Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 last month, and the unexpected victory of the youngest Daytona champion ever provoked audible glee in the press box. One of the reporters on the scene, Sports Illustrated freelancer Tom Bowles, explained on Twitter and his blog why his applauding for a sporting result, considered a cardinal sin in the sportswriting profession, was not a sin after all.
He was fired. Most of his colleagues agree with SI’s decision. I, on the other hand, agree with Bowles. He was not fired for being biased, but for daring to be honest about his biases, and to display them in public. He was, in short, fired for revealing in himself what is undoubtedly true of every other sports reporter: he follows the sport, and has an interest in the results. He would be a lousy reporter if he didn’t. He did nothing unethical. He was fired, in fact, for being ethical.
Bowles recently wrote on his blog:
“.. You see, no matter how much of a Kodak moment happens around you, many insist “sacred rule #1” of being a sportswriter is Don’t Cheer in the Press Box. Even smiling in public—revealing emotion—stamps you with the Scarlet Letter of bias for eternity. It’s a fatal flaw, the old story goes, corrupting the impartial analysis, factual and critical thinking skills that make media members “larger than life” compared to the fans that read us. Defending my position on Twitter was enough to break media rule #2, “Apologize Profusely When Important People Think You Have Sinned.” And suddenly, three days later, those defenses led to the perfect “three strikes and you’re out of a job” conclusion.
Except my position hasn’t changed. I took those ethics courses in journalism just like everyone else; I understand the importance of impartiality in reporting. But last time I checked, where you’re supposed to be judged is whether that actually shows up on paper….Bayne’s victory was a ray of hope for a sport beaten down the last five years, a 30 percent ratings decline for this race alone from ’05-‘10 spurring more criticism and negative storylines than the careers of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan combined. I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself…So the first step to a solution is recognizing the clapping problem, which is that we’re all inherently biased: wired to judge, love, hate, and experience every emotion in between, parts of the brain we can’t shut off like a water fountain. The key, then, to me is to know how to turn that off in your writing, a story focused on getting the facts right first before transitioning into actual analysis. Fact: I clapped, and then shook Trevor Bayne’s hand on the way out along with many assembled media in attendance.”
Like journalists who have been fired or suspended for contributing to a political candidate’s campaign or appearing in a private capacity at a political rally, a sportswriter who reveals that he or she isn’t blandly objective and applauds at a sporting result should be applauded in turn by the public. Thank you—now we have more information upon which to assess your reporting. For example, I didn’t know Walter Cronkite was a rabid liberal Democrat until after he retired. Would this knowledge have helped the nation put his much-lauded, and unprofessional, decree that the Viet Nam War was a lost cause in perspective? Of course it would have. Instead, the American public was led to believe that the wise, unbiased, unpolitical, neutral Uncle Walter had looked at all sides of the issue and decided that the U.S. was the bad guy in Southeast Asia.
The rule against journalists flying their political and ideological colors is deceitful in the news; it is deceitful and silly in sports reporting. When the Boston Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004, Peter Gammons, a life-long Red Sox fan who was the team’s Homer for much of his earlier career, was interviewing celebrating Sox players and desperately trying to keep a big fat grin off his face. Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kaplar made Gammons blush when he said on the air, “Come on, Peter, lighten up; everyone knows you’re a Sox fan!” Well, everyone in Boston maybe, and those ESPN listeners who detected a Boston slant in Gammons’ reporting. But Kaplar was right: why hide the truth? Would anyone who didn’t care who won sports contests ever become a sportswriter? Would anyone want to read the reporting of such an uninvolved observer?
There are two issues in the ethical treatment of bias, and whether a professional has any isn’t one of them. As Bowles says, everyone is biased. The two issues are whether the bias has been disclosed, and whether the professional can be objective and fair despite them. Being able to manage and disregard biases is the mark of a professional in all fields, whether it is law, journalism, sports reporting or holding elected office. Letting us know what biases a professional has to overcome is critical information in assessing how well he does his job.
A profession or an organization that punishes someone for revealing the truth isn’t showing its integrity. It is showing its insecurity.