There’s a great piece over at Grantland. In it Bryan Curtis tracks the history of the media’s awareness and investigation of steroids in baseball from the 1980s onward. How generalized but unreportable knowledge became actual news. It’s must-click, must-read stuff.
It’s great because the guys who were there — Rosenthal, Olney, Justice, others — talk about what the culture was at the time and the challenges they faced in convincing editors to let them run steroids stories. There’s this idea that float around PED stories today that the media ignored it all back in the 80s and 90s. I agree some did and some — as detailed in the story — even worked hard to beat back PED stories that emerged. But overall I think that’s an unfair assessment of what went on.
Reporters knew and often wanted to write about steroids, but the culture and conventions of print journalism were and continue to be such that, unless you got multiple people going on the record, editors are going to kill your story. Whether that’s good or not is another conversation — I think it’s bad in many cases as gossip and muckraking have its place — but it’s not accurate to say that all or even most reporters turned a blind eye. They were limited by journalistic convention.
But I also think that the struggle it took for these guys to get these stories to print and the “I-Team,” big-time investigative reporting culture that eventually got this stuff to the surface is why the media is so messed up in the way they pass judgment on the Steroids Era now.
When a reporter is working hard to break something — when that one story becomes their only job for months on end, as deep-digging investigative work requires it to be — the story ends up assuming an outsized importance. It’s their whole life so it’s obviously huge to them, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the biggest thing on the planet. Or the most important thing in baseball. If you’re looking at only one thing, perspective is lost.
I feel like, because PEDs became — as Curtis deftly describes — THE BIG GET of the baseball media for a number of years, it managed to be taken as bigger than it is in terms of baseball impact by many in the media. It became the way a reporter could place his own personal stamp on baseball because, eventually, he knew that world very well and it became the media’s value proposition in baseball analysis to play up that side when people in the game would not. When the most important and most unique thing you have to say about Barry Bonds, for example, comes from the media’s reams of scoops and stories, the baseball realities of Barry Bonds — that he was nonetheless an amazing, amazing ballplayer — is lost to some degree and the PED side is oversold.
That’s just a theory, of course. And it’s obviously not a uniform one. On the one hand, someone like Selena Roberts can only see A-Rod as a PED-using awful person because she has spent years reporting and writing that story. On the other hand better reporters, like, say, Buster Olney, are able to put this stuff in perspective. But I do think it’s a case where many in the media are keen to latch on to the media’s most proprietary angle re: baseball and inflate its importance.
Anyway, take some time from your schedule today and read Curtis’ story. You won’t be sorry.