DON’T HATE US, WE’RE ONLY THE MESSENGERS

Like most people, I wanted to be liked. I wanted to walk into every room and have people smile, reach for my hand, slap me on the back.

I picked the wrong job.

I became a sportswriter.

My kind are greeted with sighs, smirks, head shakes and spit. Occasionally a poke in the chest. Now and then, a bucket of water. I am blamed, vilified, avoided, ignored, sometimes tolerated, never trusted.

I am a sportswriter.

And I wonder what went wrong.

You remember those old baseball movies, where players and reporters ride trains together, playing poker, smoking cigars? It looks like fun. It is not reality.

This is reality: Mike Ditka calling a reporter “son of a bitch” during a press conference. Deion Sanders dumping water on Tim McCarver. Female journalists being announced with, “(Expletive) in the locker room! Cover up, boys!”

Each year passes, and we seem to be less and less liked. We are blamed for every problem. “The media made that up.” “The media got me fired.”

Even fans now seem to say the word “media” and spit.

Not exactly what I had in mind.

Reporters don’t take sides

And so today, as the year ends, I want to address this anger, particularly

in sports. And while I will admit that some sports writers are guilty of rude questions and bad judgment, I want to start with this reminder: Writers are not on the roster. We do not pop champagne. We do not wear championship rings.

The fact is, we are the only ones in the athletes’ inner circles who are not automatically on their side. And that may be the problem. Look who surrounds them: the coach, the trainer, the equipment guy, the PR person, who, among other things, lines up tickets for players’ friends.

There are agents who obviously adore their millionaire clients. And there are, of course, countless fans.

And then there are the reporters.

Now. Who stands out in this picture?

No wonder many athletes can’t understand why we are not 100 percent on their side. These are people who, for the most part, have been coddled since the day they showed superior athletic talent. From high school on there was someone to make tough things (grades, money, paperwork) easier.

Journalists are not in that business. We are not PR people. I don’t think athletes understand this. They read 100 straight, positive articles and take them for granted. They read one critical article and throw a fit.

And speaking of positive — a common cry, why can’t you be more positive?
— hey, consider what we’re covering. This year the front pages had Magic Johnson and the AIDS virus, Marge Schott accused of racial and ethnic slurs, a college quarterback blowing $50,000 on guns and parties, and countless athletes charged with sexual assault.

Folks, believe me, it’s hard to put a positive spin on that.

It’s a thankless job, but . . .

Now. I will say this: There are some sportswriters who seem to hunger for bad news. Some of us take a single sentence and blow it into a whole story. Some of us write to impress our colleagues. Some don’t check facts carefully enough. And some, I think, just resent the money these guys are making.

The biggest crime we commit, however, is when we forget the power of our typewriters. A little “joke line” can leave some athlete’s kid crying, or his wife harassed. These can be lethal weapons, the English language, the printing press, and they should be respected.

Which leads to my final point: respect. It runs both ways. I find it grimly amusing when I hear the average guy spit at the media, as politicians and business moguls have done for years. Don’t you realize we are the only thing standing between you and them?

Do you think for one minute the government would be forthcoming with news about war, the economy, congressional misbehavior or any other scandal if they didn’t have to answer to the press? You think businesses would willingly fess up to their indiscretions? Would some win-crazy college football program just waltz outside and tell you its players were paid big money to attend?

All that we do, all that we judge, comes from information we have. And like it or not, we, the media, are the single biggest source of that information. Lose this, you lose America. Our Founding Fathers most have known something when they guaranteed a free press.

So while I don’t condone Geraldo Rivera or the National Enquirer, I’m hoping next year brings a little less anger at the media, and a little more understanding — on both sides. Most of us journalists long ago gave up on being Mr. Popular. But we shouldn’t be the world’s scapegoat. And we don’t deserve spit or water buckets.

A simple “no comment” will suffice.

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