The Art of Lying, Part 2: Writing for a Post Factual World

| 0 Comments

This article was written on April 15, 2016. This is being updated July 4, 2017. I am republishing this after reading the BBC article by Mark Daley claiming FBI was investigating suggested improprieties regarding Eugene 2021. After reading the piece, http://www.bbc.com/sport/athletics/40438287, and speaking to our contacts, we continue to wonder if this story will go the way of Mr. Daly's other stories over the past two years. Mr. Daly has great enthusiasm for his subjects, but does not seem to be able to find facts that hold up with other media organizations. These stories continue to beg the question, what the hell is going on at BBC Sports?

There seems to be little or no real proof to anything that has been written. This, again, is not journalism. If one truly believes that a story is true, one does not insert suggestions of that result, one does the research to find the result. My guess is that Mr. Daly's response from FBI and IRS regarding investigations into Eugene 2021 will go no where. Did Lamine Diack, for some reason, decide to push Eugene 2021 after Eugene had lost a previous bid? Yes? Was it out of the normal procedures for deciding a World Championship site? Yes. But, where is the proof? Innuendo is one thing, facts are a very different thing.

So, on the fourth of July, I thought it might be a nice thing to reread my piece on Writing for a Post Factual World.

I worked with the late and great James Dunaway for nearly two decades. Managing a writer you admired for two decades before was, well, intimidating.

Dunaway_James_01.jpg

James Dunaway, photo courtesy of USA Track & Field

For much of the last fourteen years (James died in February 2015) of our working relationship, James Dunaway was editor for American Track & Field. We spoke nearly every day and there were days of much contention. But, from those discussions, I always learnt something from my friend.

I always knew I was in trouble when the conversation began as follows: " Larry, have you had a coffee? Then, get one and call me back." I would get the prescribed coffee and then, " You are probably are going to fire me after this conversation." I would smile, and the battle would begin.

Those were exciting days.

Many of our discussions, however, were about the changing state of media. James became more and more incensed about the increasing amount of lying in general culture. One of things he and I were still discussing near the end of his life was a book about Lying. He had tentatively called it the Art of Lying.

I have used the title, The Art of Lying, in his honor, as part of a continuing series of articles on changes in the media world and our modern global culture.

Recently, I saw the term "post-factual" being used in social media. My inner voice started working in my ear, "what the hell does that mean?"

Post-factual was being used to describe how several current politicians were actually lying, even after they were confronted with the facts, and the strange result: people believed their lies! "Post factual" has become a term in a time when liars are not only allowed to lie, but their lies are celebrated on many forms of social media and modern television. The excuse is, that is what the people want.

I am not so sure.

As the media world changes on a daily basis, major news organizations struggle to survive. News organizations have shrunk, and fact checking becomes more and more of dream in many groups, where does one find well written, curated content?

The digital world is here. And many of the rather new ways of communicating have changed our lives. My son, Adam, and I walk several times a week together. On one of these walks, Adam reminded me that, in 100 years, our relatives will be able to see much of our lives on Facebook. Adam still reminds me about how I called Facebook, "The Facebook."

I run a media company. Like most, we struggle, daily, to figure out how to fuse old school with the new school. We use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, websites and, yes, print, to communicate to our readers on a daily basis. We use twitter and Facebook to cover track meets and road races live. We are now using Instagram to add to our coverage.

Stadium-LondonDL15.jpg
London DL, July 2015, photo by PhotoRun.net

With all of these ways of communicating, how does one make a living? Consider this. The highest paid digital ads are paid twenty percent of what prints ads are paid. How do media groups make ends meet?

One of the ways we are attempting to grow our business is developing content for clients. It is one thing to build an exciting website, it is another to supply that website with vibrant, exciting and accurate content.

As recently as last year, I had potential writers inform me that speed was more important than accurate content. I was flumoxed, and blamed it on the concern for being first to a story has taken on idiotic proportions. I care little about being first to a story. Accuracy in content, and an inviting writing style are key in digital content success.

As media groups come to grips with the economic realities of the new media, something had to give. In many organizations, much of what one does not see is gone. Writers are paid less. They write more to make less money. Writers are now videographers as well. Videographers are expected to do more, by capturing video as well as providing text pieces.

Some media, however, have taken to the new challenges and are thriving. A great example of how old school and new school works are reuters.com and euronews.com, two of my favorites. Video and well written content.

The best news app?

In my mind, those go to the guardian.com. Easy to navigate, great stories, fun artwork, the guardian understands that there are many sites to view, so they have one shot to entice the reader.

Digital media is in the early teenage years of the medium. It is, in some ways, a beauty contest. The pretty site wins, at first. Then, the reader finds a site that captures their interest because the stories are well written, wickedly funny and honest, and accurate. A writer who gets a subject and lets the readers in on their insights. That is the love match between reader and mobile, web or digital media.

It has happened before.

It is not a new thing, remember, TV news that was well respected in the 1960s and 1970s drew 20-40 million viewers a night. This was pre-cable.

The story that concerns me is authentic content. What I mean is, how do you know the stories you read online are factual? Journalism, in my mind is about presenting facts on both sides of a discussion, and allowing the reader to make their decision. Of course, a writer's frame of reference is there, but that does not mean making a decision for the reader. I constantly disagree with conservative writer George Will, but I respect his arguement and his ability to show us the facts.

Social media, by its very nature, is a way to bring the world closer. In that immediate response and communication, nuance is lost. What can also be lost are manners, human kindness and truth.

The most immediate example is the doping crisis in sports. In the IAAF, combine that with the attempted extortion and controll of the sport by the Diack family. Many felt betrayed, and rightly so. The anger and frustration in not having their questions answered without subtrefuge came out in many media outlets.

At a certian point, however, media outlets are meant to lead in the consideration of the facts, not lead to the guillotine.

What has made the mess worse, has been feeding frenzy on supposed information, but the absolute success of many unsubstantiated rumors becoming fact, some of this by major media organizations.

A case to consider....

I sat in the Birmingham (UK) Hyatt last July 2015 before a presser with Mo Farah, Neils de Vos, and Neil Black. I overheard several young media members note how they thought that they "had" Mo Farah before the presser. They also thought that Mo might be going for the world record the next day. There was no world record attempt, and they did not "have" Mo Farah.

They did rattle Farah enough that he left on the next day's flight to Portland. This was, in my mind, the absolute last thing he should have done. If I had been advising Mr. Farah, I would have had Mo announce he would not run, but he would hang out with the crowd to enjoy the event. I would have asked him to then speak to the crowd, and sign autographs with "his people" for a few hours. The positive outcry from readers on social media would have sunk most of the innuendo on Mo Farah and the Salazar affair. This is where a good PR person comes in.

The presser was a bit of a sham. Of the two dozen questions showered on Mo Farah and British Athletics, two were on the meet. I thought that perhaps a dozen questions were quite fair and needed, to shed some clarity on whether Mo and his coach, Alberto Salazar, were involved in doping. I had little use for some of the others.

On purpose, I asked a question about the meet. Mo Farah was taken back for a moment, but he gathered himself and answered.

The next day Mo Farah flew home and missed the meet, probably the worst thing he could have done. The real issue for Mo Farah was that he had forgotten, over that past couple of years not to continue to woo British media. His reported missing of a BBC video taping a few years before, had lost him critical support in the British media and the British public. Unfortunately, Mr. Farah was not listening to anyone who could tell him such things.

The BBC broadcast alleging drug use by 1980 Olympic champ Allan Wells, and within Salazars' group was tantalizing, but nothing new. And, for a BBC broadcast, surpisingly relied on innuendo. While some may suspect Salazar of doping, nothing has been proved. Rumors, innuendo do not constitute proof, neither do former athletes who are angry about treatment or their relationship with a coach. This does not make that alleged treatment right, but it does not make the coach a doper or doping enthusiast.

Nearly a year later, Mo Farah seems to have been exonerated and while WADA and USADA are looking at Salazar, nothing has arisen but that Alberto Salazar pushed all legal advantages for his athletes. Big difference than the alleged doping.

The WADA commission, headed by Dick Pound is a completely different matter. The two part report showed an IAAF with a secret society built around Lamine Diack and his family. Extortion, bribery, were all there, as well as systematic doping by Russia and six to eight other countries. Add to that, perhaps two dozen countries not having adequate testing by WADA or its national partners, and you have a mess in the world of sports.

Can sports be doping free?

I highly doubt that sports can be 100 percent free of doping. What can happen is that, with out of competition testing globally, intelligence operations on dopers and draconian punishments such as what is happening in Russia, we can cut much of the cheating and doping. That means that doping can be controlled, if we are willing to make the investment in money, time and education. Also, doping must be understood as the results of our cult of personality today. People are valued on their ability to make money not on the good they do. This zeitgeist was just beginning the 20th century and it has come to a point, with social media, that any jerk who stands out can be quite popular.

Now, with the world watching a sleeping panda on You Tube, anything and everything can become a world personality. The more bizarre the video, the more who view it.

Sport is part of our lives, not all of it. For many, doping is a business decision. To curb a business decision, make the punishment or results of the action so painful, so costly, that it makes little business sense.

For the rest of us, the reasons for doping may be something else. I recall a study on teenagers who used steroids. A key reason: "confidence while dating".

Doping requires money.

Anti doping requires money, much more than what is spent today. I venture to say that WADA may not be the organization to provide the complete answer on doping issues. Education, vigorous out of competition testing, and proper funding of groups that test in all nations. If a minimum of testing is not performed, said country can not be part of the family of countries in global competitions. But, will this be supported by media companies that pay billions for TV and video rights?

Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones showed USADA is up to the task. Kenya and Ethiopia need to see that their greatest export, athletics, is in jeopardy. WADA has given them a very poor grade, but the newest crisis, the misinterpretation of information on Meldonium could put anti-doping back for several years.

The media's role? To point out screw ups and hold groups such as IAAF and IOC to their words. But there has to be honest scrutiny. The media seems to be following right now, not leading. Sixty thousand tweets or retweets of a smart ass remark about Seb Coe does not make it right or accurate.

Seb Coe has been the easy poster child for IAAF transgressions. Many of the British media have found him an easy target and have tried to knock him down. Surely, there are enough gaffs to do that, as with any public figure. However, Seb Coe seems to be making some steps towards righting the athletics ship of state that, while still listing, has chances of more than survival.

My thoughts on Mr. Coe?

Seb Coe has to actually bring new views into the sport. No one has all of the answers. Diverse talent who understand media, social media, plus new events and streamlined activities. He needs to find new approaches to media, including, opening video from all track meets, with highlight content that new media can use. Perhaps a trade for rights for sponsor advertising? Something can be done. Giving media outlets ten-fifteen second highlights of all races will bring more fans to the sport, and benefit all. This could be done for a trade in advertising space, providing IAAF sponsores more outlets to valued demographic groups.

I believe that Seb Coe needs to consider that what is good for the IOC, for example, bringing in Russia into Rio, could be bad for the IAAF. Vern Gambetta, one of most respected and recognized trainers and coaching educators in the world, notes that Russian athletes will have benefits from their drug use for four more years. There has to be a line in the proverbial ground. How will the media respond to this conundrum?

We live in a complicated world with complicated needs. Living in a 140 character social media world requires constant vigilance. Facts are still important. There are needs for long stories. there are needs for accurate news. If one wants to be part of a wonderfully vibrant world, then check things on mobile, communicate with friends via text, snapchat, FB, twitter, video for YouTube, and when you need to find more details to a story or concern, take the time to dig up the resources. Wikipedia is a great start, but it is not the end all and be all. That is like reading the Cliff notes (abridged versions) to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or Youth: A Narrative, instead of reading those two wonderful novellas.

Living in a post factual world can be scary. Networks like CNN have put Donald Trump on the tube because his bombastic style puts eyeballs on their advertisers. They fail to correct Trump and other candidates on their lying or being loose with facts.

I do not believe that is responsbile journalism.

Part of the challenge of living in a democracy is that we are pummeled with all kinds of content, with all levels of accuracy. It is your responsibility to respond to what you see as inaccurate content, and it would be good to see you shout out great content as well.

I am finishing this piece in Boston, at the Charlesmark hotel bar. Having a coffee, as my friend, Jefferson, the best bartender in town, rules the bar with a quiet confidence.

It was at this site three years ago, right outside the bar, and hotel, that a piece of human trash, who felt his cause was more important than other people's lives, changed the Boston Marathon forever. Not only did he not like our diverse, challenging and exciting way of life, he wanted to destroy it.

Think about that, each and every time you feel like sending a cruel missive online, or retweet a funny, but abusive or innaccurate story. Words are not bombs, or hot molten metal maiming people around the Boston marathon finish, but they hurt and cause damage forever. It is easy to be flippant, and it sells more readers, but it does not do good for the sport or journalism in the long run.

I am asking for a kinder, more honest world, where we slow down, just a bit, to consider the ramifications of our comments and actions in this socially rich world. You have a power there with FB, twitter, Instagram, and snapchat.

Use them proudly, wisely and considerately.

Leave a comment

Wake up to RunBlogRun's news in your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter and we'll keep you informed about the Sport you love.

Subscribe to RunBlogRun's Global News Feed

* indicates required