Saturday, 5 June 2010

Free Wilner!

I took some time to read and react to a wide variety of reactions to the Wilner-gate situation (primarily on Twitter and Batter's Box as well as a few blogs) before attempting to coalesce my admittedly scatter-shot opinions into a coherent whole. Before I get into that, though, I want to quote what was, for my money, the most insightful and bang-on reaction I've seen, which was communicated in a series of tweets from the increasingly impressive John Lott:

Some thoughts on the Wilner situation: Your reactions cover a wide range. As in all stories, the whole truth is unknowable. Naturally, some like him, some don't. His style and opinions impress some, rankle others. Such is life for one in his job. I do not see this as a tale of martyrdom. The issue is independence. When a company owns a team & radio station and pays the announcers, there can be no independence in reporting for the station's employee. Rogers is always the elephant in the room.
This elephant apparently wants a reporter to cover the Jays in an entertaining way and boost ratings, but leaves the ground rules murky. That leaves the reporter to take his chances, to see how far he can push before his boss pushes back. It also leaves one to wonder what is a"benching" offence when similar behaviour in the past went unpunished.

Rogers/The Fan needs to lay down clear ground rules. Wilner then must decide whether those rules work for him.
Wilner knows this now: He can't be independent. No reporter is truly independent in his/her job; Rogers makes him less so than most of us.

Well said, Mr. Lott. Now, to expand on that line of thought a bit:

There is, I think, muddy water here in terms of the reaction from fans which arises from two
(at least) competing instincts : on the one hand, people generally agree that a media type has to have some degree of autonomy in terms of being able to "ask the tough questions"; on the other hand, many (by no means all) Jays fins find Wilner's style abrasive and can't resist the opportunity for schadenfreude at his situation. This, in my opinion, leads to some rather irrational responses.

The only way I can really address this mess is to break it down into it's component parts. there are several factors in play here, not just the two major ones i mentioned above, and each in it's own turn deserves notice.

For starters, the big factor here which clouds the issue is Wilner's on-air style. Many fans find him condescending and abrasive in both his interactions with many callers, and in his remarks about certain Jays' personnel. Many also think he has a specific grudge against Cito which is a separate component I'll lay aside for this point.
The fact is, Wilner's job description is "broadcast personality." It is part & parcel of doing the job he's paid to do to provoke intense reactions and passions. Bland and soft-soap hosts and announcers soon find themselves sacking groceries. As off-putting as it might be to invoke his name to a mostly Canadian audience here, Rush Limbaugh is the biggest force in American radio precisely BECAUSE he displays the same "attitude" Wilner does (and in spades). Look at the top 10 lists, and the more a host displays attitude, the more popular and profitable he is.

And that's not just a right-wing phenomena, or even a political one. Kieth Olberman, both as a political commentator and as a sports journalist, was prototypically arrogant and condescending. Jim Rome is another. In fact, pretty much ever guy paid to have an opinion (outside ex-players or GM's) on ESPN (such as on PTI for instance) displays "attitude." If they didn't, they would not have a job.

Wilner doesn't suffer fools lightly, which does create a love-him-or-hate-him dichotomy. For those of us who share that trait, it is refreshing to hear some bozo with a goofy comment being told "that's simply not true." Now, of course sometimes Wilner's position is, in fact, incorrect, because he mis-remembers some point or otherwise errs, and it's true that on a point in which the listener and Wilner disagree (say, for instance, the value of the sacrifice bunt) he will tend to sound condescending in his confidence that his position is true.

But therein lies the crux of this point - for the great majority of his critics, saying "Wilner is arrogant and condescending" is a euphemism for "Wilner has the temerity to disagree with me and act like he's right." The thing is, for almost every one of these critics, if you gave them a microphone and an audience they would JUST as confidently state their view as the gospel truth as Wilner does - Wilner's real fault is being wrong (as the critic views right and wrong) on the point, not the "tone" with which he delivers it.

Further to this point, a lot - I'd estimate upwards of 90% - of the callers or commenters that Wilner gets a 'tude" with ARE in fact incredibly wrong, and again, few of his critics would be any more patient with them than he is. I know for certain I wouldn't be. In any case, the POINT of baseball discussions is passionate disagreements.

Consider - you are sitting at the local pub and someone asks "who was the greatest hitter of all time?" Someone says "Babe Ruth of course" and everyone nods in agreement and quietly goes back to their brew. Some fun eh? Of course not! the fun comes when someone says Ruth and someone else says Williams and someone else says Aaron and someone else says Mantle and some one even says Bonds or A-Rod. and then you argue about it for two hours! Everyone in this conversation will, at some point, be arrogant and condescending to someone else - it's exactly that which provides the entertainment value. And Wilner is paid first and foremost to entertain the listener.

Second point - Journalistic freedom. Two thoughts here, first, I think the idea that media members brought in for the scrums that players and team personnel host should be free to challenge the claims of the team employee without fear of retribution should be above debate. I DO agree that there is a matter of tone and respect, but that goes both ways. It's not like Wilner said "Do you regret making such a stupid move in this game?" or some such. The question was not uncivil, and following up a dodge is perfectly reasonable behavior.

The notion that a reporter in that setting should not disagree with or even "take a tone" with the host is so much mushy-headed pablum. If you are not familiar with it, look up some video from the recent White House press briefing in which Helen Thomas (who, by the way, I share not one political viewpoint with) openly scolded the press secretary concerning the situation in Israel. such "attitude" was a daily occurrence during the Bush administration and from a wide range of sources, not just one crusty old veteran. Nevertheless, Thomas is the Dean of Washington journalists and no one considered her to be over the line all the multitude of times she "got in the face" of the press secretary who happened to be the target of her derision.

It is an affront to any and all sorts of Journalism that something this mild earns a public reprimand for the reporter in question. At the VERY most, you call the man on the corporate carpet and, as Lott said in the quote above, let him know where the boundaries are.

All that said, Wilner is admittedly not, in the strictest sense, a journalist, nor do I believe he would claim the title. He's a media personality, he's a commentator. But he's not strictly speaking a reporter. However, once one is admitted to the media scrum, one is a defacto journalist for the purpose of that event. if the team chooses to limit the scrum to "real" journalists, so be it. but as long as Wilner is there, it's reasonable to expect that the results of his work there are treated on the same basis as any other "act of journalism."

Third point - Cito's attitude. Can we all agree he has one? One of the comments I've seen basically suggested that Wilner was unqualified to question Cito because he had no "baseball credentials" and I find that notion nonsensical. It's not like the Jays' media scrum is overflowing with ex-managers, in fact, I doubt there is a single game of professional managerial experience among them. Shall we then conclude that Cito need not trouble himself to answer ANY question?

On the contrary, the reality is that everything that people are, erroneously in my view, claiming is Wilner's responsibility can far more accurately be described as Cito's responsibility. A radio personality is PAID to be colorful and provocative and yes, even somewhat arrogant. A baseball manager is expected to be the cordial and open and direct in their remarks and to be open to criticism.
Some have suggested that Cito might have been pissy because Wilner criticizes him. Maybe so, though Cito would surely deny he ever listens to his critics or is even aware of them. But if so, too damned bad. Having his every move under a microscope and second-guessed and over analyzed is as much a condition of his job as getting wet is a condition of the job of a diver. It's impossible for a man of his age and experience to not have VAST experience with being criticized, even unfairly criticized. Wilner's original question was perfectly legitimate and not delivered with attitude. Following up after you've been dodged is equally valid. Cito could have easily answered the original question with something like this example and we wouldn't be talking about the exchange today:

"You know Mike, that's not a bad point. Clearly looking back it didn't work out as I'd hoped. In those situations I have to make a snap judgment and, just like Kevin Gregg or any of the other players I'm human and it's obvious sometimes I'll get one wrong. Whether or not I got it wrong last night is open for debate of course, but if I get caught up in second guessing myself, I'll make a lot more of them.
That being the case, I kind of have to leave the hindsight discussion to people like yourself."
It would have been all true, it would not have admitted directly that he felt he erred while acknowledging the obvious reality that some did, and it would have displayed a self-deprecating humility that would have made him the obvious winner in the exchange and potentially have made Wilner look small for asking the question (which would have been satisfying if he did have a grudge against Wilner). The fact that Cito is so prickly, and I doubt anyone would contest THAT claim, is as much if not more a cause for this incident as whatever bad attitude or grudge Wilner might have.

Fourth point - Does Wilner have a grudge against Cito? It's ironic that for years Wilner's critics ragged on him for being a suck-up shill for Rogers who was not free to speak ill of any of her employees and cited a supposed fanboy attitude towards JP as evidence. They note also his defense of players like Overbay or Wells when they are struggling, and then note a presumed constant barrage of criticism for Cito. Yet this portrait of Wilner's work is wildly skewed.

In fact, over the last several years, Wilner's general position (while allowing the reality that all of us have biases) has been one that favors rational criticism and opposes irrational criticism. While it's true Wilner generally approved of the results of JP's work, it's also true that he was not shy about openly wondering (for instance) what Kevin Millar was doing on the team or what the fascination with Wilkerson was. It's not at all difficult to recall examples of his disagreeing with JP. Likewise, when Cito was rehired Wilner was specific in complimenting his good qualities and noting his failings - failings all long time Blue Jays fans easily recalled and caused many of us to worry about whether he was the right choice to follow Gibbons.

Has he had more critical to say of Cito's in-game management than most? Arguably. But I don't remember a hue & cry about other media members relentlessly pounding the drum for JP's head (other than the repeated mockery of Dick Griffin for being pretty ham-fisted about his reasons). Such criticism is only worthy of comment when it is obviously and consistently irrational (as was Griffin's comments on JP in many cases). It should also be noted that if you call up and voice a nonsensical attack on a person, disagreeing with it is not fawning over the person you attacked and conversely, if you voice irrational praise, disagreeing with it is not attacking the subject of your praise. In each case, the call is for logical and rational thinking and intellectual consistency. At least, as the host sees it (which is the only point of view he can be expected to speak from).

All that said, we can't know for certain that Wilner does not, in fact, have it in for Cito, but even if that were true, it's irrelevant. if you are under the illusion that no other media personality has such a chip on his shoulder - in sports or out - then you are wildly ill-informed. Just as Griffin never got dressed down by his bosses for constantly riding JP's ass (nor should he have been), there's no place for Wilner to be thusly treated.

It must also be acknowledged that there's a possibility Wilner got in trouble for "airing the dirty laundry" on his blog by complaining that Cito ill-treated him. That, in my opinion, is far firmer grounds for discipline (although I would still argue it should have been private discipline) than the events at the presser were. But if this is true, Rogers would be well served to make that clear. I can agree with the proposition that while Wilner should be free to ask tough questions, he should also understand that he's going to be ill-treated from time to time and not make a bigger deal out of that than it is. whether or not he over-played that hand on the blog is a matter of differing opinions I'm sure but certainly Rogers would be within it's rights to disapprove.

In the final analysis, as Mr. Lott noted, there is much of what happened that is shrouded in enough uncertainty to make it impossible for an outside observer to be definitive in what we say about the event itself. But with that acknowledged, I have no problem observing that a great deal of the reaction is fan colored by the commenter's view of Wilner's style and tone. That shouldn't be the case. This should be a case of "I disagree with what you say but I stand in defense of your right to say it."

There's massive irony in the arrogance displayed by fans who are giddy that Wilner got slapped down for . . . being arrogant. In point of fact, for many, Wilner's greatest sin is simply confidently expressing a view that doesn't agree with your own. That's just sad.

Do I enjoy Wilner's work? Yeah, I do. But I think he's very confident in an opinion I disagree with every single night, and he drives me nuts with some of his little quirks (like taking exception to fans referring to the Jays with "we" and "us" for one example). But the price of admission to my favor is not that you agree with me on every point. to do so would be, well, arrogant.


andy mc said...

first off, very well said.

i think the real reason for the disciplinary action was wilner's public airing of the dispute on his blog. he said that he would most likely never speak with cito again, claiming that was his decision, because of the way he was treated. if that is his case, being ill-treated, and "belittled", he has not a leg to stand on, considering the way in which he talks down to his audience (not all of whom are raising the regular, ridiculous points).

he went out on the offensive with his "explanation" of the situation, and it seems he overstepped his boundaries, being a rogers employee, a commentator, a media personality, and NOT a reporter or a trained, accredited journalist working for a newspaper or wire service.

he made allegations against cito, and his handlers didn't like it. basically, he made his own bed. now let him sleep in it.

The Southpaw said...

I can't help but express disagreement with one point. IMO, Wilner decidedly does NOT talk down to the rational and reasonable callers, even when the caller expresses a view he disagrees with. He only does that in two cases:

the caller is spouting patent nonsense;

2. the caller steps on one of Mike's pet peeves (like asking how he is or mispronouncing a name or some such).

now the latter instance bugs even me, but the former is pretty much exactly what I myself would do and i find that part entertaining as hell.

but the ordinary caller who calls up and says "When is Snider coming back? and who gets benched when he does?" or whatever?

no, not never.

As to the rest - whether or not he was busted for the blog post (it seems odd to me they would do that and yet leave the post in question unaltered on the site) and whether that post was worthy of this action - I'll agree that at a minimum that's a matter of opinion.

Chill said...

Great post. And for the record, it's Ruth.

Keep up the solid work. I'm looking forward to whatever you put together following today's draft.