The business of journalism in cycling

Monday, 30 May 2011

Le Tour 1903

Fearless self-promotion from Day 1

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.

Self-censorship
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.

Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage: a critic, a cynic or something else?

Summary
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.
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{ 16 comments }

Oliver May 30, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Besides Walsh, Kimmage and very few others, virtually all sports reporters (with a very special mention to the ones from the us of a) have been utterly complicit in the vast cover up of doping of the last decade(s). And often the journos would justify their silence by saying it was “for the good of the sport.” For the good of their pocketbooks, yes for sure! When almost all newspapers out there are dependent on adverts or traded on the stock exchange it is ludicrous to expect any objectivity or news from them that might help lower the quartely revenue report of their sponsors. (That’s true for mainstream news also, obviously, btw).
Considering the extent of the cheating: choosing between uncovering a den of inequity and cynicism that was the Postal Team and just licking their boots should have been a no-brainer for anyone with a modicum of integrity. Choose the latter and you are morally complicit of this drug-dealing enterprise!

It is particularly despicable to see now notorious Lance journalistic pr men (because that’s what they were) now turn around and apologize for their cowardice — it is the timing that makes me want to gag: now the table have turned, it has become almost unsustainable career-wise not to do so….
I say to bicycling magazine, Phil and Paul, Velonews, Cycling news, velonation and all the other mouthpieces out there: you made tens of thousands off that guy’s success: if you are sincere about your criticism give the money away! Some cycling charity or something. Don’t make yet more money out of your opportunistic contrition…

And yes, the Tour was created in fact to sell a paper. And yes, its genesis is mired in corruption and doping — is that a reason not to attempt to rise above it? What about progress? The course of history and all that — or are you not a Hegelian? ;-)

Bundle May 30, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Cycling is, first and foremost, a sport to read about. Reading the story of a race is usually just as good, or even better, as watching it on TV. It’s somehow made of the stuff mass media are made of. It was always like that. And that is why this old sport was the first to be modern, and to be made of advertising and commercial journalism, the first to be professional, and the first in doping. Reading the story of some old Tour stages can be as thrilling as anything. Even reading about old doping scandals is interesting in retrospective. In the 50s, many people bought the paper just to see the standings of the previous day’s race. Now I would say it’s one of the most written about sports on the Internet.
There is space enough for both the myth-building writes and the objective and inquisitive critics, with lots of room for polemics in between.

John S May 30, 2011 at 8:09 pm

This isn’t limited to cycling. Too many journalists are, first and foremost, fans. They love being part of the bandwagon; love access to the exalted idols; love the trips to the marquee events. They are often ex sports people themselves and are either complicit in perpetuating the myths of professional sport, or don’t want to rock the boat for fear of losing access to the people and the events they so patently love. This makes them the worst possible people for asking the difficult questions, or for shining a light into the murkier corners of professional sports’ dealings. look at the craven inability of the English media to hold Sir Alex Ferguson to account for his refusal to answer legitimate questions that he doesn’t like, or even talk to journos that he doesn’t approve of.

Shane May 30, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Hi Oliver, while I agree with some of what you said, I have to comment on the reference to Velonation. I don’t think you can accuse the site of ever being a mouthpiece; putting aside the fact that we have dealt fully with the Armstrong allegations ever since they broke, there have also been pieces asking questions even before Floyd’s email was published. Ditto for Contador; we’ve always asked questions about his case.

The site is a relatively new one, and hasn’t made tens of thousands off his success. In fact, the site wasn’t around when he was winning his seven Tours. We’ve got plenty of irate Facebook messages from some diehard LA fans to show that we’ve been asking questions that perhaps they don’t want to hear. That’s not out of an anti-LA bias, by the way; it’s simply because asking those questions is the best way to help push towards a cleaner sport.

Shane May 30, 2011 at 8:27 pm

ps we are not looking for medals or anything, by the way! Just wanted to set the record straight on that point.

The Inner Ring May 30, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Oliver: maybe some were “utterly complicit” but my piece here is really to say there’s a big grey area between the complicit and the heroes cited by Vroomen. There are many people though capable of writing excellent race reports and giving views on the sport. Too many to name but one’s left a comment on here already.

Remember, many writers today have their beliefs but they can’t print them and legal firepower comes into play.

Oliver May 30, 2011 at 9:45 pm

@Shane: I actually agree, VeloNation has been on the good side of the fence; it is one of the very few sites that was & this is worth mentioning. Ditto velocitynation.
@InnerRing. I have to disagree about the “big grey area” generally. I believe this was one of those “you are either for or against” moment (See Sartre in re. the Occupation). And it was Lance that made it that way: for him as a journalist you were either an an ally or an enemy (Bush tried that kind of bullying too during his second invasion of Iraq..). Few were in between, for the simple reason that Lance wouldn’t allow it!
So to address the “access to the star issue/excuse”: it was you either you became a sycophant or nada, nothing, rien du tout, que dalle! And most journos became sycophants (and sometimes attacked the lone critics out there!). In the U.S. if was sickening: the media was overwhelmingly drinking and serving the kool-aid — making book deals, magazine covers (cover ups, really). Let’s not kid ourselves: in that country, hardly anything that was written about Lance in the last 10 years wasn’t a fluff piece. And what makes it outrageous was that the guys (and women, special salute to the It’s not about the bike writer: it certainly never was about the truth) knew that what they wrote was at the very least questionable. But they all went along for the ride, hanging out sipping champagne with Lance in his bus, private jet, giant Texas mansion, or wherever. While Christophe Bassons quit cycling & took up vtt.
I don’t suppose you are saying that those who wanted to air their doubts but didn’t for fear of legal consequences decided to do a 180 and to become Lance cronies instead? I suppose that might be true, not much comfort in that either.

david May 30, 2011 at 9:59 pm

As you mentioned the most recent Real Peloton really exposed some of the issues surrounding journalists not being able to share their opinion, even if that opinion is supported by rumour and numerous *almost* facts. The reward for being the lone voice of reason is not great enough to outweigh the risk of being the lone defendant in a defamation case. That’s even more the case when cycling journalists like Matt and Ned (and many journalists in general) are freelance and lack support from the large organisations which publish their work.

However, we should be wary of too much cynicism in cycling journalism as the sport is actually meant to be enjoyed. Nine stories out of ten aren’t a dogged struggle for the truth through investigative journalism (mind you some goodies are!), they’re a description of an athlete or a race. I want to read the joy of the sport in these pieces, not someone telling me that “they all dope and the UCI are corrupt anyway”.

ElBeeJay May 31, 2011 at 9:27 am

I don’t want to go into details of this discussion as I am a journalist myself.
But it is both funny and thoughtprovoking that you can often see THE SAME journalists in cycling perceived as either blindfolded douchebags or sensationalist vultures. Apparently it all depends on who you might ask among the cycling fans; if it is the die hard doping denies they wiil accuse you of being a ruthless cynic and if you ask the sceptics they will assure you that journalists are omerta stricken opportunists.

Qwerty May 31, 2011 at 10:26 am

I agree that it’s hard for a writer to publish. The revelations we read are often the visible part of the iceberg. But this is not new, all groups see insider information and circulate rumor. A journalist must publish verifiable news, not spread gossip.

StevenCP May 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I can’t comment on other journos mentioned above, but people should remember that Kimmage was an ex-pro who rode the TdF, so he has an emotional attachment to the sport. His book Rough Ride explains why he is so passionate about the subject of doping.

I love reports on races, but you can’t expect journos to gloss over the bad side. I would personally like to know if, for example, Contador cheated to win a TdF.

The likes of Phil Liggett tend to gloss over the doping issue, so maybe TV journos don’t have axes to grind. Admirable, but I find it slightly patronising.

Oliver May 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm

@inrng : I don’t suppose it matters, but if i could I would take off velonation from the list of pro-lance mouthpieces in my first response. That was clearly a mistake, wish I hadn’t made it.

Shane May 31, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Hi Oliver, thanks for that – appreciate the words. Some good points made by yourself and others… complex subject, let’s hope that the complete truth is uncovered and cycling has a better future than its past.

Twisted Spoke June 3, 2011 at 5:47 am

I also find this a fascinating subject. Because the sport of cycling is going thru some huge changes and one of them is how the sport is covered, how it’s portrayed in the media. Part of the global expansion of cycling is that this global quality has also brought in many new voices in cycling.

It was an old boys network, a small, tightly knit community and most journalists were former racers. They had no desire to do write anything that didn’t celebrate the sport, hide the unsightly things and never criticize too much because it was their friends and future business connections that they might damage. A very insular little world.

Like in all other media situations, the rise of blogging has had a significant impact on cycling journalism, good and bad. I think the fresh perspective is wonderful and comes as part of the wider audience for the sport. If the sport wants to grow beyond the hardcore fans, it has to be open to new ideas and new interpretations. This is in large measure what Vaughters talks about when he puts forth new ideas to make the sport more vibrant and attractive to the media.

The new forms of coverage mean new viewpoints, attitudes and perspectives. There is more humor, more willingness to criticize, less fear of burning bridges and some exciting new writing for a fantastic sport. It’s something that thin-skinned riders have to get used to. It’s something that old school team managers have to get used to.

You don’t have to look any further than the Inner Ring or Pave or Browne Eye (and by golly I’ll put a plug in for my own Twisted Spoke) to discover that there are some great, influential new writers in the sport. Cyclingnews and Velonews do a tremendous job but they are no longer the only choice.

As the French might say, vive le difference.

Rider Council June 4, 2011 at 1:26 am

If it’s black pudding then it’s blood and bread crumbs. Hmmm delicious!

Mick Tarrant June 5, 2011 at 11:14 pm

When all said and done, the only time mainstream media takes an interest in cycling is when they smell the blood of a possible doping scandal. I’ve lost count of the times when (for instance) BBC Radio features “Winner of the TDF, Lance Armstong/Alberto Contador etc.etc…..” gets trotted out. Let’s hear it for the bad news story folks! Otherwise, athletic endeavour, high drama, nail biting finishes to stages and GC don’t warrant a mention.

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