It isn’t exactly ground-breaking to say that journalism as we know it is dead. After all, people ask, what kind of world are we living in when Newsweek can be purchased for $1 and a blogger like Perez Hilton can become rich and famous when he is best known for posting pictures of celebrities with penises drawn onto their faces? And nowhere is the new world of sports journalism more evident than the battle royale between Pete Thamel of The New York Times and Matt Jones of “Kentucky Sports Radio” over the Times’ coverage of Kentucky basketball and coach John Calipari. – Jim Weber
Before I get into the specifics of Thamel vs. Jones, I’d like to elaborate on the current state of the media because I think it’s pertinent background information.
The news outlet that best illustrates the current landscape of journalism is Gawker. If you’re not that familiar with it, Gawker is the widely popular gossip website that was launched in 2003 and was the precursor for sites like Perez Hilton and TMZ. While Gawker has become wildly popular, it’s also been embroiled in plenty of controversies over its ethics.
Three examples include the “Gawker Stalker” map widely criticized for invading the privacy of celebrities, outing Silicon Valley businessman Peter Thiel and most recently posting an article written by someone who claimed to have nearly slept with Christine O’Donnell and provided salacious details and photographs of their night together.
Despite all this, Gawker is proof that all press is good press – especially when you’re in the media. Gawker receives around seven million unique visitors a month – roughly the same size as the New York Post‘s website.
Gawker also owns many other sites, one of which is the sports gossip site Deadspin. I confess that I read the site daily and often found their content hilarious. But like Gawker, critics have blasted Deadspin and editor A.J. Daulerio for stepping far over the line of taste, especially recently.
In the past two years, the site broke news on the Peeping Tom recording of ESPN analyst Erin Andrews in her hotel room, posted rumors about affairs among ESPN staffers, ran a picture of a drunken college girl having sex in a Bloomington, IN, bathroom and – most famously – ran Brett Favre’s voice mails and pictures that he is accused of sending to Jenn Sterger – which they paid $12,000 to obtain.
Why do I bring this up?
Because in the world of journalism, it’s all about unique visitors and page views — no matter how you get them. So if you clicked on the Favre story because you just wanted to see how poor the reporting was, Denton was laughing all the way to the bank. With almost nobody charging for online content, everyone from The New York Times to Deadspin gets paid based on the number of page views they serve to their advertiser (the Times is about to start charging for content in the near future).
And the Favre story was big business for Deadspin. In October, the site received nearly six million unique visitors because of Favre. The site normally received about a million uniques a month beforehand. It now receives nearly two million uniques a month.
And with print versions of newspapers dying a slow and painful death, not even the Times has been exempt from layoffs. In 2009, the Gray Lady laid off 100 people. And they’ve certainly taken note about the amount of traffic to their website that can be generated from scandal. So it shouldn’t have been that big a shock when the Times decided to publish the controversial Wikileaks cables that rocked the U.S. Government last November and had critics howling that the Times was turning into TMZ.
And that’s where Pete Thamel comes in.
Scandals draw page views and thorough investigative journalism is a huge advantage newspapers still have over the blogosphere. And no one has dropped more bombs on the college basketball world in the last two years than the Times’ Thamel.
In February of 2009, Thamel wrote a story portraying the Binghamton basketball program and head coach Kevin Broadus in an extremely unflattering light and implied that the school essentially sold its soul for success on the hardwood. The story was a complete embarrassment for the program and university and after several players were arrested the following fall, Broadus was axed just months after Thamel’s story despite a trip to the NCAA Tournament that March.
Last year it was a story on Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez co-written by Thamel that raised a ton of eyebrows in basketball circles, as Gonzalez was painted as a toxic figure. Followed by several off-the-court embarrassments, Gonzalez was fired a little over a week after the story was published.
Until that point, Thamel had been widely praised for his investigative work. The fact that both schools fired their coaches and neither Broadus or Gonzalez has found work in college hoops since then (Gonzalez was even arrested in July for stealing a “man purse”) has only served to further legitimize Thamel’s work. He appeared on the fast track to becoming an investigative reporter for ESPN or Sports Illustrated.
That’s when Thamel turned his attention to a giant whale of the college basketball world: Kentucky head coach John Calipari. Not only was Coach Cal one of the most successful coaches in the game with arguably the best job in the country, many believe he has a closet full of skeletons. After all, this is the coach whose two Final Four appearances have been vacated, has been accused by fellow coaches about being a dirty recruiter for years and is in bed with basketball power broker William Wesley and NBA star LeBron James.
Thamel dropped his first bomb on Kentucky basketball last May, co-writing a piece before the NBA Draft about how Eric Bledsoe’s transcript might have been fixed to keep him eligible in high school and implied that Kentucky might have engaged in illegal payments to land Bledsoe in Lexington. [Update: It should be noted that the Bledsoe story was originally reported by The Birmingham News]
Kentucky fans who had been rocked by a pay-for-play scandal that crushed the program under Eddie Sutton in the 1980s were hysterical, fearing the NCAA would vacate Kentucky’s Elite Eight season because Bledsoe should not have been eligible to play last season.
Although the situation was fishy, the NCAA did not hand down any punishment. In the end, Kentucky fans were left smirking that such a big uproar was caused over a high school transcript in what they felt was a witch hunt to bring down Kentucky.
But that paled in comparison to Thamel’s coverage of this year’s freshman phenom Enes Kanter. Thamel has written about the Turkish native several times since last fall, with his biggest bombshell coming in September when he reported from Istanbul that Kanter received over $100,000 in cash and benefits from his pro team there with direct quotes from the team’s general manager.
Enter Matt Jones.
The founder of the wildly popular and successful Kentucky fan site “Kentucky Sports Radio” that he parlayed that into a job with CBSSports.com, Jones essentially acted the part of an ombudsman and did an excellent job of pointing out an inaccurate quote, misleading information and questionable due diligence on Thamel’s part.
With Kanter eventually being ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA, Thamel has now replaced “Louisville lover” Pat Forde as the most hated journalist in the Commonwealth.
Since then, Jones has acted like, well, a sports radio talk show host. Between referring to Thamel as “Thameltoe,” having CBSSports.com columnist Gregg Doyel on his radio show to personally rip Thamel and even calling Thamel’s cell phone on the air to try and have a word with him, it’s been a bit tawdry to say the least.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in site. The New York Times ombudsman has never mentioned Thamel’s work or condemned him for what appears to be a clear agenda. So you can bet Thamel’s still digging for dirt on Calipari that could one day lead to his ouster just like Broadus and Gonzalez – likely by trying to prove that Calipari was aware and/or a part of the infractions at UMass and Memphis that led to each vacating their Final Four appearances.
Heck, after Calipari got in hot water for cursing out freshman Terrence Jones last week on national TV, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Thamel is currently tracking down former Calipari players to find a pattern of him mistreating players.
And you can bet Jones will be trashing Thamel the entire time to the delight of Kentucky fans everywhere.
Sadly, driven by the quest for page views and the venom that now permeates the blogosphere, this whole situation has deteriorated into something that mirrors TV news these days, where alleged “fair and balanced” journalists like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly report information with a blatant agenda while others like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann spend their time lobbing grenades across the airwaves to attack their counterparts’ reporting as both soak up ratings (well, not anymore for Olbermann since his show was just canceled…).
I sure hope this isn’t what is to become of sports journalism, but I’m afraid it already has.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.