Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Lesson In Shoddy Journalism

Last week I attended a card/memorabilia show in Johnstown, NY, at which I was approached by a man named Doug Gladstone. He introduced himself to me, passed along a greeting from a mutual friend, and said, "You got hosed by the Hall of Fame." Since I agreed with him, I looked forward to talking with him. It turned out that although he wanted to write about me, he didn't have time to talk more than a minute, but during that minute he mentioned that he wasn't aware that I had a blog. That surprised me a bit--after all, the blog is what got me fired. Evidently Mr. Gladstone was going by some hearsay (perhaps from the mutual friend), so I gave him my card with my phone number and suggested that before he interviewed me, he should check out my blog as research.

The next thing I heard from him was an e-mail with a link to his own website, at which he had posted the following:

"One of the people who I was most privileged to meet this past Wednesday evening, at the 21st Annual Sports Memorabilia and Card Show in Johnstown, New York, was sports historian and blogger Gabriel Schechter. The author of such books as Victory Faust; The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants and Unhittable; Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons, as well as Guts and Glory; The Golden Age of American Football, Schechter's most recent book came out in 2009 and was called This Bad Day in Yankees History, which was sort of a page-a-day calendar highlighting the missteps of baseball's most famous franchise.

"I've long heard that Schechter was a smart guy -- he won $19,600 in 2008 when he appeared on the quiz show Jeopardy -- but I didn't know how truly principled he was. This is readily apparent if you read his insightful blog, "Never Too Much Baseball", at For instance, this little snippet comes from his posting of August 18, 2011:"

"Well, truth is truth, and that matters to me and to others who have steadfastly corrected misstatements. People will believe all kinds of things. They used to believe the Earth was flat and that cancer was always fatal, and there are still those who insist that the Holocaust never happened or that men never actually walked on the moon. Some people won't believe in global warming until they start choking in the streets..... But when you do know the truth, your head is less clouded by confusion and you have more immunity from the annoying effects of untruth."

"Many people know that I wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee because I also wanted the truth out there, namely, that Major League Baseball and the players association have been hosing nearly 900 retired players out of pensions for more than three decades. Furthermore, since the mainstream media have been indifferent, by and large, to the plight of these men, I felt that it was my moral responsibilility to do something to remedy this situation.

"So on some level I feel a kinship to a guy like Schechter, who baseball insiders know was terminated by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown last year for writing about the hypocritical stances the museum sometimes takes. Using office PCs and software to supposedly run Yahoo fantasy baseball, hockey and football leagues and allegedly running no-limit poker tournaments for HOF Fantasy Camp participants at a time when Pete Rose is on the ineligible list for his betting on baseball games are among the laundry list of head scratchers that Schechter writes about in his great blog."

That's what Gladstone wrote, apart from the quote from my blog. The big problem was his assertion that I got fired for writing about the Hall of Fame's hypocrisy, and the implication--through the list of topics in the following sentence--that those things were examples of the kind of hypocrisy that I wrote about while I was working at the Hall of Fame, resulting in my firing. I don't know how he could have done me a greater disservice than by putting it that way, so I sent him an e-mail which read in part:

"You have made a major misstatement here, and I hope it can be corrected. I was NOT fired by the HOF for making remarks or posting blogs that were critical of the way things are done at the HOF. While working there, I was very careful not to write anything overtly critical of my employer. The list of topics (such as gambling) which you included as examples of the kind of thing I wrote about the HOF were ALL written and posted AFTER I was fired. So it's misleading for you to present it as you have."

In the blog which got me fired ("A Wing and a Player," posted in August 2010), I did write about something hypocritical the Hall of Fame did--back in 1971, when they attempted to create a "separate but equal" wing for Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers. But while working at the Hall of Fame, I never blogged anything critical of the people I worked with or for. The gloves came off after I was fired, of course, as I tried to make clear to Gladstone. "A Wing and a Player" was the last of three blogs I wrote that summer about the common misconception that the winners of the Spink and Frick Awards are thereby elected to the Hall of Fame. The thrust of those three blogs was critical of the writers and broadcasters for perpetuating this self-serving myth. I said nothing about the Hall of Fame's role in perpetuating this myth, but the Hall tacitly conceded my point this year by handing out those awards at a separate ceremony, removing the chief cause of the misconception, namely that because the awards were given out at the Induction ceremony, the winners were being inducted.

Here is Gladstone's e-mail response to my complaint that he didn't talk to me before writing about me:

"If I erred, it wasn't intentional. If there's heat to take, let the HOF contact me, assuming they read this at all. And strictly speaking, I never wrote that you were fired for the Fantasy Camp poker games or playing fantasy baseball on hOF computers. Your take on my posting was correct. The writers and broadcasters are not inducted into the Hall of Fame when they win the coveted Spink and Frick Awards; to suggest otherwise is misleading or hypocritical."

Let's take a close look at this. The article he posted about me made not a single mention of the Spink and Frick Awards, so you'd have to do the three-step jump he's done here (plus read my original blog) to make the association that when he wrote about "hypocritical stances" by the Hall of Fame, he was referring to those awards and not to the subjects he raised in the rest of the paragraph. Someone who simply read his blog would have a tough time not thinking that he was making a connection in those two consecutive sentences. Sentence A: I got fired for writing about Hall of Fame hypocrisy. Sentence B: Here are some examples of Hall of Fame hypocrisy. That's a basic element of writing that anyone who takes Freshman Comp knows: the lead sentence of a paragraph gives the theme/subject of the paragraph, and what follows illustrates that theme/subject. You'd have to be psychic to read those two sentences and not conclude that they were related.

Thus his denial rang hollow to me, and I also didn't like his statement that only the Hall of Fame might be upset by what he wrote. The irony was inescapable in my mind: here Gladstone had written this piece about my being a "stand-up guy," but as soon as I stood up to his misstatement, he dismissed his own error as excusable because it wasn't intentional.

That is no way to deal with a stand-up guy. I sent the following e-mail to him:

"No, you didn't write that I was fired for playing fantasy baseball on HOF computers. But you did write that I was fired for writing about it, and that is simply not true. If you're going to extol me as a truth-teller, the least you can do is tell the truth. Don't wait to take heat from the HOF. You're taking heat from me."

This was his response:

"Let's back off, shall we? I don't need the attitude you're exhibiting. I wrote a complimentary posting on someone who had always impressed me because of his record and accomplishments. Just be gracious and say thank you."

Just so you know, I had thanked him the first time I wrote; the e-mail began, "I very much appreciate your writing this," and I thanked him for quoting that particular blog passage. I don't know why he felt I should thank him for blithely dismissing my concerns about the veracity of his blog, but the condescending huffiness of his latest e-mail did nothing to soften my attitude. So I responded:

"Maybe you don't need my attitude, but I certainly didn't need your unprofessional approach to your column, which is the only thing that prompted that attitude. When we met, I agreed to let you talk to me and suggested that you read my blogs as research. You read the blogs, drew conclusions from them (incorrect conclusions), and ran with them without checking with their subject. That is a poor way to go about journalism. As I noted in my previous e-mail, it is especially ironic that you wrote about someone you praised as a truth-teller, then not only didn't tell the truth about him but also acted as if there was nothing wrong with that."

I requested that he correct or remove the post and assured him that if he didn't, I would write a blog to clarify the truth of the matter. This was his response, which he began by quoting the paragraph which bothered me:

"There are two sentences that make up the above graph. I've written, you were terminated for writing about the hypocritical stances the museum sometimes takes. The postings about the broadcasters and writers wings were what I meant. You've also written about the betting that goes on. One has nothing to do with the other.

"As far as my unprofessional approach goes, that's really the pot calling the kettle black. Is it this iconoclastic, shoot from the hip attitude that got you canned? 'Cause knowing a bit about employment law as I do, if I did what you did, namely, writing insubordinate postings about my day employer, I'd be canned too.

"This will be my final thoughts on this matter. Accept 'em or don't, I really don't care. Have a nice life."

All right, let's discuss this. He and I may have known that he was talking about the "wings" when trying explain why I was fired, but there was no way for the reader of his article to know that. I will repeat here that despite his confidence on the subject, he still does not know why I got fired. So his presumptions about employment law are completely out of line. In fact, there was a hearing on my firing, because the Hall of Fame challenged my eligibility for Unemployment benefits. At the hearing, I learned that I wasn't fired so much for writing the blog, but for sending the link to a number of members of the BBWAA, leading to e-mail exchanges with a couple of writers. The Hall of Fame felt that I was out of line for engaging in a personal "dialogue" with writers upon whom it depends for casting ballots in the annual Hall of Fame elections. So, contrary to Gladstone's assumptions, I didn't get fired for exposing hypocrisy at the Hall of Fame. The judge ruled in my favor, writing that contacting the writers may have been "poor judgment," it did not qualify as the "willful misconduct" that would be necessary to disqualify me from receiving benefits.

If Gladstone had taken the trouble to talk to me first before writing his article, he would have learned this. But he didn't, and when I called him on his negligence, he attacked me instead. A friend of mine once said, "Righteous indignation is very satisfying, especially when you're in the wrong." Clearly from his final e-mail, Gladstone is relishing his righteous indignation at my failure to do anything besides thank him profusely and continuously for complimenting my blog. I suspect that Gladstone's intention was to use my story to tweak the people who run the Hall of Fame. Otherwise how do you account for his bland assumption that only the Hall of Fame could possibly object to what he had writtten? He seemed much more concerned about their reaction than mine.

So yes, thank you, I will have a nice life. It was a nice life before my 45-second encounter with Gladstone at the show in Johnstown, and his article won't change that. I know the truth of this dispute, and I still care about the truth enough to share it with my readers. If someone else wants to make his readers read between the lines to figure out what he actually means, rather than forcing his readers into the same flawed assumption he has made, that's his problem. Even by the nebulous standards of the quasi-journalistic world of blogging, it's a shoddy way to do things. It's lazy and negligent, especially considering that his subject had agreed to be interviewed for the article. I even gave him my business card with my phone number so he would have no trouble finding me. That's what makes me think that he had no intention of doing more than using my case as a needle to stick in the voodoo doll he's carrying around with the Hall of Fame's logo on it. Again, that's his business. I have my own voodoo doll and my own reasons for needling the Hall of Fame, but I won't take advantage of anyone else to do it.


Perry Barber said...

"Gladstone had written this piece about my being a 'stand-up guy,' but as soon as I stood up to his misstatement, he dismissed his own error as excusable because it wasn't intentional."

Wow, that's a good one. It's hard to believe Gladstone would even try to justify what he wrote about you once you informed him of its inaccuracy, but his reaction of digging in his heels and refusing to back down starkly illustrates the complex dynamics at work when the worst of human nature, rather than the best, assumes control. And then to demand that you "just be gracious and say thank you"? Ick. That is a tactic adopted by bullies incapable of articulating a legitimate defense for their misconduct, and Gladstone is apparently as devoid of insight into his own behavior as he is uninterested in the truth about yours.

His self-interested "tribute" to you stands exposed for exactly what it is: "shoddy," "lazy," and "negligent" reporting. Sadly, that's basically the template for most modern "journalism." Steadfast honesty and the courage of one's convictions are qualities rarely seen in the writings of authors whose ultimate goal is not to speak truth to power the way you do, Gabriel, but to groom their sources and cultivate the all-important "access" that imbues so many of them with the the false aura of accomplishment they so desperately seek. It's not a pretty picture, but with your usual finely-honed insights into the darker recesses of human nature, you have shown us what a real writer actually does.

cheeseblab said...

I still remember the first time I got into an argument like this (with a boss, as it happens) and realized with horror that, contrary to what I'd been led to believe, being on the right side of an argument DIDN'T MATTER if you were arguing with someone who responded to some fictionalized version of your argument that could be beaten down easily because it was full of nonsense that YOU NEVER SAID. It was, I must say, an important lesson to learn, but learning it didn't (doesn't) make me any happier when I encountered (encounter) this rhetorical strategy again.