Our Conversation With Buzz Bissinger

For the last few months, since that rather festive "Costas Now" business, we have been loathe to expand much more on our initial reaction. But as Buzz Bissinger has continued to give interviews to the "respectable" media, making his "points," we felt compelled to talk one last time, to wrap this whole business up. Buzz graciously agreed for a semi-wide-ranging conversation - which has taken place over email over the last week - to be published on the site today. So, here it is. Enjoy.

So here's the first question we've been dying to ask you, because we think you might be the only one who can answer it. You and we have been on television before, but never to the extent of exposure as there was on "Costas Now." We went to a baseball game in Milwaukee five days afterwards, and the beer guy recognized us from the show. (And asked for a high five. It's very difficult to high five a man when you're both holding bottles of beer.) We're not sure we like having so many people getting their introduction to us through that show, and we suspect you feel the same way. Do people recognize you from the show now? Has anyone said anything to you? Do you fear that a lifetime of work could be in danger of being boiled down to "that guy from HBO?"

Yes, tons of people have talked to me about my Costas appearance. They don't say much, just sort of chuckle as if to say, "What the Hell was with you that night?'" I did fear that a lifetime of work would be boiled down to that appearance. But in recent weeks, more people have agreed me than disagreed with me, although the general consensus is that there was a more artful way to express myself, which there was. My apology to you stands; you should not have been treated that way. Ironically perhaps, ever since the appearance, job offers have poured in. Only in America I guess...

I have also made a point to respond to as many people as I can who sent me emails, as long as they were relatively reasonable. And the answers back in general were kind and supportive of my past work, which made me feel a helluva lot better. At least one person I had never met kept staring me, said he had seen me somewhere. I mentioned Costas and he just said, "Yeah, that was it!" Then I quickly changed the subject.

Our Conversation With Buzz BissingerS

I still don't like the snarkiness of Deadspin. I still have a problem with tons of blogs because they are malicious and horribly written (there is more to writing than just sitting in front of a keyboard and putting down whatever pops in your head). The Deadspin posts are at least short and cleverly designed to elicit posts. As you and I both know, it is the comments that elicit the posts. They do go hand in hand. And most of the posts on Deadspin are stupid, sexually sophomoric and basically indulge in an unfunny game of who-can-top-this to be the most profane and inane. But I have also found blogs that are filled with good information, in particular those dedicated to a single subject. So the wide net I cast on the show was misplaced.

We don't want to get back into the whole "debate" AGAIN, but some points probably need to be addressed. Honestly, we tend to agree with Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post, who wrote: "Bissinger's delivery was marvelously entertaining, but that the crux of his argument made less sense than Emmitt Smith on mescaline." We've never felt you had anything to apologize for; everybody has the right to their viewpoint, and to express it however they feel. That doesn't make anything you said any more correct.

So, while we're here, we should probably dig into some of this, briefly, for a bit. As we do hope you noticed, we've tried to take the high road about this, not only on the show, but on Deadspin and in interviews afterwards. We plan on continuing that. But we're still a little confused about what you think of blogs, and us, and Deadspin. Let's focus on two aspects of all this we strongly disagree with you on: Comments, and press passes.

COMMENTS

In The Starting Five interview, you said, "I hate Deadspin. I think it represents everything that's wrong with blogs because it's snarky, malicious, mean spirited and vaguely filled with invectives–in particular when it comes to the comments. The comments are guided by the posts."

First off, we still seem to be stuck on the idea of posts and comments somehow being directly related to another. We could put a picture of a cute bunny on any open commenting forum on The Washington Post or Yahoo or AOL or whatever, and by the 15th comment, the n-word is coming out. Did we ask for that in my post with the bunny? This happened when we did a post about Pam Ward, a broadcaster we like very much. We said so in the post, and then some commenters made the jokes about her being a lesbian, or a man, or something. Is that inherently our fault? Leonard Shapiro wrote a column for the Post defending you a few days after the show. Comments were so varied and occasionally ugly that eventually the Post shut them down. Should we end every post with, "Come on, everybody, be nice. It's a beautiful world out there. Why so negative?" Isn't there legitimate value in some crassness every once in a while? Isn't that one of the things that make Ed Rendell so compelling?

Is your problem with commenting in general? You say you like Pro Football Talk, The Big Lead, Beerleaguer ... but their comments can get just as nasty. Our argument is not that people have become nasty; our argument is that people have always felt these things, and it's just that they have a vessel with which to express them now. We've been called every bad name in the book by commenters all over the Internet. We can get all angry and the-world-is-ending about it, or we can take them for what they are: Individual thoughts by individual people. You're never going to make everybody happy. You just have to have faith that you're doing good work, and hope that intelligent people who are looking for something to distract them from their day jobs recognize it. The world of journalism, or literature, or sports, it's not one for anyone with a thin skin. If you're really so bothered by it, can't you just ignore it? Do you really think there are kind, warm-hearted people who read comments and suddenly become monsters, because, hey, That's The Way Society Is Going Now?

Our Conversation With Buzz BissingerSThat is to say: The most interesting question of our entire panel was one that Costas put to poor Braylon Edwards: "Does your generation just handle this better because you're used to it? Do you just take it all with a grain of salt?" (We're paraphrasing.) Edwards' answer was exactly right: "Most definitely." If you're the type of person who REALLY gets worked up by Web commenters, it is highly recommended that you not read them. The rest of them will take them for what they're worth. Sometimes they're entertaining, sometimes they're nasty, sometimes they're smart, sometimes they're stupid. Is this really the end of the world?

PRESS PASSES

We do not understand why not taking press passes is somehow indicative of not being interested in "truth." We've done the press box thing before, and who knows, maybe at New York mag, we'll do so again. But we will do so when we think they'll give us a better opportunity and to get to the real truth of the story and provide it to readers. We think the world of sports reporting, in many ways, has become so insular that most writers are writing for other writers, rather than the people who actually consume sports. If we're not writing something that fans care about, something that has legitimate value - even if it's negative value - because we're afraid we'll anger a player, or that we'll lose our press pass ... aren't we doing those readers a disservice? We enjoy the distance that ignoring the press box gives us; it allows us to remain in touch with being an actual sports fan, and respond to sports in the way actual sports fans do. We're not chummy with anyone, and we're not out to get anybody either. The distance is (theoretically) what keeps us clear.

To put another way: When Costas, on the program, talked about Woodward and Bernstein as the perfect example of what makes a great journalist, he made our own point. The reason Woodward and Bernstein broke Watergate is because they were young, they were outside the loop of Washington political reporting and they were hungry. They weren't part of that Beltway insiderdom; they were outside, and realized they needed to do something great. You can argue that part of the reason they wanted to do something great was because they wanted to be on the inside; that's certainly up for debate. But the point was that they had distance from the inside scene, and could see Watergate for the huge story it was. Those too close to the story kept calling it Inside Baseball, that it was a non-story. It clearly wasn't. We're not saying every sports blogger, or us, is Woodward and Bernstein. We're just stating the case for the interested, impartial outside observer.

Not taking a press pass ... that doesn't mean we don't talk to people, or we don't interview people either. We didn't get ESPN insider memos by hacking into their email; we got those because we have sources, and we talk to them. We're not sure why there's this idea that there's not a basis in truth. If we just threw up whatever we wanted to on the site, regardless of whether or not it were true, people would stop coming to the site. Yes, anybody CAN write whatever they want on the Web, but if you want to be read, and respected, you have to do your best to get it right.

Here's our favorite example: There's no better baseball writer on earth than Roger Angell. But you don't see him in the press box. He observes, he thinks, he notes, and then he reports. Are you claiming that Roger Angell would have a better perspective if he elbowed other reporters surrounding a naked Jonathan Papelbon to get a quote about how, "I was feeling good tonight?" Of course not. Roger Angell writes the way he does because he has perspective, because he stays away. Does that somehow mean he doesn't want "truth?"

Anyway, we've gone on too long here. Those were two thoughts we had. We're fully aware, by the way, that after this is published, both of us are going to be called drooling douche morons by the majority of commenters. We're OK with that. Are you?

I guess what I think of you, without knowing you at all except that you're from Mattoon, which isn't your fault, is that you are smart and clever and seething with ambition. You are also very nice in person with the use of "sir" and other Limbaughisms. But there's another side of you. You say sweet things about Three Nights in August to me in an email, only to have previously ridiculed it in your blog. That to me suggests duplicity and the horoscope I get daily online sums it up nicely: "Watch out for someone who compliments you to your face, then talks about you behind your back; this one's not to be trusted!." So I guess that's what I think of you. Smart, savvy, played the Costas battle like a PR genius, and slightly two-faced (by the way, what was your publisher doing there? To offer muscle in case of attack? I think even I could take David Hirshey down…) In others words you make me nervous, one of these people whose ambition may well ultimately consume him.

(Ed. Note: At this point in the conversation, before our official response back, we had to interject with:

"We swear, we've never taken a shot at Three Nights In August, which, as we've mentioned before, we enjoyed very much. We can only assume you're referring to this post, in which we linked to someone else criticizing you - and the Bill James folk, we might add. That said, the "joke" about nerdom is cheap and not particularly funny. Now, Fire Joe Morgan ... we don't think they liked the book that much. But, alas"

Oddly, Bissinger came back with this post, which was almost three years ago (and written by Rick - who didn't have a login and therefore had to email his posts for us to post, hence the "Leitch" tag there), and, as far as we could tell, not even particularly derogatory to the book anyway. The line is: "11 a.m. MLB with Jerry Crasnick: Your book "License to Deal" is quite thick and formidable, but for pure door stoppage I'd have to go with Buzz Bissinger's 'Three Nights in August.'"

We responded accordingly:

"That was back before Rick - who has always written the We Have To Ask - had a login; at the time, everything was unbylined. But there's no reason you would know that. And, for the record, I'm not sure Rick saying that a book makes a good door stop is INHERENTLY an insult; it just means it's thick! But regardless: I apologize for the confusion."

Buzz then responded by sending the post to us four times again, and then: "The point is Will that these criticisms hurt. They particular hurt the writers of books since the time spent rarely every comes close to the yield you get out of it from either a literary or commercial point of view. I was lucky with Friday Night Lights. As a writer of books yourself, you can and should empathize with that. Want to know what it really feels like? Read the Washington Post reviews of Friday Night Lights by Jonathan Yardley and A Prayer for the City. When it comes to book writing, there is no such thing as a minor criticism, and this particular one just came out of nowhere and seemed to me at least utterly gratuitous since you apparently did not even mean it. "

And then we moved on with the interview, still a little confused, but unbowed. Back to Buzz now.)

Our Conversation With Buzz BissingerS

You created a blog that has become enormously popular, and anybody who creates anything that becomes enormously popular deserves high credit. You hit the cultural zeitgeist. But you also have it down pat. Your posts are just snarky enough to get people going (yes, there is an occasional exception where you are sincere about something), but the general tone of Deadspin is one of mockery and ridicule. A.J. Daulerio does the same thing. So does Big Daddy. The irony is that you are all very good writers, and I hope that when you go to New York, you don't fall into the easy journalistic trap of taking gratuitous cheap shots. Like saying somebody has the face of a frog, which is how the New York Observer described me after the Battle of Costas (at least they didn't say I was smaller than Danny DeVito…) And maybe I do look like a frog. Who the fuck really cares? It isn't a clever description anyway. Lazy….

We are simply never going to come to common ground on the issue of comments versus posts. I sincerely believe that the comments do guide the posts, and the whole tone of Deadspin sets up posts that are with virtually no exception a collection of one-liners that are malicious, stupid, profane, sexually pathetic, and I will agree with you here, about a hundred times nastier than the posts themselves. But still, you and the other commentators set the tone, in effect giving people a license to kill under the cowardly cloak of anonymity. I have said several times that I behaved like the worst kind of blogger on Costas, but with one major difference-I did not hide behind some silly-sounding pseudonym. People knew exactly who I was. And the apology I made to you was sincere-you should never have been treated that way. With me, what you see is what you get. I have exploded before. I have exploded afterwards. I will explode again.

As for people in general today being nasty, mocking, and reveling in the troubles of others, no disagreement there. It is the age in which we live and in particular the age in which your generation lives. I am not sure how this started. But there is no doubt that the Internet, and sites such as Deadspin, contribute to it because anybody can say anything they want. And in sports in particular, those who comment almost inevitably resort to the lowest common denominator. They may think they are funny. They may think they are clever. But I have news for them-they are not. And that is not generational on my part: most of the people who comment on your site are just moronic, indulging in some badly-played game of can-you-top-this. As for Ed Rendell, yes he was occasionally crass in the book I wrote, A Prayer for the City. Yes, he could be irreverent as mayor of Philadelphia. Yes, he dropped F-bombs. But he was also a million times funnier and cleverer than any single comment I have read on your site. He also has dedicated his life to public service. He doesn't hide behind some pseudonym. And Rendell's one-liners represented about .005 percent of what was a serious book about the plight of urban America that took me five and a half years (if you don't believe me, ask your colleague Daulerio). And those crass comments were not some series of Henny Youngman non-sequiturs. They were made in the context of trying to run a city with massive problems.

Should you stop commenting? Of course not. You have a right to say whatever you want, and, as I said earlier, you write with a smooth and deft glibness. You clearly have talent, and I will be curious to see if that talent blossoms into something truly special. But if all of a sudden Deadspin became utterly serious in its treatment of sports, dropped the snarky tone and the little bitch-slaps, I am convinced that the comments would slowly disappear. There would be no outlet for idiocy anymore because disciples would get quickly bored with the sudden sobriety. Your traffic would drop, which would mean your revenues would drop. Which is why, despite the recent LA Times article and all sorts of sports bloggers saying they have suddenly discovered the religion of responsibility, nothing is going to change. I may not like it, and I can and do try to ignore it, but people want an outlet to vent their venom. All they need is a little push in the right direction, and sites such as yours give them that push. Because we live in venomous times. And maybe we always have lived in venomous times, and the Internet has just given greater voice to that than ever.

PRESS PASSES:

First off, I have met Roger Angell once, and it was in the press box at Yankee Stadium during the 2003 Yankee-Cardinal series, and the only way he got in there was with a press press. What he does with the press press is that he uses it to report. The issue of the press press is that it provides a writer with access. How the writer utilizes the access is of course up to the writer. I don't think the world of sports writing is insular. I think the world of sports writing is all too often lazy, so I agree with you to the extent that for all the access these guys and a handful of women get, they don't do much with it. But take the work of Mark Bowden when he covered the Philadelphia Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Creative. Smart. Well-written. Interviewed everybody under the sun. Worked his ass off. Really took you inside the game. Now Mark is one of the great journalists in the country (he wrote Black Hawk Down) so maybe he is the exception. There are few out there like him who have covered sports, maybe no one. But he made full use of the access he got, access he never would have gotten without a press pass, so once again, the access is crucial-if you have a reporter who knows how to use it and isn't afraid of working. Are the number of reporters willing to do that in the world of sports becoming less and less? You bet. And that's a shame for all of us.

Our Conversation With Buzz BissingerS

But this notion bloggers have that access will somehow co-opt them, and they have a better vantage point by watching the game in their living rooms or their dens or their bedrooms or their darkened closets, is just junk. Bloggers need to get out like everyone else: any one of them could have gone down to Odessa and reported out Friday Night Lights. That's what they should be thinking about-getting out there-because the motivation of most bloggers is to be discovered. If we live in an age of venom, we also live in the age of the American Idol syndrome where everybody is convinced there is a star within them just waiting for the right opportunity. But if they don't get out of their tiny little worlds, if they don't learn how to report and write and observe and utilize details, they should just cease what they are doing and stop cluttering up the broadband airwaves. Basically Will, they all want to be you and get recognized by the mainstream and then join it. But the truth is, few of them have anywhere near the talent that you have.

Well, thanks, we guess. And to make it clear: David Hirshey was there because he distracts people with his mustache.

We are honored, we suppose, by your odes to our ambition, though we're not sure what you imagine our ultimate goal is. (We mean, come on: We type for a living. The goal is to keep typing for a living until we die. That doesn't strike us as overwhelmingly ambitious.) And, now, a few other points to clarify, using list form because it is quick, easily digestible and will probably annoy you:

1. We do not think you look like a frog.

2. We do not believe Deadspin treats sports with seriousness, because, honestly, we do not believe sports SHOULD be treated with seriousness. It is entertainment. Sure: There are times when it crosses over, becomes transcendent, touches our lives in a legitimate, lasting way. In a similar fashion, actually, to movies. But we don't think movies should be covered seriously either. The coverage of sports, we believe, had become so self-serious that it bore little resemblance to the way people actually consume sports. Is it worthy of note that Michael Oher overcame a difficult home life to become a big-time college football player? Sure. Does it affect our life more than whether Albert Pujols is coming off the disabled list soon so we can get him in our fantasy lineup? Not in the slightest. Is seeing a video of Shaq asking Kobe how his ass tastes more entertaining than a postgame Gregg Popovich press conference? Of course. (See? We interview people! Ourselves!) So much of sports coverage had become this cliched, soft-focus, triumph-over-adversity pablum that (some, not all) reporters used as grist for Sports Emmys and impressing each other in the press cafeteria. We don't think all sports fans consume sports the way (some, not all) journalists have covered them for years. Some do consume them that way. But some don't. We hope that Deadspin has given them a place to go. And we don't think that's being obsessively glib.

3. Ed Rendell almost makes me cheer for the Eagles. Almost.

Our Conversation With Buzz BissingerS4. We are far from certain that the goal of sports bloggers is to be "discovered;" that is going under the assumption that everyone is trying to be a member of some sportswriters club. We don't think such a club exists, and even if it did, that's not what we grasp the point of most of this is. Most people start blogs, sports or otherwise, because they have something to say and suspect there are others out there who share their thoughts. Some are horrible, obviously, and some are lazy, cruel, speedy, et al. But it's something that (mostly) is done out of passion, not out of some desire to get paid or "get a real job." The vast, vast majority of sports bloggers and sports blog readers HAVE real jobs; this is something they do as a hobby, or a side project, or just because they're bored. They think there is a viewpoint that is not being heard. Maybe they're the one to provide it. Maybe they're not. But so what? We don't see what could possibly be wrong with more voices. It's pretty easy to ignore the insignificant ones.

5. It's worth noting that we'd done plenty of "mainstream" work before Deadspin, and during Deadspin, and after Deadspin. This is why the notion of "mainstream" is so ridiculous. As far as we can tell, Deadspin isn't considered a "mainstream" sports outlet because (and get ready for some subsections to this endless list):

a: It's not under the umbrella of a larger media company. (Though, of course, it is, it's just not a media company that people associated with sports.)

b: It does not take press passes. (Other than the hot dog eating championships. We hope we were not corrupted.)

c: It does not aspire to interviews with coaches.

d: It has fewer editors who Have Been Doing This For Years.

e: It's online.

That seems pretty much it, doesn't it? We've written for the Times, and New York, and Fast Company, and The New Republic, and Playboy, and wherever, and not a single piece we've written for any of them (so far) has gotten nearly the traction of a well-put-together Deadspin post. We have "mainstream" places requesting links to their sites from Deadspin. If it's being read more than some of these places, and it's garnering more feedback, how is not mainstream? Or, more to the point: How could anyone POSSIBLY define mainstream? This was our problem with the Los Angeles Times piece; it acted as if sports bloggers were desperate to join a club that doesn't exist. In five years, no one will care whether the URL of a site says "blogspot.com" or "newsday.com." All that will count is that it's providing something useful to the reader. And yes: Journalism has an extremely high level of utility. There will always be a market for it. It just might be online. We don't see how this is going to damage journalism, or public discourse, or national morale, in any possible fashion.

OK, a few more questions for you, before the always-attention-deficited Deadspin commenters REALLY start considering this too long:

Do you wish you would have been a little bit more "prepared" for the Costas thing now? I think we're having a solid, (somewhat) informed discussion here, and it's a shame so fewer people will see it than the thing on HBO?

Do you think New York is making a mistake by hiring us?

Is it true that you and Costas had written a book together? We'd heard that.

When Braylon Edwards is asked about the appearance, what do you think he says?

Gawker still hasn't named our successor. Do you have any interest?

I am not sure how to proceed here. I have had my shot to answer your questions and now you have had your shot to respond, so I don't think responding to your responses is right or necessary. It does become beating a dead horse into the ground. I don't find your answers annoying. We just disagree on a lot of fundamental things. Obviously, the biggest is that sports should not be treated with seriousness. I think Friday Night Lights proves the point of just how serious sports is in our culture. I think the point you do make, that there are too many articles in the print media that are cliched melodramatic tearjearkers that we have read a million times before, is well-taken. I don't like bloggers in general, but too many sportswriters just never get up off their butts and truly delve into subjects. And what comes out is tired autopilot journalese. I also firmly believe that most bloggers, regardless of whether they do it part-time or not, are dying to be discovered like you were.

In answer to your questions:

1. The only regret I have about the HBO appearance was the way I treated you. Yes, I have subsequently seen a lot more sports blogs than I did before the show and I found some good ones. But the vast majority are not only sophomoric and excruciatingly boring but in general terribly written, going on ad infinitum. That isn't writing. That is just vomiting on the page, and when I write the first draft of something, that is exactly what I do. So I have a suggestion for bloggers - write whatever you want to, put it away for at least an hour, then cut whatever you wrote in half. It is basically what I do. I also have an editor who makes a tremendous difference. Even bloggers need editors. As for the fallout from the Costas appearance, the first two weeks were hell. But since then, many people have rallied to my defense.

2. New York did not make a mistake in hiring you. Our writing styles are vastly different, but there is a smoothness and sense of humor to your writing that is attractive, if still too somewhat glib, and your experience with New York may rid you of the glibness. I know [New York Editor-In-Chief] Adam Moss and he doesn't make mistakes in hiring.

3. Costas and I did work on a book together in the 1990s, but it was never published. The book was sold as an autobiography of Bob, but he just wasn't ready to do it. So the manuscript was rejected, and Bob instead wrote a book solely confined to baseball that I did not participate in. We are friends (as many people who appeared on the show are). We speak, and I told him during the course of one conversation that I hated blogs, probably because of the way I had been treated by various of them (not yours actually but Fire Joe Morgan, which I actually like, and Will Carroll). Of course I asked for it by saying in Three Nights that sabermetricians don't love the game of baseball. That set their hair on fire. So did a theory I posed (I emphasize theory) that young pitchers get hurt because they don't pitch enough in the minors. It was four paragraphs in a 7,000-word piece about Kerry Wood for Play, and Wood himself agreed with the theory. What they really hated was that one of my sources was Tony La Russa, whose performance over the past four years, including this one, makes Billy Beane look like a Little League GM. Bob, by the way, was much more reasoned about blogs than I was, because he is more reasoned.

4. I think Braylon Edwards is still in shock. Clearly the happiest men in America are Bill Simmons and Joe Posnanski, who had the sense not to appear.

And no, I have no interest in being your successor, although it's always flattering to be asked, which of course I haven't.

Well, OK, that was fun. Kind of.

That's fine. I truly do think you can thrive at New York. It's a great mag and Adam is a genius. Don't lose your voice because it is distinctive. Just let it grow a little bit.

Yeah, thanks.