Of all the lowliest (and most punishing) forms of journalism there are in our marvelous culture of media plenty, post-game baseball call-in shows possibly rank in the lowest quintile. And I say that as someone who probably spends more man-hours per annum listening to "Angel Talk" than reading The New Yorker and The Atlantic combined.
The problems are endless, and structural -- callers ranging in sophistication from pre-T-baller to Don Zimmer, screeners failing to weed out monomaniacs and drunks, and hosts trapped between serving as goodwill ambassador to the fans and loyalist defender of the team. As the fine Dodgers/Angels blogger Rob McMillin put it recently, "Sports talk shows are a thankless job, but it's a heck of a lot easier if the team is in first place."
There is a root conflict of interest foreign to almost every journalistic job except for the peculiar position of ombudsman -- the primary target of the journalism either pays the radio host's salary directly (as in the case of the Angels' Terry Smith), or pays the host's station a pile of money to broadcast games (as happens with "Dodger Talk" host Bob Harvey). It's hard enough to pursue journalistic fairness in the absence of financial considerations; next to impossible when the subject of your story holds the whip hand.
Which Harvey learned (or more likely, re-learned) the hard way last week, when Dodgers PR director Josh Rawitch called him during his broadcast to label Harvey's show "an embarrassment." The complaint, as Rawitch laid out on his blog the next day, goes like this:
For many years, "Dodger Talk" has been hosted by various people who either travel with the team or serve as a broadcaster and can provide an inside perspective on what goes on from day to day. This year, KFWB chose to change the show and, to my knowledge, the host of "Dodger Talk" has not spoken with Frank McCourt, Ned Colletti, Grady Little or a single player or coach yet this season despite repeated offers from the organization to do so. The only thing I've ever expected of any "Dodger Talk" host is that they present both sides of every argument rather than just let fans rail away (or praise) a decision, player, executive, etc. Fair, balanced and informed reporting is all we are asking for.There's something either impressively post-modern or depressingly asinine about someone who in this day and age can still say "fair and balanced" with a straight face. Given the Dodgers' miserable track record of public relations under owner Frank McCourt, I'm voting for "asinine."
As word spread of Rawitch's heavy-handed journalism lecture, I decided last Thursday to do something I hadn't done all year -- listen to "Dodger Talk." And I encountered there something I can only recall a handful of times in four decades of listening to sports call-in shows: some damned great journalism.
KFWB's A. Martinez -- who, unlike Harvey, travels with team -- used his report to tell a damning, well-sourced tale of deep dissension in the Dodgers clubhouse, with the team's many veteran players grousing to him about Manager Grady Little's over-reliance on young kids who hadn't yet learned how to behave to the veterans' satisfaction. The generation-gap story that Martinez blew the lid off has become the dominant storyline of the team's late-season collapse and will likely be what fans remember about the 2007 Dodgers a decade from now.
The layman's notion of public relations is often akin to applying positive "spin" on a negative fact, or "putting lipstick on a pig." But the better PR professionals I've known take a different tack -- getting the correct story out (in as advantageous a way as possible, sure), and if the reality isn't good to begin with, work hard at changing that reality first.
The reality about the McCourt Dodgers is that -- unlike the playoff team down the 5 -- they have no organizational cohesion, no comprehendible storyline that the players, coaches and flacks all understand in their marrow. It's a team that goes through third basemen like potato chips, that can't figure out if it's young or it's old, that sends conflicting signals to its fans and employees almost every day.
"We think 'Dodger Talk' is a great outlet, we think it also ought to be a great show," Camille Johnston, Dodgers senior vice president of communications, told told The Times' Bill Plaschke last week. "But to be a great show, the host ought to be informed. That is not too much to ask."
Unfortunately for the McCourts (but fortunately for the Dodgers), Harvey's program is one of the most well-informed post-game talk shows there is. Here's hoping there'll soon be an organization in Chavez Ravine that appreciates, rather than tries to undermine, that fact.