ESPN’s Dan Le Batard Is Talented, Funny, Wrong

The highlight of my living in Miami for all of 2008, besides once being aside the delightful Hank Goldberg at a Hialeah urinal trough, was listening to ESPN Pardon The Interruption co-Host Dan Le Batard’s weekday radio show on 790 The Ticket. Le Batard’s show, if you haven’t heard it, is the opposite of the typical auto-piloted, local yocal offering.

Dan Le Batard radio show

Sports is incidental as Le Batard riffs about whatever, which usually makes for appointment listening. He’s decidely anti-establishment, proffering provocative and oft-unpopular opinions.

Le Batard is one of the rare with ability to connect with old media consumers who still think ESPN Berman/Vitale/Holtz bots are relevant, while still plugging-in with the Unfortunatest Generation. (Those growing up on CollegeHumor.com.)

With that backdrop, jawdropping was his MIAMI HERALD piece on Friday bemoaning how TMZ.com has soiled sports journalism. Lede:

I remember the first time I felt the shift. It was while viewing a photograph of Alex Rodriguez that made me feel dirty in June 2007. He was getting on a hotel elevator late at night with a curvy blonde woman who wasn’t his wife. It was gotcha! gossip disguised as . . . what? Investigative journalism? Regardless, it was in a major American newspaper. And it felt to me like the game changed forever that day.

Usually reserved for the martini-tipping mediasaurus, Le Batard goes on to decry the subsequent prying into personal lives of athletes by TMZ and the like.

… sports journalism is being forced to evolve into selling its principles and fairness (its soul, in other words) in exchange for clicks and cash, a trafficking not that far removed from porn.

It is either that or lose money and ratings and eyeballs to people who don’t make any kind of moral stand. The mainstream media might have wanted to stay out of the TMZ-ization of the Tiger Woods story on principle, but it literally couldn’t afford to do so because viewers were going to go find it somewhere. Show me the restaurant that tells you what you should be eating, instead of giving you what you want to consume, and I’ll show you an empty restaurant.

The marketplace has spoken, loudly, and you can’t and don’t argue with a mob.

So much irony ensnarled in what Le Batard lays out in that small selection. Don’t know where to begin.

1) The NEW YORK POST, which Le Batard describes as a “major American newspaper,” has long been a gossip broadsheet masquerading as a traditional print outlet. The NYP’s flagship brand, Page Six, inspired the creation of TMZ and is the progenitor of a now-enormous online gossip industry. If you took a poll of New Yorkers and asked them if the Post was a newspaper or a tabloid, I have no doubt the latter would win in a landslide.

The NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, for the most part, is no different.

Despite that, Le Batard cites the New York Post breaking a salacious story about Alex Rodriguez cheating on his wife as a seminal moment in the decline of sports journalism ethics.

2) Le Batard writes, “The mainstream media might have wanted to stay out of the TMZ-ization of the Tiger Woods story on principle, but it literally couldn’t afford to do so because viewers were going to go find it somewhere.

The Tiger Woods accident, because it could affect golf, was a legitimate sports journalism endeavor. The sports journalist of record on the subject, golf writer Doug Ferguson of the ASSOCIATED PRESS, reported after the accident that Elin broke out the back window of the SUV with a golf club and rescued Woods from the vehicle. (A prospect I’m guessing that made even Le Batard chuckle.)

We now know from police that the AP account came directly from Elin. If not for TMZ subsequently contradicting Elin’s story, the wife of Tiger Woods would’ve provided the accepted version of what happened that night for all eternity. (Days later, Tiger legitimized the TMZ reportage of marital strife leading to the accident by admitting “transgressions” and then “infidelity.”)

If it was up to the AP and other traditional journalists, there would’ve been no story for viewers to find “somewhere.

3) Le Batard writes, “Show me the restaurant that tells you what you should be eating, instead of giving you what you want to consume, and I’ll show you an empty restaurant.

The very network that Le Batard draws a paycheck from is a direct contradiction to that statement.

Can Le Batard honestly say with a straight face that the Bill Plaschke, Jay Mariotti, Woody Paige-driven Around The Horn on ESPN would have millions of viewers if it wasn’t for ESPN force-feeding it to us? That Mike & Mike would have a an enormous audience if it wasn’t for the relentless over-promotion of the show by the network and other Disney outlets?

Weekdays, ESPN is the only sports media television show in town. So if you want sports Monday through Friday, say hello to Kevin Blackistone & Co.! (ATH host Tony Reali is great, deserves better supporting cast.)

For sports fans, ESPN indeed “tells you what you should be eating.” Every single day.

Because newspapers held similar monopolies across the country, the quality of the product was, in many cases, incidental. When aggressive, web-based media outlets (see Politico) popped up and gave consumers not only choice, but a better product, “traditional journalism” was called into financial accountability.

Is there something wrong with that?

4) Le Batard  writes, “The marketplace has spoken, loudly, and you can’t and don’t argue with a mob.

Didn’t Le Batard just get done telling us that the opinion of the marketplace matters? Now he’s calling the same marketplace a “mob“?

5) Le Batard writes, “… sports journalism is being forced to evolve into selling its principles and fairness (its soul, in other words) in exchange for clicks and cash, a trafficking not that far removed from porn.”

The reality of the newspaper business is that because of its monopoly for so many years, it was as insanely a profitable business this side of the pharmaceutical industry.

The desperation some old media outlets have shown during the inevitable downsizing, mainly with advertising, has been regrettable. Eventually the industry will find its footing and the business of serious sports journalism will continue to go on as usual.

Though the days of colossal print media outlets and parent companies are over, traditional journalism is not facing a similar demise. In fact, the smaller the newspaper business is, the less conflict of interests exist in reporting. You could argue that the collapse of the old print media biz model is a positive development for traditional journalism.

And just because less people are taking the paper doesn’t mean that the consumers who always cared about good journalism are reading any less of it.

6) Snip revisited: “It is either that or lose money and ratings and eyeballs to people who don’t make any kind of moral stand. The mainstream media might have wanted to stay out of the TMZ-ization of the Tiger Woods story on principle, but it literally couldn’t afford to do so because viewers were going to go find it somewhere.”

I watch ESPN 24/7 because of my gig. The network has taken a pass on covering 99% of what TMZ and other gossips have reported since the Thanksgiving accident. Are ESPN’s ratings any less today because of that?

SI.com, same thing. Does that site have fewer visitors today because it hasn’t been parroting reports from TMZ?

Are you less likely to read your local newspaper because it isn’t trafficking in Tiger rumors produced by the gossips?

No, no and no.

7) Le Batard writes, “Next thing you know, just a few years after the A-Rod photo, our appetite for celebrity and sports and scandal had grown so insatiable and profitable that a broken professional golfer had to give a 13-minute sex confessional in front of his poor mother, a room full of support-group friends and more than 20 million Americans on TV.

Charlie Sheen doesn’t have to do this after allegedly holding a knife to his wife’s neck. Skid Row drummer Phil Varone doesn’t have to do this after having not one, not two but three ménage à trois (Is that the plural? Ménage troises?) with three mother-daughter combos on one tour.

“But a rock-star entertainer who hits a golf ball for a living somehow had to grovel before America after a frenzied media realized just how much money there was to be made in and around his famous shame.”

This is the heart of the subject, and the height of irony. Le Batard on his radio show often delights in the bizarre behavior of non-sports celebrities as reported by the tabloids. So why do athletes get a pass? What’s the difference?

The difference is “traditional journalists” have, for whatever reason, ignored the personal peccadilloes of their subjects for a century. Peccadilloes I might add that have often affected the outcome of games. (See Tiger missing tournaments.)

Now athletes are finally being treated like the genuine mainstream celebrities that they are. Once upon a time, they were able to enjoy their movie star-like trappings of fame without the accompanying drawbacks. Online sports media has only now, after 100 years, evened up the reporting score.

On the subject of public apologies, there’s a good reason why Charlie Sheen isn’t required to confess in public and Tiger is. Companies and ordinary people across the globe spent billions of their hard-earned dollars under a false pretense presented by Tiger.

That’s like billions being donated to a minister of a church, who then turns out to be a devil-worshipper.

When you watch Charlie Sheen’s TV shows or buy his Hanes underwear, you already know he’s a bad guy. The friendly image he presents on his TV show is understood to not be real. Hanes knew, as we all did, that Sheen previously patronized prostitutes under the auspices of Heidi Fleiss before it signed Sheen to an endorsement deal.

How many people who bought Hanes underwear where surprised and/or disappointed that Charlie Sheen did something unseemly? Exactly zero.

But with Tiger, everything he represented was deceptively presented. Tiger signed a social contract with the public, and when he took a billion dollars out of our pockets based on abject fraud, he owed all involved an apology.

I love Le Batard. He’s talented and a good guy. I’m not here to tear him apart personally. We need more Le Batards on ESPN to balance out the mind-numbing pap produced by the network every day.

But to his point, online sports media, be it TMZ or otherwise, has done nothing to diminish standards of sports journalism in the main. Or, as he contends, the standards of the sports media-consuming public.

What online sports media has done is corrected a 100-year-old oversight in celebrity reporting. And that correction has naturally, and appropriately, caught the interest of the public.

Again, it’s important to understand that many, if not the majority of the reported stories involving the personal affairs of athletes affect the outcome of the sports they play. While the other portion of reportage is merely mirroring how the entertainment media covers its subjects - which is long overdue.

If reporting sports that way is wrong, then I hope I’m never right.