The Shape of the River

Last week, Leave the Man Alone (LMA) had an interesting post about the under-representation of Blacks in the sports blogosphere. LMA pointed out that Spike Lee  had ponied up $1 million dollars to his alma mater, Morehouse college, to develop a sports journalism program that would encourage more African Americans to enter the field. As quoted by LMA, Spike Lee articulated the following reasons for endowing such a program:

I’m not going to make excuses for the Pacmans of the world, Tank Johnson and those guys.

I just think, historically, the black athlete has been demonized. If we can get our graduates into these positions with newspapers, magazines and television stations … hopefully we’ll get a more balanced view.”

LMA pointed out the low numbers of Black sports journalists:

Blacks hold only 6.2 percent of the sports writing jobs. Out of more than 300 newspapers, just five have a black sports editor. By contrast, nine out of 10 sports editors were white males, as were 84 percent of sports columnists. Still, those dire statistics don’t tell the whole story about the pipeline. For example, no insight on attrition, what types of publications Black sportswriters work at, what sports they cover and whether said writers are on track for columnist, editor or management positions.

But, LMA pointed out, there is also a dearth of African American sports bloggers and that this is more of a puzzle in some ways, because barriers to entry in blogging are so low:

One only has to look to the sports blogosphere to understand that Lee’s goals might be easier said than effectuated. To my knowledge, there are remarkably few Black people who choose to blog primarily about sports. Let’s see, there’s me, mighty mjd, ms. suns gossip, the starting five, nation of islam sportsblog, bench renaldo, jones on the nba, the commission… That list is based completely on my limited knowledge and I’m sure there are a few more I’m missing and some bloggers who haven’t “outted” their race, but you get the point. That’s not a lot of blogs, especially given that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of sports blogs with an audience beyond their immediate family.

This is a point of interest because blogging is completely voluntarily. No education required. No interview. No hook up. No internship. No undesirable assignments. Open up a blogger, wordpress or typepad account and you’re a writer. It’s just that simple. You don’t even need a computer. You can post from your cell phone. You can blog as little or much as you want. You can write any way you want. The blogs I listed are all very diverse in subject matter and style. It seems to me that if you wanted your voice to be heard, whether as a personal or professional pursuit, the blogosphere would be an ideal place to get started. Still, that many Black people don’t seem to be participating.

The blogosphere, arguably the most free of all journalistic venues, remains primarily the domain of 18-35 White males. Hey, I love White males as much as the next person, but I wonder why the sports blogosphere as not become as diverse as the people who are fans of sports. That goes for Blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians and all the rest.

One possible reason why there is a low incidence of Black bloggers, in sports and otherwise, could be the so-called digitial divide which, like everything else in America, has a racial hue. According to a 2005 study of home personal computers, internet access and broadband connectivity, African Americans are far behind Whites in terms of computer and internet access. For example, 40.5% of Blacks had internet access at home (as of 2003, the last year comprehensive government figures were available), whereas two thirds of Whites had such access. Furthermore, whites had twice the rate of broadband access as Blacks. Consequently, not only are fewer Blacks growing up in households with computers and internet access than Whites, but the size of audience for Black bloggers, assuming even some racial kinship in blog tastes, is dramatically lower.

I mention LMA and these data because I think this is, in part, the context in which Whites and Blacks seem to view the sports world (and the wider world) so differently. The polling data that ESPN reported a couple of weeks back, showing a dramatic difference in White and Black perceptions of Barry Bonds is, arguably, symptomatic of this larger information gap. The filter for our sports information – whether in print or on radio and television, or in the blogosphere  – is an overwhelmingly White filter. This is one reason why I was sorry to see Stephen A. Smith’s Quite Frankly go off the air. Not infrequently, I find Smith to be annoying and his commentary off base, but he has long been spot on about the representation issues in American sports journalism and, as I wrote back in January, just before his show went off the air, Quite Frankly tried hard to address some of those representation issues:

I know the show’s ratings are weak, and other corners of the blogosphere are down on Stephen A. for his loud-mouthed shtick. And, he can be grating. But, Smith is doing something really interesting on his show. He has long made an issue of the under-representation of African Americans in sports journalism, and especially among the nation’s sports opinion columnists. In light of that reality, he’s decided to make his show a platform for what he considers to be some of the talented African American sports writers in America, making several of them regular commentators on his show. Rob Parker, Roy S. Johnson and the social commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson are among the regulars who bring alot to the discussion. Furthermore, Smith is not afraid to call his panelists on their points of view. One consequence of his style is that the more simplistic formulations about race are typically challenged, making for an unusual phenonemon on mainstream television: African Americans debating one another about race (and other issues of social significance). As an aside, another Smith favorite is Steve Malzberg, a (white) right-wing talk radio host and contributor to the popular conservative website, Newsmax.com. Smith’s commitment to a discussion in which everybody’s point of view will be subjected to scrutiny is clear and impressive.

I have no inside information on ESPN’s level of commitment to Quite Frankly, but there is no doubt that Smith is providing a forum for discussion – both in terms of content and, more significantly, participants – that is unique in major sports media.

What Smith did most successfully was open the door not to some singular Black perspective (there isn’t one, any more than there is a singular White perspective). Rather, Smith facilitated a conversation that showed that certain kinds of viewpoints were being systematically excluded because of the racial dynamics of sports media. It’s not that ESPN, for instance, has determined to ban Black voices. They obviously have not. It’s just that, as a whole, our sports media reflects (as do all media) the particular cultural biases of its practitioners. More than in other societies, there is a norm of objectivity in American journalism based on the presumption that information is itself objective, so that  it doesn’t really matter who is providing it. But, knowledge and how we learn it is more complicated than that. One of the interesting and, it’s true, under-reported aspect of the recent study about NBA officiating was the finding of own-race bias, applicable to both Black and White referees. The theory of own-race bias proposes that we tend to judge folks more like ourselves in a more favorable and forgiving like than we do others.(as a quick aside, though most sports media absolutely pilloried the referee study and, in lockstep, cited the NBA’s own insistence that its study found no such bias, it went almost unreported that, two weeks later, it turned out that closer inspection of the NBA’s own data found the same bias that the original study did).
Applying that sensible and plausible-seeming theory to sports journalism – the divergence in views on Black athletes, for example, isn’t so surprising since an overwhelmingly white sports media is covering a substantially African American endeavor (particularly football and basketball). So, more Black journalists, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that we will get more objective journalism. It would likely mean, however, that our conversation will not be quite as monolithically biased as it is. It may have a greater diversity of biases, but that would still allow, it seems to me, for a broader and more full-bodied perspective on many of the issues that come up in sports discourse. On its own, when Chris Russo decries the thuggery in the NBA and dismisses fighting in hockey as no big deal, that’s just one man’s opinion. But, the bigger picture – the filter through which sports information and imagery is processed – is inevitably distorted by the concerns that LMA and Stephen A (and this blog, of course) have raised. It’s that filter that has created such two-dimensional protrayals of Black athletes – the saintly David Robinson, for instance, versus the villainous Barry Bonds. More Black journalists, therefore, won’t necessarily mean that everyone will come to love Barry. But, it might serve to fill in the spectrum between the extremes of Black and White with a little more color.

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10 Responses to “The Shape of the River”

  1. J-
    What more black media representation does is humanize both black and white people. Barry Bonds, then, can be humanized. … for instance, why is Phil Mickelson’s proclivity for gambling large dollar amounts in Vegas associated positively with a swashbuckling style of playing golf. while Charles Barkley’s proclivity for the same activity has long been seen as a problem?…. who is doing the reporting goes a long way to explaining the difference in viewing these two people.

    The NBA referee issue and the NBA’s later finding is a perfect example of another problem: the general unwillingness of all sports media to admit when they are wrong, or in this case, bust out the league they cover when the league is proven incorrect. This is as dangerous as a white-biased press. At least some of us can see through that, but with a virtual media blackout of the NBA’s later findings, we may never know a truth exists.

    Finally, far too many white people feel or are afraid that more black journalists mean a “black slant only” to sports reporting. This phenomenon can be readily seen with comments to my writing here. Some of the people who comment here miss the many, many times I’ve called out black athletes or black reporters for their actions or remarks – and will continue to do so.

    So, there’s a fairness in media component to this issue that can be aided with an influx of black bloggers and black mainstream journalists.

    Thanks for the post….

  2. Unfortunately, and I would like to know what you think about this: it seems lazy journalism is considered “safe” journalism nowadays. In a predominantly white broadcast sports culture with predominantly white voices talking to predominantly white viewers, anyone who talks about an issue outside the comfort zone is rocking the boat. And we can’t have that. It might effect advertising. So it is best to hire a commmonplace run-of-the-mill average white guy than someone with an opinion. This is true in places beyond journalism and the media. Take the military for example. Why promote a general who might have a differing opinion even if he is better qualified when you can promote a guy who will walk the line? Uniformity breeds efficency which breeds predictability.

    As for the dearth of minority bloggers, I feel it is part socio-economic and part cultural. Socio-economic in the lack of computers, the lack of minorities working in jobs that have internet access so they can peruse blogs at work, the lack of time in those jobs, etc. etc. I also feel it is cultural, at least in my very narrow window of experiences. White people seem more likely to zone out and seek little person-to-person real life interaction. Their computer societies are just fine. I am sure, for example, if you were to look at the membership of online communities of programs such as second life you would see a greater disparity than the normal racial percentages of the population. Face-to-face family-like community is less important to white culture than to other cultures in the US. Unfortunately you can take that theory and use it to examine other internet trends such as the snarkiness and lack of compassion on the ‘net.

    Just my three cents.

  3. Jordi-
    Some of it is “safe” journalism. Some of it is lazy journalism. Some of it is fear. Jeff Pearlman left a comment here (on jweiler’s interview?) asking whether or not people feel it’s okay to put politics in sports articles, i.e. political mentions, analogies, or mix politics in a sports piece. He asked because he made a politcal mention and got crapped on by readers. That a journalist at ESPN has to ask that question is insane!

    It seems that, on the surface at least, black writers have less fear of adding feeling about politics, making political mentions, etc. their pieces.

    Your second paragraph brings up some very salient points.

    I’m really interested to see others comment on all your thoughts – I hope it begins a long convo….

  4. I tried to comment on this twice yesterday, and both comments fell through for some reason – here’s hoping three’s a charm:

    Great post, JW. A while back I was doing some research into why, as was my belief, minorities don’t blog as much as white. Like you I attributed it to the fact that (despite the perception that internet access is free and abundant, like water), internet access is still a “luxury” item that alot of minorities can’t afford.

    I found this report: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/NTIAHOME/FTTN99/part1.html

    “Whites are more likely to have Internet access at home than Blacks or Hispanics are from any location.”
    “Those with a college degree are more than eight times as likely to have a computer at home, and nearly sixteen times as likely to have home Internet access, as those with an elementary school education.”
    “A high-income household in an urban area is more than twenty times as likely as a rural, low-income household to have Internet access.”
    “A child in a low-income White family is three times as likely to have Internet access as a child in a comparable Black family, and four times as likely to have access as children in a comparable Hispanic household.”

    The last point interested me alot, as it seems to imply that it is not just a economic class issue (like I suspected), but partially a cultural thing, too.

  5. I don’t know how to say this without it coming across the wrong way, but here it goes…as a black college educated man, I sometimes feel like I would be pigeonholed if I wanted to do sports journalism. My primary interests are in politics and in what I guess you might call “societal” issues, but the barriers to entry into writing for something like The New Republic (to use an example) are, I assume, fairly high (and that’s not saying that the barriers to entry to be a writer for a Sports Illustrated are low).

    I guess it has something to do with the relative importance I place on politics vs sports in our society, so this is probably a notion I need to disabuse myself of, because, in all honesty, I’d love to write for something like ESPN The Magazine.

  6. Mike P-
    I’ve done Capitol Hill and the local political beat – and it is SO much easier writing about politics in all its expressions through lens of sports than it is just straight politics.

    And yeah, the barriers for all mainstream writing are high – but they should be, no?… BTW, do you have write somewhere now or have a blog, or both? Do you want to write? Shoot me an email at mesoanarchy@gmail.com and let’s talk…

  7. I’m glad you included data on the structural impediments to blogging. Although I would add that internet connectivity and computer ownership are only parts of the equation. Although “discretionary time” is a lot more difficult to quantify than “discretionary income,” a lot needs to be said about the importance of time to blogging.

    The reason I say this is because I see an unintended consequence of a call to arms for non-white bloggers: if the issue is framed as “anyone with a computer can do it!” then in five years when all the major blogs are still run by white folks, people can look back and argue that non-white bloggers either don’t have the skill and/or the proclivity to blog — a ridiculous claim, but you know some jackass is going to make it.

    I find a lot of similarity among the rhetoric of “Anybody with a computer can do it!” and “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! All you need is a good work ethic!”

    You do a good job of showing some of the reasons why not everyone can be a blogger, but I think we need to find even more of these variables to pre-empt future attacks against non-white bloggers.

  8. Jweiler, nice piece. I write because of my vantage point. It’s like voting, if you don’t pull the lever, your voice won’t get heard. I’ve interviewed former Phi Slamma Jamma member Rickey Winslow (to be posted on my site) who runs a company in TX that initiates child computer use when they are two.

    Jordi you make good points about computer use or lack thereof in the Black community.

    I guess I’m biased because this is what we do, I just couldn’t see it any other way. The interviews I’ve recently conducted have a lot to do with getting TSF out there obviously, but also to help the youngster who fears the leap of faith.

  9. jweiler Says:

    Jordi (and everyone else)

    Thanks for the comments. The question of safe/lazy journalism is an important one. It’s pervasive in our media – there are countless egregious examples among the DC press corps that helped the president to walk-over in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Like Le Batard, I am not going to sit here and speak for African Americans when I am not one, but I think that African Americans in the public eye face representation issues that whites don’t. Jemele Hill gets, it seems to me, extremely close scrutiny when she writes about race at all, in relation to sports. As a consequence, in my view, she sometimes bends over backwards to write frivolous stuff, maybe to show that she’s capable of not being so “political” all the time. In that sense, I do think African American sports writers in mainstream outlets (and, to some degree, women too – and Hill is an African American woman,so…)are under a microscope in a way that whites aren’t.

  10. with linksys transfer speeds…

    [...]The Shape of the River « The Starting Five[...]…

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