“Curmudgeon”: Why does it have to be a bad word? A look at Buzz Bissinger and Chris Weingarten
The term “curmudgeon” is one of the most misunderstood appliqués in modern society. A look at thesaurus.com’s synonyms for curmudgeon results in “bellyacher, crab, crank, crosspatch (crosspatch?), faultfinder, griper, growler, grumbler, grump, killjoy, moaner, sorehead, sulker, whiner”. One listing adds the fully-loaded “misanthrope” to the list of negatively-connoted words. Sadly, this popular perception of the term completely omits another, far more positive connotation of curmudgeon – as in a contrarian with the guts to challenge societal direction. Not to sound like a reactionary, but our culture is well served by those who are willing to examine the rapid pace of technology, and ask “Are we truly aware of the consequences that await from our skydive into an internet-based world?”
While one could likely find a sizable figure of such individuals, there are three that have emerged as the Joe “Ducky” Medwick of this Gas-House Gang – Buzz Bissinger, Chris Weingarten, and a third being preserved for next week.
For those with any interest in the world of sports blogs, the Yalta Conference of past vs future occurred on April 30, 2008. Bob Costas, the venerable play-by-play man, talk show host, and Ludacris fan, sought to provide a forum for a discussion of the value of internet-based sportswriting. The resulting discussion between Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin, and Buzz Bissinger, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of Friday Night Lights, became legendary due to Bissinger dropping the hammer on what he perceived as the web’s emphasis of tawdry ephemera over actual analysis of the games themselves. A snippet of the conversation:
Costas (to Leitch): To my surprise, I find you palatable in person. Even likable.
Leitch: Thank you, thank you very -
Bissinger (interjecting): And taller in person…and I’m gonna interject because I feel very strongly about this…I think you’re full of shit!
Leitch: Well, that’s fair enough.
Bissinger: Because I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they’re dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they’re dedicated to speed, I am over 50…do you know who WC Heinz is?
Leitch: Yeah, I’ve read The Professional…
Bissinger (cutting off Leitch): You’ve read The Professional, now tell me, have you read his sports columns in the newspapers?
Bissinger (cutting off Leitch): Now tell me, who has a better ability to evoke a game…and a moment…one of the greatest writers ever living, until he recently died, WC Heinz, or this guy, whose printed in your thing, called “Deadspin”…and it’s amazing to me, that you say “sports news without access, favor or discretion when you admit to being biased for the Cardinals. I can’t tell this guy’s name…Is this guy’s name… ‘BALLS DEEP’? Or Big…daddy…Drew…Balls?
Leitch: Big Daddy Drew
Bissinger: So ‘Balls Deep’, I will read a little bit. Here’s insight in blogging, because it really pisses the shit outta me. Which is in your publication ‘Deadspin’…
Leitch: (trying to respond, but really, good luck with that!)
Bissinger: …Let me finish! “He didn’t need to see, listen to me, he didn’t need to see Rich Garces’ tits in order to glean insight in how he pitches, then in parentheses – this is so fcuking clever – ‘though I’ve heard Rich Garces’ tits are amazing.’
The discussion continues, and Leitch offers some solid defenses of his trade, but lost within the bluster, which received the lion’s share of internet coverage, was a salient point by Bissinger. There are consequences to the millennials choice to receive their sports (if not all) news from the wild kingdom of the web, rather than the more stoic yet fact-centered world of newspapers. Bissinger (and Costas) are frustrated by a web landscape where sordid tales of a top draft pick’s carousing are more popular than a detailed examination of the statistics of the latest candidates for the Baseball Hall of Fame (and so am I). Echoing a theme from season five of The Wire, Bissinger warns us of what our society would lose if newspapers were to disappear from our daily routines, and embraces his responsibility to (as The National – the band, not the former sports daily – said in their masterful 2005 tune “Karen”, to “protect the nest – protect the title”.
During an appearance on The BS Report, host Bill Simmons sarcastically asked Bissinger where he ranked within the sports curmudgeon top five, which Bissinger replied, “Maybe number two or three”.
However, it is easy to forget that our culture no longer approaches professional athletes as unimpeachable gods, but as regular people, who just happen to possess extraordinary skills. (I am curious to see what Bissinger and Costas feel about Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which peeled back the curtain to reveal that baseball players were – get this – not the avatars of virtue depicted in cinematic works like The Babe Ruth Story). Bissinger and Deadspin have made peace with one another, to a point where Drew Magary, Big Deep Daddy Drew Balls himself, interviewed Bissinger on their “Deadcast”, and they shared several laughs. While there is definitely room for Ball Four-style realism, I strongly hope that newspapers, and sports sections, survive and thrive in the generation of our grandchildren, and Bissinger (and Michael Wilbon and Dan LeBatard) are doing what they can to assure such an outcome.
In addition to democratizing the communication of one’s opinions of sports, the internet has also reduced the barriers for entry for aspiring cultural critics. We no longer have to wait for the latest entry from Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, SPIN’s Bonz Malone, or a syndicated version of the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau to inform us about the quality of new records, nor do we have to hop in the car or bum a ride to the nearest record store (although you can’t download vinyl). In early 2009, feeling the need for some new music, I checked Maura Johnston’s reglar post on the sorely-missed Idolator.com. Within five minutes, I completed reading her review (in addition to scanning a few others) and downloaded several tracks of a band named The Joy Formidable (their debut release, A Balloon Called Moaning, is awesome). Unfortunately, the most commonly-found music criticism online falls far short of what we get from Johnston, Jess Harvell, the majority of Pitchfork’s staff, and our proud proprietors at The Brown Tweed Society. At the risk of channeling my inner elitist, I want to know the credentials of the writers that seek to guide my consumption. When I read a Jay St. Orts article about The Creation, I know that he carries a reverence for music of that period that is unparalleled, and has heard almost every album of note from the era. If he finds an album to be transcendent, then it must really be something to behold. Contrast this archetype to what critic Chris Weingarten cites as the AOL Spinner Fiasco, where Spinner, America Online’s music-focused site, decided to eschew professional music critics to basically crowdsource their coverage of the 2009 South by Southwest music festival. Weingarden, just like Bissinger, speaks longingly for a not-so-distant past where the cultural significance of creative content was based more upon depth of reporting and attention to detail than immediacy and salaciousness. At the Twitter 140 Characters Festival, he spoke about the “ugliest, most insidious fcuking ebola virus devouring music writing from the inside”:
Let’s talk about “firsties”…”FIRSTIES!” YAY! The race to be first…
If something awesome happens at a show, like, say Jay-Z brings Beyonce on stage, and I’m there to see it, I could take the time to file one my most lucid, evocative pieces about the event, and get my photographer to shoot a gorgeous artful photo. But the most clicks for the story are going to go to whomever got it up the fastest. Insight and artistry are no longer an end goal, they are afterthoughts. The twitter accounts of rock magazines and blogs are full of spitballs of non-news, all hoping to be the submeme that gets circulated.
Then there’s the AOL Spinner fiasco, where Spinner interviewed all 2000 bands at South By Southwest. Since it would be costly to get actual music writers to do that, they paid a bunch of eager college kids 50 bones each. So the kids were blowing their deadlines, and the copy that did arrive was a total clusterfcuk. My friend, who helped edit these interviews, said “These were presumable college kids, but my thought was ‘Did they even go through 9th grade English?’”
While the stuff that made it to the site was total amateur hour, the kicker is that AOL won. They covered 2000 bands, and I can’t Google any of them without one of those Q&As coming up.
While I would not begrudge an aspiring music writer for wanting to take part in a chance to gain experience in a national music forum, his point still stands. Take a minute to think about your favorite pieces of writing – the books that made you excited to get home from work, so you could experience those characters again? Or the online articles that informed, or enraged, or brought barrelfuls of laughter to an otrherwisw dreary day? Now imagine a world where the creation of such works is required to prioritize the placement of key-words to avoid being buried under a torrent of crap with far less meticulousness, or attention to facts, or evocative storytelling? How will we reconcile our desire to create good writing with the necessary evil of search engine optimization? Weingarden curmudgeonly asks “Do the words matter if the main criteria for success is how often you say a key word and how loudly you shout it?” I will admit to intentionally misspelling names and tags because it actually increases the number of potential readers. As Lou Barlow would say, “I crap you negative”.
I know this sounds like a cop-out, but I do love that the web has democratized the world of writing, and offered a platform to anyone with an opinion, increasing the overall number of perspectives. But Bissinger and Weingarten are right when they ask if this fire-hose of opinion has produced a system that soaks high-quality content with a blast of rapid-fire emptiness.