journalism, personal

Journalism, cynicism and the Olympics

“The blues ain’t about feelin’ better. The blues are about making other people feel worse.” — Bleeding Gums Murphy

Journalists and blues musicians have a lot in common besides poor dental hygiene. We are all too often purveyors of misery, distilling our angst into 500-word stories instead of 12-bar blues songs.

That’s probably for the best. Otherwise, you’d have this …

Ohhh, my job is boring
No one here can think or speak
I said ohhhh, my job is boring
No one here can think or speak
And if that ain’t bad enough, no
I hear we’re getting buyouts next week

A little venting is healthy. Mrs. MMM would say I do all too much. (Then again, I know far much more about her former co-workers than she does about the 10 people who have at least nominal authority to tell me what to do, so I’ve managed to hold something back.)

The danger strikes when we journalists get so wrapped up in our misery that we fail to open our eyes and see what’s actually around us. Our job is, after all, to tell people what we see. Isn’t it? Hang on — I’ll ask the 10 people … nah, they’re not around. We’ll stick with that assumption for now.

As you probably know or assumed from the lack of posts on this blog, I was in China for the Olympics. I can’t imagine anything that compares to the experience of covering the Olympics. You see the interplay of cultures, the mingling of different talents and the wonder of exotic locales both natural and man-made.

The downside is that you hang out with a lot of other journalists.

I met a few people in China that you may have heard of, and many of them are disarmingly nice and refreshingly open to far-reaching discussions. I talked about gender roles and cynicism with Mechelle Voepel, whose work you may have seen around the Web. I shared a table tennis mixed zone interview with two other journalists and quickly realized that the polite guy asking most of the questions was Mitch Albom.

Others, well, not so much. Some people simply dwell in a realm of negativity, barely looking at the sports spectacle in front of them while waiting for something to tear down. Surrounded by a massive festival of interesting people from around the world, they prefer to chat with each other about how stupid everything is.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics. A lot of Big Companies pay a lot of money to have a presence at the Games. These Games were in China, so the holier-than-thou “how dare people enjoy themselves in light of the poverty in much of the country and the policies on Darfur and Tibet” column was in vogue.

But when you’re immersed in the Games, you have to have thick blinders to miss the other half of the story. I wish I could’ve asked the journalists from Kazakhstan why they were laughing. I knew why the Aussies were laughing — if you want a party, you follow either the Aussies or the Dutch.

Then the athletes are such remarkable stories. You find people who dedicate themselves to something obscure like modern pentathlon in the hopes of getting to this stage. Then you interview a 16-year-old with precocious wit who explains why she kissed her horse and a 40-year-old in her third Olympic sport explaining how she didn’t quit when her wayward fencing took her out of medal contention with several hours to go.

Sure, I failed to mention China’s politics in that story. But I haven’t read anything along the lines of “Brett Favre, competing in a country that has decrepit, half-demolished housing along the main train line in Baltimore and has a president who certainly isn’t popular with the Dutch journalists, signed with the Jets today.” (Yes, the Dutch journalists were eager to share their opinions.)

I don’t mean to take a completely relativist point of view here. No country is perfect, but some certainly have bigger problems than others. It’s just that there’s so much more to life than the vagaries of the power elite. Why not take time to learn about a fencer who has come up agonizingly short in past Olympic competition but won a silver medal two days before he started business school? Why not marvel at the shooter who made an astounding mistake to let a medal slip through his grasp, then met the love of his life as a Czech shooter came up to offer sympathy?

On the flip side of the sports politics coin is unabashed provincialism. As much as I love the BBC in so many way, their live commentary was hysterically over the top in boosting the sports in which “Team GB” was faring well and cutting down others. “Why have TWO forms of volleyball?” harrumphed one commenter whose words were deemed worthy of the general discussion. No one seemed to mind all the various permutations of riding a bicycle in circles that made Bradley Wiggins the Michael Phelps of Britain.

Outside the velodrome, some Olympic experiences can indeed be frustrating. I’ve already shared my experience on an overnight train with a teeming mass of humanity and rubbish, having been shooed away from the media bus I was supposed to take. And I can see how the sense of adventure I get when stepping into a taxi with no communicated certainty of arriving anywhere my destination would fade after it happens 10-15 times.

But if you’ve grown tired of the overall experience, there’s a very simple solution. Stay home.

That usually won’t happen because, as my blues song hinted above, journalists are quick to complain but hesitant to do anything to solve the problem. Many people who find themselves forced to look for new employment are pleasantly surprised by what they find. Taking that first step, though, is a mental block, particularly when you don’t understand the forces that are changing the industry.

Consider this blog, chronicling the difficulties of one media company as if those difficulties were confined to that media company. All he succeeds in doing is driving down morale among people who were already grumpy in the first place. I’ve met this blogger, and I can offer an analogy for his comprehension of the business: If he were analyzing the Washington Capitals’ ouster from the NHL playoffs, he’d likely say the Caps were at a disadvantage because their playing surface is covered with ice.

Cynicism is one common theme in all the problems listed above. Yet that cynicism is so pervasive because it’s so convenient. Once journalists find a convenient frame for a story, it’s hard to shake them out of it. That could be the BBC’s UK-up, US-down motif. It could be the insistence on viewing the Olympics as a mere exercise of political and corporate power, even if the Athletes’ Village and the arenas reflect a different reality.

Frames make stories predictable and therefore easy to write. A danger all journalists face is applying those frames to even the most mundane stories.

One day in a previous job, we were discussing coverage plans as a hurricane was about to strike the coast not too far away from us. Someone eagerly went through our plan and how it would follow the hurricane’s track from Town A to Town B. I quickly interjected that hurricanes were rarely so predictable (especially 10-15 years ago) — I had once been in Virginia Beach waiting for a hurricane that basically changed its mind and headed out to sea. A few moments of silence followed then, “So it’s NOT going to hit Town B?”

The pervading frame on political stories is conflict, often portrayed in sports metaphors. That’s why you may have read that Sarah Palin came out swinging, landed jabs, hit a home run and caught Obama leg before wicket. (OK, sorry, the Aussie influence creeped in again.)

We’re only human, and we’re all tempted to fall back on simple frames of reference. Political commentary, particularly in a busy world with a short attention span, is stuck in a red-blue dichotomy that fits well with the people who want to spend their days yelling at each on Web sites. These are often the same people who react to journalism layoffs and staff cuts by assuming it’s because the news organization is “too liberal.” If only they knew that people are far more likely to cancel their subscriptions because the delivery person keeps tossing the paper in the bird bath or, heaven forbid, they took Mary Worth off the funny pages. (Or that the assumptions of political bias are far, far more complicated than they’re assuming. Start here if you’re curious.)

But here’s the good news: There’s hope. Readers will, with only a little plodding, pick up on interesting stories like the Iceland handball saga (part 1, part 2).

We often beat ourselves up in journalism because we can’t attract young readers. The key isn’t writing about whatever MTV is airing these days instead of videos. The key is looking through young eyes.

So here’s the New Rule (apologies to Bill Maher): Check your cynicism at the door. Or check out.


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