In his well-written piece, Curtis, while correctly (and honestly) calling fansites an "essential journalistic resource", says:
"Ever since Grantland Rice immortalized Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen in deadline metaphor, college football writers have had a penchant for swooning. But outside of a few great local papers, they never combined the cheerleading with an intensive study of a particular team."This revisits a theme from the infamous Clausen series by Carroll and Weineke, during which sites like NDN and writers like Mike Frank were derided as "fanboys" by the reasoned minds at SportsJournalists.com (to which I refuse to link; seek it out at your own emotional risk). The school of thought is fanboy writers for sites like Irish Eyes and NDNation are incapable of providing quality journalism because they cannot get past their bias and can only serve as electronic mouthpieces for the schools they represent.
"What has emerged is something beyond even what you’d find in the most boosterish local columnist: a new Internet species — half dogged reporter, half deliriously over-the-top fan."
"For readers, Rivals and its counterparts mean a different trade-off: more news but with less pretense of objectivity."
This is the point where I (and because I'm on the Internet, I can) call bullshit.
I credit Curtis for using the word "pretense" with regard to objectivity, but we're beyond pretenses here. All writers are biased one way or the other, especially in college athletics, so decrying one group as being more culpable in this area than others is the height of hypocrisy.
Bias is part and parcel of writing, because it's the truly unusual automaton scribe who can set aside all opinion and emotion when reporting a story. This is even more true with topics like college athletics, for which the presence (and sometimes manipulation) of emotion is a key element. While I'm sure all writers like to parade themselves as a truly objective voice, the fact of the matter is they've all got their agendas, and some are just better at hiding it than others.
There's plenty of ND bias out there, for example, and it swings both ways. People like Beano Cook, Dick Vitale, Kirk Herbstreit, John Walters, Jason Kelly, Malcolm Moran and T.J. Simers are pro-ND, whether they'd admit it publicly or not. On the other side of the aisle, you have guys like John Saunders, Bob Ryan, Craig James, Jason Whitlock, Michael Wilbon, David Haugh, and Jay Mariotti, who probably aren't all that shy about admitting their feelings.
For all of them, pro or con, their bias seeps into their writing / commentating / voting / whatever. Sometimes such seepage is subtle, like emphasizing the first-half struggles of the ND defense in a 38-14 Irish win. Sometimes it's quite obvious, like proclaiming multiple Heisman trophies for a quarterback who hasn't yet taken a snap in college. But regardless, it's there and (as far as I can tell) accepted.
So what is it about the writings of the Mike Franks and Tim Pristers and Lou Somogyis and Todd Burlages of the world that makes them somehow below standard as journalists? How are the "fanboys" any more or less biased than any other sportswriter?
Answer: They're not. In fact, I put it to you, gracious reader, that the fanboy perspectives are infinitely more valuable than "neutral" contributions. To wit:
Their alleged "bias" is right out front where you can get a good look at it. They're not pretending to be something they're not, and as a result, don't have to engage in journalistic acrobatics to get their points across. It's a refreshing (and unpretentious) honesty.
Their information and perspective is usually of better quality than you'd find elsewhere. These are guys who know the program and people in it. If they're telling you something, you know it came from those who know and those who know are being as straight with them as possible. It's funny what kind of relationships you can grow when you're not looking for the "hot story" that will vault you to national prominence and an ESPN gig.
(Then again, that would be a biased agenda, so I'm sure the "traditional media" wouldn't engage in that.)
They're held accountable by their readership. It's really easy for a Jay Mariotti or a Rick Telander to selectively respond to criticism of their writing. They can pick and choose the Letters to the Editor that get published, and usually get the chance to put their own spin on it. The Internet guys, however, are under the gun 24/7. If their readers don't like what they write, they (and everyone else) will hear about it on the message boards. They're also more likely to lose a subscription over a minor issue, as the team coverage is 100 percent of the reason the readers are there.
And most importantly, I strongly believe it's easier to overcome a positive bias and write something critical when it's warranted than it is to overcome a negative bias and write something positive when it's warranted. I don't know if it's harder to admit error when you originally came out against something or just a case of cranky pundits short on their prune juice, but that's been the rule of thumb from my vantage point.
Need evidence? Take a look at the AP ballots for this week. Craig James, king of the subtle seepage, has Notre Dame ranked 14th, behind Rutgers. Jason Whitlock also has ND 14th, ranked behind two-loss teams like Oklahoma and LSU, neither of whom have defeated anyone of note yet. On the other hand, Michael Pointer has ND 11th (but still behind Cal), and Kirk Herbstreit has the Irish 10th. The anti-ND contingent goes over the top in its criticism, while the pro-ND group isn't about to canonize Weis' crew but still manages to keep an even keel.
I enjoyed Curtis' article, but I'm tired of hearing about "cheerleading" writers for college-specific sites from hypocritical newspaper and television folks who use those sites for most of their leads. The fanboys are no more cheerleaders (or detractors) than those traditional media writers are. They're just more honest about it.