Thursday, October 19, 2006

The other night I had some trouble falling asleep. I decided to do a bit of reading, so I picked up my copy of Orwell's Collected Essays. Not exactly light reading, I admit, but I find his blend of sarcasm, appreciation for everyday things and insight into human nature reassuring. I read the eighth of his As I Please columns he wrote, and it made me think that I should write this post.

In that column, written for Tribune and published on January 21, 1944, Orwell addressed the people who criticized the BBC and its programming. He concedes that there was a great deal wrong with the BBC, but none of the critics seemed to devote any thought to why this was the case and what could be done about it. When I read this again, it occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time criticizing various media outlets without analyzing how things could be better.

The most obvious target of my criticism has been the CHB. I suppose there is very little of intelligence or constructive suggestion in the statement that the CHB looks like Dr. Who. I think it's funny, though, so there will be no form of retraction or apology. And as for his colleague Bob Ryan, and fellow traveler Jay Mariotti, both of whom have been enshrined in the Max Mercy Hall of Fame, they deserved it.

There is a way to fix newspaper sports coverage. It's really quite simple, in theory. Hire better writers. Hire people with a modicum of creativity, who will not have to resort to the "there is something gravely wrong in the world of sports" column that attaches earth-shattering significance to each day's developments (like the Terrell Owens saga). Of course that's a pipe dream, what with the fact that the newspaper is slowly dying right before our eyes.

Lately, I have been critical of ESPN also. Perhaps I overreacted to their coverage of the Cory Lidle tragedy. However, there is a lot to be said for respecting a family's privacy and letting a story unfold before devoting an entire evening to covering it. I have a problem with ESPN because they air sports programming 24 hours a day on four networks. It sounds like a sports fan's dream scenario, but it isn't a good thing.

Because they have 24 hours to fill, the powers that be have to fill it with something. There just aren't enough sporting events and "sporting events" (darts, poker and billiards are not sports), and only so many times you can rebroadcast The Contender. In order to fill the time, ESPN rushes some stories to air. By doing so, they end up manufacturing stories. By that I don't mean they make up a story. They end up taking an event and covering it, and then their coverage becomes the story.

Consider the Terrell Owens episode. Will any one ever completely believe any version of his hospitalization? What would have happened had the network waited before it rushed to the air with the Dallas police narrative? So much air was wasted and ink spilled over what may well be a non-story. He could have deliberately ODed, or been the victim of a pharmaceutical interaction. We'll never really know, because the spectacle of an entire afternoon devoted to the incident and the press conferences held by the various parties from the Dallas PD, EMS, the team, T.O., Parcells and the PR assistant.

Then there is the Larry Coker situation at Miami. Every commentator and his/her brother has weighed in on that sordid scene. Has any one asked the question what responsibility resides with the media for the fight? I don't know if Larry Coker has lost that team. It certainly looked like it on Saturday. But if he has lost his team, might it have been adversely effected by the infinite number of has Larry lost this team stories that had already appeared since the loss to Florida State in the first game?

Of course, if ESPN (and the media in general) were to ask questions like that, it would question their very reason for being. We all know that no one needs 24 hours of sports coverage, but we want it as consumers. ESPN gives us what we want and if the Lidle family, Larry Coker or Terrell Owens must be trampled, then trampled they shall be. God forbid one think for oneself, or come up with something to say to one's friends without help from the Worldwide Leader.

In all of that, it seems that I have failed to provide a constructive criticism of ESPN's programming. There is no constructive criticism to the problems addressed above that I can see, except for waiting a bit before breaking a story. That won't happen, since every media outlet is competing not only with other media outlets, but with blogs like Deadspin (not this blog, since it takes me days to assemble my thoughts and ramble). I do have a constructive suggestion about the talk show rotation on ESPN. Here it is.

In this day and age, it is amazing that there isn't a female host on any of the ESPN talk shows. Think of their roll call: First and 10 -Page, Crawford and Bayless, PTI - Wilbon and Kornheiser (with luminaries like LeBatard, Ryan, Whitlock and Mariotti as stand-ins), Quite Frankly - Smith, Around the Horn - Reali and Rome is Burning - Jim Rome. Even among the panelists on Around the Horn, Jackie MacMullin is the only woman. Is there some reason I don't know of that a female host could not succeed as the men listed above have?

The first to go, if some one must go, from the list above is Jim Rome. While I am not acquainted with every demographic among the ESPN audience, I can say this. No one I know likes Jim Rome. The only segment of the viewing audience to which he seems to appeal is the phony tough, crazy brave frat guy, would be frat guy, future frat guy and former frat guy. Jim Rome must be their lizard king, since he is as phony tough and crazy brave as they come.

Memo to Jim Rome: everybody knows you aren't tough. Even if the famous incident with Jim Everett were staged, you were still dribbled on the set of your own show by a guy you called Chris Evert. Memo to Jim Rome: calling T.O. "to" is not funny. Nor is it tough. Memo to Jim Rome: now that you can see this in print, maybe you'll realize how ridiculous it is and give the "memo to" expression the rest it so richly deserves.

Can any body honestly tell me that one of the ESPN sideline reporters like Suzy Kolber, Michelle Tafoya, Lisa Salters or Erin Andrews couldn't do a better job? After all, Pam Ward does the play-by-play on ESPN college football telecasts, and she does as well as most of her male counterparts (not that that is a compliment, necessarily). Any one of the women I mentioned above would probably do very well as a talk show host. They would certainly be less abrasive, which is Jim Rome's one skill.

ESPN needn't fear losing the audience segment described above, they would watch the show merely because an attractive woman hosted it. For those who think advocating the termination of the show Rome is Burning is not a constructive suggestion, watch the show and tell me that the nation would not be better off if that tool were off the air.

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