By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
My first journalistic mentor was noted writer H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. While in high school, I read his columns in the University of Pennsylvania student newspaper and decided I wanted to be like him. I enrolled at Penn, and in my first week as a freshman in 1975, I began working for him as a columnist on the paper’s editorial page. He was a senior and editorial page editor.
Bissinger went on to win a Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I also worked with him. His classic book on Texas high school football, Friday Night Lights, is, well, you know….
Recently, Buzz attacked bloggers and the reaction from the blogging community was stunning. We talked about this for … you, the columnist.
Q. You have experience in both old media feedback and new media feedback. When your landmark book Friday Night Lights came out in 1990, it’s legendary how you had to cancel a bookstore appearance in West Texas because of death threats. Back then, how did you handle this rush of hatred towards your work?
A. I soul-searched over every word of what I wrote and came to the honest conclusion that nothing in the book was either unfair or sensationalized. That gave me the confidence to face my accusers. I could not go down to Odessa at the time, but I made a conscious effort to do every print, TV and radio interview that was requested in Odessa, in Texas and all over the country. I gave my accusers the right to state their criticisms, because they have that right, and then I responded as calmly as I could (which is not always so easy for me) but without a whiff of defensiveness because I had nothing to be defensive about. The next year in 1991, when the paperback came out, I did go back to Odessa and purposely went out to the practice field so those who had criticized the book the loudest would have an opportunity to take their shots at me. If I felt in my heart that the book had been unfair, I never would have done that. I guess the bottom line is that if you truly believe in what you write and have the reporting to back it up, you should not run and hide. You should also give your critics every right to respond. But don’t be a punching bag. Respond back with passion. Do not back down.
Q. When you appeared on the HBO show “Costas Now” in April, you angrily criticized bloggers as untalented amateur writers who know nothing about our craft. The blogosphere reacted in historical and hysterical fashion. I never saw such a negative pushback against a writer. Search Google for “Bissinger and blogs” and there are 426,000 hits! How does that reaction compare to the old media reaction in West Texas almost two decades ago?
A. It is actually hard to gauge. At the time, the controversy over Friday Night Lights generated enormous publicity in national publications and television shows — the Times, USA Today, the Today Show and dozens of others. Millions were aware of what had happened. The Costas show affair was largely a fight between myself and the bloggers. What was different was the level of personal attack and vitriol directed against me — which had virtually nothing to do with the issues I raised, albeit somewhat undiplomatically, by resorting to profanity. I guess the biggest difference is that anything goes today, and the point of most fare on the Internet unfortunately is to be nasty and mean-spirited.
I would like to point out that the most cogent critiques of my performance came through email. I did receive the usual “you #%&* sheep for a living” comments, but I also received many well-written analyses. They were not complimentary, but they were not nasty, and they did help direct me to a handful of blogs that are actually quite good. I appreciated the tone of them. I also made it a point to respond to every email sent to me, as long as they were not ridiculous.
Q. As columnists, we receive our own hate mail and hateful Web postings, although I’m sure none of us in the NSNC ever felt the passionate ignorance that you encountered in recent months. Did it affect your personal life?
A. The first two weeks were pretty depressing. The level of attack was relentless, as if I had killed someone. It was shocking, really. But once again, I soul-searched. I did come to the conclusion that the manner in which I attacked Will Leitch of Deadspin was inappropriate. I should not have used profanity, because it was simply rude and over-the-top, and also because it got in the way of what I was trying to say and still believe — that most sports blogs suck. I apologized to Leitch publicly, and I also made a conscious effort, much like Friday Night Lights, not to duck a single interview. In those interviews, many of them Q and A’s with blogs, I was able to explain my position in a more cogent and thoughtful way. And to some degree, the tide turned a little bit. At least to the degree that there were less $%&*ing sheep and horses comments. And in the e-mails I received (my e-mail is public on my website) I did begin to receive more and more comments congratulating me for saying what I believed. So that helped a lot. So did a recent LA Times story saying that my appearance had actually compelled some blogs to do some soul-searching on their own in terms of fairness and responsibility.
Q. Buzz, I’ve always believed you are one of the top non-fiction writers of our generation. That’s why it pained me so much to read comments about you on deadspin.com. There were hundreds, if not thousands. I’m assuming you read them because there were rebuttal posts with your name attached. How did you react to all of that?
A. I did read many of the Deadspin comments, largely out of curiosity and also because they only reaffirmed my point that most bloggers are sophomoric, bad comedians and seriously sexually-deprived. I never responded to any of the comments, so some bloggers must have been using my name. I did do a long interview with Will Leitch at Deadspin right before he left to go to New York magazine. And while I continue to dislike the website, I did find him forthright and very pleasant to deal with.
Q. Many of us columnists are sensitive types who don’t court nuclear fallout. Some of us can’t take personal criticism. Most of the deadspin.com comments were anonymous, ignorant and hateful. For example, you were called old and bitter, sophomoric, a douche, clueless, thin-skinned, a dork, pretentious, a dinosaur, kinda weird looking, a tool, and on and on and on. Almost every name in the book. But it’s juvenile stuff. What do you make of this? Are readers and bloggers that mean when they can hide?
A. Of course. When you hide behind anonymity, it gives you a certain depressing empowerment in this day and age not only to say whatever you want, but say it in a way that is as vitriolic as possible. What struck me was the level of personal attack about how stupid I looked in a leather jacket, how ugly I was, etc. etc. And bloggers argue they are dedicated to spirited discourse? Give me a break. Too many of them are dedicated to be being malicious jerks behind fake handles. Unfortunately, it is the age in which we live.
Q. The reason I am exploring this with you is because as columnists, we are now facing the same kind of anonymous avalanche of criticism on our own newspaper Web sites. Anyone with a computer can write just about anything and there it is, on the screen, searchable on the Internet fo evermore. Any advice for us on how to deal with this?
A. My wife gives the best advice — ignore it. Stop doing Google searches. And of course, I ignore her advice. Once again, I think it all goes back to what you write and what you say. We know when we have taken a gratuitous potshot at someone. But we also know when we have written something that we believe in with all our heart. The key to a good column in my mind is honest passion, even if it’s a position that few agree with. If you feel that honest passion about something, and you convey that honest passion on the page, then you have nothing to worry about, except thousands of anonymous individuals coming after you. And remember, they are cowards. That’s why they are anonymous.
Q. And finally, is there any way we can use these new media critiques of our work to help us become better writers?
A. I think if a critique is cogent and comes from an honest place, it can help. As I said before, those critiques did help lead me to some blogs that are well-written and filled with information (still the vast minority). But the problem is, those kind of analyses in the blogosphere are few and far between. So what is happening in my mind is actually sad: what could be a helpful discourse between writer and reader on the Internet has basically devolved into a silly game of who-can-top-this in terms of being the nastiest. That doesn’t help anybody and only furthers the chasm between the so-called mainstream media and the blogosphere. And I don’t see it getting any better. Let’s face it: Cruelty is what sells today.
Write Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org