Ride the Puddles

A Conversation With Bill Strickland: Part 4: Conflict

Posted by bikezilla on May 3, 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

After Bill gave me permission to email him and he provided the addy, I sent him a long “train of thought” letter, outlining my (and some of your) gripes with his Lance Armstrong coverage, opinions, beliefs, ethics and integrity.

Our exchange really was more like a conversation between two people who are passionate about the same subject, than a Q & A session.

This is a portion of his first response, and it outlines my email to him.

Bill Strickland:

“Here is a simplified collation of your critical opinion of me and my work about Armstrong. (I recognize that also in your critique are some complimentary opinions.

1. “The vast majority of fans” don’t resent my support of Armstrong but my “willing ignorance/naivety.”

2. When it comes to that ignorance, “ ’Feigned’ is a better word than ‘willing.’ ”

3. The average cycling fan figured out that Armstrong likely doped, so, given my closeness to the subject, I “in fact knew beyond any doubt long ago.”

4. So I am not, as I said in that Bicycling story in the May issue, not so much “finally realizing or understanding it, as finally admitting it publicly.”

5. I could not have believed that he didn’t dope, “but it was profitable on several levels to behave, or at least speak,” as if I did.

6. It’s impossible for you (a reader) to believe that I was “incapable of seeing and accepting the fact” that he doped.

7. This lack of acceptance is an “intentional insult to the intelligence of [my] readers.”

8. You (and I suppose that “vast majority of fans”) also resent me for my “presentation of fantasy as fact.”

9. You (the fans you speak for) believe this fantasy was delivered not “out of hopefulness and misplaced trust, but as a deliberate and self-serving ruse.”

10. I “never tried to distinguish the good from the bad,” and I “pushed a single bill of fare and told us that everything on it was equally wonderful.”

11. “Despite the fact that there was plenty of material to balance, you presented an entirely lopsided view.”

12. This time, speaking not just for the vast majority of fans, but, in fact, ALL of them, you tell me that “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t understand that LA was your cash cow, your meal ticket. To go against him was to lose your access. To lose your access is to lose prestige, wealth and power.”

13. One of the things you resent is that I believe you [the readers] “to be empty-headed cattle, stupid, unthinking beasts.”

14. You’re even angrier at me “because rather than say, ‘Yeah, I took the offered silver. On some level I always knew it was wrong. But it was what I felt like I needed to do at the time. I don’t regret it. It’s done now and I’m moving on from it,’ [instead I] keep playing us [readers] for fools.”

15. Readers who think the opposite of what you do — that I have wrongfully accused him of doping, or that I am too hard on him — actually share “the same sentiment,” which is “that something odd has happened and that it hasn’t been explained honestly and unambiguously.”

16. What readers want is a “full, honest, unambiguous disclosure. Not spin. Not taking a statement or a question and flipping it with a ‘yeah but.’ Just open, unvarnished truth.”

I think that’s a deep, passionate response to my writing, but I don’t see the sense of trying to argue you out of your opinions of me, many of which are founded on ideas that don’t exist in my writing. And, given that you think I’m a liar, I don’t see how anything I say to you could be taken as legitimate information, or in the way I intend it. (I am using “you” specifically in these examples but more so as a stand-in for readers here. Please don’t read this as an anti-Tom tirade.). You discard words or ideals in my writing that don’t agree with the point of view you’re committed to. I’m not criticizing you; I’m just pointing out that that’s how you’re reading my stories. And, remember, I think that’s perfectly within your privileges as a reader — you can do whatever you want with the story.”

In fairness, he does mention plainly, both in “Tour de Lance” and in “Endgame” that he doubted through the years, to various degrees, that Lance was clean. He mentions the “mountain of circumstantial evidence”. He gives us a survey of the podium at each of Armstrong’s Tour wins, and shows us how most of those who shared it with him either admitted doping, were suspended for doping, were convicted of it in court, or paid a fine to have doping charges settled. Also that two others were linked to doping investigations then cleared or never charged and just one, Fernando Escartin, had no direct connection with doping.

I (and me speaking uninvitedly for “we”) of course noticed Bill’s multiple admissions of his lack of objectivity and his fandom and support of Lance. Those admissions could be taken as “full disclosure” and a nod to journalistic integrity and ethics.

Instead, I / we take them as evidence to support my / our conclusion.

It’s like he’s waving them (his admissions) in our faces to taunt us. “Ahhhhh, yes, I knew! I knew all along that Lance was a dope sucking cheat! But I will be damned if I admit such to the scabby likes of you!”.

The fact remains that my opinion that Bill lied to us, that he is in fact a liar, makes it tough to present an objective view.

And there is where I want to turn things outward, toward readers (including me).

Let’s look at a few uncomfortable (for me in my assuredness of my own right conclusion) “what ifs”.

Having already asked Lance once, face to face, if he had doped, and being given a solid, “no” as an answer:

What if Bill failed to pursue the truth with further questions because it seemed like a fruitless endeavor? Maybe because, knowing Lance, he knew that future answers would be an assaultive spin against the charges? What if, having acknowledged that he is a Lance Fanboy, his wall of denial didn’t (and in some cases still doesn’t) allow him to believe what to many of us is a glaring set of truths?

Having already acknowledged that his form of journalism (story telling) and his strength is not investigative journalism, and that he lacks the skills to be a true investigative journalist, what if:

He didn’t see the point in investing time and energy in an endeavor that he isn’t suited to?

What if he’s pretty good at note-taking, at hanging around and noticing details and capturing them, and then putting that stuff into nice sounding sentences and paragraphs, and at structuring a story. But he also never wanted or intended to be an investigative reporter?

What if he was put into the position of writing about Lance simply because of proximity and his history with Johan Bruyneel and he honestly did his best with it?

What if true investigative journalism, poring over documents, endless discussions with the guys in legal to find out what he can and can’t source, are a dreary, boring waste of time to him? What if he’s driven instead to be out and experiencing something that would allow him to write a great story regarding that experience? What if he doesn’t have the patience, or the type of patience, to do true investigative journalism?

What if, although I require a plain-spoken, unambiguous answer, he can’t give it to me because it is, or at least he honestly perceives it to be, a messy and thoroughly ambiguous situation?

Those “what ifs” don’t come easy to me. But I have to be open to them. I’m not sure I can be, but I’m trying to be.

After reading our full exchange (which I wish I could share in its entirety with all of you) I was finally able to say, “Mmmmmmmmm . . . well . . .maybe. Maybe it was unreasoning hopefulness, rather than an intentional deceit.”, but really, it’s something that’s hard to make fit. It’s hard to feel the rightness of it, hard to wrap my head around it.

Bill is an intelligent man. Extremely intelligent. He didn’t get where he is and stay there for so long because he’ll believe any pretty story, no matter how inspirational that story may be.

He thinks critically, and he has to. If he didn’t he’d quickly develop a reputation as a chump and not long after that he’d be relegated to writing race reports and straight news stories that don’t require him to do much beyond gathering basic facts. He’d never have had the opportunity to reach his current lofty perch.

That makes it even more difficult to get my head around his “willing ignorance” or “willing hope”.

Bill eventually labels himself as having been an agnostic rather than a believer, not sure what to accept or which way to go.

I can believe his frustration in hearing stories from men who lack the guts and integrity to allow those stories to go on the record. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling my own frustration in HIS unwillingness to prove his claims by exposing them.

At the same time I understand my own hypocrisy in at once accusing Strickland of a lack of journalistic ethics and integrity, and also damning him for maintaining both in order to abide by the wishes of his sources.

Here’s one more thought from Bill:

Bill Strickland:

“I think, further, that because I was unsure of my judgment throughout the years, because I went back and forth in my belief, and because I admit to both liking him and thinking he doped, I might be speaking mostly to and for a large group of fans in the middle who are themselves trying to make sense of it all — who are torn, like I was, between their hope and their acceptance of what happened.

“Or maybe not.”

Now let’s take the “outward turning” one more step.

It’s plain that regardless of my (or your) view regarding Strickland’s relationship with Lance Armstrong, that there are a large number of people with an opposite view. It’s also plain that those people are just as passionate, indignant and angry as I am, and that they also feel betrayed by Bill Strickland.

Those facts keep throwing one thought against the “big screen” of my mind:

If Bill is equally offending, irritating and angering two groups of people who occupy opposite poles of the same argument, is that evidence that he has struck a balance in his writing, and maybe in his evaluation of the truth, that is actually far more fair than the considerable majority of us are willing or able to admit?


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