Flyover Fairness and Future News

March 2nd, 2014 by Nate Smith


Just so you know, the first draft of this article was written in comic sans. When I first read Brian Windhorst’s article from last Tuesday, “Could the Cavaliers Lose Kyrie Irving?“,  I had to email my editors to discover the guidelines for responding. To say that I was irritated was an understatement. This was followed up by Amin Elhassan’s insider piece on Kyrie Irving’s options for leaving Cleveland. All that was running through my head after these was a Pacino-esque, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! This whole trial is out of order!” knee-jerk response. Fortunately, several days has given me a little more perspective, and I think I’m capable of respectfully taking issue with Mr. Windhorst as if I was writing a non-Antonin Scalia Supreme Court dissent.

And it’s not as if I disagree with anything in the article, per se. Mr. Windhorst is undoubtedly one of the most respected NBA writers in the country, and even more undoubtedly, his knowledge of the inner workings of the Cavaliers and Kyrie Inc. surpasses ours. But the article raises three important questions. Why now? Why us? And is this even news?

The Cavs were still basking in the afterglow of Kyrie’s all-star ascendance. Yeah, the Cavs had dropped a couple heart-breakers over the weekend, but they’d just rolled off six straight wins before that. Then, BAM! — a lead story vaguely intimating that Kyrie Irving wants out of Cleveland. Is this something that’s been a static situation for a while, and the post all-star break lull just seemed like the right time to bring it out? I mean there’s not even anything in the article that is really new information. We’ve known for a while that all this was a possibility. It was always possible that Kyrie could choose to be the first rookie to not sign a max extension, take the qualifying offer, and try to force a trade to a destination of his choosing. He can leverage the Cavs fear that they might lose him with no recompense. But now, thanks to these articles, the amplifier will get turned up in the NBA media echo chamber.

And what did Cleveland do to deserve this treatment? Am I being over-sensitive when I feel like the Cavs and the Timberwolves get singled out for this?  There hasn’t been much chatter about LeBron’s pending free agency, has there? OK, I guess Miami fans have to put up with this too, a little bit. (God, look at me — empathizing with Heat fans). I have an instinct to defend the place I live. It causes me to react with anger to the poll in the top picture. Is it wrong to feel like even the concept of the poll is disrespectful? That we Ohioans are being trolled? Is some editor saying “who cares about northeast Ohio, there’s clicks to be had from the coast!” Am I a conspiracy theorist when I wonder why I’ve never seen a SportsNation poll that says, “Should Carmelo Anthony re-sign with the Knicks this summer?” Why are you all picking on us?

Tom Pestak wrote about this phenomenon extensively in his series, “Why I Want LeBron to Fail (Forever),” written after the Mavs 2011 championship over the Heat.

I knew my teams were the Browns, Indians, and Cavs.  It was an easy concept for me even as a child – these were MY TEAMS, the best of the best representing me, my family, my neighbors, my community.  These weren’t overpaid, selfish, prima-dona, egotistical, godless athletes setting out to claim their place among the gods – they were strong, hard-working, blue-collar, God-fearing underdogs.  Maybe that was my mistake – being a 6-year-old with role models, a naive romanticized understanding of professional sports (the same one that every single professional league wants us to embrace) and never really growing out of it…

It wasn’t until 2004, LeBron’s 2nd season, that I realized how much everyone outside Cleveland dislikes Cleveland.  That we were called “the Mistake by the Lake”.  That we were the Yankees farm team, a decaying pit of rusted steel mills, and the place that could NEVER hang on to LeBron James.  I had known that our sports teams were cursed and that we never had a chance to win the big one because we traded away Rocky Colavito (my Dad’s favorite player) but I had no idea people, particularly writers, straight up thought, as a city, we were trash…

I believed that their goal was to turn speculation into a self-fulfilling prophecy – sending LeBron to a larger market where they thought he belonged.

And now, for many of us, it feels like it’s happening all over again.  Is this Karma? Are we forced to pay for sins of bottle-gate, disco demolition night, those two dudes that burned LeBron jerseys, and “The Letter” once again? Do they hate us for our passion? By all rights, the Browns should have a heck of a lot more games blacked out than they do. Though attendance waned in the last few years, the Indians have the second longest sellout streak in Major League history at 455.  Currently, the Cavs rank 18th in total attendance, 23rd in attendance percentage, and eighth in road attendance (what — this fact scares me. Who knew they were so marketable?)  But have you seen the crowd at Pistons games? Suns games?  Are we castigated for caring?

As Ben Werth said in the comments section last week, “I like Bill Simmons, in general, but he has really perpetuated an anti-Cleveland sentiment. I don’t think he really dislikes Cleveland, but the ‘God Hates Cleveland’ joke, though occasionally entertaining to us, is actually a strong damnation… Whether rational or not, if one is inundated with consistently negative information, even in jest, one naturally takes that point of view.” When this is matched with other comments like Jon Barry’s comments on ESPN Radio, “This kid Kyrie Irving needs to get out of Cleveland” (paraphrased), it builds up. That SportsNation poll is evidence of the effect. The sentiment isn’t funny anymore. It’s mean, it’s unfair, and it hurts people here.

If Cleveland was a city that had experienced a profound tragedy like Boston, New York, Oklahoma City, Columbine, or Newtown, the phrase “God hates Cleveland” would be unacceptable without question. It should not take a horrible incident to realize that no American city should have to put up with that sentiment. We’re Americans and we should be pulling for each other, not putting each other down to make ourselves feel better about the burgh we live in. Cleveland isn’t some town full of terrible people. It’s filled with fantastic people who have a rich and diverse history. Northeast Ohio  has sizable populations of so many unique ethnic communities that it’s impossible to name them all. To denigrate the town they live in is to denigrate every one of those people.

Because Northeast Ohio is a fantastic place to live. We’re close to everything. We have the best orchestra in the world (so I’ve been told).  The people are great. There’s a slew of world class hospitals, universities, museums, galleries, halls of fame… Wineries, breweries, music, food, sports, casinos… (if you’re into those types of things). It’s all here. You can go to a play in downtown Cleveland or wheel 20 minutes south and bike through the middle of the Cuyahoga national forest on any given Saturday, nine (ok, eight) months of the year. The 2014 Gay Games will be here. Almost every national concert tour rolls through… I mean just check out this video. Plus, people will be moving back here in droves when they run out of water out west. Oh, did I mention the cost of living here compared to the coasts?

Oscar winning Nebraska director and writer, Alexander Payne, recently opined on the Heartland in a variety interview.

What’s the biggest misperception of the Heartland?
I live in downtown Omaha, which people on the Coast sometimes smirk at. But everywhere is exotic and everything is beautiful if you look at it long enough and with the right generosity of spirit… The other thing: More time is your own. The same slew of errands that cost me 3.5 hours in Los Angeles will cost me 50 minutes in Omaha. I have more time to think, to write; life is simpler here in the best way.

I believe that applies to life from Cleveland to Canton, too. But I get it; the Los Angeles Area has a population of 16 million. The New York metro area is 19 million people. Northeast Ohio? 4.5 million. So yeah, playing to the coasts at the expense of flyover country is probably never going to hurt the bottom line. But, playing ombudsman for a minute, that doesn’t make it fair. It hurts that a son of Akron is one of the people doing it. That SportsNation poll is direct evidence that national media derision directed at Cleveland has had a profound effect on the way the rest of the country views this region. It needs to stop.

Finally, and most importantly, is this news? We all went through this with the LeBroncalypse: as early as 2004, the LeBron to LA or NY articles started surfacing. This all culminated in “The Decision,” a special that ESPN Ombudsman at the time, Dan Ohlmeyer, called “The Delusion.”

As the hours wore on, it was impossible not to ponder: Did the news value of James’ decision really merit such prolonged speculation, dissection, explanation, argumentation and analysis? Competent television producers can create infinite hours out of whole cloth, and that was certainly the case here.

This is the issue I take with Mr. Windhorst here. And let me be clear, this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Mr. Windhorst — far from it. In the 21st century, the line between reporting news and manufacturing news “out of whole cloth” is a fuzzy one at best. Have Mr. Windhorst and his editors asked themselves, “Do the internal machinations of Kyrie and his business interests merit such ‘prolonged speculation?’ Is this really newsworthy?”

A big problem I have with the style of the Windhorst article is that it is often completely unclear as to who, exactly, is speaking about what (and if that seems unclear, it’s because the article is). Mr. Windhorst notes, “While Irving has said all the right things about staying put in public, it’s no secret that Irving’s camp has been making it known for years now the point guard would like to be elsewhere long term. No matter how much he denies it.” That statement is emblematic of problems with the media. So much of sports media is based on the concept of “making it known” by unnamed sources through the gateway of a friendly media figure (Mr. Windhorst in this case) who has been granted access in exchange for discretion and spinning the message just so. (If you think the NBA reporting is bad about this, try following American politics for a week). How much of this is Mr. Windhorst’s opinion? (If it is, it should be explicitly stated as such). How much of this is fed to him by Kyrie’s “team?” How much of this is from the Cavs organization? In the absence of actual, sourced information, is any of this any more than conjecture at Cleveland’s expense?  As readers, we haven’t given enough information to know that it isn’t.

Part of this is on Kyrie. Anyone who has followed Kyrie Irving’s career knows that when he is interviewed, Irving goes into Kyrie-Interviewbot-2000 mode: that far off look and the words, “Progress… teammates… fighting… coach Brown… Leadership… the coaching staff… the organization… being the best Kyrie Irving I can be.” Ugh. And I feel for him. Any person of fame that gives an honest, genuine answer is either going to be praised by sycophants or denigrated by haters and the media hype machine.  It’s a no-win scenario, so the only recourse for many is to be boring and generic. Kyrie owes the public nothing. He certainly doesn’t want to say anything overly loyal, then leave, and then get ripped for it. I’m quite sure Irving doesn’t know what he’s going to do this summer in the same way that none of us know what we’re going to do this summer. The future, especially our own, is completely unknowable. Any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow.  Aliens could invade and declare playing basketball a fate punishable by endless exposure to Bieber videos. When June rolls around this year, Kyrie could discover that he wants to go live in Tibet and devote the rest of his life to achieving total consciousness.

So I guess what I’m asking for is some sort of standard here. Name or at least identify sourced information. Delineate between fact and opinion. Don’t assume in an informational piece (rather than an opinion piece), that something is “in the air.” Can we set a bar on how plausible a future event is before we talk about it ad nauseam? Is there a way to do this so that it’s clear whether people are  reporting the news or creating the news? Because when the latter happens, an organization that simultaneously reports on the NBA, and sells ad time on NBA broadcasts, can develop clear conflicts of interest. In this case, figures within the NBA, TNT, and ESPN that want more “marketable” stars in bigger markets can influence the narrative to their advantage and to small markets’ disadvantage. Agents and organizations representing players can grant access in exchange for creating stories that get players where those handlers want them to go. The problem with this is that it ultimately creates a system where access and affluence can become more important than quality of  the product on the court, the web-page, and/or the television screen. It gets us into situations like “The Decision” or a situation where CAA has so much influence of the Knicks that the organization has become incompetent.

I know… Chillax, Nate. I’m tilting at windmills here and seeing conspiracies where probably few exist. The world isn’t a fair place, and the fate of a Midwestern city’s basketball team seems like a ridiculous place to stage a rallying cry for more transparency and ethics at global media corporations, especially when the one we’re affiliated with does a mostly good job, and attempts to be self-correcting. ESPN, after all, has been a driving force for the improvement of how concussions and player health are discussed in football and other sports, at a risk to football’s popularity, and ESPN’s bottom line. And Mr. Windhorst continues to be a friend of Cleveland, this blog (I hope), and NBA bloggers and sportswriters everywhere. All I’m asking is to dial down the conjecture at our expense a little bit, or, at least, give us a clearer picture of where it’s coming from. And please, members of the national media,  treat the people in this region with some respect. They deserve it.