining the Wildcats basketball team.
Smith had seen a tweet from Kentucky freshman player Anthony Davis welcoming Brian Long and Sam Malone to the squad. According to a separate report in the Kernel, Smith used an online student phone directory to call Long and Malone and ask if they could confirm the news.
Both players said yes, they had made the team. Smith asked each if he would answer a few questions, and both declined.
That followup question, a request for an interview, brought down the wrath of the Kentucky Athletics department, which revoked Smith’s access to a basketball media day the following day.
DeWayne Peevy, the associate athletic director for media relations, pointed to a line in the media guide stating that all media requests for interviews with players must be sent through the Athletics office 24 hours in advance. Peevy referred to the media day access, the Kernel reports, as “a reward to, basically, a preferred group of people to give them special access.”
Journalism experts and organizations have spoken out in Smith’s favor, arguing among other things that Kentucky, a public university, is acting against a free press. Smith and others have pointed out that the policy about scheduling interviews in advance is not something media members have ever signed or agreed to.
Peevy’s response: “Going along with that policy is by choice. But I can choose not to reward you.”
Putting aside the particulars of whether Peevy overstepped his bounds in pulling Smith’s credentials, or whether the punishment is excessive, as Smith says, or “a slap on the wrist,” as Peevy terms it, the case illustrates the pitfalls of access.
As I wrote in the comments of the Kernel’s story about the revocation, this is a classic case of how an institution uses access as a reward and punishment system to keep the media in line, and a great illustration of why access is often overrated.
You get access as long as you do what the institution you’re covering is happy with what you do. Get the people you’re covering angry and your access might be revoked.
Do you see how this might color what you choose to cover and how you cover it? Instead of serving the interests of your audience, you might have to serve the interests of whoever you’re covering in order to preserve your access.
The example from political journalism involves the dangers of the other extreme—too much access.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes for the New York Times, wrote last week about some unusual access he’d been given by the Obama administration, and how that access tempted him to do some bad journalism.
Krugman was in Yaroslavl, Russia, at a conference, so the White House gave him a copy of President Obama’s new jobs plan in advance, under a strict embargo, so he’d be able to write about it in a timely way despite the difficulties of travel.
It was in the White House’s interests to have Krugman weighing in on the new plan in a timely manner.
Krugman pointed out that he rarely has such “insider” information. “Not my thing,” he wrote. He comments on events after they become news. But having access to what Obama was going to say in his speech gave him “a strange sensation,” he wrote:
There were quite a few reporters, Western as well as Russian, at Yaroslavl—and all of them knew, or thought they knew, that we were talking about a $300 billion plan, with very little spending. And I was, unusually, in the position of knowing the insider stuff they didn’t, that it was going to be 50 percent bigger with a significant amount of spending.
And it felt as if I was really in the know—which, I suspect, is a big journalistic trap.
For the fact is that this kind of inside information—knowing the details of some proposal a few hours before everyone else—is deeply trivial. I mean, it was helpful to me given this week’s schedule; but all the really important questions involve things no amount of access can tell you. How will this play in the national debate? How will Republicans respond? How well will the plan work if by some miracle it really does get by the GOP blockade?
Does that last bit sound familiar, Bleacher Report writers? It’s the same kind of approach Bleacher Report takes. What’s the analysis? What’s likely to happen next?
Access is not a bad thing. It can be a great thing. Someone has to have access to report the news and get the interviews. If that’s you—great! But there are issues that come with that access.
Krugman, a pontificator by trade, wrote about his own moment of access to briefly-exclusive information: “Even I had to step back and say, hey, this doesn’t matter; what really matters is the kind of analysis that anyone with access to the web can do.”