The Vikings' Media Bias

[And the best use of photoshop award goes to...]
It’s no secret that the traditional media industries are dying a slow tortured death, shrinking and shirking and splintering into a thousand cyber beats.

This has been going on for 15 years, and for 15 years big media folk have been wringing their hands wondering what to do about the internet and attending conferences and meetings, and then redesigning their websites multiple times (or not), consolidating, and inevitably laying off experienced reporters in favor of n00bs.

This is no secret. But having spent the last year or so reading non-stop coverage of every twist and turn in the pungent Vikings stadium debate/shakedown, I began thinking about the inevitability of media bias in stadium coverage. There are two ways, in particular, that the shrinking news hole affects how media cover the Vikings stadium.

1)    Horse-race Personality Journalism

As fewer reporters cover more stories, editors unavoidably tend to choose easier, simpler pieces over more difficult, complex ones. Meanwhile, the ‘angle’ that an overworked reporter takes on a story becomes more and more oblique until they’re basically forwarding press releases. Stories tend  more toward personality than policy because its much easier to write, so that a debate on the Vikings' stadium becomes more about Zygi’s latest word choice or Mark Dayton’s political tactics than its fiscal ramifications.

(This same kind of problem plagues political coverage, so that elections become like ‘horse races’, a bit like sporting events. Not to mention the fact that TV networks make oodles of money from campaign commercials, which hardly incentivizes them to foster alternative political debate or encourage reform.)

Following these trends, the question of whether or not to build a stadium is framed like a game between two competing sides – the Vikings and the naysayers. Only in this case, the Vikings are a business that stands to make a lot of personal wealth off of a huge tax subsidy, and the naysayers are the vast majority of the public and politicians who are concerned about government priorities. In most stories, though, it’s the Vikings corporate spokespeople who seem to be easy to understand and personify. They come with convenient logos and mustachio’d figureheads. It’s a horse race! Can wily Wilf outwit the red tape reactionaries and save the day? Stay tuned…

2)    Increasing Dependence on Sports Coverage

One of the other consequences of cuts to journalism is that the sports desk has become a larger percentage of the media business. Unlike pretty much every other part of the newspaper, sports has managed to somewhat maintain its traffic, readership, and relevance. It’s pretty much the news media’s last hope of surviving the proliferation and personalization of electronic information.

Thus the gradual increase in the percentage of reporters working for the sports desk. Thus the (futile) attempt to erect a “Vikings paywall” and wring some money out of the one remaining place where newspapers have a quasi-monopoly.*

So what you get is a Chinese watertorture drip of stories that just assume that building a stadium is inevitable, a good idea. You constantly get stories that take that frame for granted.

For example, this hook-less piece on playing football at the U of MN, "NFL has a record of success on campus":
The NFL team had decided it was time for a new stadium to replace its outmoded downtown domed arena, and agreed to a public-private deal to build on the dome's footprint. In the meantime, it proposed to play at the stadium of the large university nearby. The school agreed, and a deal was struck.


With the Metrodome site picking up momentum as the potential location for their next home, Vikings officials are figuring out how and where the team could play during the two to three years it will take to build a new stadium.

Is it really reasonable to expect a newspaper who is increasingly dependent on sports, and on the Vikings in particular, to be neutral on the question of whether or not they leave town? How would a football-free city impact the paper's bottom line? How much is the weekly Vikings game worth to Fox 9?

I’m not saying that our news media is intentionally biased about the stadium. But I’m not going to say that they aren’t either. As Upton Sinclair once said, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

The best and most critical coverage of the stadium debate has come from places like Minnpost, which (Aaron Gleeman excepted) doesn't really have a sports section. Whether or not the Vikings stay in town means a lot of revenue for our newspapers and TV stations.** How could we expect them to be unbiased about it?

If it seems to you like the overwhelmingly anti-stadium public isn’t getting a fair shake from the mainstream press, well, that’s because they probably aren’t. And given the financial interests involved, we shouldn't expect anything else.

[I'm sure Vikings Premium vastly underperformed, but at least they tried.]

PS: The Pioneer Press is just as bad, of course, if not worse. Witness two from today's front page alone: Duluth Vikings? and Vikings stadium gets push from business leaders.

Update: This tweet just in:
 Ed Kohler
RT : How sad is it that you have to read FORBES to find a columnist criticizing the Vikings Stadium deal?

The Forbes article in question? Vikings Owner Slaps Taxpayers for Offering to Make Him Much Richer.

* Though, as a devoted reader of independent baseball blogs, it’s worth pointing out that classic newspaper sports coverage doesn’t hold a candle to bloggers, neither in terms of creativity nor depth nor entertainment value. Pretty much the only thing that mainstream sports media has going for it is access, which yet another reason why they don’t want to piss off ownership.

** Then there’s the whole issue of the Star Tribune sitting on land that may become very valuable when and if the stadium gets financed. That’s another, much more blatant, story.


Alex said...

I'm not a sports fan, but what market would "getting inside the locker room with a beat writer" serve? Is it the sort of market that KY jelly wants to get into?

Matt said...

Bill, Bill Bill! Your screenshot gives away what kind of person Google or some other ad network thinks you are.

Bill Lindeke said...

oh man, matt, i just noticed that. :)

Alex said...

The more I think about 350 ft horns, the more I feel they need to be built, inflatable or otherwise.