Skip to content
Dec 7 / King Kaufman

ESPN’s Chris Jones takes a turn remembering the good old days

Gay Talese in 2006

Gay Talese in 2006

Chris Jones, a very good writer, has a piece in ESPN The Magazine that argues, in the words of the subheadline, “Despite all the ways our favorite athletes reach out, we know less about them than ever.”

It’s a shorter version of the same argument Tim Keown made in his “Death of the interview” piece on yesterday, discussed in this B/R Blog post.

Jones tells the story of legendary New York Times writer Gay Talese tracking down a reluctant Joe DiMaggio at his San Francisco restaurant in 1966. During his career, sportswriters had built Joe into “an American icon.” Now, 15 years after DiMaggio’s retirement, Jones writes, Talese wrote a landmark piece that “stripped away the myths that had shrouded DiMaggio and showed him for what he really was: a sad, sometimes lonely man, now on an impossible quest for something like peace.”

Today, Jones argues, we’re regressing:

What’s strange, as well as alarming, is that we’re on the verge of a New Age of Hagiography. Despite all our advanced technologies and the seeming invasiveness of our coverage, or maybe because of those things, we actually know less about the real lives of athletes today than we have at any time since Talese walked into DiMaggio’s restaurant.

Sure, there’s Twitter, Jones writes, but: “It’s the pretty rare truth that can be crammed into 140 characters.”

On Saturday, Logan Morrison of the Miami Marlins tweeted 15 times, for a total of about 265 words. That’s not a huge amount of content. It’s roughly the number of words in this post so far. But how many words’ worth of insight did Joe DiMaggio give fans on any random December Saturday in 1939, when he, like Morrison today, was 24?

There may be a limit to how much truth can be crammed into 140 characters—hell, there’s a limit to how much truth can be crammed into a 20-volume encyclopedia—but there isn’t a limit to what you can learn from a limitless number of 140-character bursts. Twitter doesn’t block truth, and Morrison, like a lot of athletes, tweets every day.

Logan Morrison

Logan Morrison

Morrison also posted two photos. And from reading his timeline that day we might learn that he likes to joke around, he likes to joke around about bathrooms, and that he’s a big LSU football fan and he’s kind of combative about it. I don’t know if the tweet and photo about fishing with an escort is about fishing, a joke about escorts or a play on the name of his team, but I’ll bet someone who follows LoMo’s adventures more closely than I do got it.

Not exactly the foundation for a psychoanalysis of the Marlins’ left fielder, but it’s a lot more than nothing, and I dare say it’s a lot more than reading, second-hand, about how he was looking first-pitch fastball and just tried to get good wood on it.

“This isn’t a sports writer’s lament,” Jones writes. “It’s a fan’s lament. If you haven’t turned 40 yet, you’re further removed from the objects of your affection than you’ve ever been. Our modern walls allow something like Penn State to happen. They allow terrible secrets to be kept.”

Oh really? Twitter launched in 2006 and went mainstream, at least according to the Wall Street Journal, in 2008. The timeline of the Penn State scandal begins in 1998, when Jerry Sandusky was investigated by police and child welfare authorities for allegedly raping a child. There were more allegations in 2002.

The media missed it all. The “modern walls” had nothing to do with it. They didn’t even exist yet.

This is a common theme in laments for the loss of the old ways of journalism, remembering things being more rosy than they were. The watchdog media of days gone by, for instance, is missed terribly by people who seem to remember it doing a whole lot more watchdogging than it actually did. Here’s a Nieman Reports piece from 2001 talking about how the watchdog function of the press had fallen “into widespread disuse.” And that was before the U.S. media failed to call out the lies that preceded the Iraq War and missed the Wall Street fraud that caused an economic disaster.

I’m over 40, and I don’t remember this time when we knew so much more about athletes than we know now. I don’t remember anything like Brandon Phillips’ visit to a Little League game. You can dismiss that as a once-in-a-lifetime stunt, but you can’t deny that a kid tweeted at Phillips and the ballplayer responded with a nice gesture. That wasn’t happening in 1997.

I also don’t remember being able to find out who athletes are dating, and I couldn’t have been privy to what they were saying to the women they were hitting on, or what their junk looked like, even if I’d wanted to be.

And that’s just the nonsense. As baseball player and B/R Guest Columnist Dirk Hayhurst tweeted in response to yesterday’s B/R Blog post, “Twitter is a way to clarify intent amidst headlines.”

Athletes can speak directly to fans now, in a way they couldn’t before. Brandon Phillips has more than 177,000 followers. That readership would make him a decent-sized metropolitan newspaper. Does he manage his message sometimes? Of course he does. So did Joe DiMaggio, and most athletes in between. But at least now he’s not reliant on a third party to get that message—whether it’s a glimpse into his true personality or something else—to the fans, with all the distortion inherent in any game of telephone.

Hayhurst also wrote, “What am I more likely to believe: what a player says about himself in a tweet, or what a reporter *says* he says?”

That’s a lot of truth. And only 121 characters.

* * *

Talese photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia Creative Commons. Morrison photo: Getty Images

  • Andy

    This blog is awful.

    I would expand on my thoughts, but it appears your attention span is only as long as Twitter allows it to be.

    • Anonymous

      Right. It appears from the above 1,000-word essay that my attention span is 140 characters.

      Something tells me the world is no poorer for you not expanding on your thoughts, but just know that you’re welcome to do so.

  • Andy

    My point was you completely dismiss talented sports journalists who take time to craft long-form stories. This may not have been your goal, but your blog read as if you are kind of a Twitter snob who has no use for anything but short attention span writing direct from an athlete.

    Your blog seemed to come off as a way to discourage the very people B/R wants working for it – sports writers. What are they supposed to think if you are telling them what they do is relatively worthless in your eyes? I’m glad you weren’t around to give Woodward and Bernstein a pep talk.

    Here’s perhaps a better way of making a point from my end: Give wonderfully gifted sports writer Gary Smith one month to spend with Logan Morrison while also asking Morrison to tweet to his heart’s content for a month. What is more likely to give you a better look into Morrison? In one place you will have an interviewer following a subject and asking questions that probe for deep thoughts, while on the other you will have a guy offering up thoughts of his choice at that moment. The trained reporter is more likely to convince a guy like Morrison to delve into his inner self. Morrison is more likely to muzzle himself, and even if he isn’t, 147 characters-per-tweet isn’t exactly going to allow him to do so.

    My closest friend has been a sports writer for more than 25 years. He told me one of the biggest joys he has in his profession is getting a subject to open up and allow him to tell a story. He has told me that more times than he can remember an athlete has said to him “I just told you something I’ve never told anyone beyond my wife.” Taking that heartfelt story and re-telling it in a beautiful manner is something Twitter just can’t do.

    I didn’t mean to come off as rude in my first note, but I think putting down journalism just because you are a fan of Twitter and other social media outlets seemed short-sighted. There is room for both in our world.

    Again, if that wasn’t your goal, it didn’t read that way.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your much more civil reply this time.

      I believe you have misread this piece, but I understand why you did. It’s really of a piece with the previous post commenting on Tim Keown’s piece. I think if you read both posts, you’ll have a different idea of my point. But you shouldn’t have to read yesterday’s post to understand today’s, so that’s on me.

      Of course I’m not trying to discourage sportswriters from practicing their craft. What talented sportswriters like Gary Smith — and Chris Jones — do is not worthless. What’s worthless is the pack journalism that makes up the vast majority of mainstream sportswriting, and has for a long time, even back in the imagined golden age of journalism, whenever that was, that preceded our current tweeting age.

      Mainstream sportswriters complain about how teams restrict access to players except in mass press availabilities, which they participate in while complaining about how useless they are, and then they whine about how you can’t really learn anything on Twitter, as though they hadn’t just said the mass press availabilities are useless.

      Twitter inarguably has brought fans closer to some athletes than mainstream reporting has. Not closer than reporting CAN. Just closer than it has.

      Yes, there was that lovely Gay Talese Joe DiMaggio piece in 1966, but the reason anybody remembers it 45 years later is because it was such an outlier, just as those wonderful Gary Smith pieces are today.

      Sportswriters need to quit whining about how it used to be so much better back before teams and leagues got so strict about controlling their message and athletes became so guarded and took to Twitter. We need to figure out better ways of doing the job to get over those obstacles. Twitter, which athletes use to express themselves, is a tool, not an obstacle.

      • Andy

        Thanks for your reply, though I believe you use of the word “worthless” to describe hard working beat reporters is demeaning and unfair. A lot of these people began their careers covering the lowliest of events and worked their way up the ladder. Much like athletes compete, they compete to break stories and serve their readers best. When access is restricted, who does it really serve? It allows college or pro organizations to dictate what news gets put out to the public. So, I guess that is the answer to my question of who it serves.

        When the Constitution was created with an amendment regarding the media, it was to provide checks and balances so improprieties cannot go unnoticed and unpunished. What “better ways” would you suggest that don’t put 100% control of content into the hands of those potentially with something to hide? You put down “pack journalism”, while in the same note saying sports writers shouldn’t “whine” about mass press availabilities. To me, it seems like you are conflicting yourself there.

        This may not come off the best way possible, so I’ll just say it. What are sports writers who have spent decades in their profession and have a daily beat supposed to do? Your reply came off, again using the word “worthless”, suggesting (though not outright saying) they should pack up and find something else to do with their lives. If sports writers complain about mass press conferences, hasn’t it occurred to you that it’s only because they want to do their jobs in the best way possible? It seems to me the problem isn’t with them, it is with sports information departments wielding too much power. I think you have misdirected your point. If not, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the power sports information departments have.

        I will agree Twitter definitely is a tool and not an obstacle. That was a good way of putting it. Also, sports writers should not complain about Twitter. If athletes want to express themselves that way, it is their right. However, I do think there remains a very viable place for the hard working beat writer.

        • Anonymous

          “Worthless” does not refer to hard-working beat reporters. It refers to the system that Jones and especially Keown are complaining about. I’ll refer to what Joe Posnanski said his editor told him a long time ago: “If you find yourself in a large group of reporters, you’re probably in the wrong place.”

          So here’s how I’m hearing this conversation going:

          MAINSTREAM SPORTS REPORTERS: Things are terrible right now. The teams only make the players available at these press conferences, and nothing good comes out of them because we’re all there at once, the players just give bland, nothing answers, and there’s no following up or nuance or conversation.

          ME: Yeah, that sounds awful. You shouldn’t go to those press conferences. Find some different way to cover your beat, because, as you say, the way you’ve always done it doesn’t work anymore. You’re not serving your readers and you’re miserable. So maybe you could try –

          MAINSTREAM SPORTS REPORTERS: Can’t talk anymore! There’s a press conference starting and we don’t want to be late!!

          Look, any individual beat writer is very likely a talented person working hard at the job. But I keep reading these complaints about how the way things are now doesn’t work, and it seems to me the next thing should be a suggestion about what would work better. Sure, you can criticize the teams and leagues for shutting down access, but they are businesses, they have their agendas, and they don’t need the media’s permission to do what they do. This is not a First Amendment issue, although with public university sports departments, you could argue there are Sunshine issues. I would argue that, in fact.

          For a hundred years, teams made it easy for the press. They opened the doors. They obviously felt there was a symbiotic relationship. They needed the press to get their message out, for publicity. They don’t need them for that anymore. They have their own cable networks, websites, magazines and so on. One of the people in the pack at every MLB press conference is someone working for, a website owned by the company the writer is covering. Is there a measurable difference in the coverage you get from that writer and your average beat writer?

          So now the teams have closed the doors. The free lunch is over. So reporters and their bosses can figure out a different way to cover their beats, or they can sit around and whine about it, which is what I’ve been writing about the last two days.

          If the athletes don’t have anything interesting to say, then quit spending so much energy trying to talk to the damn athletes. The ones with something interesting to say will probably say it on Twitter, and you can cover that if you want. There’s your value of Twitter for you. It does some of your work for you.

          There are other things to write about. During all those years the media was dutifully sitting in their chairs at the press conferences, waiting to hear what Joe Paterno had to say about next week’s opponent and how proud he was of his kids, was there something else going on around that football team that might have been interesting to write about?

          • Andy

            I understand what you are saying, but there is something you are missing.

            Often, if individual sports writers call athletes at home and away from an SID, the school will ban that writer. It has happened many, many times. Complaining very well may be the only way things can change because “breaking the rules” put out there by sports information departments often only serve to hurt the reporter in the end.