Compromising Positions, or Musings on Media

We used to love to read the balanced reporting that Brooklyn Backstretch
Blogposted…. but then a NYRA press pass was issued and nary a critical word
about NY racing has been posted since…We have dropped that blog ad (sic) taken
up with Left at the Gate.

This comment was posted several months ago at the excellent Pull the Pocket, where harness racing, Thoroughbreds, and media are covered with equal insight and perspicuity. It certainly gave me pause—was it true? Did a press pass mean that I had begun to look at New York racing with a softer eye?

My first instinct was no—in the first place, with a few exceptions, the writing here has focused mostly on the positives in racing (not as in “positive” drug tests). But the comment led me to think about the various ways in which writing is influenced by connections, and what sorts of disclosure/responsibility is warranted.

I’ve been an Anna House volunteer for several years, and I’ve recently been appointed to its board. Other board members and major donors are significant figures in racing on whom, on occasion, I have turned a critical eye. I am now less likely to do that, as my commitment to the success of the Belmont Child Care is more important than my voicing an opinion on someone affiliated with it, and the decision to become part of an organization sometimes means willingly relinquishing the right to criticize it or its members.

A number of bloggers have, in the last few months, been offered use of a past performance database in exchange for a link and attribution each time information from that database is used. It’s a freebie, I like it, and I take advantage of it to research horses and trainers about whom I write. Is that compromising?

We are sometimes sent review copies of books, in the hope of a little free advertising in the form of a review. Sometimes, I get books written by people I know. I like getting the books and I usually like the authors–does that mean that I won’t say anything negative about the book? Probably not. But I am definitely more careful about how I phrase my criticism, because I’ve got to talk to the people I’m criticizing–and maybe that’s a good thing, that opinion becomes more considered, more careful?

I have occasionally been offered seats and meals at tracks I’ve visited and about which I’ve written. Do such offers influence my view of the place? I’d like to think not, but it would be hard to argue otherwise.

Nearly all of these items would, I think, in the world of journalism, represent compromised integrity: being the recipient of free stuff makes one beholden to the giver, and thus integrity is out the window. How can one write objectively about people or organizations from which one gets gifts?

Or revenue? How should accepting advertising from various racing entities affect coverage? One might say it shouldn’t…but it’s hard to believe that being critical of an advertiser would result in renewal of the advertising, one of the few sources of revenue for a self-published writer.

So—should unaffiliated writers, bloggers, internet reporters be held to that standard? Should we politely decline such offers? Should we disclose the gifts when we write about them? Or should we just say, “Yippee! Woo-hoo! Free stuff! Bring it on! Thanks a LOT!” Blogging does indeed have its privileges, and lack of responsibility/accountability is one of them (whereas, for instance, getting paid is not).

As for my critical stance, or lack thereof, with NYRA: It is, I suppose, entirely possible that my attitude changed once I started heading to the races every week with a media pass. But I think that that’s less about a sense of obligation, and more about a sense of responsibility. When I realized that it was quite likely that I would be weekly looking in the eye the people that I was writing about, I knew that I would need to feel comfortable saying whatever I write to somebody’s face, with facts to back up what I thought. I think that I became more measured, and more likely to ask questions about an issue, attempting to be more informed about it, before writing about it,

And that, my friends, is the end of this edition of Brooklyn Backstretch navel-gazing. Tomorrow: a look at some of those free books I’ve been reading.

13 thoughts on “Compromising Positions, or Musings on Media

  1. How are the writers for the Times, Daily News, Post, etc. treated by the NYRA and/or individual tracks? Do they get free admission, access to the barns, food and other amenities? And if so, how would you say it has influenced their writing, if at all? Not being from the area, I can't answer this myself.

  2. You can't please everyone. If readers want you to take your access and tear the NY racing community apart looking for scanadal then they're reading the wrong blog.Your only duty is to write responsibly, accurately and honestly. (And also to make hunch bets for your cats!)

  3. It’s commendable that the above comment worries you, and that you take the time to question your objectivity as you did. Let me share my thoughts, not because I think I know better, but to share my experience.My racing blog of course isn’t in danger of being compromised by any of the abovementioned perks, but I did write the game analysis/ current affairs articles for the stadium journal of my favorite football club for several years (Dresdner SC, who slipped from de-facto professional to all-amateur over that period). The journal was fan-run and offered all the freedom of a blog, but it was read by basically everyone connected to the club, and thus wielded more influence on the opinion of the fans than the club’s website. It certainly isn’t the best of feelings to meet the club manager at the season opener, about five minutes after he first read your article accusing him of severely weakening the team through a combination of inactivity and by driving away several key players just because of personal animosities. Or to be screamed at by the captain after you mentioned that he should spend a little more time thinking about his own on-field performance lately rather than throwing a young defender under the bus for an error. There are three ways a thing like this can play out: the person you attacked could counter with a good response or make you aware of a factor you didn’t know about (luckily something that has never happened to me in Soccer, but one should be prepared to apologize); the accused could give you some credit and try to do better in the future (seldom, but all the sweeter if it happens) or they may decide to just be mad and never speek a word with you again. As long as they can’t defend themselves against the accusation, that’s an unpleasant side-effect every public commentator has to deal with.I realize it’s hard to fundamentally criticize someone’s actions when you have to see this person next Saturday, and even more to criticize people you even like on a personal level, but whose actions nevertheless compromise the success of the club. Of course, if you have enough access you should try to address problems in person first. If you don’t have that access, or if the problem doesn’t get solved this way, my experience is that you absolutely should bring it up publicly. In the end, the thing you have to realize is that one of your relationships is likely to suffer either way. By bringing it up you risk losing credit with the person you criticize. By avoiding the topic, over time you will definitely lose the respect of your readership (and yourself). The only important thing is that you can feel comfortable standing by your decision.Two extra thoughts (in case you got so far): a) no problem with doing it per se, but if you review a book you have been sent for free or make comments about your impressions of a racetrack which offered you special gifts, it should be mentioned prominently up front.b) your blog really is extremely uncritical (I mean, writing an Aqueduct season review without even mentioning that the number of breakdowns was record-shattering, let alone Campo’s incredibly stupid comments about the issue, come on!)

  4. There's a difference between critical writing and constantly criticizing everything just to make a point. I enjoy your blog, it's entertaining, it's informative and on occassion, has offered a critical view of different aspects of racing. I don't want or expect you to be constantly bashing every aspect of horse racing. There's enough of that going on elsewhere.Keep up the good work!

  5. It's your blog, do whatever you want to. Your most valuable readers, the ones who read every post, will probably know when your pimping for the sake of pimping, though.When I worked in free form radio where I had the luxury of producing and dj'ing the whole show, I got all the freebies in a similar way – bands send an endless stream of cd's, free concert tickets, inside dope, etc. After years out of that world, I still get freebies.How I dealt with this conundrum:I always asked myself if I would pimp this without the freebie attached. It had to be something I believed in. Really believed in.Ignored things that were bad. Don't mention or play it at all. Ever. That usually takes out 98% of the free stuff right there. You still get to enjoy the free stuff though!Call out to your audience the persistent freebie annointers who have the balls to ask for something back. Your audience will find it interesting and the annoying a-holes who keep asking you about the free stuff they gave you will not. 2 birds, 1 stone.It's always better to tell the truth about why your pimping something. Often it's much more interesting to your audience because of this inclusiveness. I found it to be a lot less work, freeing even, in the long run.I will say this about the racing blogs….I have found, as a long time voracious reader of all the racing blogs, that some blogs shift dramatically in tone over time, especially within the last year or so. It's a dead giveaway. I can't say I'm a big fan of non-disclosure and spending hard-earned blog capital just to pimp freebies. After all, most individual bloggers start blogging because of a passion for the subject without any intent on turning it into some material gain (IMHO, the best ones usually start with this premise).I personally think the best racing blogging/message board fodder going down today are from those totally off the grid, sort of speak. I have always found the lone dude in the grandstand way more insightful, interesting and objective. It's sad to see that the shiftiness inside racing in general is leaking into the racing blogs. But that's just me.

  6. I'm looking forward to reading your book reports soon. Father's Day is around the corner and my daughters often treat me to a horseracing book at this time of year. In the meantime I saw this today in Folio magazine, and thought you might enjoy seeing this point of view….NEW YORK—When Syracuse University’s Newhouse School announced that it would be giving a lifetime achievement award at the Mirror Awards to Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, for her contribution as a journalist to the profession of media, there was immediate criticism. Huffington, after all, has been widely criticized for not paying bloggers. Via Romenesko: Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications should know better than to honor a woman—Arianna Huffington—who thinks journalists should work for free, writes Simon Dumenco. It's one thing for a j-school to draw attention to itself by creating a self-referential journalism-about-journalism award, he says, referring to the Mirror Awards. "But it's quite another thing to give recognition to people who damage the very profession of journalism."Yesterday at a luncheon packed with an impressive list of journalists (most of whom, presumably, are paid), Huffington fired back, answering her critics and offering some criticism of her own—aimed at the newspaper industry.“We pay journalists, we pay our editors, we pay our reporters,” Huffington said. “Most of our bloggers, they come and go.” Bloggers, she said, often “have other jobs.”Huffington’s distinction between “journalists” and “bloggers”—in the case of HuffPo, often celebrities and personal friends of Arianna—while odd, made sense.

  7. I think the blogging media is constantly changing, as it life in general. I think we now have 3 forms of writing: 1.Newspaper/trade magazines paid writers 2. Bloggers with no ads/no freebies/no perksand no pressure to write anything and 3. "Semi-Pro" Bloggers-enough ads and perks to put them in the gray area between blogger and paid media member.I think all 3 forms have something to add to the subject they are writing about.

  8. BB – I was struck by this well-written passage toward the end of your post. "It is, I suppose, entirely possible that my attitude changed once I started heading to the races every week with a media pass. But I think that that’s less about a sense of obligation, and more about a sense of responsibility. When I realized that it was quite likely that I would be weekly looking in the eye the people that I was writing about, I knew that I would need to feel comfortable saying whatever I write to somebody’s face, with facts to back up what I thought. I think that I became more measured, and more likely to ask questions about an issue, attempting to be more informed about it, before writing about it." It's a little bit different, but if you want some perspective do a Google on Whelan/Publius and read a bit about that blogosphere controversy. To me, that controversy and your commentary both speak to one of the major issues I see with the greatest communication advance in our times – the internet. The anonymity factor have allowed too many people to post unchallenged, unverified, indefensible commentary which, I strongly believe, they would be loathe to do if required to identify themselves. I think your thought is spot on and admirable. Keep up the great work. Bill Duncliffe (no anonymity here!)

  9. Rich: those with credentials generally get free admission, access to barns, and lunch in the press box. I've never seen any indication that those things influence coverage. TDH: And on that last obligation, I have fallen down horribly in the last few weeks, costing them at least two winners. They are NOT happy. Malcer: If this is the post to which you are referring, it's not a season review, but a recollection of my memories of the meet (which I stated within the post). I write about breakdowns fairly regularly; I don't attempt to determine cause, as I don't know nearly enough about the details of the breakdowns or what might have caused them. Nor did I speak with Mr. Campo about any remarks he might have made.Thanks, Linda and Jim B. O_Crunk: excellent advice; thank you. BSaint: Thanks, Arianna. Does this mean that I can look forward to more people asking me to write for free? SSpa: Agreed. As always, folks, thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  10. I do hear what your saying. We actually had to have training about this in the new PC world-Try being A Cop-Everywhee you go you are treated fake & some want to give you the world-Next time your in a coffee place or a Diner And a cop is there-Watch closely.See if they are pying full price or just leavin a tip. Lord I miss those days.I hear you Honestly I do.p

  11. Bill: Thanks for pointing that out, and I agree with you about the anonymity factor–both in content and in comments on website. I did a quick search of the issue to which you referred, and will look at it extensively this weekend. Thanks!

  12. Teresa,Your post is excellent for the points it brings up, and candid in its honesty. When I was at DRF, I was fortunate to have a publisher — Jack Farnsworth — who didn't allow external matters (advertising, industry organizations, breeding farms, racetracks, etc.) to affect what I wrote. But, as you intimated, it's easy for a writer's perspective to be affected by the all-pervasiveness of an organization or entity.You're right that as a blogger the rules are different, but ultimately your readership — whether as a journalist, publication, or blogger — is what judges you, and your reputation is built on that.

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