"Patriot Games" (Essay)

Some thoughts on honesty and storytelling, "Deflategate" and Brian Williams, and the "Grab Their Attention" ethos in the Age of Information Overload.

I've long ago grown deep bonds with most of our local professional sports teams, most based in the nation's capital. It was easy when baseball came back to DC - we've been here since the beginning. But even as a little kid, I adopted the Washington Capitals during their first days of existence. I even tuned in a lot of their games on the staticky AM radio, over 400 miles away. We're still waiting for our first Stanley Cup, the royal hardware that goes to the champions of the sport.

One local team has never earned my allegiance. In fact, they routinely fuel my scorn as a business enterprise as well as a poorly-performing franchise. The Washington football team that shall remain nameless has never come close to supplanting my loyalty to the New England Patriots, the often similarly hapless team of my youth. Today's Patriots have built an amazing record of success over the past 15 years, and a proven method of winning their way and with great respect for their fans.

So their involvement in another story about bending or breaking the rules took a little excitement away from this year's surprising Super Bowl glory (if somehow you missed it, Google "Deflategate"). While my instinct that it is likely much ado about nothing, I of course am unhappy at even the perception of wrongdoing - particularly since "my team" got caught in some untidy espionage shenanigans a few years back. No matter what the truth is eventually found to be, it tarnishes the luster.

Of course, in a nation so rabidly divided between partisans in every facet of our lives, from politics to sports and public figures to religion down to diet plans, there are always those ready and waiting to pounce and pronounce on every failing. And in the era of social media, we know more stuff about people now, almost in real time. It was always impossible to be perfect, of course, but it was possible to be discreet. And there's mad money to be made in the sale of the demise, even if it's more than we want or ought to know.

I am the anti-hysteria. I want to wait until a news source I hope to trust weighs in, and I am willing to wait for them to do their due diligence and report the facts, and acknowledge what's remaining to be determined. I am that annoying minority who doesn't take the first report at face value and click through to generate more ad revenue. Nonetheless, I am saddened and angered by the precipitous tumbles from grace of people and entities that I have respected and admired - particularly Bill Cosby, and most recently Brian Williams.

I grew up with Tom Brokaw as our trusted newsman through elections, wars, disasters and the run-of-the-mill national news and special interest stories. But I also was especially drawn to the emeritus editorial and opinion pieces of the late John Chancellor. I suppose even though I didn't always agree with what he thought, his opinions were always well-reasoned and articulately delivered. I had a deep respect for the journalistic integrity both men brought into my living room each night. When Brokaw retired, Brian Williams inherited some of that, probably more than any other commercial network news anchor. And seemingly threw it all away.

It is probably the final nail in the coffin for any expectation reasonably unbiased journalistic integrity in network news. Maybe that was all an illusion anyway. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less depressing. The teardowns to the lowest standards and the lowest common denominators makes money, and generates massive clickthroughs, and we the people fall right along with it.

If only we held politicians and public servants to the "Brian Williams" standard. Be expected to tell the truth, independent of donor overlords and carefully crafted to highlight where the grey areas remain. Leave the hyperbole to the opinioneers and the thought leaders. Get caught embellishing the story and get suspended indefinitely at the least. We'd have a whole new batch of people working for us in no time. And turn them over again quickly. Rinse and repeat.

So, in the interest of full disclosure: we went for a hike on the nearby Appalachian Trail this weekend. We hiked 2.7 miles roundtrip, in a leisurely 2 hours. We blew out two boots. We were not attacked by any bears, nor did we see any. We had fun.

And spring training for baseball begins soon. It couldn't begin soon enough.

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