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  • On Velvet Ropes


    John Bonnes

    Jim Souhan responded to widespread criticism of his August 22nd Sano-Is-Too-Fat column yesterday, and after defending the column, he shared his philosophy on how to evaluate sports writing. It is a philosophy that I have heard shared by a few other journalists. It is the Cult Of Access.

    Access is the focal point of the philosophy. It is so esteemed, it becomes the basis for all evaluation. Those who have more of it are better than those who have less of it. If Tom Kelly answers his phone when you call (SWOON), it puts you in the penultimate spot on the professional (and moral) pyramid – right behind the team’s announcers. Those who have Access even have a higher moral character than those who don't. You’ll find all of these clearly referenced in Souhan’s diatribe.

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    That philosophy is somewhat understandable. For a sports writer, Access is both a big part of the job and also one of the pain points. Hanging out in a locker room is mostly tedium, but writers are often required to be there in case news breaks. For instance, sometimes announcements are made regarding injuries. Missing that news when another outlet reports it looks bad to one’s supervisors.

    Yes, Access can give you a chance to talk to players and coaches, but it’s similar to walking around an office building, interviewing people at their desks when they’re working. Most of the players are polite and answer questions; that’s not the problem. But you are not their friend. They don’t really know you. They shouldn’t really trust you. It is often not in their best interest to reveal too much to you. Plus, they have work to do, or people they want to talk to, or maybe they just want to go home, or screw around with their teammates a little. Or maybe they just don’t want to talk right now.

    Navigating that environment takes a lot of energy and a lot of time. It is the most visible and tangible part of the job. It is not surprising that it is held in high regard.

    However, that philosophy is also mighty convenient. If Access is the differentiator, then the quality of one’s work is secondary. Embracing that philosophy puts a columnist near the top of the Ponzi scheme. He can disparage others’ quality stories because they don't have Access. He can sling crap against the wall, see what sticks, and talk about how the duty of a columnist is to get people talking.

    (It also helps if I decide that the platform that someone else has built, maybe singlehandedly, is an undeserved accident. After all, if having a bunch of readers and listeners had anything to do with merit, then why isn’t anyone listening to my brilliant reality-based daily podcasts with various sports luminaries? Answer me that!)

    That philosophy can also be a clever bit of misdirection. With one hand, you trumpet how important it is to have Access. Meanwhile, the other hand actively lobbies to restrict that Access to the very people you’re disparaging.

    But mostly, that philosophy is just some guy yelling and pointing at a velvet rope. He wants it to be a divider; a barrier that he has conquered. He is on one side and we are on the other, and the resulting hierarchy should be intuitively obvious to everyone. That might fool some people.

    But most people know: a velvet rope is an illusion. Relying on it to differentiate oneself is an act of impotence. Insisting that it lends some moral superiority is an act of desperation. It's all bull. It's reducing a genuinely valuable tool into an exclusive little club to boost one’s ego.

    As Souhan suggests, you get to choose who to read. So allow me to share my philosophy, which simplifies the choices considerably. You can either read people who reward your trust in them with thought-provoking, entertaining coverage of the Twins. Or you can rely on those who feel justified in regularly breaking that trust with incendiary garbage due to some fictitious self-important exclusivity.

    I’d ask that you make that choice carefully. You get decide if the velvet rope is real or not.

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    Is interviewing players really like walking around an office building interviewing people at their desks?  How do you know this? Hanging out in a locker room is tedium? Your profile does not mention that you have ever covered a team to know what it is like to cover a team. These types of comments really validate Souhan's point about the people from afar commenting and trolling. 

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    >>>>>>>" So allow me to share my philosophy, which simplifies the choices considerably. You can either read people who reward your trust in them with thought-provoking, entertaining coverage of the Twins. Or you can rely on those who feel justified in regularly breaking that trust with incendiary garbage due to some fictitious self-important exclusivity."<<<<<

    Or you can do both, and decide what is most plausible. There is no doubt that Access is not a synonym for accuracy. But it does allow a closer look, and this becomes the genesis of many an opinion column. I had no problem with Souhans original column. Nor do I have any doubt that his comments on Sanos weight were accurate. He has looked "bigger". Even his frame can't carry 285-290 over the long haul. Yes he can do it for a year or two, but its not a long term plan. There was nothing wrong, or insulting about the column. The oddity is that there are pages and pages of digital ink on this site and others, about homerism in the local media. They don't "tell it like it is". But when someone does they get blasted for issuing an opinion adverse to one of our sacred cows. Souhan has a point. Access is information. That does not mean that everyone who has access will use it in the same way, or with the same goals, or with the same effectiveness. But it gives them a step up on the rest. There are certainly things I am more familiar with, and have access to more resources to than does either Souhan or Ruesse. That's simple fact. For any of us to deny that out of petty jealousy is basically childish.

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    Souhan doesn't do enough real work to merit being included with "the old guard." What he does requires almost no effort.

     

    I don't think a sportswriter in this down has ever deserved to be relegated to obscurity like Souhan. He's a total hack that does nothing but write provocative garbage with no real substance to get his name out there (think of it as f'd up marketing, he and paper must think his "edgyness" appeals to somebody). Anybody can walk the line of libel, like a rebellious teenager.

     

    Then, he has the audacity to say that he is the authority and tries minimize others who aren't legit by his decree. The man in the high tower.

     

    Honestly, this guy needs a knuckle-sandwich from somebody, and a reality check as to who he actually is.

     

    In my opinion, the Strib should be embarrassed about this, and so should that unjustifiably pompous dancing monkey.

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    I believe that Souhan's problem is that he really is not very good at what he does. When confronted by those that read his material, he falls back on the victim card. Yes, having access is an important bit for being a newspaper columnist. Having that, should come with at least a modicum of self-awareness. He loses on that mark. I subscribe to the Strib (mostly for Russo's stuff -oh well). I enjoy the writers each to a varying degree. That does not make them above criticism. Souhan obviously does not agree with me on that point. His remarks that the Twins officials had no problem with his account, seemed like cry in the dark. Would this same Twins official like to see the various bloggers and their readers go away? Or, was Souhan just puffing his chest to get more clicks on his Strib click-o-meter?

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    This is the best Twins season in a decade. Why can't Souhan write about the baseball and save the unsourced rumor pieces for the offseason. It's also not illegal for columnists to present facts. What kind of injury does Sano have, again? When did it happen? Who else has had it? How long was the recovery for those other players?

     

    His apology follow-up column is a bigger train wreck than the original column, imo.

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    Is interviewing players really like walking around an office building interviewing people at their desks?  How do you know this? Hanging out in a locker room is tedium?

     

    Fair question. Yes, the Twins grant credentials to Twins Daily, including me, on a game to game basis and for the entirety of spring training for the past several years.

     

    But I wonder why you think that matters? 

     

    This is part of the point I'm trying to make. The perception that Access is something about which we have an ax to grind is silly. The perception that it makes people special is ludicrous. 

     

    It is a tool, and sometimes a valuable tool. For instance, if I'm wondering what Molitor was thinking batting Niko Goodrum in the DH spot versus a right-hander, I might be able to ask him about that postgame. But that is a small part of what creates quality content. And infinitely overrated. 

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    The continued rotation of the earth means I've forgotten a lot of the details of the original article, except that it was really bad. But maybe somebody can refresh my memory - his hard-earned access, the real work he does as an old-timey newspaper man, did that include actually asking Sano for any insight on this issue?

     

    And, relatedly, how many beat writers and columnists have bothered to learn Spanish?

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    >>>>>>>" So allow me to share my philosophy, which simplifies the choices considerably. You can either read people who reward your trust in them with thought-provoking, entertaining coverage of the Twins. Or you can rely on those who feel justified in regularly breaking that trust with incendiary garbage due to some fictitious self-important exclusivity."

    Or you can do both, and decide what is most plausible. There is no doubt that Access is not a synonym for accuracy. But it does allow a closer look, and this becomes the genesis of many an opinion column. I had no problem with Souhans original column. Nor do I have any doubt that his comments on Sanos weight were accurate. He has looked "bigger". Even his frame can't carry 285-290 over the long haul. Yes he can do it for a year or two, but its not a long term plan. There was nothing wrong, or insulting about the column. The oddity is that there are pages and pages of digital ink on this site and others, about homerism in the local media. They don't "tell it like it is". But when someone does they get blasted for issuing an opinion adverse to one of our sacred cows. Souhan has a point. Access is information. That does not mean that everyone who has access will use it in the same way, or with the same goals, or with the same effectiveness. But it gives them a step up on the rest. There are certainly things I am more familiar with, and have access to more resources to than does either Souhan or Ruesse. That's simple fact. For any of us to deny that out of petty jealousy is basically childish.

     

    Souhan did have a point, and had he made that point honestly in his first story, I think there would have been far less criticism of it. In fact, if he had made that point exactly as he did in the blog entry - here's what was said to me, here's what I checked on, here are the concerns - I think it would have been a good column.

     

    (And, for the record, part of what make Souhan so infuriating is that he is capable of very good columns. Yesterday's story on the Fort Myers scout was excellent.)

     

    But he didn't write it that way and he's smart and skilled enough to know what he was doing. He wrote a bunch of insinuations without saying anything straight out. It was designed to prod the worst, angriest fans to scream and have a topic to play with for the next decade.

     

    That's why you saw people who care about sports writing attack it. Because they know the choices he made and they can foresee the impacts. 

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    This is really disappointing.  I like having as many writers and opinions as we can get and this is truly a defensive rant.  Why, because he crossed that velvet rope and used racial and fat biases in his essay.  He gave us nothing new, no true insider view, he just took a path that was easy and now he is trying to tell us that the path was strewn with difficulty and danger.

    Mr. Souhan, write about baseball.  When you criticize use information not generalizations.  There are many intelligent readers and there is this forum where many of us meet indirectly.  Join us, but do not scold us.  We only have your written word and when that fails - so do you. 

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    Gleeman's statistical analysis is far more insightful than locker room player interviews. How can anyone believe that access = quality? The worst part is, Souhan is getting more attention over this article than anything he's written this year. Yeah, it's bad attention, but those clicks and mentions still generate revenue.....

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    It is a tool, and sometimes a valuable tool. For instance, if I'm wondering what Molitor was thinking batting Niko Goodrum in the DH spot versus a right-hander, I might be able to ask him about that postgame. But that is a small part of what creates quality content. And infinitely overrated. 

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    Actually, I want to know what Molitor was thinking, batting a rookie behind someone who hasn't hit all year.

     

    If the Twins weren't in a race for a wild card spot, it would be understandable. But with things the way they are, I think it's inexcusable.

     

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    You can be good without access and bad with it. Those aren't mutually exclusive. But the fundamental misunderstanding of the job from those who don't have it can be very, very frustrating.

     

    So too can the idea that everyone is there to do the same job, which is why Souhan spelled it out the way he did. He certainly took some pot shots I didn't think were necessary, but his overall point that people should know who does what was 100 percent true.

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    It's not that access = quality. It's that access = accountability. I.e. only saying things you'll say and then looking that person in the eye the next day.

    I'd love to see Souhan tell Sano to his face that he is fat.

     

    Edit: I'd love to see Souhan imply to Sano that he is fat.

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    Columnists exist because of the dynamic in sports today that it's about WHO says something, not WHAT is said.

     

    If I tweet something and LaVelle tweets it a half hour later, who do you think is going to get more retweets? 

     

    In a perfect world, a story reported first no matter who reports it gets more love. But then again, having equity in a market isn't a bad thing either. 

     

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    Columnists exist because of the dynamic in sports today that it's about WHO says something, not WHAT is said.

     

    If I tweet something and LaVelle tweets it a half hour later, who do you think is going to get more retweets? 

     

    In a perfect world, a story reported first no matter who reports it gets more love. But then again, having equity in a market isn't a bad thing either.

     

    The only* people who care about who broke the story are the authors themselves.

     

     

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    The only thing I learned from that column was something about "Glen Perkin's unannounced early retirement." What?

     

    That's a dig at Perkins. He's saying he is not working hard enough, not keeping himself in shape. Basically that he retired early, while still drawing a paycheck. 

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    That's a dig at Perkins. He's saying he is not working hard enough, not keeping himself in shape. Basically that he retired early, while still drawing a paycheck. 

     

    Really not sure how I feel about that either. It's kind of an easy conclusion, because if Perkins never pitches effectively again, one can say "SEE!" when in fact it might be the shoulder issue all along.

     

    Now with that said, it wasn't the only place I've ever heard someone say this. I wouldn't say it about Perkins because I don't have any evidence, but I highly doubt it's not something *somebody* told Souhan. 

     

    I'm not putting any stock in it because it doesn't matter, since Perkins earned the contract and is probably underpaid for his career anyway.

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    It's not that access = quality. It's that access = accountability. I.e. only saying things you'll say and then looking that person in the eye the next day.

     

    Yeah, but that's not the only definition of accountability. 

     

    Souhan is accountable to his readers for what he writes, too. The Star-Tribune is accountable for what they publish to their subscribers and even their non-subscribers, who provide the impressions for which they sell ads.

     

    And when a writer violates that accountability on a semi-regular basis, they don't get to lecture us about who to trust. They've already demonstrated how much disdain they have in trust. Trust is nothing more than a flag they can wave to get to what they really want: attention.

     

    So too is outrage, which was the whistle that Souhan was really sounding in that original story.

     

    Maybe that is part of what I'm trying to get to in the story. Traditional media wants us to focus on (and even praise) their process of gathering news, but washes their hands of their presentation and its affects. Perhaps new media can occasionally be criticized for focusing more on the presentation and reach, taking for granted the sources. I'd have to think more about that.

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