Paul Finebaum had a lot to say during his keynote speech to those in attendance at the Associated Press Sports Editors’ 2016 Summer Conference in Charlotte, N.C.
Sports journalism was only part of the program.
The well-known SEC television and radio pundit and former investigative reporter implored the journalism industry to report thoughtfully and responsibly but also used the Thursday lunchtime platform at the downtown Omni Hotel to confront such hot-button topics as North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
Some 123 guests attended the keynote speech, an excellent turnout for the annual fixture of the four-day conference.
Here’s the full transcript of Finebaum’s address, which followed a brief introduction by incoming APSE President Tommy Deas.
Thank you very much.
I would like to begin complimenting APSE and President Mary Byrne for the thoughtful and important stand on the controversial North Carolina House Bill 2 that deals with LGBT issues. My sincere wish is the Governor of this state – and other elected officials, would also be as considerate – as opposed to the predictable grandstanding and the usual dealing of political cards from the bottom of the deck.
Tommy, thank you for this wonderful honor. Since receiving the invitation, I have thought about this opportunity often and swelled with pride about the awesome task of following some of the most important and legendary figures of the business – heroes of mine growing up, people with and for whom I have aspired to be like, imitate and emulate.
So you can imagine how I felt when I learned I wasn’t following as keynote at APSE Leigh Montville or Dave Kindred, Dan Jenkins or Frank Deford, great men, legendary men, but the San Diego Chicken.
The San Diego Chicken.
Seriously, I heard he was wonderful. He was amazing …. but couldn’t come back this year to speak. Too busy. Since speaking last June, he’s dumped his costume, dyed his hair, bought a solid red tie and is now the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States.
I have never gotten involved in politics as a columnist or a talk show host –and I’m not going to start now. I’ve always believed people should have the right to make their own choices without my help.
But as someone who loves this country and who has been a journalist and proud of it for more than 35 years, I am deeply disturbed – and sickened – when a man running for President can get away with yanking the privileges of a prominent newspaper like a third world strongman, just because he doesn’t like a headline.
It’s outrageous and it’s dangerous. And this is the same man who said he would “open up’’ libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations.
As a teenager, reading about Watergate inspired me to become a journalist. Having watched Richard Nixon threaten the right of a free press motivated me to get into journalism – and try and make a difference. Back then, newspapers held a much different position in society. Today, as everyone in this room is acutely aware, the world is a dramatically different place – especially in the media.
This period of time may be the one of most important moments in journalism history. We have a presidential candidate tossing hate and spewing bigotry – while party leaders stand silent. We have a public who has grown increasingly agitated with the news media and which even rails against freedom of the press while spurning honest journalism for race-baiting talk show hosts and bloggers and hate mongers.
While this may be the most challenging time in the history of American journalism – I also believe it can be the most exciting. There have never been more choices of platforms and outlets for the public to receive the news or more available content.
This is especially true in the sports arena.
But we cannot allow the moment to change or dictate how we do our jobs and can’t fall victim to appealing and catering to the lowest common denominator. I have become increasingly concerned about what I have observed in our profession in recent times. I worry about how the media is being judged by the public now and will be viewed in the future.
Before any of you hold up your hands and say, whoa, who are you to lecture, let me
explain: I was an investigative reporter in my early newspaper days. I’ve done a lot since then. But I can assure you for all of the accomplishments and accolades I have received, nothing meant more at the time – and still today – than the APSE award in the eighties for investigative reporting. Seems like yesterday – but it was long ago, as the Bob Seeger song goes. It was ….. but it helped to shape my career and my approach and even though what I do now is dramatically different, the basic philosophy is the same for me.
When Harvey Updyke called our radio show in 2011 and admitted poisoning the iconic Toomer’s Trees at Auburn, some blamed me for creating the toxic environment that caused such a criminal act. While I readily admit there have been some dangerous and embarrassing moments on our air, we have also provided a forum for sports fans to converse and created a unique atmosphere for debate.
Through social media, we get to many people and even help each other. However, the widespread use of social media can be both a dangerous and completely misleading means of communicating by the media and by the public.
It is deeply disturbing to me when highly trained journalists allow a tweet to influence their approach or to see them responding or engaging in a public twitter battle explaining what they are saying before they have even finished saying it.
I am all for letting the curtain down on our profession, just like we scream and holler about shining a light on others, whether it’s big business, government, professional sports franchises or public universities.
However, my friends – Journalism should NOT be a reality show. Journalism is a difficult and demanding profession. Journalists should be entitled to a few moments of privacy and contemplation as we are gathering facts and evidence, conducting interviews, formulating our ideas, reporting and writing our thoughts and stories, and ultimately disseminating these thoughts to our readers.
But when you sell out for a click, when you compromise your principals so you can meet a quota for page views, you have lost your claim to being a good and responsible journalist.
And it’s a crying shame when editors put excessive demands on reporters to meet a certain quota and instead of working on quality and informative and enlightening and enterprising journalism; shovel a bunch of meaningless garbage down the throats of their twitter followers.
What is accomplished by that? Who benefits by making hasty judgments in 140 characters? Is that what our business is supposed to be about? Is that what we have become?
I was on a plane the other day reading the New York Times special section on Muhammad Ali. There was Dave Anderson at Madison Square Garden in 1971 and then in Zaire for the Foreman fight and finally, in Manila. It was brilliant and I was disappointed when the plane was landing because I had several more stories to read.
Hopefully, future generations will still have something to read when an important moment occurs. I hope we leave them something more to read than a tweet.
That’s not good journalism.
Worse, are we allowing a great profession to become a carnival act? That’s pressuring reporters into making to mistakes, using bad judgment and embarrassing a profession whose very foundation has been built on integrity and ethics and distributing a fair and accurate product?
If we are going to hold others to high standards and accountability, we have to be accountable as well, and take a good hard look at our own unsettling practices. Which is why he cannot allow presidential candidates nor some of the most important figures in our world to dictate what we can or can’t do in performing our jobs.
We saw recently in the political campaign when so many journalists and their organizations were intimidated and sold out, only to get burned. The same applies in sports journalism. We have all encountered people who rant and rave trying to intimidate media members, putting down, threatening to lock them our or refusing to speak to those who dared to be critical of them.
We have all heard them be dismissive of us.
Eventually, but not always, cooler heads usually prevail.
However dire the times are or how unpleasant the circumstances may be, we cannot back down, we cannot compromise and we cannot surrender our standards and our core principals.
Where would Baylor University’s football program without an aggressive and tenacious media? Or Penn State? Where would small communities be – such as here in North Carolina – when it comes to safety issues exposed by people in this room?
My friends, you have tremendous influence over the future of sports journalism. I believe we are at a crossroads. You have the opportunity and the ability to help frame the debate. I know you care. I know you are deeply concerned about the speed of change in the industry.
But stay true to what brought you here in the first place. Stay true to your core principles. Our profession will be judged in the future the same it was 25 years ago or 50 years ago, with hard-nosed reporting, solid writing, good judgment and fairness.
Hopefully, it will be recognized positively for daring to be different, being open- minded, impartial and willing to listen to ideas without fear or without favor.
Thank you very much.