Tom Bowles was a freelancer covering the Daytona 500 for Sports Illustrated. Like many others, he was captivated by 20-year-old Trevor Bayne’s unlikely win. He was so taken by the moment, in fact, that he applauded when the race was over. That marked the end of his SI tenure.
There ended up being quite the controversy over press box applause, with Bowles (of course) falling on the side of “it was okay to applaud because of the magnitude of the moment, as long as you don’t let any bias show up in your writing.” (Bowles also defended this position repeatedly on Twitter.) Others, like Yahoo’s Jay Busbee (also in attendance at Daytona), were of the opinion that there’s no cheering, no matter what, when you’re at an event in a media capacity. Clearly, the powers that be at SI fell on Busbee’s side.
Today, Bowles wrote about his SI dismissal for Fronstretch. Some of his key points:
Bayne’s victory was a ray of hope for a sport beaten down the last five years, a 30 percent ratings decline for this race alone from ’05-‘10 spurring more criticism and negative storylines than the careers of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan combined. I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself.
Turns out the modern, professional media is ignorant of a changing culture beyond their control, one where “just the facts, ma’am” is increasingly replaced with the instant gratification of “just the facts, ma’am… and here’s how I think those facts should get interpreted. What do you think?”…Even the most stringent, by-the-book newsman is caught by the modern push of facts with commentary in reporting.
So the first step to a solution is recognizing the clapping problem, which is that we’re all inherently biased: wired to judge, love, hate, and experience every emotion in between, parts of the brain we can’t shut off like a water fountain. The key, then, to me is to know how to turn that off in your writing, a story focused on getting the facts right first before transitioning into actual analysis.
That still didn’t fly with some people. Jason McIntyre said of Bowles’ reasoning:
Pretty weak, Tom. I’ve sat in the press box and been moved by amazing basketball or football moments, but it’s a job, you know?
That was echoed by USA Today’s Nate Ryan, who encapsulated his stance in a tweet linked by Busbee:
I think nearly every sportswriter (or any writer/reporter on any beat) would tell you they are passionate about the craft first — the writing, the reporting. What we happen to be covering is mostly incidental. Getting to tell the story…that’s the fun part.
And that might be the key difference between Ryan and Bowles. Bowles, in his Frontstretch piece, talked about his “21 years of passion for motorsports,” the “ray of hope” Bayne’s victory provided for NASCAR. He talked about how SI “discovered my writing here, on Frontstretch.com, then a fan site where I covered a sport I’d loved since I was eight years old.” A fan site. We’re not trying to say Bowles isn’t passionate about telling the story, reporting the facts, etc. – but it sounds like maybe he’s one of the exceptions to Ryan’s rule.
Of course, though, we wouldn’t expect SI to take that into account when determining his employment status. SI’s an old guard publication – one would expect they’d be strict in adhering to traditional journalistic codes. And so no matter how passionate Bowles is, even if he knows how to separate his emotions from the pieces he publishes, it’s not a shock this happened. He might be right that “hiding [emotions] doesn’t eliminate our bias,” but even he admitted the bias can’t come across in the finished product…so you might as well practice hiding it before you start writing, too.
AP photo (Terry Renna, via