Monday, February 2, 2015

Derek Jeter, Political Spin Doctor

During his playing career, Derek Jeter was a favorite of the sports media. He was easy to build a narrative around; he was always good for a quote. In return, they did nothing but shower him with praise, especially last season as he made his farewell tour around the league. So it's not very sporting of Jeter to make his first move post-playing-career to try to destroy them.

These days, Jeter runs The Players' Tribune, which is really hard to see as anything but an attempt to replace sports media. The Tribune is "a new media platform that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes"—no pesky middleman required! In the Tribune, athletes (or, more likely, their representatives) will be able to write their own stories, eliminating the possibility of their words getting twisted or any negative publicity getting presented whatsoever. Well, now, maybe that's not fair. Surely there's a place for first-person diaries from players that doesn't replace traditional sports reporting, right? Well, in Jeter's own words: "My goal is for the site to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love." This is an attempt to control the message, pure and simple.

This is a fairly revolutionary idea in the sports world... So why does it seem so familiar? Actually, attempting to harness the media to control one's one message is an age-old trick by those who are a little more crafty, a little more devious: politicians. The first campaign ad appeared in 1952—it's only taken athletes 62 years to see their brilliance. Paid media allows politicians to communicate directly to the public with virtually no filter. They can say what they want to say and only what they want to say. For millions of Americans every election year, TV ads are the main way of learning about the candidates.

So far, political paid media hasn't destroyed the independent political press corps. However, there was a disturbing development on this point last week, when Indiana Governor Mike Pence unveiled plans for a state-run news outlet, Just IN. Exactly like The Players' Tribune, Pence's office sought to write their own stories, about themselves, for direct placement in front of Hoosier eyes. Just IN would also compete directly with the rest of the state house press corps, occasionally breaking its own stories—and presumably not giving scoops to traditional media members. Practically plagiarizing the mission statement of The Players' Tribune, Just IN said its content would "range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles."

There is obviously something more insidious about a politician controlling his own coverage than an athlete doing so. Under its wire-service-esque business model, Just IN news articles would be disguised as regular independent journalism in many smaller Indiana papers looking to fill pages cheaply; a world where this self-reporting pushed out real political journalism would be a chilling one indeed. Ultimately, that's what made Just IN dead on arrival. After just a few days of backlash and comparisons to totalitarian regimes, Pence pulled the plug on the program that many had taken to calling "Pravda on the Plains."

But Jeter's venture is as much a sign as Pence's of an evolving media landscape. The internet and social media have democratized communication, creating ways for nontraditional content producers (this blog not excepted) to reach an interested audience. But it also provides a direct pathway for people to get information from a primary source, rather than through a middleman (i.e., professional reporter) that has usually been necessary. That this trend is evident across fields is strong evidence that it could be the way all media are headed. In sports, you have Jeter's site, but you also have teams announcing signings and pitching assignments themselves via Twitter or In politics, you have Pence's agency, but you also have Voice of America and a White House that prefers to interact with the public through Reddit AMAs or hashtag #asktheWH on Twitter, cutting out the press corps more and more.

The motivations are certainly understandable; newsmakers rely on publicity to earn a vote or a buck, and there can be benign reasons for them wanting to keep a direct line open to the public. But as soon as the independent press is threatened, we are losing something valuable in the case of sports and essential in the case of politics. I cling to the perhaps naïve belief that there can be room for both a strong independent press and the option for important voices to reach people directly. But with how rapidly media is changing, hopefully we don't lose the former even as the latter seems inevitably on the rise.

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