“You’ve got to remember, that these are just simple farmers, these are people of the land, the common clay of the new west. You know . . . morons.”
—Gene Wilder as ‘The Waco Kid’ in Blazing Saddles
The Columbus Blue Jackets’ recent losing skid has elicited the predictable degree of public dismay, and varying degrees of fan outrage and calls for remedial action. A less predictable result is an emerging skirmish between some components of the print media assigned to cover the club and the more amorphous ranks of the internet bloggers, columnists and forum posters who provide everything from impulsive rants to comprehensive coverage relating to the Blue Jackets’ fortunes. This, in turn, raises a more fundamental question as to the roles of traditional media and their counterparts in the virtual world of the internet, as well as the myriad forums for fan expression that have now emerged.
Nothing frays tempers and heightens tensions more than adversity, and Columbus has had more than its share of adversity on the ice of late, mired in a 5 – 10 – 5 streak over the past 20 games. More troubling than the raw numbers, however, has been the apparently systemic nature of the failings that have led to this slump, and the perceived lack of progress in resolving them. Equally troubling, to some, have been the increasingly despondent statements made by head coach Ken Hitchcock, and the somewhat puzzling moves made in response to the recent unpleasantness. Naturally, this has raised the alarm level from the fan base, and calls for drastic action, ranging from the sublime to ridiculous, have increased in direct proportion to results. Naturally, the tone and severity of the reaction varies widely, with more than the usual share of venom appearing through internet channels.
On Sunday, Columbus Dispatch reporter Michael Arace authored a commentary, headlined “Jackets don’t need radical changes.” The lead for that article incorporates the following quote from director/writer Billy Wilder (no relation to Gene):
An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together – in the dark – that is critical genius.
That quote serves as the platform to deliver his view of the “imbeciles” who use the internet to express their views on the Blue Jackets’ fortunes, and also as the backdrop for his opinions that the current bad streak does not require significant action. This culminated a week in which various Dispatch writers took pot shots at the internet community in blog posts and podcasts. The reaction from the internet community has been quick and pointed.
Before proceeding further, full disclosure is in order. I am a credentialed member of the internet media at Blue Jackets games, and a regular contributor to a number of hockey sites, including The Hockey Writers. I am not paid for any of those pieces, and have a regular full-time job outside my hockey writing. One of my recent articles here at THW (The Young and the Restless – Blue Jackets, Hitchcock Seek Common Ground) received a fair amount attention among the fan base, including comments on the Dispatch site. So, depending upon your viewpoint, I could be viewed as having an axe to grind, to the extent that Arace’s comments would include my writing. Such is not my intention, and this is written with axe firmly secured in the tool shed. Obviously, I disagree with some of his opinions, and perhaps how his criticisms were approached, but such is the nature of commentary and editorial writing, and no personal attacks are intended.
First, it is by no means clear whether Arace intended his reliance on the Wilder quote in general, and the use of “imbecile” in particular, to be literal or metaphorical. Obviously, those who have reacted take his intent quite literally. However, any writer is intimately familiar with how subtlety and nuance can sometimes get misplaced in the perilous journey between mind and keyboard. So, while providing the benefit of the doubt on this point, allow me two observations. First, in my view, words such as “imbecile” are perilous ones, and need to be used with the utmost care. While acknowledging that his article was a commentary, and accordingly an expression of opinion, there is little benefit gained through intemperate language, unless it is made abundantly clear that the usage is ironic or satirical.
Secondly, the entire analogy to the Wilder quote is misplaced. Wilder dealt with the world of theatre – of pure entertainment. In that realm, perception is reality. If the audience hates the movie, the movie will not succeed, period. While the director might consider it an artistic achievement, and to that extent might be “right”, it will matter little when approaching a studio for financial backing for the next picture. Here, there is no necessary linkage between the fan reaction and the ultimate success on the ice. Surely, failure to meet fan expectations over an extended period o f time will ultimately result in decreased attendance, but that is another article. Last year’s team had tons of detractors, yet made the playoffs.
To be sure, there are legions of absurd positions advocated on the internet chat boards, comments to the Dispatch blogs, and elsewhere on the internet, including some unfair shots at the Dispatch crew. You can hear the same drivel spewed in person at games. However, such is the nature of the instant gratification world of the internet. As professional journalists, the Dispatch team should be above reacting with such apparent bile to the ranting of angry fans. If you don’t want criticism, don’t allow comments on your blogs. Sure, quite a few of the comments I see on various boards are intemperate, at best, and outright vicious, at worst. Such is life, and journalism has never been a profession for thin skins.
To Arace’s credit, he has been a voice of reason and moderation in the course of the recent slide, advocating for patience while others would press the panic button now. While I have been in the “patience” camp, as my recent article reflects, I do advocate awareness of some danger signs and flexibility by both players and coach. I disagree with his characterization of this losing streak as “a bump in the road” at this point in time, which seems to run counter to his proper characterization of the Colorado game as a “debacle”. I do agree, however, with his essential premise that doing nothing is preferable to doing something stupid. Unlike some, I believe in the course that Howson has charted – stocking up with young, talented players, rewarding good play with long term contracts, and getting value for trades, draft picks and free agent signings. He has thus far proven immune to the mob mentality, and has refused to rush into bad deals.
Where Arace and I part company most is on the issue of the relationship between the players and Hitchcock. While acknowledging that Hitch lost the ability to communicate with the players in both Dallas and Philadelphia, Arace asserts that there are no signs of such a “revolt” here, and that everyone is on the same page. Interestingly, he acknowledges the club has “ . . .lost their identity and suffered a crisis of confidence.” In my view, that statement, combined with the performance on the ice, is substantial evidence of a gap between coach and players. Even in Philly and Dallas, the rifts between Hitch and the players were largely intangible and out of the public eye before he was let go. Sure, there were some infamous dust ups with Hull, but most of the players talk of a gradual tuning out process.
Whatever my differences of opinion are with Arace’s views on the nature of the Blue Jackets’ problems, they represent honest divergence in perceptions of the same set of facts. That is the stuff that breeds interesting debate and compelling writing. Not much would be gained if we all wrote the same thing every day. What is troubling is the broad expression of disdain that Arace’s column expresses for those with divergent views, and the broad brush with which he paints his perceived nemeses.
Let’s be clear about the constituencies involved in this debate. First are the professional print journalists, such as Arace and his colleagues. Second, though not really implicated in this debate, are the professional broadcasters. Third, are those, like myself, who devote considerable time to covering NHL teams for various internet organizations, and their own blogs, usually free or for nominal compensation. Finally, there are the fans, who utilize the myriad commenting opportunities, forums and message boards to debate the issues pertinent to their favorite teams.
The fraternity of professional journalists obviously have the responsibility to provide coverage of the team in a professional, somewhat dispassionate manner, dealing with both deadlines and limitations of space. The Dispatch crew is subject to additional scrutiny, due to the minority ownership interest in the team held by the paper. For dealing with this, they receive unparalleled access to the team and the organization. The same holds true, essentially, for the broadcasters.
Skipping to the opposite end of the spectrum, the fans have no limitations in terms of what they say or how they say it, save for limitations against defamation. While we would all like to think that fans would utilize the unprecedented communication opportunities permitted by the internet responsibly and with restraint, and most do, such is not reality for a distinct and very active minority. “Fan”, after all, is the shortened form of “fanatic”, and utilizing “fanatic” and “restraint” in the same sentence is an oxymoron, at best. There is undeniably a danger when fans can translate thoughts into posts without intermediate review, but we have historically placed freedom of expression over wounded pride when evaluating limitations on speech, and this is no exception. We have all had that overwhelming urge to attempt to rectify some of the more spectacularly inane statements made on one site or another, but ultimately recognize that such efforts are mere exercises in futility. As I allude to above, the majority of fans are responsible, many are insightful, and virtually all are passionate. It has become pretty well established, on virtually every type of forum or message board, that postings tend to be dominated by those having a beef, a problem or a specific grievance. So, to a certain extent, some bitching and moaning is par for the course.
In between these two camps reside the internet bloggers, columnists and others who devote a considerable amount of time and effort to providing news and analysis concerning their chosen team, usually for little or no compensation. Those of us who are credentialed by their teams receive increased access, though customarily not entirely equal to that afforded the assigned print journalists and the broadcast media, who, after all, are doing this for their livelihood. However, for the most part, we do not operate under the space limitations or the strict deadlines to which the print and broadcast media must adhere. That luxury allows us to pursue some topics in greater depth, and certainly provides more latitude in both approach and tone. To be sure, with such latitude comes the increased potential for abuse. However, speaking for myself and the colleagues I deal with on a regular basis, I can say without reservation that we approach our writing seriously, take time to do our homework, and seek to be fair. Are we regulated or constrained in what we write or say? Perhaps not officially, but most recognize a need to be responsible and diligent in how we approach our tasks. Are there exceptions? Sure, just as there are in every walk of life. You don’t get credentialed by being irresponsible. Similarly, and contrary to some of the conspiracy theorists who opine differently, our credentials are not premised upon producing favorable, non-critical stories about the club.
Arace’s article paints with too broad a brush and, in my opinion, borders on that breed of intellectual arrogance that is all too prevalent in politics and media these days. It is the “you are too stupid to understand, so we will tell you what you need to know” attitude that is most disturbing. Anybody with a modicum of education can present the facts of a given game. We are all in the business of conveying opinions, and none of us has a monopoly on the truth. No matter the level of access provided, the opinions we express are educated guesses – hypotheses fueled by observation, life experience and deduction. All manner of opinions are batted around on press row on a nightly basis, and we can disagree vehemently, but still respect the right to hold divergent views, and respect the thought process that went into developing those views. Arace’s commentary does an unwarranted disservice to that principal of mutual respect, and to that extent, falls below the standards he customarily displays.
Whether we are characterized as journalists, fans or just interested observers, we all want our respective teams to play well, have success and provide an entertaining product on the ice. When that doesn’t happen, questions will be asked and theories aired as to the causes and cures for the teams’ ills. Such debate, properly conducted, serves to inform, stimulate and enhance the fan experience. However, when respect for divergence disappears, credibility disappears with it.
Oh, by the way – just for clarity’s sake, the quote from Gene Wilder with which this piece began is my humble attempt at levity – a slightly sardonic jab, if you will, and not an exercise in name calling. That would be wrong.