ESPN’s Tim Keown laments the “death of the sports interview” in a long piece on Page 2 today.
He argues that the connection between athletes or coaches and fans has been damaged by today’s “kabuki” interview routine, which involves the subject sitting on a podium and responding, not to questions anymore, but to the demand to “talk about” this or that subject. Keown compares this to reporters pushing a button, and the interview subject then spitting out some drab, prefab response:
This is the brave new world of information-gathering, staccato verbal gunfire delivered in a frenzy with a media relations manager standing nearby, poised to end the proceedings at any moment. You, Mr. Quarterback, are treated as a machine. They push a button—talk about—and your mouth clicks on to spew the words that will fuel this little corner of the vast steno pool of American sports letters.
Any deviation from that bland answering regimen, Keown writes, an honest or nuanced response, and it’ll blow up in the interview subject’s face in seconds thanks to Twitter and other new media.
What is lost amid the swirl of random information? What died along with the interview? Texture and perspective, to be sure, and any true sense for who an athlete really is and what he stands for. There is more demand and less access, more information and less knowledge.
Nobody dislikes the “talk about” question more than I do. It’s lazy and unimaginative and just plain rude. It’s a slight improvement, very slight, over sticking a microphone in someone’s face and saying, “Say something.”
But I can’t help reading Keown’s piece not as a cri de coeur against the evils of—I’m not sure whether it’s new media or the savvy of teams and leagues, which have figured out how to control their message and protect their employees, which they have every right to do—but as a confession.
Keown writes, “Behold the decomposed remains of the sports interview.” I read it as “Look at how my industry has failed to adjust to a changing world and just keeps doing the same old thing the same old way, even though, as I’m telling you here, it doesn’t work anymore.”
What’s that cliché about the definition of insanity?
If the media scrum that Keown writes about is not producing satisfactory results for the media, why participate in it? Why not look for a different way of covering the story? I’ve been asking that question for 22 years.
As is often the case with laments like Keown’s for the death of some cherished way of journalism past, I think he’s remembering things as being better than they were. Here he is describing the relationship between beat writers and baseball managers:
Before the interview ossified into its current state—pith-helmeted archeologists pinpoint the approximate time of death to 2005—the baseball clubhouse was a great place to have a conversation. After games, writers would sit in the manager’s office, wait for the radio guys to ask their questions and then just talk. You got to know something about the man: what he liked to drink after a win, what he liked to drink after a loss, whether he was exasperated or resigned. At some point a clubbie would arrive with a plate of food, and you got to know whether he was on a diet or whether the game had made the very idea of eating intolerable.
The trouble is, little of this made its way into the coverage. If you knew the beat reporter for a team, he’d tell you all sorts of inside stuff. But the reason it was all inside stuff is because it didn’t make the papers.
I don’t think it would have been possible at the time for a person to follow a baseball team through the media any more obsessively than I followed the Los Angeles Dodgers of the late 1970s. I read the papers, listened to sportstalk radio, subscribed to the Sporting News, which was still the baseball bible back then.
And yet, two decades later, reading an oral history of the team in which those players talked about themselves and each other, there wasn’t one personality I recognized from my media-fed picture of that team.
Keown writes, “Twitter is insufficient by the very nature of its message. It’s a 140-character press release.” But it’s a ridiculous idea that fans could better connect to their athletic heroes through the mediation of some writer who barely knew the athlete and talked to him for 15 minutes at a stretch than they can through interacting via Twitter, even 140 characters at a time.
We fans can’t say we really know people like Chad Ochocinco or Logan Morrison or Shaquille O’Neal, but were there any athletes in the pre-Twitter era about whom you felt like you had a better sense of their personalities than you do about today’s Twitter sports stars?
Sure, Twitter is a 140-character press release, the tweeter in total control of the message, at least when he or she is smart enough to exert that control. But isn’t an interview the same thing? A smart interview subject controls the message as well. What is standing in front of a locker and chatting for a few minutes if not, as Keown refers to Twitter interactions, “familiarity masquerading as intimacy”?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Twitter is some kind of perfect replacement for the late, lamented non-”talk about” interview. I’m just saying it’s a perfectly useful little tool that Keown has turned into a scapegoat.
If the press conference-style interview scrum is not working for the mainstream media—and I think we can all agree it’s not—then it’s up to the mainstream media to figure something else out. Podiums and Twitter do not make up the whole world.
Want your audience to get to know the players you’re covering? Use your reporting skills. Talk to the people around them. Work to create a connection to the athlete so he or she will respond to a text or take a few minutes outside the press conference arena and talk to you. Boycott the scrums. I don’t know. Do something.
It’s fine to lament. But if something isn’t working, the solution is to figure out a new way of doing it.
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As I was writing this post, I asked a few athletes on Twitter what they thought of Keown’s piece, whether they agree that the fan-athlete “connection” was better before Twitter and the “death of the interview.” I’ll post replies as they come in, but the first to answer was pitcher, author and B/R Guest Columnist Dirk Hayhurst, who tweeted:
Great article. So true. When Twitter first came to locker rooms, players = afraid it was just another tool to burn them with. / Media had reputation for capitalizing or creating controversy. Now, Twitter is a way to clarify intent amidst headlines. / The interview is not dead, however, just less efficient in a world moving information faster than ever. / Fan/Player connect stronger. Media/player connect weaker. Rise of Twitter is fans finding new venues 4 richer sports nutrients.
Update: Free agent Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson also replied, tweeting, “I think he’s implying that reporters ruined the connection by burying players humanity. Now we’re forced to tweet.”
More on this in a new post tomorrow.
Update 2: Here’s that next day post: ESPN’s Chris Jones takes a turn remembering the good old days