Hatin’ on the Refs — and the Press

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By Jonathan Miller

From the vantage point of my Rupp Arena section-mates last Saturday, the refereeing of UK’s upset loss to UCLA featured the worst officiating since Naismith introduced his peach basket. Lexi, the newly monikered, super high-res replay scoreboard, did the men in black and white no favors: Briscoe clearly did not step on that back line; there was a blatant uncalled charge on Alford; and dammit, Doug Shows, why don’t you just put on a Bruin uniform if you want them to win so badly? At times, I felt like I was at a Trump rally: After a particularly egregious call, I could have sworn hearing “LOCK ‘EM UP!” chants directed at the appropriately attired whistle-blowers.

Hating on the refs is a deeply rooted, long-enduring sports tradition. Indeed, these kinds of grievances are a natural tribal instinct: When a so-called neutral arbiter rules in favor of our rivals, they clearly are prejudiced or blind. When the call goes our way … well, duh … wasn’t it obvious?

In today’s political theater, the role of the clueless, biased ref is played by the mainstream media. While they’ve always been the target of bilious denunciation by fan bases on the left and the right (especially the right), Campaign 2016’s charges and counterpunches revealed an historically high level of mutual animosity. Team Hillary was furious about the grossly disproportionate coverage of her email “scandal,” while Team Donald was angry about … just about everything. Both sides worked the refs more furiously than any Calipari/Pitino matchup, helping facilitate further public disaffection with objective journalism. Partly as a result, a disturbingly growing number of Americans are accepting as “fact” the “news” that’s delivered by the screaming head partisans on cable television and the fake news sites littering the social media.

As the New York Times posited this morning, “the breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts” threatens our very democracy. We’ve descended from Clintonian spinning and bending and parsing of words (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) to Trumpean deliberate mendacity — and there appears to be no one left standing with the credibility to police the truth. Political jockeying aside, an existential threat to our republic is posed when millions of Americans, conditioned to trust every pronouncement and tweet of their Dear Leader, begin to minimize or excuse Russian criminality and even lionize an authoritarian, murderous thug like Putin. (Millennials: Read this book by one of my favorite liberals. The Commies were really, really bad.)

The Grey Lady’s solution? The same thing we’ve heard from much of the media over the past few weeks: Double down on the status quo and hope for the best — “media organizations that report fact without regard for partisanship, and citizens who think for themselves, will need to light the way.” But just as I spent my last two columns urging my fellow progressives to reassess our own words and actions that helped contribute to the current political climate, the media should do the same — and adjust their practices to help lead us out of our current morass.

I’m no journalist (I only sort of play one on this site), but I offer the following recommendations:

Treat Politicians as Human Beings: Each is Flawed, but Few are Monsters

As I elaborated here, Democrats erred by demonizing decent human beings like John McCain and Mitt Romney: When a real wolf knocked on our door, no one believed us. But in a climate where public faith in politics is at historical lows — where Congress is less popular than lice or cockroaches — the hostile back and forth among parties and campaigns cannot be the sole cause: The press shares our dirty hands.

It’s long been a conservative talking point that the mainstream media is hopelessly biased against them. While undeniably there’s some truth to that, political scientists have demonstrated that the more potent and widespread press bias is toward controversy. Since Watergate, generations of aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins have understood that seizing a politician’s scalp is the surest route to a Pulitzer, book deal or TV gig. More recently, in the era of declining newspaper revenues, journalists recognize that they will earn infinitely more clicks with allegations of corruption or personal misbehavior than any in-depth analysis of a complex policy matter.

A Kentucky journalist whom I deeply respect compares good political reporting to proctology. But to extend his metaphor (sorry), proctologists find a lot of stuff that stinks … but is benign. When the press feels its duty is to identify every politician’s fecal flaw — no matter how small or unrelated to the performance of official duties — it poses a real cost on public confidence in our democratic institutions.

To be clear, meaningful investigative journalism that exposes true public malfeasance is essential to our body politic, and I am not even close to proposing that journalists should simply reprint press releases or political rhetoric without careful scrutiny. But when the accepted default position is that every politician’s a liar; when a real one emerges, how could anyone know the difference?

Journalists Make Mistakes Too — Apologize and Learn from Them

In the youthful indiscretion of my 1998 congressional campaign, I butted heads with a young reporter on a small issue whose substance is lost to my middle-age memory. I do clearly remember, however, that the scribe later went out of his way to call me and apologize for getting it wrong. Peter Baniak, now the editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, earned my undying respect. But what’s most remarkable is that in the intervening decade-plus of my political life, that never happened again. And I wasn’t always wrong.

Guess what: Reporters are human, too; they make mistakes. Yet with the exception of industry titans like the New York Times and Washington Post that employ ombudsmen to provide serious self-criticism, apologies are rare; and when offered for mistakes on front-page, headline stories, they often are buried in the fine print on page B-7.

Journalists would be wise to look to their counterparts in the sports world for a model. As college hoops referee John Hampton explained in a 2015 KSR interview, there’s continual self-analysis in his profession. It’s not simply the in-game reviews provided by instant replay: True accountability comes later when game video is scrutinized by league officials. Hampton told me that “beating the tape” is the whistleblower mantra: “We are under such scrutiny and review of the decisions we make and the calls that we don’t make. We’re reviewed and graded by supervisors and conference officials. When they go back and watch the video, especially the controversial plays and the plays late in the game, we’ve got to be good, accurate, right, or we’re not going to keep our jobs.”

I understand that limited staffing due to financial pressures would not permit every local paper to conduct a full proctological audit of every article and every reporter. But meaningful scrutiny must be applied when press coverage influences the outcome of a major contest — the equivalent of Don Denkinger’s blown call reshaping the 1985 World Series, or the Olympic refs’ unblown whistles handing Soviet hoopsters the 1972 gold medal.

Take the 2015 Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary as a test case. Inarguably, newspaper reporting helped determine its outcome. Voters who watched the race closely may never look at media coverage the same way again. Public self-reflection could be invaluable in restoring confidence in journalists as objective arbiters of the truth.

Escape the Bubble

If you want to catch the Kentucky political establishment in its purest form, head to the Capitol Annex basement cafeteria while the General Assembly is in session. At high noon, you are likely to catch legislative leaders, top government appointees, and influential staff patrolling the salad bar. That’s why you’ll also see most of the leading Frankfort beat reporters on hand: There’s no more convenient forum to secure a quip or a quote before deadline.

Unfortunately, the talk of the town too often resembles a different cafeteria, the kind you’d find in any junior high school. Frankfort chatter usually revolves around personal gossip, political rumors and recriminations against rivals. It’s understandable why the press would have a jaundiced view toward our elected leadership. Worse, many of the media’s traditional sources outside of the capital — political consultants, college professors, good-ole-boy hangers-on — tend to parrot what they’ve already read or heard in the news, creating an echo chamber within the bubble that has no reflection on public reality. Any wonder how we missed the Matt Bevin landslide?

When I was in politics and wanted to understand what moved my constituents, I’d hop in my car and head to the McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg for breakfast, or lunch at the late-great Jay’s Cafeteria in Louisville. If my time was tight, I’d call one of the many savvy county judges or sheriffs whose job it was to understand the mood of their communities. Democrats have learned the hard way that placing our full reliance on the polls and the pundits is a fool’s errand. Political reporters can fill that vacuum with their shoe leather. And by doing so, they can take a small step to returning the Fourth Estate to its rightful place as a fundamental pillar of our democracy.

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