How the media thrives on false conflict
07/15/2013 4:06 PM
07/15/2013 4:06 PM
One Sunday morning I was in the press box at Kauffman Stadium, eating breakfast and a little ways down from me were two old baseball scouts. You can usually spot scouts by their weather-beaten skin (they spend a lot of time in the sun) and some giant championship ring on their finger (when a team wins a championship, everyone in the organization deemed worthy gets a ring). One of the scouts was expressing disgust with sports-talk radio and the other one said: “They’re not paid for being right, they’re paid for stirring people up.”
Hole in one, dude. Ever hear of a sports pundit getting fired for being wrong? Ever hear of a sports pundit getting fired for low ratings? The scout knew what he was talking about.
These days, one of the models for success is creating false conflict. You make an outrageous statement and invite people to respond: “I believe Willie Mays was overrated — our lines are open.” The goal is not a reasonable discussion of a ballplayer, the goal is generating calls. Every day fans are asked to participate in some poll: which Royals had the best first half? The people inviting you to participate don’t give a damn about the answer; they want you to use your cell phone or pile up the page hits. When we started this website I was encouraged to have a daily poll to drive the numbers, so for a while I sat around thinking of meaningless questions to ask our readers which would encourage them to give us one more page hit when they answered the poll.
On a scale of one to 10, how important is this road trip? How many games will the Royals win this season? Will they finish over or under .500?
Nobody cares about the answers to those questions as long as we can get fans stirred up and arguing over whether the road trip is a six or a seven. Someone says the Royals will win 83 games and the message board lights up with people who think they’ll win 78 or 86. If I say the Royals will finish over .500 I can get page hits by conducting a day-long argument with fans that disagree. Face it, our opinions don’t change anything; but getting fans to respond in some fashion does. It builds our ratings or increases our page hits. Getting you angry makes us money.
OK, so someone wants to spend a chunk of their day arguing on a sports-talk radio show or having a back-and-forth squabble on the Internet; we get the numbers and they get something off their chest. What’s the harm?
Loss of civility.
When the model for discussion is two guys yelling at each other on ESPN, don’t be surprised if the people who watch that stuff think it’s how you disagree. You think this player sucks, I don’t: let’s square off and yell at each other (if you’re on the Internet you do it with caps and exclamation points). Let’s be as nasty and cutting as possible, because that’s what you do when someone disagrees with what you believe. Sorry, I don’t want to do that anymore.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t believe anyone should come to this website to hear my personal opinions. I’ve got some, but I don’t find them very meaningful. The more I hang around with big-league ballplayers and coaches, the less regard I have for my own opinions.
But if you want to know what those big-league ballplayers and coaches think, I can help you. What they think is extremely interesting (at least to me) and changes my perception of the game and the people who play it. If advanced metrics argue that a player isn’t very good, but everyone he plays with thinks he’s better than that; why? What’s he doing that isn’t showing up in the numbers? If a guy is helping his team lose by failing to do the small things that result in a victory; what are they? The guys who play the game can give you the answers and I find those answers interesting:but you don’t have to agree.
It’s America—think what you want.
If you think the guys who play the game are just a bunch of dumb jocks and a guy who analyzes the game through numbers gives you a better perspective, listen to the numbers guy. The fact that we get our information from two different sources and come to two different conclusions is fine — but it doesn’t make us enemies.
And I’m not going to try to increase my page hits by pretending that we are.