This could be the subject of a 5,000 word piece but for the sake of brevity and focus, let’s look at one aspect relating to the reporting of cycling news. In a new item on his blog, Cervélo co-founder Gerard Vroomen’s written a sort of apology to some cycling writers, after previously stating the media “had shown absolutely zero critical attitude towards the misgivings of cycling“.
It’s true that we’ve seen a range of reporting, from the critical to the almost-comical fan/insider pieces from writers who have fallen under the spell of the subjects they are supposed to report on.
Theory and practice
In theory a journalist is an independent observer, there to report the facts “without fear nor favour”.
Yet it’s not often been like that in cycling. Over the years journalists have conspired with race organisers to produce myths about races, to romanticise race accounts and to exaggerate acts of heroism. Almost a hundred years ago we heard how Eugène Christophe lost the Tour de France after breaking his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet but in fact he was just docked three minutes. Time after time we’ve see many a dull riders christened “The Eagle” just because they are effective in the mountains. Above all, the Tour de France was created to sell newspapers.
As Vroomen acknowledges many writers discover, they need access to the subject and if they write critical things about a rider (or a politician etc) then media gatekeepers slam doors in the face of the reporters. In recent years an American reporter sent expenses-paid to France for July wasn’t much use if they couldn’t get interviews from Lance Armstrong and his entourage.
But even those who don’t care for access have found critical and independent writing difficult. Let’s face it, most of the cycling media is small fry and when a legal writ comes through from a large New York or London law firm, there’s an obvious need for the reporter to play things with caution. Simply put, a writer might find their editor saying “you might be right but we can’t afford to print that”. Some have gone ahead and printed but many a media company is risk-averse and similarly an editor doesn’t want to see their budget gobbled up by legal bills.
In the most recent Real Peloton podcast, Matt Rendell recounts how lawyers asked him to strip out every reference to Lance Armstrong in his excellent “The Death of Marco Pantani”. Rendell won the battle but it shows just how many media outlets were aware of the need to refrain from mentioning negative things about Lance Armstrong for fear of legal reprisal. So if it’s not as if some writers lacked a “critical attitude”, it’s just that this can be silenced sometimes by more powerful forces. Note both David Walsh and Paul Kimmage write for heavyweight newspapers that can afford a day in court if necessary.
Sell the sizzle, not the steak
For all the talk of critical attitudes and incisive journalism, in recent years the likes of David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, plus many others, have been Cassandra-like voices. Nobody likes a partypooper to the point where I can’t help but wonder if critical reporting just isn’t what many want to read. In the words of twitter correspondent The Race Radio:
“Pro Cycling is like sausage, I love it but I don’t want to know how it is made.”
Do you want to enjoy the sizzling sausage and its juicy flavours? Do cycling fans visit the sports pages, cycling websites (and even blogs) for the seemingly endless accounts of legal appeals, haematological references, WADA guidelines and other non-sporting aspects that seemingly come with pro cycling as much as tech talk and mountain gradients? At times these are the equivalent of an explainer on MRM. Or do most people want a moment of escapism, to revel in a colourful sport complete with myths, traditions and excitement.
A final word to say we should respect people who change their minds. It’s okay even if some do it very, very slowly even although obviously the dogged ones who first raised questions about a particular subject have a lot more kudos in the bank… but often less money. But there might be a line between changing your mind and realising the wind is blowing in another direction, cynically hitching a ride in the other direction because that’s were the crowd is going.
Sports journalists are there to give an account of the racing and since the dawn of the sport many have conspired to hype up the racing and cover-up the dirtier aspects. In recent years many have tried to report on the extra-sporting aspects too, gaining impressive knowledge of libel laws and blood parameters.
For sure some have not been critical, some chased access whilst dumping concepts like “independence” and “questioning” like a racer dumps a banana skin. But many simply weren’t allowed the independence to write “I don’t believe what I’m seeing” and besides, the news is about facts. You can prove who crosses the finish line but if anyone has proof of Lance Armstrong doping, dial 1-800 Novitzky.
There have been and continue to be independent voices. Perhaps it is for the reader or the listener to select their sources of information as much as it is for reporters to decide just how questioning they want to be? If so, note the grey area where some have self-censored for fear of editorial pressure or legal firepower.
- Footnote: I could write a lot more on the subject, exploring the way the mainstream press treats the sport, analysing legal aspects and other areas such as the way the internet is changing things, from writers reporting “tweets” to the way it’s much harder to control the message these days. But that’s enough for now. If you want more, and another take, on the subject see the Chasing Wheels blog and the piece on Kimmage.