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Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Layperson's Take on Ron Morris

The entire world of print media went into a tailspin last week when The State newspaper took Ron Morris off the South Carolina Gamecock football beat. Apparently, the Head Ball Coach (aka Steve Spurrier, aka Sports Media Director) had enough of Morris, a reporter that he clearly didn't like going all the way back to 2011. And probably before.

So The State newspaper did the new natural thing for a paper to do. They took Ron Morris off the beat for South Carolina football. There was a time when that wasn't the norm, but it seems to be the direction that papers are taking.

I don't know how long Morris has covered the Gamecocks, but it seems as if he wrote something about their battles with the boys of John C. Calhoun back in the day. Thankfully, public outrage--particularly (and rightly) from other reporters--Morris is back on the Gamecock beat. But this leaves a lot of questions about what happened here and the nature of reporting on sports in this era.

This is the Steven Colbert "Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger" commentary on what happened to Ron Morris. And the "Wag of the Finger" includes fans (especially those in orange), athletic departments, radio pundits, and big media companies.

Let's begin by dispensing with some of the sanctimony, first and foremost from Clemson fans and radio pundits. As they should, they love any chance to criticize the HBC and their rivals, and they have jumped all over the "outrageous" and "arrogant" Gamecocks. A number of the radio guys blasted The State for not standing up for honesty and integrity and solid journalism.

Please. Spare us. Spare us your naive moral outrage with the idea that Clemson and Dabo Swinney would NEVER do such a thing. Why do you think that access to practice/players/coaches is so limited in Pickens County? Do you really believe that Dabo's legendary "Tweet That" routine wasn't planned and prepared for the media? Do you honestly think the Anderson Independent or Greenville News wouldn't get a call if they wrote something that the folks in Tiger Town really didn't like?

To the radio guys:  Have you listened to yourself lately? It would be hard to find a bigger group of biased "homers" than those at a radio station essentially owned by the Clemson athletic department. Do you honestly think that they wouldn't pull the plug on you if you failed to put on your orange-colored glasses and pucker up?

Right or wrong, people use what influence they have at their disposal in order to get the result that they want. Coaches and athletic directors pull this on the media whenever they get the chance. Spurrier did exactly that, and every other athletic department in this state has done the same thing. 

Fans threaten to cancel their subscriptions when the paper writes something that they don't like or to stop listening to the radio pundit when they don't like his or her commentary. I'm willing to bet that papers and radio stations get at least one call a day demanding the job of some reporter.

Coaches and athletic departments and fans have a common goal:  Make their program look absolutely the best that they can, using whatever tools they have at their disposal. They all do it, even small schools and high schools. And if you can smear your rival in the process, all the better. As bad as South Carolina and Spurrier may look--and as much as those who hate them are enjoying it--their job is to look out for themselves, not Ron Morris.

That job belongs to the newspaper. And they failed. The fault of this lays at the feet of the media outlets and moguls and conglomerates that now run our newspapers. As long as they believe that homer-ism sells, Morris is not going to be the last victim.

I've had the privilege of getting to know a number of newspaper writers in the last few years. Sitting  in the press box or outside the locker room or at the press conference, I always felt like a fish out of water with them. There is a fraternity, integrity and work ethic to most of them that I never knew until I witnessed it.

Make fun of them all you want for asking stupid questions at the PC (I'm not saying everyone is a good reporter). But the majority of these writers research and ponder and pour over every word, which is why they're in the stadium two hours after everyone else has left.

Radio guys and bloggers (ie: ME) can choose to go about their work with some level of integrity. On the other hand, true reporters demand it, from one another and from themselves. On-air personalities and bloggers can decide to act with some level of integrity, not giving in to complete homer-ism or outrageous commentary. We have a choice. Sports news reporters don't.

The problem is that newspapers are shrinking, even folding, in the face of news outlets that lack their same level of integrity. Instead of holding to their principles, they are giving in to people like the HBC in an effort to gain/maintain readers. And it's exactly the wrong thing to do.

Newspapers have always had a counter-cultural element, challengers of the system and the status quo. We live in a country where 40 of our 50 states have a sports coach as their highest-paid employee. Whether or not it should be, sports is a vital part of our society and culture. We need people who are willing to report honestly on it rather than caving to the unprecedented influence that athletic departments now have.

I've had a person in an athletic department threaten to revoke my media credentials because I wrote a story that he didn't like--and that was just a blog. I was "saved" because someone else in the department stood up and said that the purpose of media is to report, not to kiss the school mascot. The guy who made the threat is gone, and the guy who spoke up is still there.

My hope is that the same will happen for reporters and editors who stand their ground.

I can't imagine what it must feel like for Morris or other reporters, who depend on this to pay their mortgage while they look over their shoulder to see who is ticked off at them. How much tougher is it when they now cannot depend on the paper to have their back?

If we get very introspective, reporters don't always help the situation. They are under more pressure than ever to get the jump on a story or to needle people with their words in order to attract more readers/listeners/subscribers. Sometimes they poke a little too hard and the needle stings a little more than necessary. But that's much better and more honest than becoming a cheerleader for the local university (or high school, in parts of this state).

The big media companies need to leave the "rah-rah" to the blogs and message boards and sponsored radio shows. Controversy drives the conversation and counter-cultural sells. Taking that angle is not a guarantee that your paper will survive and thrive. But caving in to a football coach IS a guarantee that your paper will fail, on numerous levels. The least of which is not purpose and integrity.

So the "Tip of the Hat" goes to all the newspaper reporters, sports or otherwise, across the state. We cannot imagine what it must be like to be threatened with losing your job because you are doing your job. But stand firm. (Easy for ME to say, tougher for you to do). In the long run, I have to hope and believe that your integrity will pay off for you.

Keep doing what you do, because we need you now more than ever.

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