Monday, April 14, 2008

A newly discovered metaphor: My daughter’s junior high basketball team and the mainstream media.

There have been so many bloggers writing so many entries about how the media in America has fallen flat on its face when it comes to fulfilling its primary job of watchdog, it’s impossible to provide a summary here. There are also a number of very good books on the subject, such as “Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for George W. Bush” by Eric Boehlert and “Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy”, by Marcy Wheeler. The magnitude of material available on this subject makes it very difficult to rant and actually add anything of substance that hasn’t been said before.

But it did occur to me that I had an analogy staring me in the face. Here it is, for what it’s worth.

The role that the media in the country is supposed to play used to be comparable to a referee in basketball. (That’s not what it is now, of course. I wrote a short blog entry about that subject here.) But back before the media became subverted or corrupted or whatever the hell happened to it, one of the main purposes of the media was to watch what was going on with our elected officials, what they said and what they did, and then call them on it if they started getting too far out of bounds. Breaking the rules, in other words, which is sort of what a referee in basketball does. Tweet! Foul, you hacked the ball carrier across the wrist while he was shooting. Two shots! Everyone line up! And knock off the whining, or I’ll nail you with a technical foul.

Basketball officials are required to be impartial, even tempered, not subject to overt pressure by coaches, players or fans, and do not give favorable calls or non-calls because they are friends with someone associated with any particular team. I am able to talk about this with some assurance, as I was a basketball referee for high school for eight years. I injured my knee and had to stop, but that is besides the point for this discussion.

Well, this last season, I would watch my daughter play on the junior high team of a very small private school. They were actually pretty good for this level of play and they were well coached. They had a tall girl who could rebound and shoot from outside. They had two good, very fast ball handlers. They were well coached. You don’t really see this combination very often at that level. They went undefeated against the rest of the league, except this one other school, call it School X, that is much bigger than our school and looks to have LOTS of more money.

All the schools in this league hire referees from the organization that does all the high school and junior high games in the county, so they are assured of getting officials that should know what they are doing. All have gone through some training, all have taken a written test to show they know the rules. All the schools in the league except for School X. They use a couple of guys who actually work for this school and “know basketball”. That was the extent of their credentials. They “know basketball” and would do the games cheaply or for free, since they worked for the school.

These two schools played four times during the year, and School X won every game. School X did have some very good players, the two teams were pretty evenly matched. However, they also were rough and really just ran over our girls. The first game at School X, I have never seen such a blatant example of referee favoritism. Before the game, the refs were out chatting with the coach and the fans of School X. They would call everything against our team and nothing against theirs. The final foul call tally was 27 fouls against our team and 2 against theirs. 27 to 2. Knowing how basketball should be officiated, there is no way this should ever happen. Their girls would just run up behind our player with the ball, essentially tackle her, such that she ended up on the floor, and take the ball away, and nothing would be called. However, even phantom fouls were called against our team. On one occasion near the end of the game, our best player stole the ball cleanly, had the ball in her possession and took two dribbles before she was whacked across the wrists by the girl who lost the ball. The foul was called, of course, on our girl, which was her fifth foul. They would not call traveling on their team, they would allow the girl to run the out-of-bounds line trying to inbound the ball, which is a violation. They would just blow the whistle and give the ball to their team without any indication of what had just been called. They would just ignore all complaints as if no one had said anything. Even as it was, our team stayed with them for about ¾ of the game before the obvious and inevitable happened.

I don’t remember every being so mad before. Yes, this was just a junior high girls basketball game that the participants themselves won’t even remember by next year. Small stuff, as issues go, I agree. However, I just couldn’t seem to let it go. I slept very little that night. The unfairness of it just really rankled and just sort of settled in my stomach and simmered for quite a while.

School X had a good enough team that they didn’t need the help of the referees, and School X obviously has enough money to pay for real officials and not someone who just works for the school. Of course, when some of the parents went to the Athletic Director of School X (which is a Christian school) to complain, she, of course, saw nothing wrong with this arrangement at all. What’s the problem? These guys “know basketball”. However, everything is wrong about it. Even if the two guys who work at that school officiated the games even handedly, there is still the perception of bias. That should be avoided at all costs, if you are trying to show everyone that you are following the rules and are not giving one team an advantage. If you abuse that trust that everyone associated with the game has given you, you have just undermined the entire setup. Why even bother playing the game if you know things have been setup such that the outcome is predetermined before the game even starts?

I’m sorry about the length of that setup. I was still getting riled up by this, even after this much time has elapsed. So, I have taken this long to get to the previously mentioned analogy. This is what our media today is doing. They are playing favorites. They are biased. They like having access to famous, powerful people. Tim Russert is an obvious example. He is much more interested in maintaining his access than he is on actually reporting the news and uncovering the truth. The media’s current love affair for John McCain has been well documented. He treats the reporters on his campaign to a BBQ and hobnobs with them on his campaign bus. That becomes the overriding factor in their reporting, not uncovering the truth. They have undermined several things that are under their control, their integrity and their impartiality. If reporters, like basketball officials, lose the confidence of everyone involved in the process, you end up with a situation where they are now regarded as part of the problem. They have “taken sides” and can no longer be counted upon to fulfill their role in American society. Even when they do the right thing and do some good reporting, they have opened themselves to all sorts of criticisms from people who don’t like what they just did. The principles that they could always stand by and shield themselves from such criticisms are no longer valid. They have lost everyone’s confidence. And once that happens, it may be impossible to get it back.

That is what is going on right now in this country. The press has become like those obviously biased and compromised basketball officials for my daughter’s junior high basketball game. They should excuse themselves from further involvement, after apologizing to the public about how they have lost their way. But, of course, they won’t. They, along with the people in power with which forms their mutual back-scratching society, have too much invested in this setup. They enjoy it. Why would they want to change? It’s only the public that is getting screwed, after all, and no one really needs to listen to their complaints. They’re only “the public”, after all. Who cares about them (us)?

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