[Note: this story starts out being about sports but really isn’t, so The Curmudgeon hopes non-sports fans will hang in there.]
We expect good reporters to be smart, to be strong, critical thinkers. Sometimes they live up to our expectations but sometimes they don’t.
A month ago the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team fired his head coach, a man named Chip Kelly. Kelly was with the team for three years, the first two pretty successful and the third decidedly not. The Curmudgeon has his own thoughts on whether the firing was a good or bad decision but that’s not the subject at hand today.
No, the subject is a bunch of television, radio, and newspaper reporters and commentators who let the team’s owner get away with a disingenuous explanation of his decision to fire Kelly based on an assertion of fact that was not even remotely a fact.
In firing Kelly, the owner stated that his decision to hire Kelly in the first place had been “a bold choice,” implying that he deserved credit for making that bold choice, but that once he decided that his bold choice had proven to be a mistaken choice, he acted swiftly to correct it.
It’s the assertion that the owner’s decision to hire Kelly was “a bold choice” that The Curmudgeon – and pretty much anyone who understands football – realizes was simply wrong, at best, and at worst, intentionally misleading. When the press passively and unquestioningly accepting the owner’s explanation, it surrendered to that owner control of the dialogue surrounding his decision to fire his coach – and in the process of doing so, did a great disservice to the fans who were looking to the media for information and insight.
Kelly’s hiring was not a bold choice. Bold would have been if Kelly had been a massive failure in the past and was being hired anyway. Bold would have been if no one had ever heard of him. Bold would have been if everyone knew who Kelly was but no one else thought of him as head coach material.
But Kelly was none of these things. He had never coached at the professional level but had been extremely successful as a college coach. He had never been fired from a coaching job. And, most important, almost everyone thought of him as head coach material. That year, eight National Football League teams hired new head coaches, and of the other seven coaches hired, the only one who was arguably more attractive to those other teams was the man Kelly was hired to replace. Three of the teams with coaching vacancies interviewed Kelly, all of them wanted to hire him, and eventually he was hired by Philadelphia.
A bold choice? No. Actually, the consensus choice. Even a safe choice that was more widely praised than his later firing.
Yet today, the Philadelphia Eagles continue to refer to Kelly as a bold choice – and the press never, ever challenges this assertion. In fact, the Philadelphia-area sporting press and media not only continue to mention it but also use the assertion to explain why the owner, this time around, made what is considered a very safe and conservative choice – a man who, his ultimate ability aside, has nowhere near the credentials Kelly brought to the job and is, for that very reason, actually a much bolder choice than Kelly.
But the sporting press and media in Philadelphia rolled over and played dead at the owner’s feet, accepting his fallacious assertion as fact.
But The Curmudgeon promised that this isn’t about football, and it isn’t.
Remember when things in Iraq were going badly for the George W. Bush administration in the 2000s and the president announced a “surge” of U.S. participation in the fighting there? That “surge” meant sending more soldiers. Those of us of a certain age almost surely remember sitting in front of our televisions in the late 1960s, during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, when decisions to send more soldiers to Vietnam were always described as an “escalation” of the war effort, and those escalations inspired enormous anti-war protests across the country.
But when George W. Bush called his escalation a “surge” the press immediately and obediently adopted his terminology and the surge/escalation inspired little in the way of protest. Even today, the press routinely refers to that event as a surge in the U.S. role in the Iraq war.
And one more recent example. During one of the Republican presidential debates late last year, one of the questioners asked Donald Trump about something he had said recently. You know – you absolutely know – that the reporter had the quote in hand when asking the question. But when Trump challenged the reporter, insisting that the premise of the question was inaccurate, the reporter backed down, apologized, and asked another question. This has happened on a number of occasions between reporters and Trump on the campaign trail: they call him on past statements, even on text from his web site, and when he challenges them they meekly back down.
On the old television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip there was a scene in which an experienced comedy writer who is coaching two young writers interrupts them as they’re explaining a sketch they’re working on and tells them that he still doesn’t understand what the sketch is about.
“Buy the premise, buy the bit,” he says, explaining that despite their explanations they still haven’t told him what their sketch is about.
The American press needs to do a better job than it’s doing today. At a time when public officials, candidates for public office, and public figures, whether business leaders or performers, have more and more ways to talk to us directly, without press intervention – ways like Facebook, Twitter, web sites, Instagram, YouTube, direct mail, and more – it’s never been more important for the press to do a better job of asking public figures good questions, holding them accountable for their words and their deeds, and not backing down like cowards or fools every time they’re challenged.
And that should start by not automatically buying the premise.