The province now hires an army of communications consultants and flacks – many of whom were at one time colleagues of mine – to make sure its message stays on track. These ranks far exceed the number of journalists whose job it is to give the public a balanced view of how their institutions work.
Concern about branding has these hired guns twisting themselves in knots to make sure the message the media gets conforms to an artificial identity they have created for these public institutions.
The City of Saskatoon has also fallen into this trap. For many years I reported on civic affairs along with Art Robinson. We would routinely roam the offices at city hall, visiting all from the senior administration to the cubicles of engineers, and these committed public servants would speak openly and freely about what they were doing, including explaining errors and prescribing corrections.
Former city commissioner Marty Irwin recently reminded me that the reason the administration had no concern about our impromptu visits was it had confidence in the quality, intelligence and dedication of civic employees, even if they may have wished at times we didn’t ask the questions.
Today, civic employees are restricted from talking to reporters unless they have undergone media training – that is, lessons in how to spin the message to protect the brand. Reporters are asked not to approach staff directly but to vet their inquiries through the communications office.
This strategy, by the way, is doomed to failure. Rather than protecting the brand, these public institutions are shrouding it in cynicism and suspicion.
Simmons was raised mostly in Boston, where every loss is like a death in the family, and even at 44, he watches sports with the delight of a kid — albeit a kid who’s a multimedia mogul. During the NBA playoffs, which last nearly two months and end in June, he’ll be a fixture on ESPN and ABC, via NBA Countdown. His 700-page Book of Basketball, despite being fatter than Eddy Curry in the off-season, debuted at Number One on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list. He goaded ESPN into making documentaries, which yielded 30 for 30, an excellent, Emmy-nominated series he executive-produces. His lively B.S. Report podcast, where he interviews jocks, actors, comedians college buddies, his dad, and Barack Obama, was downloaded 32 million times last year, and to keep him from bolting in 2011, ESPN gave him his own well-staffed website, Grantland. TV, books, documentaries, digital — it’s the sportswriter version of the EGOT.
“We have similarly thorough backgrounds when it comes to movies, TV, sports and other worthless things,” says his friend Jimmy Kimmel, who hired Simmons as a joke writer on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “Bill’s very funny, he’s married pop culture and sports more than anyone else, and he built his own media empire from a little blog.”
That’s not just tickle-tickle buddy talk. Simmons started to accrue a huge following in 1997, when he began blogging on AOL’s Boston website in the role of an irritant and smart aleck, under the name Boston Sports Guy. Last summer, a Canadian columnist called him “an honest-to-God magnate” and “one of the defining figures” in digital media. All magnates have haters; Simmons makes it easy by frequently getting into feuds.
On NBA Countdown, Simmons plays a slightly exaggerated version of himself: a comedic troublemaker, “the wild card who doesn’t give a shit,” he tells me. “I’m part historian, part know-it-all, and part shit-stirrer. I don’t hold back – that’s the key.”
During a recent Countdown, he denounced Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Joe Johnson, whom Simmons has tagged as the most overpaid player in the NBA. “Joe Johnson did not deserve to be on the all-star team,” he says, so outraged and high-pitched he’s nearly yelping. “Even he had to be shocked he made it.” After the show goes off the air, Countdown host Sage Steele turns to him, shaking her head. “You,” she tells him, “are a psycho.”
The shit has been successfully stirred: Within minutes, Twitter is in flames. “Never hated a sports analyst as much as I hate Bill Simmons,” I read as I scroll through his mentions, followed by “I want to punch him in the face,” “He is such a douche” and “If Bill Simmons ever got in a car accident, I would be happy.” There are compliments, too, but, let’s face it, those are boring.
Simmons has 2.6 million followers on Twitter. Many can’t wait to tell him what an idiot he is. (The Simmons brand has a strong ripple effect: Even his wife, known as the Sports Gal, has 25,000 followers, despite not having tweeted in almost a year.) Sports Twitter is a mire of stupidity, homophobia, and violent threats. It’s probably the most inane culture on Twitter; at least on Politics Twitter, you occasionally come across a fact.
Simmons uses Twitter almost exclusively to promote and link to Grantland material. He doesn’t reply to people who think he’s a douche, or want to punch his face. He also writes fewer sports columns than he used to, partly because TV and movies occupy more of his time. The Internet gave him a career, an audience, wealth, influence, and fourth-row seats for the Clippers. But lately, Bill Simmons is kind of over the Internet.
And this is how it happened.
Once Simmons got an ESPN assignment, he quickly found an audience. But just as immediately, his relationship with the Worldwide Leader in Sports was full of conflict. “ESPN was idiotic,” says Simmons, who can match any athlete for self-confidence. “They fucked with my column for the first year, taking out jokes, and I was pissed off. They were rebuilding their site around me, but they were paying me nothing. So I had a meltdown: I didn’t turn in a column. I was like, ‘Attica! Attica!’ ” He laughs. “I was probably smoking too much pot.”
ESPN rewarded his work strike with a raise. “Bill likes to be in control,” an insider says. “In the early days, he was very upset about where they placed his column, versus where other columnists were. He’s a great advocate for himself and his brand.”
It wasn’t Simmons’ last fight with his bosses. They’ve suspended him from Twitter twice for tweets: for referring to Boston sports-radio hosts who worked for an ESPN affiliate as “deceitful scumbags,” and also for saying an interview that aired on ESPN was “awful and embarrassing.” Does he think they were right to suspend him? “No, I don’t.”
ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Company, and some of Simmons’ behavior — like, say, calling soccer “gay” or mocking people for being fat — makes him a far more troublesome employee than Mickey Mouse. Periodically, the two parties get annoyed at one another. ESPN president John Skipper once said working with Simmons was “about 99.8 percent great.” (“Working with ESPN is 99.1 percent great,” Simmons counters.) Convincing the network to do 30 For 30 required “a year of arm-twisting,” he says. When it was a success, and his basketball book had been a big hit, his contract was up for renewal. “I had a little leverage.” He told ESPN that he wanted his own site, or he’d leave and do it elsewhere.
Grantland’s success, like Simmons’, has resulted from good fortune as well as talent. Since 2002, Boston teams have dominated pro sports, tallying eight titles in twelve calendar years, including baseball, basketball, hockey, and football. No other city has ever had that kind of success, and it brought a lot of attention to Simmons. No wonder he loves Tom Brady so much.
“When we were launching, we didn’t realize technology advances would help us so much.” GIFs, Instapaper, wi-fi, embeddable links — all foster the ease of promoting a digital magazine. “The iPad has been a godsend — it’s probably the greatest thing that’s’ happened to Grantland. Nobody knew the fucking iPad was coming. I didn’t. We hit at the right time.”
In a recent month, Grantland, according to comScore, had 4.7 million unique visitors, which represents just a sliver of ESPN’s 62 million unique visitors and pales compared to Yahoo Sports’ 57.9 million. (Even Deadspin, the Johnny Lawrence to Simmons’ Daniel LaRusso, had 13.8 million.) But the site’s balance sheet isn’t the point. ESPN likely pays him more than $5 million a year, the insider estimates — not because of Grantland, but because Simmons is a guy with big ideas, a one-man vertical-integration engine.
Now that he oversees an empire, Simmons says he doesn’t care as much about Boston teams. “It’s not life-or-death anymore,” he says with a shrug. But that might not be true. His daughter loves L.A.’s hockey team, the Kings, so he took her to see them play his team, the Bruins. “Boston won, and I taunted her on the way home. She started crying. She was, like, six years old.” A few years later, they went to another Kings-Bruins game, and this time her team won. “She was yelling and high-fiving everyone,” Simmons says, “and she taunted me.” Of course she did. It’s in the bloodline.
At the time, my then colleague (and current business partner) Mark Fabiani and I were working at the White House as lawyers in the counsel’s office and began to receive calls from mainstream media outlets asking us to respond to various bizarre items related to the late Vince Foster, a fellow White House lawyer who had tragically taken his own life in the summer of 1993. At first, we ignored the calls, as there was nothing to the story beyond the terrible loss of one of the president and first lady’s friends. However, as the calls continued without letup, and the nature of the questions became even more bizarre—to the point where we were asked to comment on alleged eyewitness sightings of Foster—we knew we had to get to the heart of the matter and began asking the reporters the basis for their questions.
All roads led to a mysterious source—the newly exploding Internet.
One Saturday morning in the midst of an oppressively hot D.C. summer weekend, Mark and I found ourselves squirreled away in a stuffy room on the fourth floor of the Old Executive Office Building, where there was a bank of computers from which you could access the “World Wide Web.” Remember—this was the pre-Blackberry, pre-Google, dial-up world of 1995, when only around 10 percent of the public had Internet access and the White House had just barely launched its own web page.
Eight hours later, we emerged from our warren of cubicles having seemingly been transported to a parallel universe. Online we found early versions of chat rooms, postings and other information showing there was an entire cottage industry devoted to discussing conspiracy theories relating to Foster’s death, including numerous online reports of people claiming to have seen him. Those reports would be picked up by so-called news sources that most Americans at the time had never heard of—conservative outlets such as Eagle Publishing’s Human Events or Richard Mellon Scaife’s the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. From there, the story would migrate to right-leaning outlets we were familiar with, such as the New York Post, the Washington Times and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal—all before eventually ending up in the mainstream press.
What we learned in those eight hours became the basis for our 332-page report, written so that those of us in Clinton White House responsible for fielding questions about these bizarre rumors could apprise mainstream reporters of what we called the “media food chain”—basically, so that we could show them how such a wacky conspiracy theory like the supposed murder of Vince Foster had even become a news “story” at all. We would simply hand the memo to the reporter asking questions, tell him to review it and to come back to us with any remaining questions. Few did.
But we also realized that this was just the beginning. Like the scene in Bugsy where Warren Beatty, playing the mobster Bugsy Siegel, arrives in the Nevada desert and the sees the future of gambling (modern Las Vegas), those eight hours in the White House computer room were our eureka moment about the future of media and politics. We saw the transition from an electorate that passively consumed the information put before it (a joke at the time was that a political rally was a family watching a political commercial on television) to an electorate that could use technology to actively engage in the creation, distribution and self-selection of information.
(Of course, had we been just a little more business-savvy, we would have immediately relocated to Silicon Valley instead of writing that report.)
The California Supreme Court has denied disgraced former journalist Stephen Glass a license to practice law.
Pointing out in its ruling that “Glass’s journalistic dishonesty was not a single lapse of judgment” but “involved significant deceit sustained unremittingly for a period of years” — made the more reprehensible because it took place “while he was pursuing a law degree and license to practice law, when the importance of honesty should have gained new meaning and significance for him” — the court found that Glass had not adequately redeemed himself.
For all of Glass’ past history — and I’ll get to that, at length, in a moment — the judgment is remarkable. The last time California barred a lawyer before he’d even practiced his first case, it involved a man named Eben Gossage, who served three years for killing his sister then returned to prison for possession of heroin.
If you recall, Glass was The New Republic associate editor who in the late 1990s fabricated in whole or part dozens of articles, mostly published in The New Republic but also for Harpers, Rolling Stone, and the now defunct George magazine. At the time, it was the journalism scandal to end all journalism scandals. Glass vanished for a while, heading off to law school (and a brief stint as an improv comedian) before finally passing the California bar exam in 2009. The California State Bar promptly banned him from practicing, based on his prior moral turpitude, a decision he successfully appealed. The case wound through the courts, leading to today’s final decision by the state’s Supreme Court.
Aaron Gordon of Sports on Earth watched 32 NFL games to determine the best and worst NFL announcers.
- After all is said, here are your Bad Commentator Awards:
- Worst Crew: Chris Myers and Tim Ryan
- Least-Bad Crew: Dick Stockton and Ronde Barber
- CBS vs. Fox: Fox has the less-bad crews, with 37 infractions per crew beating out CBS’s 45.
- Worst Prime-time Crew: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden (ESPN)
- Worst Commentator: Dan Dierdorf
As I suspected, Chris Collingsworth (NBC) and Mike Maylock (NFL Network) do pretty well.