Last week was an important moment in the history of American journalism. After reading the explosive steroids-scandal book Game of Shadows, written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, baseball commissioner Bud Selig finally emerged from his cocoon of denial to announce an investigation into the performance-enhancing drugs that have cast a cloud over the sport and particularly over San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, who is 47 home runs away from catching all-time leader Hank Aaron.
As the scandal has gradually grown from a whisper to a public preoccupation, the media’s role in keeping steroid abuse out of the spotlight for so many years has come under increased scrutiny. Sure, the players, Major League Baseball, and the union all share a huge bulk of the culpability. But there were also reporters who got long hard looks (often literally, via clubhouse access) at the many manifestations of steroid use — quick and massive muscle growth, pimple-strewn backs — without being willing or able to blow the whistle.
In a finger-pointing column, media critic Jon Friedman argued that “the media should have been more aggressive in covering Bonds’s alleged drug-taking over the past few years.... His saga was — literally — right in front of their noses.”
Last Saturday, ESPN’s Buster Olney, writing in the New York Times, offered a modified mea culpa, admitting that because of his failure to do a better job poking around on that story, “I had a role in baseball’s institutional failure during what will be forever known as the Steroid Era.”
As it turns out, the two Game of Shadows journalists — Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams (who have already won a slew of honors for their coverage, including theprestigious George Polk Award) — are not the kind of reporters found walking around post-game clubhouses armed with microphones and notebooks. Fainaru-Wada, a former sportswriter, was working on a campaign-finance project for the Chronicle’s investigative unit when the BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) drug story broke. Williams, a traditional courts-and-cops reporter, is a long-time investigative journalist.
The fact that it took two reporters outside of the sports department to help unearth what may be the darkest moment in baseball since the 1919 Black Sox scandal raises a critical issue. In this era when steroid use generates Congressional hearings and ball clubs are immensely influential community institutions and powerful economic entities, why does so much sports reporting still consider itself — to use a descriptive term — the “toy department”?
In fact, a survey of sports sections in 16 US newspapers released last year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that they are generally “a passive and reactive space … with little room for enterprise reportage.” The study found that planned events — such as games — made up nearly 90 percent of the stories examined, while 10 percent could be characterized as newsroom-initiated or enterprise coverage.
So where is the journalism in sports journalism? Where is the hardheaded, probing coverage of these mega-institutions that one sees in politics, business, and academia? Where is the solid, substantive reporting that can actually shed light on the quasi-informed gossip and speculation that fills up endless hours of chatter on WEEI and the TV sports talk shows?
Not surprisingly, Fainaru-Wada is among those advocating for more serious sports coverage.
“No one’s letting me run a newspaper,” he admits. But more aggressive sports reporting “seems like a natural thing you would do. This is a big business and [it is] rife with stories to be done ... If you look at a sports section every day, 99 percent of the reporting is positive. It’s a complete diversionary thing to talk about how negative the media are about sports.”
Sandy Padwe, a former Sports Illustrated senior editor and an ESPN consultant who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, also believes that better reporting could have smoked out the steroids scandal earlier.
“There was all this stuff out there to be looked at, but there are few investigative units in sports,” he says. “That’s the big frustration. It won’t be until sports departments function independently journalistically that you’ll lift sports departments up to the level of everyone else.”
The Wide World of Sports
These days, it’s pretty obvious that sports presents subjects and conflicts that merit substantive media scrutiny.
“Clearly, we can find many issues in sports that can be called front-page and metro related,” ventures Bob Steele, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute media think tank. “There’s a great deal of business and economic conditions. Sports are often about race and race relations.... Sports may be as central in our society as politics and religion.” (Later this month, Poynter will host a “Sports Journalism Summit” in conjunction with the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE).)