If You Want To Know What’s Wrong With The Country, Look No Further than “Ballghazi”

♦ King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia just died. Because he was relatively friendly toward the United States, he was often a big help to us. And he was one of the most influential figures in Middle East politics, including the politics surrounding the global oil market.

♦ The president of Yemen, one of this country’s most important partners in trying to curb Islamist terrorism, just resigned, along with his cabinet, as Iranian-backed Shiite rebels took over the capital, including the presidential palace, and are setting the stage for a civil war.

♦ John Boehner, giving the finger to the President of the United States, secretly invited Israeli Prime Minister Benejamin Netanyahu to address Congress so that Netanyahu, who is facing an election at home, can also give the President the finger over Obama’s wise attempts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, rather than go to war.

♦ The deadline has passed for the payment of ransom money to ISIL, who has threatened to kill two more hostages, this time Japanese hostages.

♦ The U.S. and Iraq are making plans to retake Mosul this summer, in an effort to push back ISIL forces, who now control the second largest city in Iraq.

Those and other important stories are, if you look hard enough, in the news today. But if you watch TV news, both broadcast and cable, mostly what you have seen the last few days is incompetent, irresponsible coverage of one of the stupidest stories in the history of journalism, something that is now being called “Ballghazi,” the flap over how much air was in a football in an NFL playoff game last Sunday.

It has been a sad week for journalism, and not just the kind of irresponsible journalism that is often found in sports reporting. The disease has spread to the mainstream news outlets, who aren’t supposed to be accusing people of lying without any evidence or wasting valuable time reporting on stories that are more properly fit for cheap gossip magazines or websites. It’s as if Jerry Springer, using some kind of mind control, took over the brains of all the news executives and producers on all the television networks and cable shows. I guess covering Middle East politics, reporting on terrorism and our fight against it, following around a creepy John Boehner and a creepier Benjamin Netanyahu, is just not as much fun as covering a great drama like whether a famous football team, a famous coach, and a famous athlete are all petty cheaters.

All of what I have seen makes me wonder just how many other things, much more important things, reputable journalists are getting wrong each and every day.

On Wednesday night, I almost fell out of my hammock when a very smart Chris Hayes, of MSNBC, started his evening program with the story of whether the New England Patriots cheated the Indianapolis Colts in a 45-7 rout by deliberately not having enough air in the ball that Tom Brady was throwing. Hayes obviously thought Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in NFL history, did probably cheat. But what does cheat even mean in this context? Nobody seems to know. But we do know now that one of the league’s greatest quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers, actually prefers overinflated balls, and that other NFL quarterbacks doctor the balls to their own particular specifications.

On Thursday night, after press conferences by Belichick and Brady in which they denied knowing anything about what may have happened to the balls after the game started, the network news shows put Ballghazi at the top of their newscasts. (AP)Also that night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, on a show supposedly featuring “hardball” politics, started off his program with the underinflated ball story, repeating the falsehood, spread by other media outlets, that Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was the first guy who brought the allegedly deflated ball—a ball he had intercepted when Brady threw a bad pass—to the attention of the officials. Except that Jackson said he did no such thing. He said he had planned on keeping the ball for a souvenir and had no idea it was underinflated, if in fact it was. “I wouldn’t know how that could even be an advantage or a disadvantage,” the linebacker said. “I definitely wouldn’t be able to tell if one ball had less pressure than another.”

From Sean Hannity to Chris Matthews, from Good Morning America to NBC Nightly News, from ESPN to local sportscasts, everyone on TV and radio has been talking about the issue, most of them not having the slightest idea what they are talking about. Yet almost all of them are sure that the Patriots cheated, that Bill Belichick is lying when he says he wasn’t involved in deflating the balls, and that Tom Brady is also lying because, well, just because. I have yet to see presented any evidence that Brady or anybody cheated, nor have I seen much of an indication that journalists covering this farce know what actually constitutes evidence or that they know that there are such things as standards of proof. But I have seen flimsy charges made, followed by even flimsier convictions.

This week I have seen on TV all kinds of people holding footballs, talking about footballs, and throwing footballs. I have seen some of those same people also hurling accusations—again, none of them based on the slightest evidence—that Belichick and Brady are liars and cheaters and should be suspended from next week’s Super Bowl. Some hysterical folks, like ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, are even suggesting the entire Patriots team, if proof of guilt finally materializes, should be booted from the game, replaced by the defeated Colts.

I have seen so much dumb and incompetent reporting (no, Belichick did not “throw Brady under the bus” during his press conference), so much wild speculation about NFL-engineered conspiracies (to hype the Super Bowl game or protect Patriots ownership), so much ignorance of the physics of the whole thing (for instance, measuring the air pressure of the ball inside a warm room, then measuring it later outside when it is colder, will produce a different result, dropping the PSI by a relatively significant amount), that I worry for the future of the country, at least as far as television reporting and commentary will affect it.

Because if the kind of broadcast journalism that I have seen this week gets any worse, then there will be no reason to believe much of anything that comes from the mouths of anyone who puts on a suit or dress and starts talking in front of a camera. In fact, there will be good reason not to believe it.

It’s really been that bad.

15 Comments

  1. In his book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” Chris Hedges posits that we are now witness to two separate societies: One, is the literates, the thinkers if you will, who can deal with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other society, which has become the growing majority, is doing its best to escape from reality and plunge more and more into a world of fantasy, ecstasy, magic, and illusion.

    In a speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, the legendary newscaster Edward R. Murrow predicted that when the historians look back at the television programming of his day they would find, “evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world.” I’m sure he would be disappointed that six decades later that very same description still applies. But, it’s even worse now with the internet, video games, and iPods and iPhones

    Murrow concluded the speech with this caution, “This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

    That’s what you were watching this week, Duane — wires and lights in a box.

    Herb

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    • Herb,

      I also think I was watching a form of gotcha journalism that is all too quick to jump to conclusions. I absolutely reject the kind of reasoning that has been employed by too many reporters and commentators regarding this matter, and I think it feeds into the general inability of people to properly assess evidence and draw proper conclusions. The reasoning here is that since Belichick was guilty of one infraction several years ago, he is therefore guilty now. How would our justice system look if it operated like that? Brady was likewise convicted on the basis that, as a quarterback, he would necessarily have been able to discern that 1 or 2 psi was missing from the football. I think all this bullshit is worse than lights in a box, even though Murrow has a point.

      Duane

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  2. And yet — Herb and Duane are “wasting their time” discussing this. Here’s why its worth talking about. The sports writers and news folks in Boston have largely defended the deflation on the grounds that “everybody does it” — but actually, not everybody does it. Boston is a sad place — I know — but c’mon. 2 of my daughters live in NYC and refuse to go to Boston. Now I better know why. The arrogance and paranoia of the Patriots is remarkably similar to Richard Nixon’s Watergate shenanigans. “The Patriots would have won anyway” is not an argument for letting it pass.
    It all points to the new morality that says cheating is okay if don’t get caught. Here are some current cheaters not in the NFL: Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, the Brothers Koch — and I could go on. Sports should be honorable and noble — like government service. Athletes and Governors should be role models, but what we have is bought and paid for crooks in each category. The Stupor Bowl will be played, appropriately, by 2 of the crookedest franchises in the NFL. Maybe that’s why people are talking. Maybe people are seeing the NFL for what it is: a rapacious collection of rich boy playthings designed to steal from communities, exploit athletes, protect the wealth of the 1% of the 1% and give us circuses rather than substance. I played football. I loved it. I grew up wanting to BE Raymond Berry. We have collected 68 (and counting) friends and neighbors who never miss the Stupor Bowl — and are boycotting the event on 2/1– and the NFL and its farm system, the NCAA going forward for their collective growing, unforgivable insanity and remarkable lack of integrity. Winning is NOT the only thing and DeflateGate is not only about football.

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    • Wow! Slow down there thegeneralist. You’ve made a whole lot of accusations without offering one iota of proof. And Watergate and Footballgate are not moral equivalents. What Duane is calling for, which I support, is that the news media get its priorities straight and be able to discern the stories that are important, that may actually affect our lives, and those that don’t. These are distinctions WITH a difference. A football is not the same as a bank account in the Cayman Islands used by political operatives.

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      • I think you missed my point, Herb. I’m saying the attitude that supports the one also supports the other. We’re used to it. We just accept it now. The poor hermeneutic of Fox News has been adopted by everyone in the news biz. The lack of integrity of the US businessman has been adopted by his employees. The news is not going to return to Mr. Murrow’s day. The current crop of reporters and commentators (including those at MSNBC) are clowns and whores. You can count the number of true Statesmen on your fingers — and maybe a couple of toes. There is no refuge in sports or art or music. We shouldn’t be surprised by the interest in DeflateGate. It’s merely symbolic of the stupidity of the American “citizen”, the serf, the pawn of those willing to tell a story — any story — and the lairs and cheats who pay them to do it. Wateragate and DeflateGate ARE moral equivalents in the sense that they were unnecessary and cynical. Duane is correct that DeflateGate shouldn’t be the main story, but it shouldn’t be overlooked or written off either.

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    • I’ve been to Boston once and I loved it. I want to go back, sad place or not.

      In any case, this flap is not something that serious journalists, those who cover serious news, I mean, rather than the entertainment industry, should be spending valuable air time talking about. The nightly news casts are about 21 or 22 minutes long and that isn’t much time to get any insight into what is happening in the world and shouldn’t be wasted on what amounts to, so far, an issue of how much air is supposed to be in a football, an issue no fan thought about until Monday. Cable has more time during the day, but spends way too much time covering things like this. As I said, it’s probably more fun than talking about the economy.

      What bothers me about all this is the horrible reporting, the conclusion-jumping, the “reading between the lines” bullshit that goes on. Things like: because Belichick has been in trouble before, therefore he’s guilty this time. Because he’s a fanatic about details, he knew this particular detail. Because Tom Brady prefers lower pressurized balls (within the margin allowed), he therefore is guilty of letting the air out of these balls, if indeed the air was purposely let out. Because Tom Brady picks out the balls he likes, he therefore could sense any change to the balls he picked out. And on and on. That kind of reasoning isn’t worthy of children, let alone professional journalists reporting information to the public.

      By the way, I have listened to local Boston sports stations for probably eight or nine hours, starting yesterday afternoon and into this morning. I understand all too well the paranoia you are talking about. Nearly every Pats fan has an opinion about why this is happening, and mostly they think it has to do with the idea that a lot of people just hate the team and their tendency to win. I think there is some truth to that here and there, but mostly it’s because of the perception that the Patriots, under Belichick, try to take advantage of all the rules.

      I won’t argue with what you say about the NFL. It is mostly right, in my view. And I won’t argue with what you say about cheating, that it is not okay even if you don’t get caught. And I agree that the “everybody does it” claim is not an adequate defense for cheating, except that if everybody does it then why hasn’t something been done about it before? (Rodgers admitted that he overinflates the balls and doesn’t like it when the officials deflate them to within specifications. Why didn’t the NFL make a big deal out of that, after Phil Simms announced it during a televised game?)

      I will argue that so far there has been no cheating proven in this case. And that is the point here. You talkl about there is more at stake here than football. Yes, there is. And part of what is at stake is that people ought not to accuse others of cheating and lying without proper evidence. So far, no evidence exists that proves Belichick or Brady or anybody on the Patriots did anything wrong. In fact, I can’t really say, based on what I know now about the way footballs are handled by NFL quarterbacks, that even if the balls were purposely deflated a bit during the first half of the game, that it gave Tom Brady or his receivers any advantage whatsoever. Wouldn’t that be the relevant definition of cheating? The stats for that particular game certainly indicate he played much better in the second half, with presumably properly inflated balls. So, even if the balls were underinflated, and even if he threw one of the underinflated balls, there’s no indication that he “cheated,” in the sense that he gained an advantage.

      The problem here is, as usual, with the NFL’s flexible rule and the way it is administered. First, as I have read various accounts of the physics of the matter, I have become convinced that proper care in making sure accurate measurements are made is never done. Accounting for the balls, after they have been checked, is also not done properly. Ball handlers during the game are employed by the team, not the NFL. If ball inflation is so critical to an honest game, one has to wonder why the NFL doesn’t better protect the balls and hire someone to watch them. It isn’t like they are starving for cash.

      Finally, you say that the two franchises in the SB are “crooked.” I know each has had problems, but I think that labeling them that way is an unfair generalization. In any case, the players are the object of our affections and attention, and I think it is unfair to lump players, who are part of the franchises, into that “crooked” hopper.

      Duane

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  3. My, my. Deflategate is a true media spectacle. Just look at the interest on this post alone!

    With all due respect, Duane, I believe your outrage over the coverage is misplaced because the underlying assumption is that the networks have some kind of Murrow-inspired obligation to process the news feeds according to some kind of quality criteria. I think that puts the cart in front of the horse. The network news is and has always been a business selling ads by trying to garner the largest audience. The obvious way to do this is just what they actually do: try to appeal to the lowest-common denominator of popular thirst for sensationalism.

    Quality control has always been, I submit, the provence of the recipient, and really, that’s the way it has to be. Who is qualified, really, to perform it at the source? The National Enquirer and the Globe sell polluted and recycled gossip quite readily at five bucks a pop every week. This is what you get when economies are good enough to allow the hoi polloi to indulge in distractions, just as politics invariable devolve into base and dirty tactics. It’s human nature.

    And speaking of deflategate, I’m wondering why nobody has indicated whether the Packer’s footballs were similarly checked? I assume they were OK, but nobody has said. This stuff is important, you guys, because it is that time of year when the nation forgets about being red and blue tribes and becomes two football tribes! Yee-haw!

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    • Perhaps you are right, Jim. Perhaps this is just another manifestation of low-denominator, consumer-driven, journalistic capitalism. I certainly considered that. My problem is that if you are right, the country is doomed. Not because we haven’t seen this kind of journalism practiced before (we have, of course, since our founding), but because we no longer have much of national, unifying filter through which this stuff is run and through which we can keep much of the non-rational and irrational from infecting large swaths of the population, a population that is much larger and much more diverse than it has ever been.

      When most people used to get their news from a few sources, like CBS or NBC or the AP, when most people had to get their news that way, they got it after it had been supervised by editors who knew a little something about how the world worked and what constituted evidence and a rational interpretation of the evidence. In these times, there are a thousand different outlets, many of them quite willing to feature freak shows of talking heads who will, quite literally, say anything on TV (take Donald Trump, for instance, or Sarah Palin or, well, you get the idea). And that means the once-responsible big-time news divisions that are competing with those disparate outlets have to do much the same thing, albeit in a slightly more responsible way.

      So, yep, I plead guilty: My “underlying assumption is that the networks have some kind of Murrow-inspired obligation to process the news feeds according to some kind of quality criteria.” Because once the network news divisions are gone, or are no better than the Jerry Springer show in bringing us the news, then there will be nothing left, no set of common facts presented about what is happening in the country and the world, that will help serve to keep us together as one nation with some common interests.

      Duane

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    • Oh, and by the way, there has been very little reliable reporting about the state of the Colts’ footballs, or when they were measured, under what conditions, etc. The NFL is waiting until the game is over to announce much of anything they have learned. My guess is that much of the blame for this phony controversy is on the officials, who likely have very shoddy measurement techniques, ignoring the physics of the process.

      Speaking of the physics, it is undeniable that the Colts’ footballs would have had to lose air pressure during the first half of the game, if they were inflated indoors with warm air and then taken outside where the temperature dropped into the forties by halftime. If they did not lose air pressure, then someone should investigate that team for possible violation of the laws of physics.

      Finally, it may be very well that the Patriots “cheated” by purposely deflating the balls. But as of right now, there isn’t the slightest bit of evidence that they did. But they have been tried, convicted, and in some cases, sentenced in much of the media. Belichick’s attempt to bring some sort of scientific evidence into the matter was widely criticized by know-nothings on TV, especially ESPN. But my guess is that he and his team will be vindicated by the time this ugly matter is over. For some people, of course, it will never be over. The Patriots are cheaters to them, and will just blame any exoneration on some kind of NFL conspiracy.

      Duane

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  January 24, 2015

    To all,

    Read Herb’s first comment above, about two “layers” of people interested in “issues”. Then see Jim’s “……appeal to the lowest-common denominator of popular thirst for sensationalism.” I believe both are valid points to discuss on any issue in the public eye. Ferguson comes to mind in something other than sports.

    I consider writing a blog on the football issue but decided why bother. My approach would have been different however though that is not intended as critical of what Duane wrote. I agree we the people and the media have once again leapt to foregone conclusions.

    My approach was to first consider the “Black World Series” or whatever it was called in the early 1900s when the Chicago White Sox threw the series for money and gamblers. I then fast forwared in my head to recent events, say over the last ten years in sports. All the drugs, some gambling, all the various attempts to win at all costs. Certainly the money is there to cause many people to take short cuts or even violate the law, simply to win a game is sports.

    Has the demand to win at all costs in sports (or politics, or business, etc.) gotten any better since the forementioned World Series, or has it gotten worse, or is it simply human nature with no big swings one way or the other. How do we now define “cheating”. When, in politics, does “spin” become “cheating” and when does “cheating” violate the law?

    Put the current air pressure in a football issue in perspective. Have we actually stopped anyone, anywhere in professional baseball from throwing a spit ball?

    I do observe this however. Before every snap in a football game, an official MUST handle each ball to be put into play. Hmmm? Just like any umpire can look at or hold a ball before ……, or after in the case of a spit ball, once thrown. That’s good enough for me to still watch a game but never pay for an overprice ticket to attend one for sure.

    Anson

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    • Anson,

      By the way, it was the Black Sox scandal. And, as I recall, it had more to do with underpaid players, who felt exploited and mistreated by their “owner,” than with the desire to win. In fact, the scandal was that eight players were seeking to purposely lose the game.

      You make a point about the officials handling the balls during the game. Nobody, and I mean nobody in the game, handles the balls more than the officials. If it were so easy to tell whether the balls had lost air pressure, it should have been easy for the guys whose job it was to regulate the rules of the game, to tell. They apparently didn’t. It was cold. It was wet. It was raining. The last thing Tom Brady, or anyone I’m guessing, including the officals (who were apparently alerted to it by the Colts before the game) was thinking about was whether the air in the ball had fallen below NFL standards.

      Duane

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  5. Er, in my comment, make that ” . . . the Colts’ footballs . . . “. You can see how seriously I take this stuff.

    However, this comparison would, ahem, take the air out of Belichick’s current physics theory, i.e. that it was the declining air temperature and perhaps rising atmospheric pressure.

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  6. ansonburlingame

     /  January 26, 2015

    Hmm,

    Underpaid workers caused the “Black Sox scandel”, cheating if you will to lose the game(s). So if we only paid “workers” (sports players) more money, no cause for cheating, right?? Now look at salaries in sports today but we still have all sorts of cheating going on in my view. Why and how do you stop it?

    In reading about Belichick of late I find reason to admire the man. Seems like part of his success is demanding intense understanding of excruciating details from his “workers”. “What shoe size do all the tight ends on …. wear” was a quoted question he launched at one of his players!!! “What will you do if……” and the dots were filled with some extraordinarily small detail on a given play. He not only demands brawn from his workers. He demands heavy thinking on their part, awareness of all the details around them, or possible details that might come up. No wonder he wins.

    I join Jim in caring less about how much pressure was in a football last week. If it was not noticiable to officials, then …… And now we may see officials with air pressure gauges on hand on the field, or off!! I suppose “there outta be another law” and “ROEs” to ensure no one cheats, like we do with soldiers on a battle field today.

    Anson

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    • Wikipedia nicely summarizes the 1919 scandal for you:

      Club owner Charles Comiskey was widely disliked by the players and was resented for his miserliness. Comiskey had long had a reputation for underpaying his players, even though they were one of the top teams in the league and had already won the 1917 World Series. Under the MLB reserve clause, players were prevented from changing teams without permission from the owner of the current team they were on, without a union the players had no bargaining power.

      Pretty much sums up the history of how employers treated workers prior to unionization and collective bargaining!

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  7. ansonburlingame

     /  January 27, 2015

    Sports players are highly unionized today but some still cheat. But I try to refrain from a union/managment dispute or solution to low air pressure in footballs. I am more concerned about cheating, anywhere. In a similar vein you might read my take on American Sniper, the man, as revealed to me at least in his book, not the movie which I have yet to see.

    Anson

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