Sunday, August 12, 2007

OK, OK! He can still eat a dick!

Since I started this weak blog, I've rarely been asked to comment on particular issues of the day. But this week, no fewer than 6 people have emailed, commented or told me in person that I needed to write something about Stewart Mandel's two week assault on rationality which was his attempt to categorize elite teams.

I hadn't said anything because I thought Sen. Blutarsky, Michael Elkon, and the Mayor said most of what I wanted to say, and with significantly better writing.

Here are a few of my thoughts...

  1. Mandel's not alone in doing this - a lot of national media writers I sense have fallen into this habit of late, possibly due to the presence of bloggers: taking something that's pure subjective opinion and covering with a veneer of categorization to give the appearance that there's some form of objective analysis. The 100 Montantans test is a perfect example. Mandel isn't actually interviewing 100 semi-interested college football fans in Montana. He's just telling us what he thinks 100 fictional Montanans would think. It's a costume of objectivity, when it's really just subjectivity cloaking subjectivity. Personally, I think objectivity and subjectivity are sort of an "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". If you want to categorize teams a certain way, either use objective criteria (like winning percentage, titles, whatever you want) and include those teams no matter how much you personally differ (that's called intellectual honesty), or use subjective criteria alone and say "I think this because I think this" an if others disagree with their opinions, fine.

  2. To follow up on the objective/subjective divide... I think subjective analysis probably has its place, but there's no doubt that I prefer objective analysis when it comes to actually learning something. And that's the paradox. National columnists have jobs not because they can aggregate data, but because they are supposed to have some advanced knowledge on a subject that supports opinions the rest of us can't be expected to have. The flaw in that is that with information more readily available to us all, nobody has a particular monopoly on knowledge. So if Stewart Mandel's opinions (or anyone else's) aren't necessarily more informed than his readers' (and they aren't necessarily), he's not providing any service. Further, because national writers are expected to cover over 100 teams, their knowledge will necessarily be less informed than a fan who only cares about his team. So while in the aggregate on college football, national writers might have more knowledge (though not necessarily - if someone puts in the effort, the information is out there), but on any one particular topic, the national writer is at a distinct disadvantage. So if a national writer has no particular information advantage, why should we be expected to learn any more from them than we could from raw data?

  3. It might be a worldview issue for me. I have little respect for my betters. Never had. I refuse the concept of "betters" at all. So I've never really bought into the idea that someone else's opinion (especially when such opinion contrasts or cannot be supported by objective facts) is automatically deserving of respect. Naturally, there's a big picture approach to this. Opinions are the product of what people think. People are wrong. A lot. Opinions are often misguided or incorrect. College football polling is the basis of opinion.

  4. The worst part of Mandel's elite program analysis is that it's a tautology. Certain programs are "elite" because certain programs are thought of as elite. Certain programs are thought of as elite because individuals who cover those programs think of those programs as elite and affect their coverage accordingly. This cycle can happen without an external, objective definition of "elite" getting in the way. Or worse, when an objective definition is involved, writers/pundits insert their own opinion to supplant facts.

  5. Back to Mandel... a few weeks ago he admitted that he chose his own questions for his mailbags. To me, this was a significant development. Because now, there's ABSOLUTELY no excuse for when he doesn't answer a question for lack of knowledge (and it happens kind of frequently). If you can't answer it, DON'T CHOOSE THE QUESTION! If the question was so mind-numbingly stupid that it would receive mockery from a mouthbreathing message board troll, DON'T CHOOSE THE QUESTION! The only point that question serves is to elicit sympathy for the fact that a writer of such esteem has to actually receive emails from the hoi polloi. Deleting emails isn't hard. But with knowledge that he chooses the questions, we now know how he frames issues. If Mandel wants to take a shot at a particular team, all he has to do is pick the worst letter from a fan of that team. If he wants to puff up a particular program, he can pick a good letter and build upon it. If he wants to draw out trolls and start a massive debate, all he has to do is throw out some moronic analysis that would fire up a rabid fanbase. Which I think is why this elite program thing got revisited... Mandel's trolling.

  6. And on the topic of trolling... Mandel knows exactly how many people read every page at CNNsi. He knows what drives attention. He also knows that the more readers he gets, the more valuable he is to the site. There's a serious question here: if more readers is the strongest motivation, what is more important to a national writer: creating controversy or providing cogent analysis? Are we to a point where bad analysis could draw more flies because of the resulting controversy than good analysis? Are we now at the sports talk radio breaking point? An don't get me wrong... blogs aren't isolated from this. Some blogs surely troll for comments and links.

  7. I'm pretty sure this elite argument isn't over. Perhaps it shouldn't be. Elitism in college football is a problem. Certain teams receive the benefit of the doubt, while others do not. And this ends up affecting polling, bowl selections, and potentially the crowning of champions. Simply knowing that people, with all of their biases and flawed opinions, affect the game... that's a start. Then we can take the next step: rooting out those biases and flawed opinions, exposing them, and removing them from the equation. That'd make for a fairer system.
The guy has always bothered me, but he's not alone. The media's effect on the game shouldn't be discounted. And when poor analysis like Stewart Mandel's rears its head, it should be pointed out and we should learn from it. What we should do next is more difficult. Even if I ignore him, he matters because of his profile to others. Blogs can serve as a counter to national media figures - exposing their logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies, etc. Other writers can also do the trick. One of the things I've liked about Bill Simmons (who, yes, I know has tons of flaws as a writer and is a convenient blogger punching bag) recently is that he's not exactly afraid to take shots at other writers and voices with national pulpits. We need more of that. If LD in his pajamas in his mom's basement takes shots at Stewart Mandel, all of 6 readers might nod and post a comment saying how I took it to him. And he wouldn't care a bit. If Bruce Feldman, Pat Forde, one of the CFN writers, or whoever else points out how bad a competitor's piece is, that'd be a lot more effective. I wish we could challenge the idea of mutual respect or collegiality among people with the profile. I'd love to see writers police inadequacies among their own. I'd love to read it.

UPDATE: Peter Bean has more thoughts on this here.

I agree with much of it. I'd add one thing about the blog/MSM divide. I think there's a distinction between national media columnists and bloggers that's very evident in motivations. I think most MSM types are generally interested in college football, but they write because it's their job - and they are a source of profit for their employers. That motivation may affect how they write. Bloggers, on the other hand, may have thousands of reasons why they blog. Some are rabid partisans for a particular team. Others want to parlay a blog into a media job. Others just have lots of free time on their hands. Some bloggers offer basically the same content as a national media guy, but the only difference is the platform. And naturally, whatever motivation the blogger has for writing will eventually affect that writing.

I agree completely that the divide between bloggers and big media writers should be elevated. I'm as guilty as anyone of juvenile namecalling. I hope (bad writer, so hope is all I have) that the content of the posts, even if they start with namecalling, includes some more substantive criticism. And furthermore, I think the frustration many bloggers have with big media guys isn't what they write, but where. It's the platform for bad analysis that gets my goat, not the bad analysis. If Stewart Mandel wrote the same exact subjective analysis and anecdote-driven commentary on a blog with 100 hits a day, I doubt I'd devote any time to him. But because he gets tens of thousands of hits a day, what he writes matters more. And to whom much is given, much is expected. I've always kind of looked at it this way: I don't want Stewart Mandel's job. I sometimes don't even care if he does his job better. What I really want is for his actions not to have an effect on things. But under the current college football system, what he does (or the Gameday guys, or whoever else) matters. To the extent that blogs can factcheck or provide a counterweight to big media types, I think that's a realistic and positive step.


Peter Bean said...

One of six heads nodding.

Great post.

peacedog said...

As Elkon noted somewhat recently, the fact that Mandel picks his own questions and then cannot answer them is highly bizzare. I don't know what to make of that particularly phenominon. Not even Joe Morgan has that luxury (though I assume his chats are moderated and questions are pre-approved).

The fact that he's picking his own questions is creepy, and as you note makes for the situation you describe.

As for getting people's opinions out of our results, I'm surprised at how much resistance there is to the idea, though.

Kanu said...

Well said as always. There will always be a tenured position for you in my University of College Football as chair of the media relations department.

#2 of 6 head nodders here, although I never read Mandel because he has failed to meet the "you're a good writer and a knowledgeable dude whom I learn stuff from when I read your shit" threshold a long time ago, and as my free time for gathering/processing information on CFB is limited I just squeeze out and render irrelevant {to me} people who don't really know what they are talking about, and focus on those that do. The trick with that approach on a grand scale is the narrative and that the national pundits do have a trickle down effect on CFB.

#4 reminds me of the best scene in the movie "Sneakers" where Redford and Kingsley have a great tete-a-tete towards the end of the movie, and Kingsley says something like "reality isn't reality. PERCEPTION is reality" and demonstrates with the example of how a run on a bank works.

#6 reminds me of H Pizzle.

LD said...

Kanu in re #6...

I actually wasn't referring to him, but rather the link aggregator with cheesecake photo blogs (which I read and enjoy as much as anyone).

That said... I think you may be on to something.

And interestingly enough, the last thing I read by that dude included some bashing of link trolling blogs. Were I a good writer, I'd have some O Henry irony shit up in this.

Kanu said...


Not relevant/important but FYI:

Sorry- just realized that I wasn't clear re #6- wasn't referring to trolling at all, but this:

"Are we to a point where bad analysis could draw more flies because of the resulting controversy than good analysis? Are we now at the sports talk radio breaking point?"

and my reference was to the fact that dude seems to revel in stirring up shitstorms that in turn drive more traffic to his site which then makes his blip on the radar a little larger- thus the often unnecessary over the top stuff on top of the otherwise interesting point of views. I remember at times during the insano conference superiority blogwars of summer 2005 he would even say as much himself with the likes of {paraphrasing} 'oh yeah? well, my site traffic is way up so thanks hahaha'.

Anyhow, the fact that so many bloggers rip Mandel apart may only be making him more useful to his employers who ultimately do not care about content but rather ratings, or in this case the page views that online advertising agreements are based upon. I don't read his stuff much at all, but it sounds like the same thing as Steven A Smith where it is {in the mind of ESPN} knowingly bad because people will tune in just to 1) watch the trainwreck or 2) see what crazy shit he'll say today so they can cry foul and show how he is wrong. Same as lefties who do this with Rush/O'Reilly/Hannity/, or righties who do it with Al Franken, M Moore, etc. Those people are not only adding to the ratings by checking out what the pundits/commentators have to say, the vigorous debate/controversy/ sharply divided opinion raises the visibility and sells more papers/commercials/online ads/etc.

As for me, screw Mandel, GameDay et al. I much prefer reading your philosophic analysis of not only what they do but why they do it, than those shows themselves. So keep on doin' what you're doin' LD.