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November 20, 2016

The Irresponsibility of Ego Journalism

It seems like every day, a new story or article makes boastful claims of some great discovery, some secret unearthed or the uncovering of some life changing method you have to put into action.  And long before the preposterous nature of internet age pseudo-journalism, there were the tabloids. And while the Brits are seemingly synonymous with placing extraordinary importance on the utterly mundane and unimportant, the U.S. was not too far behind. The difference back then, was we knew the tabloids were selling headlines and cockamamie stories to simply sell shock and sensationalism. That these tabloids produced journalism was the last ting they professed, or any self-respecting reader expected.  Those searching for the truth, or at least intelligent information, went to the more well respected journals and newspapers.  And the practiced the ethics of journalism which states “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. And if to obtain accreditation as media in the sport of cycling requires a press card from an accredited agency, then it leads one (me) to believe that journalists in this sport need to abide by this code ethics. Sadly, many do not.

George Orwell said “journalism is printing what others don’t want printed. The rest is just public relations.” This is important to remember, as it seems everyone has become more of a PR person than an actual journalist.  This becomes muddied when one looks back into the 1970’s.  Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to have been first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of social critique and self-satire. It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy that concerns the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, in contrast to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly-edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.

Subjectivity and opinion is fine when reporting on a person, an issue, or a situation to tell a story. It is something completely different- and in my opinion unethical- when used to promote or sell a product or service or improve the reputation of a product or service that otherwise was non-existent or with a foul reputation. Cycling “journalism” falls into this category. Boastful claims of uncovering the “greatest ride on earth” “the Universe’s most enigmatic frame builder“ “the worlds (fill in the number) most amazing (fill in the blank)  etc to simply over emphasize a service or product is somewhere between gonzo and tabloid journalism. Especially when no criteria s used to create an analysis of who is considered to be the elite. Simply random picks by editors to fill copy is irresponsible and amateurish.

This can be considered a form of embedded journalism. This type of writing or promotion can be considered a propaganda campaign to push a certain issue (most notably used for military campaigns) but we see it often in cycling media.  Oleg Tinkov was one great example; He was brash, arrogant, belittling, crude and with a personal agenda that had nothing to do with the sport, but his own ego. Jonathan Vaughters has guest written columns touting his hard stance as an anti doping advocate and operator of a clean team, even while he signed former dopers and suffered from positive tests from his riders (most notably Tom Danielson); and the Team Sky therapeutic use exemption issue needs investigative journalism, but the embedded journalists at Cyclingnews won’t do it because 1) they’re not talented enough 2) they’re told not to or do not recognize the need to 3) worst of all- they’re not interested.  This leads the majority of readers to believe this is an unimportant issue. I tend to call this, manipulative, or Ego Journalism. Three of the greatest violators of this type of “journalism” are at three of the biggest cycling journals.

The first is a relative newcomer and their most serious offender is a classic pay to play guy with poor ethics and a fanboy approach to his writing- he takes freebies, exchanges of services to obtain what he wants in terms of a location/place and in return writes in promotional prose about those who have provided him with gifts; exudes admiration for those who he gives coverage too and writes in an amateurish style that shows minimal journalism talent. The second is one of the oldest with a writer who simply believes his writing is worthy of emboldened or exaggerated headlines to get you interested in his writing. Whether it’s a belief his stuff isn’t worthy of reading or an underlying arrogance that he actually is writing about something or someone so great, there is no credibility to the boastful claims he makes.  He sells himself off as a self-effacing, humble, hardworking guy. His intentions are anything but. The third, with a newly appointed Editor in Chief, dares anyone to challenge their integrity and makes claims of following the code of ethics, but often they fail. Unquantifiable claims with no research or criteria lead their articles, and they are guilty of pay to play as well.  They stood up to Shimano when they threatened to pull adversting if  a story ran on a faulty product, but he has failed in industry articles to follow this same protocol. What they did was admirable, but you can’t use this as a soapbox if you’re not willing to stand on it for everything that is written for your magazine.

There are others in the industry that are guilty as well, and all have contributed to the developed standard that if you are professional cyclist, you are elite and untouchable. you are forgiven of past regressions; you are paraded as a leader in various aspects of the sport and life, placing you at a level that is better than others; you are trend setters; you are worthy of worship and accolades that regular cyclists and business people in the industry are not.There are amateur events that we have been riding in for years, but suddenly a pro sponsors one and they are called out as a trend setters; there are those that lied and cheated for years, made tens of millions and now own one of the 5 most amazing cycling hotels in the world;  then there’s the guy who cheated, lied, fingered a teammate, got caught, bawled like a baby and is now an anti-doping advocate with his own cycling clothing company.  Even the mechanic and bus drivers for teams are more important.  One of the most beautiful aspects of our sport is the opportunity to interact with these athletes on the same turf.  The cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix are mine to ride as much as theirs to race. So we can ride it together. But those of us who have done it dozens of times as our work and has developed into our expertise doesn’t matter. But as a pro? or a journo? Suddenly it’s newsworthy because there is the sense to have t osell it as an authentic experience; to have this form of self-discovery, a proprietary ownership that belongs exclusively to the magazine or journalist. This is cutting out a whole arena of experts that prevents the readers with intelligent information and experts in areas that may interest them. It becomes a case of being unwilling to acknowledge someone for what they do in order to gain that credibility for ones self in an attempt to raise the credibility of the magazine or the journalists.  This is in my opinion, myopic, narcissistic and preventative. It seem to go against the grain of what journalism is meant for and abuses the ethics of providing objective and informative material for a reader.

Why does this matter? Because these journos control material for publishing and control what the market reads and they subjectively push their preferences.  It’s a classic case of elite level participation that is exclusive and exclusionary. Where does this leave things? In the hands of the reader, who are expected to decipher truth from the bloated.  This is becoming increasingly difficult with the amount of information one is inundated with.  No other time than the present has there been a bigger need for more responsible journalism and more objective criteria for analysis and presenting the reader with the elements, businesses and personalities of the industry. The demand for this is currently something different, and until the reader reacts, things will continue to be written as they are, and that is a shame.

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