On the Record With Bob Costas
On Thursday I wrote that I thought Bob Costas booked Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger on his HBO show alongside Deadspin blogger Will Leitch because he wanted precisely the explosive, Jerry Springer-style confrontation that their panel discussion turned out to be.
On Friday Costas called me to, in his words, "Correct your entirely incorrect assertion."
"Did I knowingly set up this kind of dynamic? Not only did I not do it but I would argue that it would not have been in my best interest to do it," Costas said. "I don't like Jerry Springer-type scenes. I prefer light over heat."
In fact, Costas said he expected Bissinger, a gifted writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, to show the same kind of thoughtful approach in his comments on the panel that he shows in his writing.
"I feel bad for Buzz," Costas said. "When you have a body of work like he has, when you have the talent and intellect that he has -- you know, even the greats can have a bad day. He's a Hall of Famer who had a bad game."
So what did Costas want his panel discussion with Bissinger, Leitch and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards to accomplish? Costas said he hoped for an exploration of blogs that included both an acknowledgment of the talents of the best bloggers and an examination of whether some blogs are so mean-spirited that they drag down the discourse.
Costas is troubled by what he sees as an over-reliance in the blogosphere on insults rather than arguments. But he says he recognizes the value of the best blogs and doesn't paint all blogs with the same brush, as some have suggested he does.
"I'm perfectly willing to defend the criticisms that I actually believe and to not only defend them but to re-emphasize them," Costas said. "But my observation never was that bloggers as a group or bloggers in general have no insight or have no talent or have nothing worthy to contribute. I emphatically don't think that."
Of Leitch in particular, Costas said, "Will is a talented guy who is funny and who makes a lot of interesting and in my view valid points." But Costas also decried the way Leitch at times takes "sub-sophomoric delight in schoolyard-level potshots and insults which ought to be beneath him."
Costas seems to be most repulsed not by bloggers but by blog commenters. During Tuesday's show I thought Costas conflated the two, and as Michael Schur of Fire Joe Morgan, who was also featured on Costas's HBO show, wrote after the show aired, "Picking a random blog comment and wielding it as a club to bash 'blogs is like picking a random romance novel off an airport bookstore shelf and saying, 'This book sucks. F--- you, Tolstoy -- your medium is worthless!'"
But in our conversation Friday I thought Costas grasped the distinction and made some fair points about lowbrow blog comments. There's no question that many blog comments are appalling. The question is whether bloggers should banish the appalling comments. As the political blogger Kevin Drum has noted, moderating comments is much, much harder than it sounds.
In Costas's view, professional writers allowing anyone to post anything in the comments section below their work "would be the equivalent of HBO just leaving the microphone open after the show and letting anyone who wants to rush the stage." That argument works for Costas's medium -- television -- but I'm not sure it does for the Internet. After all, doesn't "leaving the microphone open" and "letting anyone who wants to" basically describe YouTube?
In our conversation, I found Costas generally open to criticism. I found Edwards' presence on the panel baffling, and Costas said that although "Braylon is obviously a very bright young man, a very likable young man," he wishes he could have had an athlete who would offer a specific insight about how athletes are affected by blogs. He also said he would have preferred to have another online sports writer on the panel, someone who might have bridged the gap between Bissinger and Leitch.
If the panel discussion had been the other way around -- if it had been the blogger screaming obscenities at the Pulitzer Prize winner -- I think Costas would have taken a firmer hand as a moderator. However, I do not believe there's much point in viewing Costas as an enemy of the sports blogosphere. That would be as much an oversimplification as the opinions Bissinger stated on Costas' show. If Costas' problem is with the "airport romance novels" of the web, and not the "Tolstoys" then he actually seems to be in agreement with Schur and Bethlehem Shoals.
Leitch was treated poorly. But sports bloggers normally have a pretty high tolerance for rudeness, and bearing a grudge for more than a few days on this issue would eventually reek of crocodile tears.
As Leitch said on the show, people tend to choose their words more carefully when talking to each other directly rather than over the internet. The same goes for being on TV: Having talked to Costas, I do believe him when he says he wasn't looking for Jerry Springer-style confrontation, even though every talk show moderator will say the same thing after a night of particularly "good TV" crosses a few lines.
Whatever Costas' plans for the roundtable were, they aren't the point anymore. Costas has scheduled an hour-long interview with Leitch on his syndicated radio show, and he can show by asking Leitch pointed but fair questions -- and giving Leitch a chance to answer -- that he means it when he says he didn't want his show to be the ambush Bissinger made it.
Interestingly, although Costas was wrong to use the tired "blog from their mother's basement" cliche when he discussed blogs in March, he also has made good points on this issue. He's right when he says "a portion of Internet sports discourse ... consists of nothing more than potshots, ad hominem arguments, ignorance and invective." He's right when he says "There's a difference between being edgy and abusive." I think (and I'm sure Leitch agrees) that tough, pointed questions about Deadspin -- including some of the issues Jason Whitlock raised in his recent column -- are appropriate.
Which brings us back to Tuesday night's panel discussion, where few tough, pointed questions could be asked because Bissinger hogged all the time allotted to the segment with his profane tirade. I no longer believe Costas wanted to set up a Jerry Springer-style confrontation, and I think Costas is open to a continuing dialogue with bloggers about the changing face of the sports media landscape. Given that Costas is one of the most influential voices in sports, bloggers should embrace that dialogue.