Bikezilla

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A Conversation With Bill Strickland: Part 3: Cycling Journalism & Cycling Journalists

Posted by bikezilla on May 1, 2011


Part 1, Emma O’Reilly’s Anger at Bill Strickland, Part 2, Part 3, Bill Strickland’s NPR Interview, Part 4, Part 5, Postscript

— On cycling journalism, and about asking and getting answers to difficult questions:

From our conversation:

Bikezilla:

Cycling journalism in general seems to shy away from confrontation with sources and subjects. Possibly the single most frustrating thing I see every day is an obvious question or follow up that’s completely ignored.

For instance with Jonathan Vaughters regarding the Matt White / Trent Lowe situation.

Even in places that Vaughters’ answers seemed shady, or when his version of the details changed, it was simply let go, ignored.

Why don’t cycling’s real journalists ask and dig and probe and search in places and at times when it seems obvious that they should?

Paul Kimmage remarked about how professional cyclists themselves were beginning to open up after LA’s 2005 retirement.

Which means that if the big boys won’t talk, that there are other routes that can be taken to get the same information.

I’ve wondered if you were the guy who lead the others to and down that path. Are they hesitant to risk losing access or sources because they’ve followed your lead? “This is how BS does it. This works for him. He’s at the head of us all. So this is the way we need to do it.”?

Cycling seems to have fans who are more aware of the sport’s politics and periphery than most other sports, so they’re less blind to sugarcoated, soft-pedaled or dumbed-down journalism.

You have a more in tune readership and they require more and better. But they aren’t getting more, they aren’t getting better. They’re getting half-hearted, phoned-in, soft-shoe (sorry, but I’m really loving the hyphens right now) journalism. And it pisses them off.

If there’s a change needed in writer relationships, it isn’t the relationship with fans that needs modifying. It’s the relationship with sources and subjects.

Bill Strickland:

“I think you might be attributing a widespread journalism practice unfairly to cycling writers. It is not just in our sport, but throughout many topics that the subject has learned to control the message.

Celebrity interviews used to be penetrating, and some of the greatest journalism we have. Witness “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” or “Naked Lunchbox.”

Today, the celebrity won’t grant an interview to the magazine unless the topic is approved, a publicist is allowed to come along or at least guide the piece, and, sometimes, if approval over photo use is granted or a cover guaranteed. Some magazines have done wonderful things within these restrictions — Esquire is among the most inventive in how they write within these new requirements. Politicians control the message — press conferences, statements, videos, rehearsed interviews rather than grilling sessions.”

“I had an extended bit about journalists in that Podium interview. I don’t think cycling is doing too bad, really.

“We’re a tiny sport but, if you compare us to the dedicated journalists for, say, football or baseball or track and field, I would say that Walsh or Ballestier or Kimmage equal or at least exceed the investigating/crusading writers you’d find there. We don’t have as many lyrical guys as running does (not track and field, but running), which I find odd, since we spend so much time practicing our sport. Maybe it’s that running is more lonely?”

“In general, our beat writers are what you’d expect from a small sport (or any small subject matter). It’s always the outside investigative writers who come in and blow something wide open, once it gets big enough — reporters who are trained or have a natural affinity for that kind of work.”

“I don’t think you’re quite right about journalists being loathe to ask the tough questions — not the experienced ones, anyway. It certainly is like that when you start, but as you work year after year asking awkward uncomfortable questions, you just get used to it.”

“I think showing up a press conference and asking the question is pointless in terms of substance but useful in terms of theater. You might get a nice scene to write up, but you’re not going to get to the bottom of something like doping at a press conference. What it will finally take is a reporter or investigator who knows how to access an avalanche of public records, private accounts, book-keeping, discovery materials at trials, etc.”

“. . . the job isn’t the glamourous, confrontational interview — the journalistic equivalent of Tom Cruise breaking Jack Nicholson on the stand — “You’re goddamn right I ordered the Code Red!!” — but instead is about hours and hours and hours of poring through documents. Confrontation gets you Kimmage and Armstong trading barbs in California. Investigative journalism, phoning sources over and over for months or years, and plowing through every document you can find, that gets you the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or Sports Illustrated breaking big news. There is a difference, and it might not play as well to the public, but it’s there. The big work is the quiet work that’s going on right now. Asking difficult questions doesn’t get you the authentic answers; uncovering the truth does.”

“I’m not the guy to do that. I don’t have that skill.”

From his Podium Cafe interview:

“Investigative journalism is not the same as cycling journalism – it’s one part of all the different types of reporting and writing that center on cycling, which itself exists not only as a sport but also as a lifestyle and a health/fitness discipline.

It seems to make sense that investigative cycling journalism does suffer from the compromises when writers and riders become close. But I’m not so sure that intimacy affects us so much as the reality that our sport is like many other niche subjects: we just don’t have that many high-level, investigative journalists native to our field.

. . . we certainly do have some investigative journalists who merit respect – the reporting team at L’Equipe . . . David Walsh. Whether you agree with those guys or not, you have to admit they’re doing serious, complex, openly sourced, long-term investigative work.

But the reality is that it’s rare for any highly talented, professional investigative reporter to work for a publication targeted on narrow subject matter . . .

For the most part, the journalists with the ideal skill set and the necessary experience are on bigger beats . . . or are specialists in the investigative process itself rather than a specific subject. Those reporters are materially different than, say, the feature writers, or the opinion piece writers, or the humorists or the play-by-play writers or whatever.

I think that if you’re unhappy that say, John Wilcockson didn’t write his Lance book the way David Walsh did, you’re starting with an incorrect premise. They’re different kinds of journalists, and they set out with different aims. I want to see what both of them have to say, what material each of them unearthed.

. . . I find it hard to say that cycling journalism as a whole is in a compromised state or suffering as an art form. We have some amazing storytellers and reporters. We don’t have the same level of investigative reporters, but I’m not convinced that lack occurs because David Millar is friendly to us.

Being a beat reporter, having to produce cogent copy within hours after race ends, filling a news hole every day – that is tough, grinding, unending work that doesn’t leave much time for an artsy-fartsy perspective. Those guys just have to hit the deadline. It’s so much a matter of survival that in the press room you see guys sharing quotes, helping each other fill in this date or that time, correcting a fact for someone from a rival publication.

I’ve had to do that kind of work, and I’m not great at it. I’m not good at, on the spot, being able to assemble a play-by-play account of a race . . .

I don’t think cycling journalism is very different from any other kind of subject-specific journalism. There are some of us who are better reporters than writers, and some who rely on their writing ability, fewer who put both skills together, and a good number who aren’t very good at either but know how to hit deadlines – never to be underestimated in this business – and thus find steady employment, and a bunch of in-and-outers who just aren’t suited for the whole thing.

I love the whole array of cycling bloggers, not just the ones I personally like to read but also just the fact of the existence of all the strident viewpoints and the peeks into the subcultures and strange-to-me ways of expressing an identity as a cyclist.”

I’m certain that he meant to say, “Especially Bikezilla”, there.

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