Back when I was a member of the Fourth Estate, I was always quite happy to bite any hand that fed me. If you offered me an expense paid trip, I would generally have no compunction about taking it, but you had better be prepared to count your fingers when I wrote it up.
When I mentioned this the other day to Steve Goff, the Washington Post’s soccer correspondent/blogger, he sounded quite appalled. What shocked him was not my capacity for ingratitude when calling things as I saw them, but that I would have ever dreamt of accepting a freebie in the first place.
Our conversation, at this stage being conducted, with epithets, via e-mail, had begun more decorously at Washington’s National Press Club to which we had repaired as lunch guests of South African Tourism to hear Lucas Radebe talk about South Africa’s preparations for 2010.
I told Goff of my plan to bring a group of US soccer bloggers to the Confederations Cup next month. Predictably, he regretted the Post would not allow him to come on such a trip, but he was also very helpful in recommending the names of other bloggers whom he thought I might approach with more success. He even gave me their e-mail addresses.
It was with a certain amazement, therefore, that I read what he had to say about our conversation in a blog item he uploaded to the Post website later that afternoon. He threatened to name and shame anyone who came on the proposed tour as ethically challenged. It had an impact. Several of his biggest competitors, who might otherwise have been covering USA versus Brazil and Italy as the International Marketing Council’s guests, will now, with him, be staying home.
Soccer, in the US, receives more coverage in the blogosphere than it does in mainstream media. That is to be expected, since the beautiful game does not yet have the mass following of baseball, gridiron football, or basketball. The fan base is substantial, nonetheless. Indeed, as of last week, only one country, the UK, had applied for more World Cup tickets.
The growing demand for soccer news is being met by websites and blogs. Some are hosted by mainstream media organisations like the Post, the New York Times, Fox News and the ESPN sports television network. Then there are freestanding sites like Centerlinesoccer.com, Goal.com, and Worldcupblog.com. Last but not least there are individual bloggers like Ives Galarcep (soccerbyives.com) and Bruce McGuire (dunord.blogspot.com) who have developed their own brands and followings. There is a lot of overlap. In a number of cases individual bloggers rely on freelance income from the likes of ESPN.
It is this last group that has been most affected by the fallout from Goff’s blog post. News executives at ESPN in particular have reacted in seeming terror that their organization might be indelibly tainted if a couple of its bloggers accepted hospitality that is routinely offered by entities like IMC, not to mention FIFA itself, and accepted by media everywhere else.
I admire the ethical standards that most US editors work hard to maintain, but threatening freelancers with excommunication for accepting an expense paid media trip does seem, a little, well, Talibanic. It is not as though we at IMC are going to drug these people (a little wine, maybe), let alone waterboard them, to get them to see things our way. We are not going to be showing them any Potemkin villages. They are free to bite our hands, as I used to do. And there is nothing to stop them from fully disclosing to their readers – as indeed they should — how they came to be in South Africa.
It occurs to me those readers might actually have appreciated their on the spot reporting not just of the big games against Italy and Brazil but of what it’s like to attend a soccer match in South Africa and what conditions are likely to be for fans who make the trip to the World Cup next year. Of course, if people in the American news business cared more about their customers, Warren Buffett would not be avoiding their companies like the plague.