I’d like to relate with you the first episode in sensitive statements I had with an editor named Myles Standish at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona many years ago while in college. I’d written a piece about a soccer game that went into overtime, and in my submission for his edit, explained how it’s dragging on was a de facto Bataan Death March.
Bad idea. And poor, poor form.
My editor, Myles Standish, explained to me what poor form was in writing to the public. Making fun of misfortune? Off limits. Comparatives with war, where actual lives were lost? Off limits. There are few things that are sacred as a burial field, and require exceptional care negotiating. You never know when you’ll be speaking to the family of a Bataan Death March in your article, and to compare that atrocity with a soccer game? It would have been wrong and an absolute affront.
I was still going through journalism school, and it was a lesson seared into my mind that I was grateful to have received. I’ve been astute to sensitive issues ever since; I never wanted to have a firestorm of rightful criticism come my way.
Looks like Myles needs to have a chat with ESPN’s Michael Smith. Because here we go again, fighting the good fight against unknowing non-endemic media.
Seems another mainstream media voice has spoken, to the rightfully fiery ire of the cycling community. After Dutch Tour de France riders Jonny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Fletcha were swept off the road by a France Television car—with Hoogerland tumbling into and becoming ensnared and shredded by a barbed-wire fence—ESPN’s Michael Smith thought the crash … amusing.
Smith took it further at his Twitter page, with this gem:
A handful of replies to Smith called out his callousness. No matter; Smith’s ego swelled, and his heels dug in.
“I’m sorry that crash is hilarious. Every. Time.”
When the outpouring of venom rightfully came at him hard and fast, his reply was infuriating.
“It had far been too long since I’d angered an entire community. Today I’ve managed offend cyclists everywhere. Guess what? It’s still funny.”
And more smarmy talk.
“i’d like to apologize to cyclists, people who ride bikes, people who know people who ride bikes, and even paperboys. Happy? I miss anybody?”
When the shitstorm really began rolling in, his replies began getting less emboldened, suggesting people “chill” and that it was a joke. Where’s the punchline, Smith?
As a media representative (he might call himself a personality, but we would argue that categorically), you never want to draw attention to yourself; the stories should be the athletes, not the people reporting on them. But along comes Smith, and The Washington Post reports not on the crash, but on Smith’s outlandishly insensitive statement in arrears of it. That spoke volumes to what’s wrong with the media today, and to a degree, social media.
So Smith thought it was funny. Every. Time. No, not scary that the guys were dangerously swept off the road by an overzealous media car (a story that requires its own story in its own right), but amusement as two humans are dumped unceremoniously to the road. Skinny guys tumbling across the road at 35 miles per hour, one into a barbed wire fence? Comedy, pure comedy.
My only conclusion for Smith’s comments is that he’s simply doing what most American media do with things like cycling that they don’t understand: they ridicule it.
OK, that’s his opinion. But I’ll be damned if he didn’t tell all his followers, who drive cars and already listen to his ESPN colleague Tony Kornheiser, who has already made cyclist-unfriendly statements in the past that advocated running cyclists off the road. By making light of the crash, he’s effectively telling a highly-influenceable viewership it’s not only OK to laugh at the misfortune of others, it’s effectively advocating it as a passable offense to crash out riders. Run them off the road, it’s good times!
OK, deep breath.
Let’s remove these facts: cycling is hard—see the Alps and Pyrenees. Crashes hurt—see Alexander Vinokourov’s broken femur head and Jurgen Van Den Broeck’s collapsed lung and fractured shouder blade and two broken ribs already in this year’s Tour. And sometimes crashes kill. Recall Wouter Weylandt’s May 9 death on stage three of the Giro d’Italia.
As triathletes, we’re cyclists, and, by default, cycling fans. And our blood boiled. Maybe the best way to get a guy like Smith to appreciate his comments is to give him a week on the bike, to see the experience firsthand. Or maybe since it’s so damn funny, we can all have some good laughs shoving Smith’s ass out of a car at 35 miles per hour. Hell, we’ll even give him leathers to ease the experience. No doubt he’ll be ROTF—literally.
Street justice aside, at best, we can accuse Smith of being disconnected with reality. A later tweet stated he was glad no one was hurt. Hoogerland was shown with his shorts literally shredded off, wearing deep slices across his glutes after tangling with the barbed wire. Fletcha, too was bandaged after his hard fall. I think as a community we would agree Hoogerland and Fletcha’s getting up and soldiering on was a classic example of just how hard cyclists are. They don’t call a timeout, get pulled from the game and go on IR. Believe me, just because they got up and were riding again doesn’t mean they weren’t in a world of hurt.
So my only conclusion for Smith’s comments is that he simply is doing what most American media do with things like cycling that they don’t understand: they ridicule it.
Fair enough; we as cyclists wear spandex and wear garish colors. I’ll take that on the head all day long, no problem. If Smith wants to berate cyclists (and we’ll throw triathletes in there because we certainly deserve it), hell, I’ll laugh along with Smith, throw popcorn and whoop it up.
But a crash?
In his (very weak) defense, he likely spoke with a prejudice. While bikes have equal rights to the road, we as cyclists don’t do ourselves any favors in America when we run red lights, swerve across lanes, ride across crosswalks and bang on car fenders. As nimble as our bikes are, cars don’t have the luxury. And darting cyclists with fingers extended don’t endear us to the folks in the 4,000-pound car. Hence the Kornheiser remarks in the past, and the idiotic comments from Smith.
But nothing clears the comments from either. I, like many, sent in a request to reprimand Smith with ESPN, receiving an auto-reply that the comment would be forwarded on. Perhaps that took effect at some level; Wednesday, Smith deleted the most inflammatory of his comments. And Thursday, after a few days of berating detractors by advising them to “play in traffic,” and thanked others for feeding his ego, Smith went Twitter-dark.
Which to me shows what a journalist he is—or at least once was. He cut his teeth like I did, worked hard through j-school, served as a newspaper beat writer in New Orleans, worked his way up the ladder to become the New England Patriots beat writer with the Boston Globe before joining ESPN.com as a senior football writer. So he knows what the Society of Professional Journalists is. Maybe he’s a member. Regardless, the group follows a code of ethics, stating that journalists should:
-Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with … inexperienced sources or subjects.
-Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
-Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
I think we can all assume he crossed the line; he used no sensitivity dealing with an inexperienced subject. He used his position as a license for arrogance. He showed poor taste, and was pandering to lurid curiosity.
There’s one more code he failed on: being accountable to the public, specifically his viewers and readers. Hell, not even accountable to his own colleague, Bonnie Ford, ESPN’s cycling beat-writer. Were I Ford, I’d have some sharp words for Smith upon her arrival stateside.
Even with social media, as a public figure he should be held to a greater standard. Smith issued a weak (and seemingly forced) Twitter apology Wednesday (this following a smarmy pseudo-apology, which was also among those he deleted.) Smith did the weakest thing a professional journalist can do: he erased his comment trail, issued a pathetic apology and is just hoping the whole thing blows over. Instead of being a man and a professional, owning his comments, he’s run away from them, waiting for the storm to pass.
Something tells me he still doesn’t get it. Which is fine. But he doesn’t merit the soapbox he has to espouse his acute view on things, because those views are dangerous.
Maybe he doesn’t understand why he should be held to different standards. Which, again, is fine. Remember when ESPN suspended Tony Kornheiser for his comments about SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm’s outfit? Yes, this is the same Kornheiser who didn’t get as much as a slap on the wrist after advocating running cyclists down on his radio show, a comment that raised the ire of Lance Armstrong. Regrettably, Armstrong did Kornheiser the favor of coming on his show—effectively boosting Kornheiser’s show ratings—to argue what a blithe idiot Kornheiser was.
Laugh at the colors and outfits, but good God, not when human pain, suffering and potentially life are the subject du jour.
And as recently as yesterday, ESPN suspended college football writer Bruce Feldman, caught up in a web of accusations about a book he co-wrote. All that was at stake there are egos and lawyers, but ESPN raised its might hammer, and suspended one of its writers, right or wrong.
But cycling? Because it’s “just” cycling, will they raise and drop the gavel on Smith, stick him in the corner or send him on his merry, laughing way? There’s certainly no lack of journalism talent foaming at the mouth, waiting to take his place and improve the product.
What I hope is that ESPN can put the situation in a context they can understand. If his comment fell during Felipe Massa’s near-death experience at the Hungarian GP in 2009, would Smith still be in a job? How about when the Texas Rangers fan fell out of the stands recently at a baseball game? If Smith tweets about how funny it was to see him fall headfirst onto the concrete floor below as his son watched… would they then make a move? Is it because neither cyclist died—as that fan did—that separates one accident as comedy and the other as somber? Can Smith explain the difference?
Maybe if some ad dollars started dropping out from Nestle (owner of PowerBar and Vittel, Arrowhead and Ozarka waters, along with a host of other brands including Lean Cuisine, DiGiorno Pizza, Baby Ruth and Haagen Dazs ice cream) or Europcar (part owner of National Car Rental), ESPN would take notice. It’d take some high up to rattle ESPN’s cage, but hey, we can hope there’s a bike fan among the brass.
The bottom line is this: As much as the American media would like to laugh at the guys in Lycra, cycling is dangerous. And the death of Wouters has proven so. As has the death of Fabio Casartelli was in 1995. Spaniard Juan Mauricio Soler is still recovering from a Tour de Suisse crash last month that led to him being placed in an induced coma. Joseba Beloki’s famous crash in 2003 ended his career. These guys, descending shoulderless roads at 60 miles per hour on two millimeters of tire patch are more daring than an outfielder crashing into a padded wall to deny a home run, or a wide receiver making a crossing pattern. Bike crashes are serious business. And under no circumstances are funny. Laugh at the colors and outfits, but good God, not when human pain, suffering and potentially life are the subject du jour. Smith needs a basic lesson on what’s proper to laugh at, and what is not.
Hopefully ESPN realizes he’s a blind liability to the brand and either suspends him to bring a bit of sensibility and journalistic integrity back to the brand, or at best relieves him of his job, so he can get a good, anonymous job bagging groceries. At least there, his influence can’t be terribly detrimental to the American cyclist, failing sticking a spoke in someone’s wheel.
Jay Prasuhn is a senior editor at LAVA Magazine.