Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Ethics or Pathetic?

I was extremely disturbed to learn a couple days ago that Frontstretch owner and Editor-in-Chief Tom Bowles was fired from his day job at SI.com (Sports Illustrated online) allegedly for cheering when 20-year-old Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in the Wood Brothers No. 21 car. Under attack from some other shadowy media members, Tom then allegedly defended his actions on that thing they call Twitter. I have to admit that I am not a Twit. I have never Tweeted. I have no idea what that crap is all about. All I know is there’s a lot of people who do it and you’re confined to 140 characters or less. Hellfire, I can’t write my grocery list in 140 words or less even though I can condense the top three items each week to A,T,F. But it seems to me that Twitter is sort of like how email used to be. It’s a social medium you connect to with other people to communicate thoughts when you’re off work and on your own time. Only back in those days, the thoughts conveyed between two individuals were to a degree private between those folks… and the Russian Hackers.

Let me start by saying I am not a “journalist.” I’m a writer whose typical gig is to express an opinion. Over the fourteen years I’ve been writing about this sport, both on inky paper and on this internet conundrum I’ve put my thoughts out there. As is the nature of the medium, once I do I’ve heard back from other race fans both pro and con on what I’ve said. I’ve never considered myself anything other than that, a race fan with a pretty cool job. Your opinions are no less or more valid than my own. Back in college I majored in English, Psychology and Religion. My game plan was to write the great American Novel using psychology to flesh out the characters, then pray like Hell it sold well enough I could retire to the islands with a cute blonde many years my junior, ride Harleys, work on old cars and fish every evening. Obviously, that didn’t work out. (Well, the blonde and the Bahamas part didn’t…)

There’s been internal fighting between the “real” journalists and the Internet type almost since I began. I thought that war was over and a truce had been established. I started with a print paper back in the day. It was a free paper we published occasionally and used to haul to convenience stores in bundles to give away in the back of my boss’s girlfriend’s RAV4. I then moved on to several Internet sites and was surprised to learn that I was no longer a real writer. My applications for press credentials were denied. The Internet was not a legitimate medium, NASCAR stated. I, and a whole bunch of others weren’t real journalists. The Internet was never going to amount to anything. Yeah, they said the same thing about the Model T.

Fast forward a decade and a half. The “legitimate” journalists, those with degrees, who write the beat for name newspapers even in the Deep South have been reduced from an army of insiders to so few folks you could probably ride the lot of them in the press box home in a mini-van after the event – despite the stupendous girth of some in that group. The rest of the folks left covering the sport are the citizen soldiers just out there plugging away or, as some would have it, “Working on mysteries without any clues…”

Yeah, I thought that war was over. They wouldn’t have me and writers of my ilk in the NMPA. Now we’re welcome, but I subscribe to the theory of Groucho Marx that I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me. Instead, I once proposed a group called NIMPH, the National Internet Motorsports Press Hacks. Somehow, the idea never took off. (Damn it, I’d spent hours writing up my own set of inalienable rules everyone else would have had to adhere to. No, actually I didn’t. My aging hippie mantra has always been, do your thing and I’ll do mine. It’s only when our two things interfere with one another we’ll need to sit down, reach a mutually acceptable solution with peaceful conflict resolution, and then break into a few verses of Kumbaya.)

When the Daytona 500 celebration carried over to the media center, a line of journalistic ethics was drawn.

But over fourteen years, the landscape has changed. The big league papers are now using AP reports rather than sending reporters to the races. Newspaper readership, even from august journals is dropping precipitously. People get their news online now. It’s fresh and it’s current. I don’t want to wait sixteen hours to pick up a paper to see the latest from Libya or learn where the Dow Jones average closed the previous day. And I surely don’t want to wait a week to read a sports magazine that covers what happened last week and thinks that one issue with softcore porn every year somehow makes them relevant. Nowadays, it’s about reading writer’s opinions on what happened at the last event to provide additional insights.

In the interests of full admission, I once pretended to be a journalist back at Speedworld. But the journalist and I who covered the sport there got into a bit of a tiff. She quit. Derek asked me to write race reports on the Truck and the Busch Series, so I didn’t write my opinions; I did what journalists do. I covered the race. On lap 10, this driver passed that one. And then, on lap 25 this guy wrecked the other guy. Then, there was a real big wreck on lap 150. With two laps to go, this driver passed another and went on to win. It was terribly boring to do. I could cover the average race with about 25 minutes of writing. I hated it. “Why am I telling people about what they just saw?” I asked Derek. “Because a lot of people didn’t see the race and they want to know what happened,” he patiently explained. The gig paid $100 a column. Making $200 an hour? I was down with it. Who, what, why, when and where. I got it. Beer in the fridge, gas in the bike, and new headers for the Chevelle.

Even back in those days I’d get email from some of my fellow scribes telling me my latest column was “biased.” I wasn’t a real journalist, even as boring as I was trying to be. I’d called a driver out for wrecking another. That wasn’t how the game was played. Apparently, you were supposed to write, “On lap 499 Ernie Darnhardt apparently made contact with Gordie Jefferson, stuffing him into the wall.” “Apparently,” my skinny white Irish ass! I saw it happen and that’s how I wrote about it. Derek found someone else to write the journalist stuff. “Apparently” is the great divider between writers who are passionate about the sport and journalists. It is OK to write, “In what was apparently the dirtiest move ever made in NASCAR racing, Ernie wrecked Gordie.” Leave yourself some wiggle room to appease the editor who never even watched the race. Or the wealthy new website owner looking to cash in before the Internet bubble burst. Apparently, some professional journalists still have a stick up their asses.

Yeah, back then I was an angry young man willing to defend what I did to anyone who took me to task without looking at any possible valid argument they might have offered. Back in the day (and as far as I know, still today) these bastions of journalistic integrity were all too willing and eager to go on the preseason Media Tour and accept what they used to call “swag,” gift bags full of stuff from individual teams on the tour intended to elicit nice words on their cars, sponsors and drivers. I really wanted one of those lined brown leather jackets the “real media” folks got from one team. It wasn’t because I thought I’d look cool; it was because I couldn’t afford to heat my house that late winter with what I was making writing.

I pointed out that in an effort to gain positive reporting, NASCAR and the tracks provided free meals to accredited journalists in the press box. The late (and great) David Poole wrote me, “Dude, it’s just lunch.” I replied that the easiest way to avoid biting the hand that was feeding you was not to accept a free lunch. In my press box days, I always stopped on the way to the track and got myself a roast beef sandwich with horseradish on the side and a few soft drinks in my cooler. (Yeah, I had another cooler with not so soft drinks waiting in the car.) In the most egregious of detachment from professional journalism, I can recall Chevrolet gave NASCAR’s top writers of the then fledgling sport a free new ’57 Chevy to make sure they wrote positive things about the Bowties effort.

Over the years, things started to change. Tremendously talented writers, writers who I will not dare to compare myself to, people whose work I looked forward to daily, became Internet writers as well. The respective papers they wrote for saw the change in the wind and established websites of their own. Writers who worked for relatively small newspapers found themselves suddenly available to the whole of NASCAR fandom on a daily basis (Thanks largely to Jayski.com at first. That’s where this minor leaguer came from). And the ones who succeeded were the ones who responded to their readers, leaving the ivory towers of journalism to get down and muddy with the fans in the trenches. Guys and gals like Ben White, Poole, Mike Mulhern (the Pit Bulls), Monte Dutton, Lee Spencer, Larry Woody and countless other talented writers got ahead of the wave. I consider Mike Mulhern one of the greatest NASCAR writers ever, but if he only wrote for the print paper in Winston Salem you’d never have heard of him. Ironically now that paper, in the heart of NASCAR country relies on stringers for print coverage and Mike runs his own website.

This sport is about passion. It’s about love for their favorite drivers, and a diminishing but still substantial number of fans still follow the media coverage of NASCAR for both. It’s a virtual cornucopia for fans of the sport with the internet these days with the ability to surf (do we still use that term?) to websites most closely aligned with their views on the sport, be it cheerleading or browbeating. There’s a lot of bandwidth out there, and NASCAR suddenly found themselves no longer in control of the media. The death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 set off a virtual firestorm and the organization has been back on their heels ever since. I think Hosni Mubarak understands how a popular uprising among the citizenship can lead to a dramatic shift in power. But Brian France sounds more like Charlie Sheen.

I’ve had this argument countless times, as recently as this week in the comments section below my last column. I took Kyle Busch to task for causing the wreck that took out Carl Edwards. (And, like a moron, had the lap number of that wreck wrong. My apologies. No excuses. I was just wrong. Note to self, get a spare pair of reading glasses so when you crush one you can still read your own notes written in longhand in what approximates my handwriting since I decided to punch Route 30 at 80 MPH falling off a motorcycle when I was 18. I should have a laptop to make notes but I can’t afford one. I left my last one on the roof of a car leaving Dover.) I was not, as some claim, trying to disparage Busch’s ability to drive. On a dispassionate level I consider Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson the three most talented drivers in the sport. And I wouldn’t walk across the street to talk to any of them on a day off.

Here’s my take on the situation. To cheer one driver over another coming to the line at a race would be unprofessional and unacceptable. It would be even more egregious if Tom cheered Bayne because Ford or Motorcraft were advertisers on the site and there was hope of financial re-numeration or a free set of wheels for doing so. To cheer after the race is fait accompli because there was a thrilling result should be OK. Some of you know before I was a writer, Bill Elliott was my favorite driver. (That hardly put me in an exclusive club.) But here’s the litmus test. If today, Elliott were to win a race off of turn four and beat any other driver to the finish line by inches I would say it was a great race. By the same token, if Bill was leading off of turn four and some other driver beat him to the line by inches I’d still say it was a great race.

I’m not quite sure why Tom is getting singled out here. If the august members of the journalists want to get their panties in a wad, why not turn on the members of the FOX and SPEED broadcast teams? They play to millions, not thousands. The brothers Waltrip are particularly galling. Already, we’ve seen DW in his Toyota commercial (for which he was compensated.) We’ve seen him cheer for his brother and make excuses for him. If there was a single mention that SPEED broadcaster Michael Waltrip’s race-winning Daytona truck was found to be illegal, and there were monetary and points fines levied as a result, I never caught it during the Phoenix truck broadcast. And for DW, it’s always the NAPA or FedEx Toyota as opposed to the No. 99 or 16 cars.

The most abhorrent of TV “journalism” lack of ethics occurred many years ago at the Firecracker 400. (And yes, that’s what I still call that race. Why favor one soft drink company over another?) The race that evening was the “Pepsi 400.” Jeff Gordon drove for Pepsi. Six other drivers, all big names and contending cars, were sponsored by Coca-Cola. The six Coke cars were all but invisible during that race, but Gordon the No. 24 car was on the air almost continuously with frequent mentions of his soft drink backer. Funny, I don’t recall the enraged artisans of journalism rising up to burn the camera truck afterwards. Maybe they didn’t see the broadcast because they were there live, not “sitting on their couches”. Bull hockey. Every press room I’ve sat in is equipped with multiple TV sets tuned to the race broadcast. I don’t care what an eagle-eye observer you are. A critical pass, pit stop faux pas or big wreck is going to take place while you’re looking elsewhere. Or, you’re going to be in the pisser when the key moment of the race takes place. (I have yet to hear of one of these couch-o-phobe professionals being catheterized prior to a race.) The replays tell the story and as a bonus, you don’t piss your pants.

Others will cite noted and legendary Ned Jarrett calling his son Dale home to the line in the Daytona 500. Yeah, that day frankly I was surprised. But it was a made-for-TV moment. Jarrett had always been scrupulously careful to let others in the booth comment on his son rather than him. He showed no favoritism. And here’s the part of the story you might not have heard. The week after “The Call” Ned Jarrett went up to Dale Earnhardt and apologized to him for what he felt was unprofessional conduct favoring his son. Earnhardt smiled, shook Jarrett’s hand and replied, “Ned, I’m a daddy too.” As best I can recall, there was no media uproar that day.

A breach of etiquette. Who gets to decide that? Dead white guys? Yes, according to Miss Manners tomes written during my childhood I should remove my ballcap when entering a shopping mall. A man does not wear a hat indoors especially in the presence of ladies. I don’t do that anymore. And I have yet to get thrown out of a mall. Back in the day, even adults addressed only their closest friends by their first name. Everyone else was Mr. This or Mrs. That. Nowadays, my friends kids call me “Matt” or more often, “Yo Dude.” (Which I dislike but don’t comment upon. It beats “Dude-man.”)

Times and mores have changed. So why do the “professional journalists,” perhaps jealous the “citizen journalists” have been allowed to breach their inner sanctum, still expect the rest of us to adhere to their antiquated rules? I mean when Rea White encounters a puddle, does she expect someone of my lowly ilk to lay down my suit jacket to allow her to cross without sullying her pumps?

Let me sum up here. In arguments over the professionalism of what I’ve written, I compare what I do to being a movie reviewer. (Which was my first writing gig back in school.) I watch the movie or the race, be it on DVD or in the theater. Or I watch the race from the track or in my lounge chair. Sometimes, I am going to write a movie was very good or even excellent. Other times, I will say it was poor or even relentlessly putrid. That’s my opinion. You might love a movie I hated or hate a movie I raved about and that’s cool. It’s still being a professional as long as I am not accepting payment or even a free ticket from the movie studio, an actor, the theater, etc. to sway my opinion and say a poor film was great. I wouldn’t green light a movie because I like Bruce Willis or some other star. And yes, very occasionally (I’m remembering the Sixth Sense, Shakespeare in Love, ET, Apollo 13, Forest Gump, and American Graffiti) at the conclusion of a film I will rise to my feet and applaud. I am not applauding because I’m paid to or I wish to help the movie become a financial success. I am applauding because I am a human being seeing what I consider a great piece of filmmaking, a compelling story well told, two hours of storytelling that made me forget about my worries and feel something new about the human condition we all share. And if you’re going to tell me to sit down and shut up, screw you. I might even put my damn ballcap back on just to piss you off.

The late Dale Earnhardt said one evening in Bristol regarding the fans, “If they ain’t cheering, they better be booing.” If you, Mr. Professional Journalist, don’t feel passion or emotion anymore after an exciting finish, maybe you ought to be covering ice hockey or tiddlywinks.

“Contact Matt McLaughlin”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14348/

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