Matt Taibbi has spent time as both a sports journalist and a political journalist. If you’ve read him before you probably have some strong opinions one way or the other about his work, and that’s fine. He freely admits that he lives in the world of opinion and commentary and would likely further admit that if there weren’t some people who hated his guts he probably wasn’t doing his job.
I offer that little bit of a disclaimer simply so that the stuff he’s saying in this interview of him in the Cauldron isn’t dismissed simply because you didn’t like something he wrote in Rolling Stone once. Also, because the very fact I felt obligated to offer it speaks to something he himself speaks to in the interview: that we as a society have some pretty messed up notions of what is or is not credibility, bias and the like.
Specifically, he is asked about how weird it is that Americans are hyper-critical of sports and sports coverage in ways that they’re not about political coverage. And to the extent they’re critical of either, it rarely is about the actual information being conveyed or obfuscated, but in the perceived “bias” of those delivering it:
Our sports reporters treat beat coverage like they’re covering the White House. They scrutinize and investigate and harangue owners, coaches, and players, over a game that kids follow; that should really just be fun. And they worry so terribly about being labeled as “homers” . . . Whereas, if you actually hang out in Washington — and I’m one of the few reporters that’s been in both worlds — the reporters who cover the White House, or the financial services industry, or the criminal justice system — for the most part, they aren’t a tenth as aggressive as sports reporters are . . . I think you need both. You need to have people who are open about their biases, and you need that objective perspective, as well. But I do think it’s interesting that that bias is much more frowned upon in the sports world than in politics.
The bias thing has always seemed so weird to me, both in sports and other sorts of coverage. The biases that people get mad at are the very understandable human biases: what sports team someone likes and what their political orientation is. EVERYONE has some feelings about these things and it’s unreasonable to expect that they don’t. Yet people go NUTS and dismiss a writer’s work out of hand, regardless of the content, if they perceive the writer to harbor a bias. As if there is not a difference between having a bias and having it infect a writer’s work. And, in some cases, as if any bias the author harbors changes the basic facts that are presented as opposed to the writer’s characterization of them.
On the other hand, very rarely are other sorts of biases scrutinized. When, say, a sportswriter writes or doesn’t write something based on whether his employer has business dealings with a team or a league. Or when they write something that is clearly aimed at serving a certain source or interest apart from rooting. Depending on the story, whether Big Network’s Johnny Sportswriter has a Chicago Bears pennant in his rec room seems less important than whether or not his source is an agent or the league or whether his employer pays the NFL a billion dollars to broadcast games, does it not?
Likewise, in politics, we fixate on whether the writer leans right or left but we rarely question who pays him or what his non-partisan predispositions are with respect to any number of topics he covers. Depending on the story, whether Big News Outlet’s Johnny Political Writer is a registered Democrat or Republican seems less important than whether or not he has any actual personal frame of reference with the subject on which he is reporting or whether his employer (or its corporate owner) stands to benefit one way or another from a given outcome.
I don’t personally mind the human biases. I think we are all capable of knowing whether or not we’re getting straight dope or homerism in most cases. The deeper biases are harder to get at sometimes. And, based on how negatively and defensively both sportswriters and political writers react when you try to talk about them or call them out on them, they’re likely a lot more critical to the given bit of journalism we’re consuming. A lot more personally ingrained and close-to-home for the writer in question.
Pay less attention to who someone roots for or how they cast their own individual vote. Look more closely at what truly shapes their work. In both sports and politics.