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Bissinger's Blog Bashing: Over the Top, But On Target

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 7, 2008 5:26 PM

Bully for Buzz Bissinger.

The veteran journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of the best-selling nonfiction masterpiece "Friday Night Lights," has been taking a worldwide web beating over the last week, ever since his combative appearance on a 90-minute HBO special hosted by Bob Costas and devoted to a wide variety of sports media issues.

In a 16-minute segment focusing on the internet and the impact of bloggers on sports, Bissinger, 53, went straight for the jugular of fellow panelist Will Leitch, the 32-year-old founding editor of Deadspin, the popular yet often irresponsible and mean-spirited sports web site.

Bissinger pounced immediately, telling Leitch he was "full of [expletive]" and it actually got worse from there, as this grumpy older man blustered about blogs contributing to the dumbing down of America, among other perceived transgressions.

Leitch never saw it coming, and to his credit, he tried to take the high road, even after Costas, another blog-basher, began piling on. The host cited several sophomoric, often profane and insulting, and very much non-monitored or unedited comments made by Deadspin readers on the site.

"I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they're dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they're dedicated to speed," Bissinger said. Later, he told Leitch, "you're sort of like Jimmy Olsen on Percocet."

Leitch, a published author himself (including a novel), has since said that he purposely decided not to get into a mud-slinging contest. When Bissinger also brought up a recent Deadspin post that featured less-than-flattering pictures of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart in full party mode, Leitch defended those photos, and others of the same ilk. He insisted the Leinart photos were used to "make him look human."

Bissinger: "So you put it on because it makes him look human?"

Leitch: "It's also funny."

Bissinger: "I may be 50, but I'm not that stupid."

Quite the contrary, in fact. But Bissinger's ham-handed approach also made you wonder why a guy with an Ivy League education, a Pulitzer in his pocket and such a wonderful way with words didn't take a kinder, gentler approach during a segment that became an instant YouTube classic. Sadly, but so predictably, it also generated countless profane and tasteless comments denigrating Bissinger on a wide variety of web sites.

A sampling of some of the milder Deadspin comments includes:

"That guy is a curmudgeonly [expletive]."

"He ended up the total buffoon he was trying to make [Leitch] look like."

"Buzz Bussinger has rendered himself the old man in the neighborhood telling the kids to get off the lawn. He was the biggest jackass."

Bissinger, to his credit, has said he erred in his confrontational approach that night, and he said he knows there are some responsible bloggers out there. But he's not backing down from his main points -- and he shouldn't.

"Their tone is very cruel, and very mean-spirited," Bissinger said on a recent interview with National Public Radio. "They want traffic hits, and when you get traffic hits, you get more advertising and you want to make money. ¿ It's mostly that edgy, off-the-top-of-your-head opinion, and you dumb down the culture."

As for his performance on the HBO show, he admitted, "I was simply too angry. It wasn't a put-on. ¿ It's the kind of person I am. ¿ I do consider blogging not only a threat to journalists, but to society because it's constant dumbling down. I cast too wide a net. ¿But unfortunately, cruelty sells in our society."

It's hard for this slightly less grumpy older man to disagree.

Obviously, a little more civility in his comments that night obviously would have gone a long way toward driving home what many long-time sports journalists believe are absolutely valid points, and he should have been applauded for stating them, instead of being vilified for his over-the-top approach.

Some of the sports blogs, with Deadspin at the very top of the list, have gone way out of bounds on the common decency meter. And the comments that often accompany some of those posts -- virtually all of them written by anonymous cowards who don't have the guts to put their names on their despicable swill -- truly don't deserve to see the light of day.

We're not talking about a First Amendment issue here; it's really just a matter of common decency.

And none of the above is even remotely meant to suggest that blogs ought to be banned. On the contrary, bloggers are certainly entitled to their often uninformed opinions, sometimes based solely on information gathered by the working press with far more access, sources and scruples than most of them. But it's a free country, and blogs -- responsible or not -- surely are not going away any time soon.

Still, Bissinger's concerns should be all of our concerns. Do we want our sports-infatuated kids to grow up reading Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber (don't ask), or would we prefer them to peruse the internet or their local library to read the wonderful work of Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins and yes, most definitely Buzz Bissinger?

At least there's been one positive byproduct from Bissinger's tirade. He's helped create something of a national discussion on the issue, yet another reason to say bully for Buzz.

Meanwhile, a few other thoughts on the Costas special, which was billed as a "town hall" format, even if the audience never got to participate.

The show, still being repeated on HBO, was broken down into five different segments. Do the math. Can you really adequately have a worthwhile 15-minute discussion on the internet and bloggers, followed by equal amounts of time on sports talk radio, television's impact on sports, athletes and the media, and race and sports?

Each one of those topics deserved at least 60 minutes, if not longer, and Costas announced at the end of the show that HBO would indeed devote another 90 minutes to the race and sports issue in the coming months. Bully for them, good for us and even better if Costas examined each of the other four subjects in depth over the rest of the spring and summer.

The choice of guests on several live segments was somewhat bothersome. In the discussion of television's impact on sports, three high-profile broadcasters -- Dan Patrick, Mike Tirico and Joe Buck -- comprised the entire panel. Each one seemed more intent on one-upping the other with witty repartee than offering an in-depth look at the subject. It might have been nice to at least include a sports media critic in the mix, as well, just to keep all those big-timers honest.

While Bissinger vs. Leitch was the main attraction last week, there was also some must-see-TV discussion in the radio talk show segment. New York Giants defensive lineman Michael Strahan scored a clear TKO over Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, the co-host of New York's most popular sports talk show.

Strahan and Costas both got Russo to admit that emphasizing the negative was definitely the best way to draw an audience for that format, at least in New York. And Strahan was absolutely correct in complaining about a common practice among many sports talk hosts around the country. An athlete often will be invited to appear, and, after making happy talk in a mostly non-confrontational way during the on-air interview, the hosts proceed to bash or trash-talk the very same guest on the air after he or she has left the building. That's one reason Strahan said so many athletes despise sports talk radio.

Unlike Bissinger, Strahan took a rational, well-reasoned approach in his comments. Russo could only squirm in his seat, essentially saying "guilty, guilty, guilty." Well done, Michael Strahan -- but once again, bully for Buzz Bissinger, too.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at len.shapiro@washingtonpost.com

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