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Thoughts on Buzz Bissinger’s Apology

A pen, spent.

Since we took the time to criticize Buzz Bissinger for his comments about sports blogs last week, I want to take time now to give him some credit for his interview with the Big Lead today, in which he responds to the controversy and apologizes for his remarks. I’m not going to say that it “took a lot of courage” (it will, I assure you, be said), but for Bissinger to work out his reaction on a popular sports blog at least demonstrates a desire to talk to the right audience, and a basic willingness to see blogs as a diverse medium. It will undoubtedly be suggested that his apology was an act of self-preservation forced by the vehemence of the outcry, but I don’t believe that either; his thoughts in the interview don’t seem at all cynical, and are too complex to be politic.

My points of disagreement with Bissinger’s attack on sports blogs, you’ll recall, were first that he blamed them for “dumbing down society,” and second that he accused them of being inherently hostile to good writing. On the first point, my response was that the rise of sports blogs seems largely to have been a reaction to the banal homogeneity of the ESPN-dominated mainstream sports media, and that while many blogs are certainly dumb, blogs as a whole are such a diverse, vital, and unpredictable mass that you’re more likely to find something genuinely smart or strange on a sports blog than you are in most sports magazines. On the second point, my response was that blogs are a blank medium, as neutral as paper, and while the market for blogs might reward bad writing (I don’t think it does, though, really), there’s nothing at all to keep great writing from appearing on a blog, if a great writer chooses to put it there.

Bissinger responded directly to the first point, about dumbing down society (incidentally, is there any phrase that enacts itself more perfectly than “dumbing down”?), and seems in the last few days to have arrived at a more nuanced position:

In the light of day, I think we are all guilty of the dumbing down not just of sports fans but of society. I was guilty of it on the Costas show. Too many sports blogs are vile beyond belief. Too many ESPN commentators and radio talk show hosts are equally vicious for the same reason—they think it will amass them attention, which will lead to increased viewership and listenership. … [A]s a society, we have become more petty and mean-spirited and nastier than ever. We revel in watching celebrities fall apart. We revel in mockery and that is true of every media outlet whether you define it as new or old or mainstream or the future or whatever. Sports blogs certainly do not hold the monopoly on being vindictive.

That’s a vast improvement over his comments on the Costas show, and I basically agree with the statement. I think there’s at least an argument to be made that the nastiness of a fundamentally satirical site like Deadspin is justifiable, on the grounds that we’re so in the thrall of the corporate media, so unable to escape its version of reality, that satire and vulgarity can serve as a way to reclaim our own interpretations. (Whether the Gawker conglomerate winds up imposing satire and vulgarity as a new inescapable media reality is another conversation.) But at least Bissinger’s accusations here are substantive and fairly distributed.

On the second point, about blogs and good writing, Bissinger has less to say. He allows that there are good blogs “out there,” but invariably qualifies the judgement by describing the good blogs as “information-based.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I assume he’s talking about blogs that either break news stories or offer detailed statistical analysis.

He’s right that there are good blogs doing exactly those things—the work being done on sites like Baseball Prospectus is extraordinary—but I can’t understand why he thinks those are the only things good blogs can do. This is obviously a home truth to me, because the kind of good blog I’m trying to create is based much more on style and descriptive insight than on what Bissinger would call “information.” (It’s not really based on “opinion,” either, which seems to be what he dislikes.) There are a lot of posts here that can only work if the writing is good in precisely the way that Bissinger seems to think can never happen on blogs: if the metaphors are inventive, if the language is vivid, if the insights are surprising and true. I’m writing dry prose right now, but listen, I’m a snob about this stuff to a degree that might even surprise Buzz Bissinger, and when I talk about inventive metaphors, I do not mean “good enough for a mainstream sports magazine.” And maybe this is naive (and it certainly doesn’t always work) but it’s a sincere expression of my outlook to say that if I can get you to see something uncanny or new about Peter Crouch, I’ve done something that doesn’t seem less valuable to me than breaking a story about a transfer, or analyzing Liverpool’s passing patterns. This is the world we’re looking at here, you know?

More generally: I’ve written a lot of pages for magazines that Buzz Bissinger wouldn’t be ashamed to read, and when I want to see interesting writing about sports, with no regard to medium, I am much more likely to turn to Roswitha for subtlety and intelligence, or Pitch Invasion for detail and breadth, or KSK for comedy that actually surprises me, than I am to turn to Sports Illustrated. I will read a hundred FreeDarko posts before I finish that New Yorker piece on the urbanity of college basketball. Blogs are free not to be middlebrow in a way that’s a distant memory for most prestige magazines, whose writers are trying to satisfy large but fickle subscriber bases, nervous ad buyers, and editors who can generally be described as canny and careerist rather than, say, addicted to beautiful prose. The publishing economy is such that good writing at the moment is likely to be an exile and amateur endeavor.

Anyway, those are my last, plain thoughts on the Bissinger controversy. That I wish he’d found something online to appeal to his love of sentences doesn’t at all diminish my respect for his apology. There’ll be another day of relatively muted discussion, I’m sure, but his interview really serves to bring the saga to a more hopeful conclusion than I’d expected. It will restore the good opinion of many people who liked his work but were put off by his tirade on the Costas show, and it may begin the broadening of his own outlook, and full credit to him for that.

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Thoughts on Buzz Bissinger’s Apology

by Brian Phillips · May 5, 2008

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