As journalists, we on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED believe that our principal and proper business is to report on the world of sports, not the world of sports reporting. Nevertheless, as sports fans by inclination as well as vocation we are no less concerned than millions of others with the day-to-day coverage of our favorite subject in the nation's newspapers, for it is in the daily press as well as in the ringside seat, the center field bleachers and the cheering section that the constant contagion of sports enthusiasm is generated.
It is unfortunately a fact, and one noted to the detriment of both sports and journalism by many a reader, that the quality of performance on the nation's sports pages is too seldom on a par with that on the nation's sports fields. In answer to a questionnaire recently sent out by a special committee representing member papers of the Associated Press, the managing editors of 100 U.S. dailies with a combined circulation of nearly 18 million readers and staffs numbering from 2 to 46 sportswriters have expressed opinions that ranged from frank disgust to cautious optimism on the state of sports reporting within their own purview. One M.E., apparently the helpless victim of intramural tyranny, disclaimed all responsibility for the state of affairs on his sheet with the cry, "Haven't learned yet how to control a red-headed Irishman who's been running the department for 30 years."
Among the specific errors charged to the sports reporters were tendencies to slant the news in favor of the home team, to defer to local sports management for the sake of maintaining cordial working relationships and to accept publicity handouts in place of digging for stories of their own. Almost one third of the editors admitted that it was the policy of their papers to permit their reporters to accept free meals, rooms and board from the teams with which they travel. More than half admitted that many good behind-the-scenes stories were killed because of untoward pressures. "Once," confessed one of the M.E.s, "when a player was dropped from a squad for getting drunk, we said it was for 'disciplinary reasons' without particularizing." "The feats of home teams," said another in a more general vein, "are exaggerated; the opposition is not given enough credit."
Journalistically speaking, these are serious admissions that no conscientious city editor on a respectable paper could make and still hold his job. The political reporter may be no less partisan than the sportswriter (if you don't believe it, drop around to some newspaperman's bar during election time), but he is trained and disciplined to keep his partisanship in check where news is concerned. Thus it is, as one M.E. admitted, that "when sports becomes a hard news item—in contrast to showmanship and entertainment—we assign a city side reporter. Sports men trained to cover a contest do not have the same news perspective on an athletic fund-juggling investigation or a university probe of grade-fixing for athletes." "I think," said another, "that sports writing is becoming more press agentry than journalism."
April 6, 1959
Many of the faults ascribed to the sportswriters are no worse and in essence no different from those which might well be ascribed to the too-ardent fan of any kind. The sports world is one which thrives on ardent and even unreasoning partisanship. Nevertheless, the reporter has a duty beyond that of the ordinary fan—the duty of fairness. If this is accepted by the nation's editors as an ironclad law in the world of workaday reporting, how much more applicable it must be to that world which could not even exist without its own often artificial but nonetheless carefully tended rules of fair play.
It is the special privilege of the sportswriter as opposed to the ordinary reporter to view the workaday world of struggle, conflict, sacrifice and triumph in a form stripped of the real world's meanness and ugliness. In this privileged position he should find it easier not harder to achieve standards of enthusiasm, thoroughness and fair play. It may be that he is learning to do it. "The same forces," said one of the managing editors, "which have upgraded city staffs and copy desks are bringing healthy changes to sports staffs: better pay, better-trained men, more integrity." As sportsreaders as well as sports-writers, we hope this editor's optimism is justified. We may (though we have no intention of pressing the claim) have played some part in it. One of the managing editors questioned by the A.P. on its own coverage replied that "our own sports editor comments cynically that the A.P. is improving on this front largely due to rewriting SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's excellent behind-the-scenes coverage."
In any case, since the nation's managing editors themselves obviously feel the need for some intensive soul-searching in the matter of establishing valid criteria for the reporting of news, we earnestly invite the attention of all sportswriters (including ourselves) to these reflections on the subject:
'I think most of the slanting comes from too-close association with the coach, who throws a bone to the reporters every few days so they will have something fresh to write about, then expects the reporters to give him a break when the going gets tough.'
'All sportswriting has deteriorated since Pegler, McGeehan, Gallico and McLemore manned the press boxes. Too many now so engaged just don't write: some are damn near illiterate. Too many are occupants of the players' bench rather than the press section.'
'There seems to be a tendency for sports reporters to be "good sports" to an extent detrimental to newspapers. A scoop or exceptional job by a reporter will often bring the response "What are you trying to do? Get me fired?" from another reporter.'
'I know of a publisher who had a great fondness for a certain ballplayer and when his writers took this player to the woodshed, they'd get a note telling them to stick to describing the game and never mind the editorializing.'
'There are undoubtedly many interesting behind-the-scenes sports stories unwritten because of pressures on sportswriters.... Their excuse is usually that it would have made their day-to-day relations with either a sports management or its team members untenable.'
'I have always had mild misgivings about baseball writers who double as correspondents for The Sporting News.... The side job of official scorer, with compensation from the league, is a well-accepted evil. Baseball could, if it wanted, hare an official scorer of its own even as it has umpires. Instead it provides $1,600 a season in each city to be split up among the baseball writers who act as official scorers, and another $1,400 for the three lucky men who happen to be scorers in the World Series.'
'Some wily sports promoters fawn on sportswriters, telling them how great they are, inviting them to make speeches, etc., with the end-result that the sportswriter winds up writing booster stuff and being almost totally unconscious of it.'
'I feel that sportswriters are being bombarded by lobbyists and hence are taking the easy way out, i.e., they not only accept an exorbitant number of free drinks, they also accept too many publicity releases as pure gospel.'
'We accept [transportation, hotel and meals] from professional teams which offer them since it has been traditional among the papers in this city to do so. Our feeling is that these teams get an enormous amount of free publicity from the press and this is one way of making them pay for some of it.'
'Sports reporting is almost entirely surface reporting, completely uncritical and too often written from the viewpoint of a promoter rather than a reporter.'
Gentlemen of the press, these are not our words; they are the words of your bosses, the men ultimately responsible for reporting news of all kinds to the nation. They said all this and more. We think they are worth listening to.