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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


March 2, 2006

The New Cyberspace Media

Tony Soltero

About a quarter-century ago, back in the pre-Internet dark ages, a bright young Kansan named Bill James, a hardcore baseball fan, began taking a closer look at the sport's conventional wisdom. He began to design all kinds of little studies, questioning many of baseball's old-school assumptions.

At the time "everybody knew" that pitchers, not catchers, were the active ingredient behind opposition stolen bases – in essence, that Elrod Hendricks was just an innocent bystander if Jim Palmer kicked up his leg and allowed Rickey Henderson to coast into second undisturbed.

Mr. James was a natural skeptic, and he noticed that this conventional wisdom didn't seem to be based on any actual evidence. So he thought he would contribute to the discussion by looking at a few hard statistics.

He scoured old box scores and counted the stolen bases in each game, noting the pitchers and catchers involved. And he came to an eminently reasonable conclusion – that both pitchers and catchers have an impact on opposition stolen bases. It was much harder to steal on Tippy Martinez than it was to steal on Jim Palmer, for sure – but it was also much harder to run on Rick Dempsey than it was to run on the then-sore-armed Carlton Fisk. And the spread appeared to be wider among the catchers.

Excited by this finding, Mr. James wrote an article detailing his methods and conclusions, and offered it to several baseball publications that had earlier featured his more conventional work. And...nothing.

Nobody wanted to publish such an original, groundbreaking study. He was actually told by one magazine that "the audience would not accept it."

Undaunted, Mr. James kept on with his then-unorthodox approach to baseball analysis. He checked whether it was really true that Nolan Ryan put more fans in the stands (he didn't), or whether Ozzie Smith really was as great a shortstop as he looked (he was), or whether Yankee Stadium favored hitters or pitchers (pitchers). And every time he offered these creative pieces to a publisher, he'd hit the same brick wall, over and over.

He didn't get it. He was reporting facts: with evidence. The conventional baseball media was regurgitating clichιs, and here he was examining them, sometimes confirming, often debunking. How could this not be appealing to an audience?

So Mr. James said to heck with it; I'm going to bundle up all these studies and publish them myself, and sell them directly to the public, damn the gatekeepers. And thus his annual Baseball Abstracts were born.

Within a few years, he was on the best-seller list, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of his iconoclastic little yearbook. It helped immensely that Mr. James was (and is) a delightful writer, with the ability to make even the driest subjects come to life. He discontinued the Abstract after 1988, but he has remained on the scene, writing other books.

And more importantly, his challenges to conventional wisdom have had a significant impact in the way the game is now viewed by the media, many fans, and more than a few front offices.

Bill James, when he was first getting established, was an "outsider." And many baseball "insiders" resented and resisted him; he kept nagging the baseball establishment with studies and findings that challenged the way they thought and did things; and the powers-that-be's responses, most of the time, were to attack and dismiss him. As he wrote once: "If I'm going to play Galileo, someone's going to have to play the Pope." But to paraphrase Gandhi, they ignored him, laughed at him, fought him, and then he won.

So why all this about Bill James?

Well, apart from my desire to give a shout to my favorite baseball writer, I just wanted to say that we're now going through a very similar process in political commentary and reporting. The Bill James role in this particular movie is filled by the political blogosphere – especially the Democratic blogosphere, which is grassroots-oriented (most Republican blogs are top-down) – raising its head to challenge the traditional media. And predictably, the traditional media is getting all snippy and defensive over these perceived "threats" to its rapidly-fading information hegemony.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of talented, insightful writers and commentators in the blogosphere that are at least as good, if not better, than the "established" punditocracy. And their approach has been not to reiterate tired DC-beltway-cocktail-party conventional wisdom, but to challenge it from the outside and offer a fresh perspective.

The commercial media, of course, hates this, because they're accustomed to enjoying an exclusive right to be opinion-makers.

Who are these impertinent bloggers, reporting on what our elected leaders do, as opposed to what they say?

Who do these bloggers think they are, juxtaposing self-contradictory Rick Santorum quotes that show his craven duplicity?

How could these unwashed bloggers perform such rude acts as digging up the actual text of a law for the reader to evaluate himself, instead of letting us spin it?

Why are these icky bloggers reporting so much on this obscure Texas congressman who claims to be a Democrat but votes Republican and kisses up to President Bush?

Why are they talking so much about this Andrew Duck guy – after all, everybody loves Roscoe, and it's not nice to bring up the Moonie banquet or his hypocritical energy votes. No fair! That Band of Brothers event in DC – we, the Mighty Media, decided to ignore it, and why can't those damn bloggers understand that?

The blogosphere wouldn't be emerging with such force if the traditional media were doing its job. But it isn't.

During the run-up to the Iraq intervention, the blogs were virtually the only place one could find thorough, well-thought-out arguments against the war; the commercial media was too wrapped up in blind war fever, even if it meant chronically deceptive reporting.

Our traditional media almost never questions anything anymore; pronouncements from the White House get treated and regurgitated with a credibility the administration's track record does not remotely warrant. The sheer irony of a White House, that regards Quaker peace groups as security threats, handing the keys to our ports to a brutally repressive Middle Eastern regime sails over the heads of most of the cable news screamers.

It was a blogger, John Aravosis, who found that he could easily purchase the cell-phone records of Gen. Wesley Clark and brought public attention to this blatant compromise of privacy by phone companies.

It's been bloggers who have spotlighted the far-right voting record of Sen. John McCain (R., AZ) – a record which does not jibe with the traditional media's (dishonest) presentation of him as an alleged "maverick." And op-ed pieces in the blogosphere routinely enter waters where the traditional media dares not dip its toes.

A relative blogosphere newcomer named Glenn Greenwald recently published a devastating commentary eviscerating the narrow-mindedness and cultic behavior of George W. Bush's following; better yet, the hysterical right-wing responses to his article wound up confirming his thesis, a point he cheerfully emphasized in his followup.

This kind of talent, shut out of most traditional news outlets, is now going directly to its audience – just like Bill James did – and finding an abundant number of Americans starved for real, hard-hitting political analysis.

It took the Catholic Church nearly four hundred years to formally acknowledge that Galileo was right – but scientific knowledge and inquiry progressed just fine without having to wait for the church's concession.

The blogosphere is swarming with little Galileos all around – and they will make an ever-increasing impact, whatever the increasingly shrill pronouncements to the contrary of the traditional media. And the result could not bode better for the revival of our troubled democracy, whose continued existence depends upon the free flow and exchange of information.

Oh, and Bill James, that original "outsider" the baseball establishment kept resisting? He's now a consultant for the Boston Red Sox.



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