No Cheering in the Press Box

Cheering in the press box is frowned upon. (pic courtesy of Pete Abraham)

Cheering in the press box is frowned upon. (pic courtesy of Pete Abraham)

Imagine this: It is the last day of the season. The Yankees, despite being the oldest team since Nebuchadnezzar invented the spitball, are tied for first place. The AL East is mediocre, so they have to win the division to get into the playoffs. They are down a run or two. There are men on base. Alex Rodriguez is at the plate.

This, we are supposed to believe, is a rare instance where the fans and the writers up in the press box will be rooting for the same thing. Yankee fans want the playoffs, no matter who gets them there. Writers want a story, and it’s hard to imagine a better story than the much-maligned Rodriguez sending the Yankees to the playoffs with a clutch home run. The only difference, in that circumstance, should be one of volume. Fans will be screaming, but the press box will be tensely silent. No cheering in the press box.

But is that accurate? Is there really no cheering in the press box? And what does that even mean anyway? Does it mean reporters are supposed to maintain objectivity or is it sportswriting’s equivalent of wearing a hardhat on a construction site? There are people working here. Cool it.

As part of the research for this article, I contacted baseball writers from every major league market to ask their opinions on the concept of “no cheering in the press box” and their personal relationship with it. I heard back from seven writers (one of whom requested anonymity) and though the sample is not enormous, it did show some disagreement about what the phrase means.

Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune gave the purest objectivist answer I received, saying, “It means you’re strictly objective, with no emotion attached to the outcome. Some writers have said that you ‘root for the story.’ I understand it, but I don’t go that far…my job is to document the elements as best I can…”

I found this answer interesting because most of us have heard sportswriters say openly that they “root for the story.” It’s so well known that you likely didn’t bat an eye at my use of it in the introduction to this piece. But, rooting for a story is still rooting, right? It’s about self-interest. As C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer put it when asked about his rooting interests: “Honestly, in the end, I root for me. I want a good, quick, compelling game with a great story.”

The point everyone seemed able to agree on was that “no cheering…” means that, effectively, it’s an office environment. Beyond that, there was also general agreement that writers are not supposed to root for the teams they cover — even internally. This gets to the heart of the objectivity issue. Are writers capable of being truly objective?

Among those who replied to my questions, there was disagreement on this question. Of course, the basic answers to this are either “yes” or “no.” Among those who said it wasn’t possible, it came down to being about people. Consider the following from Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star:

“I think you need an incredible amount of empathy to be a good reporter…I like writing stories about people, and baseball writing gives you the best chance at a newspaper to write stories about people. In order to do this job well, you have to get to know the people you cover. It’s hard to write negative things about people you like and it’s hard to write nice things about the players who treat you like a member of some sub-human species. But you have to be fair. The readers can tell, otherwise.”

That’s a lengthy quote, but I wanted to give so much of it because it touches on something I think all of us from the outside understand. Some players are jerks. Other players are really nice guys. But how nice a player is doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how good he is or how well he played. So while reporters like McCullough can’t (because they are human) hold objective opinions about the players as people, they “have to be fair.” Of course, the definition of fairness takes us down another road entirely, and maybe there’s room for an article on that someday, but not today.

Perhaps the most interesting response to the question about objectivity, however, came from the reporter who insisted on remaining anonymous. This writer said he believed that complete objectivity was possible, but on the question I asked about whether he had ever broken the “no cheering” rule, he said, “I have. Sometimes it cannot be helped. When you follow a team for a full season, it’s hard not to get a little emotionally invested. As long as it’s clear that you can remain objective, and as long as it’s a very occasional vocalization or something, it’s not really that big of an issue.”

There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance in that reply. Perhaps what he’s really speaking about is the concept of fairness mentioned by McCullough and other writers I corresponded with. But objective? I don’t know if I can believe a reporter is objective when he says he cheers for the team.

This provides a good segue into discussion of the age of the phrase “no cheering in the press box.” I will confess that I was unable to trace the origin precisely. I suspect it has been around quite a long time. Certainly, it was well-established when Jerome Holtzman put together the classic sportswriting book of the same name. In the original volume, published in 1973 (it has since been updated to included more writers), Holtzman presents the results of interviews on sportswriting with 18  writers who were around for the real dawn of sportswriting in America.

What is fascinating about those pages is how often they record the very opposite of what the title implies. Often, writers were deeply, deeply invested in the lives and fortunes of the players they covered. Anyone who’s delved deeply into sports has noted that, in earlier eras, sports reporting had a decidedly different tone than it does today. What once passed as genuine journalism in sports would often be relegated to an opinion column today. Reading the stories, it is impossible not to see that sports journalism has at least tried to become more objective. But has it, really?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In 2004, Scott Reinardy (a former sports reporter, now a Ph.D. in journalism and a professor at the University of Kansas) published a study on objectivity in college football coverage. What the study found was that it is often extremely difficult for sports reporters to remain objective in their coverage.

The reasons for this are varied. First, sports reporters are in the unusual position of being constantly surrounded by literally thousands of people who do have a rooting interest in what’s happening before them. Second, reporters get much of their information from the teams they cover and that information can come with a ready-made conflict of interest. Reporters are not always allowed to report everything they see if they want to continue being given full access. And, even when reporters do report something, teams may have the power to marginalize how the material is presented in the newspaper.

Reinardy’s study provides an excellent example of this from the 1995 football recruiting period when a negative story…“was set for Jan. 22, 10 days before the Feb. 1 NCAA deadline for signing high school seniors to a football scholarship. [Nebraska Coach Tom] Osborne lobbied the newspaper’s news and sports editors to soften the story and delay publication until after Feb. 1. After heated debate within the newsroom, the story was rewritten, burying the original lead…in the 15th paragraph. The story was bumped from the front page to the bottom of the sports front, and the crux of the story was on the inside sports jump page. Also, it was not published until Feb. 4.”

Now, that’s not a baseball story, and you can assume that a famous football coach in a small college town can wield more pressure on the local media than big-city baseball management.  But it’s certainly illustrative and it’s easy to understand how similar pressure could be applied by major league teams, many of which are or have been owned by media conglomerates of various kinds.

Even with all the outside influences that make it difficult to remain completely objective, the press box itself remains a kind of special space. I asked the beat writers about any changes they’d observed in recent years now that most fans get so much of their information from blogs and social media. The general response I got is that the press box is still the press box, even when bloggers are there. Here’s what Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe had to say: “There are former fan bloggers who have moved into the mainstream media — Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated for instance — and come into the press box to work. Jay is a Yankees fan and doesn’t hide that. But he acts professionally when he’s in the press box…Frankly, you’d look like some kind of dope cheering and would get the stink eye from everybody else.”

That is a textbook description of peer pressure, but peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing. After seeing what Abraham had to say, I reached out to Jaffe for his thoughts. What he said was that it’s part of the gig. Or, in his own words, “If you want to be accepted into the world of professional media, it’s abundantly clear that you have to put that stuff aside.” He did note that the exception was watching Derek Jeter get his 3,000th hit, but even then, “I avoided the temptation to cheer, instead channeling my emotion into a tweet and getting a bit choked up over the enormity of his accomplishment and my own good fortune at getting to watch it from this privileged seat.”

I wondered if there were any other circumstances like the one Jaffe describes, in which the emotions couldn’t help taking over, and what that might look at in the press box. What if your childhood team is in the World Series, on the brink of victory? For all except the anonymous writer, the consensus was, it’s just laundry. Indeed, it seems that the widespread availability of most media might pull reporters toward objectivity. Gonzales put it best when he said, “I remember returning upstairs at Minute Maid Park on deadline after the Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Just before I started to write, I heard a voice say, ‘One million people are going to read your story. You better make it work.’ I looked up, and it was Ned Colletti, whom I knew from our days when I covered the Giants…Ned was a former sports reporter, so he knows what it’s like to write about a monumental event.”

Sportswriters have a complicated and difficult job. For much of the history of sportswriting, they solved it by not being objective at all. They caroused with the players. They entered into money-making schemes with the players. And anyway, the papers were all local, so who was going to hold them accountable? But in recent decades, it’s transitioned into something much closer to the objective journalistic ideal. The writer covering your favorite team today is probably not totally objective, but they are trying to be fair. They are aware that a lot of people are watching and they value journalistic integrity.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Jim S.
8 years ago

As someone who was a sportswriter for 20 years, I can assure you that college football — at least at a place like Nebraska — is in another stratosphere. And the bigger the market the more immune it is from corporate pressure.

Jason S.
8 years ago

I’m not sure that a “this happened in college football so it could happen in MLB too” (my words there) analogy is very likely. Note that because it’s being played by amateurs (more or less or at least in theory) that college football has rules that don’t apply to MLB. It’s hard for me to believe that most negative stories in MLB would really have a lot of impact unless maybe someone like Marge Schott were to re-enter MLB. Free agents are likely to sign with whoever offers them the most money. College kids can’t hold out for more money so bad stories can impact their being recruited in ways that won’t happen in MLB. MLB free agents aren’t going to say “Yeah, I know I just signed a 10 year contract for $200 million but you fired your manager so I want out now” whereas a recruit might indeed want to leave a program after committing to it if the coach who recruited him leaves before the season starts. It just seems too much of an apples to oranges comparison to me to draw many parallels from.

8 years ago

Are we really better off now that journalists are more objective and more interested in holding players accountable? I, for one, long for the days when I didn’t know what players were doing off the field.

8 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Replying to my own post with some more thoughts…

I think my POV is that I still view baseball the same way I did when I was a kid, even though I’m now pushing 40. When I read about baseball, I’m much more interested in reading something written by a story-teller than I am in reading something written by a journalist. When I read about guys like Ruth and Mantle going out carousing and drinking my thought is always “I’d love to have been there”; I never think “how irresponsible, they have a game the next day.” At the end of the day, it’s still entertainment.

8 years ago

A few years ago I had the pleasure of covering the University of Maine men’s hockey team while working as the lead layout guy for a local newspaper. Writing was always a side passion of mine and being able to combine it with the college hockey team I grew up rooting for seemed like a natural fit. I learned early on how important maintaining a level of professionalism was while up in the booth. Almost more in the lines of the unwritten rule “Act like you’re been there before.”

Writing objectively is hardest when you have a personal connection with a club, even though that connection is bound to happen if you’re following a team around long enough.

8 years ago

Mike raises a good point but it cuts both ways. Scribes shielded the public from players’ social lives but the same can probably be said about writers’ lives too. Back in the age of the Corona typewriter when writers were not on TV, they had a lot of spare time on their hands. Imagine a beat write covering a Saturday afternoon game on the road and then being free from 7 pm to 12 the next day. I always wondered how many of these old school writers had bad habits that caused them to use information they would never publish to potentially cash in with the bookie behind the bar at the hotel watering hole. Motives for cheering for one time or another could be more financial than emotional. I remember “The Odd Couple” with Oscar’s admission that he “drank, gambled, and smoked.” Ever since I saw that film in 1967 (I think), that thought has always been in the back of my mind.

8 years ago

Nonsense. Local writers can not be objective because they rely on the team to feed them stories and get them access to players, managers, coaches, FO staff, etc. A truly objective reporter would call out players and management far more often than they do, but can not because it would be career suicide. In fact, in some cities the writers actually work for the team because the owners of the team and the paper they write for have the same owner (eg Boston Globe)

Objectivity is possible at the national level, at least when it comes to teams and players, but at the national level reporters have to tread carefully when it comes to stories regarding MLB policy, since again, they relay on access and information from MLB sources.

Back in the day access was a lot easier for writers. Players were so poorly paid many could be enticed to go out to dinner on the writers expense account. Writers could be far more objective then than now, and to my memory following the Red Sox in the 60’s and 70’s they were far more critical of players, management and owners. Today they are more like PR specialists for the team

Richard Berndt
8 years ago

Good post! The idea that any writer is objective is absurd. Even if you’re not openly expressing opinions, a writer makes decisions on what to write about, how promently to feature what they do write about, and what language to use in describing events.

It’s easy in many cases to parse an article on an issue with two or more views to see if it’s fair. How many column inches are devoted to different sides? If one side is the discussed early in the story, while the other is buried, that’s not fair.

The mainstream media has lost a lot of credibility in recent years, whether in politics or sports, etc. However, while much of the Internet features the large media entities, there are a lot of alternative choices for fans. So if your local newspaper’s reporters hate sabermetrics and prattle on about RBIs, batting average, and pitchers’ wins, there’s Fangraphs, Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus, SB Nation, etc. And many of the writers on those sites are happy to critique what others write, so there’s more accountability in that sense.