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...
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.