WWE announcer Corey Graves and Booker T, who just left his spot alongside Graves on Monday Night Raw, created a minor online kerfuffle a few weeks ago when they got into it with some barbs back and forth. These barbs got fairly big and notably sharp by the end, as Booker claimed that Graves got him canned from Raw while threatening to beat him up and Graves pretty much admitted to it. Given that Booker started it on his out-of-character radio show, it got picked up by numerous websites that cover pro wrestling, including non-wrestling specific sports and pop culture sites. (Graves’s Twitter, it’s worth noting, is often in-character.)
Then the two went on Booker’s podcast together to admit that it was all in good fun and bragged about “working” the entire wrestling world. That wasn’t quite right—there was widespread skepticism in the first place, never mind that the whole thing started on Booker’s non-wrestling radio show, and the two said all these things in public—but there’s no law against exaggeration. Booker also went on the podcast of Sirius XM personality and WWE pregame show talking head Sam Roberts, where he claimed that Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer, the longest-tenured wrestling reporter, had covered the tiff as if it was real. He hadn’t. Booker also “corrected” Roberts by calling Meltzer a “quote-unquote wrestling journalist” and by saying “DIRTSHEET!” That’s a semi-derogatory term for wrestling media, one that used to be used more lovingly in the past to refer to newsletters and which is now used more broadly and less affectionately.
When I jokingly replied to a Graves tweet—he had asked if he should throw silverware at a loud eater—by asking if he was doing so to “work the dirtsheets,” he tweeted this:
I had, to the best of my recollection, not said one word about the spat, to the dude trying to dunk on me or anyone else, but note the substance of the tweet. “Journalist” and “expertise” are in sarcastic quotes; there is the familiar suggestion that all pro wrestling reporters actually want to work for WWE and are angling for a job there. Some of this is bog-standard anti-media grandstanding, but there’s something more significant buried in all the off-the-rack gloat/bait routine. In December, my friend Sean Ross Sapp, my sometimes-editor at Fightful.com, put together the ultimate rebuke of that line of insult in a Twitter thread (click the first tweet to read the whole thing):
Setting aside for a moment that being a reporter and working for WWE in any form are two very different things, wrestling reporters are also likely to have heard the most firsthand horror stories about having worked at the promotion. Graves and others like him don’t say what they think the reporters would even want to do in WWE, just that they think the reporters are only doing this to get in the door. And while none of us would be writing about wrestling if we didn’t care about it, that assertion misses the point about what journalism is in the first place and why a company like WWE needs it.
This sort of reflexive backlash response isn’t surprising in the current overall climate or wrestling in general, but it seems remarkably naive coming from someone who understands how WWE works. Even someone as comparatively young as Graves, who broke into wrestling as a teenager in 2000 (he was forcibly retired by WWE after repeated concussions and given an announcing job), entered a world that has long prided itself on secrecy, lies, and all variety of carny bullshit. That suspicion of and hostility to outsiders is slowly being shed, at least outside of WWE, but it’s still pervasive in the promotion. In WWE, it takes on a particular and unique aspect in which people reporting on wrestling as a beat are treated much more dismissively than those covering the sport for non-wrestling publications.
For the most part, only “mainstream media” can get interviews with WWE performers. Wrestling-oriented outlets are limited to a conference call with Paul “Triple H” Levesque the week of NXT TakeOver specials, in-person events like the annual party for the WWE 2K video game series, and very occasionally, WWE sponsors offering them WWE talent interviews. The conference call is explicitly limited to questions about NXT and the WWE developmental program in general; the parameters are, in general, tightly circumscribed and tightly enforced. While some of this is rooted in a legitimate need to prioritize local media—the bulk of interviews done by WWE wrestlers are booked to promote live events in a given market—there’s still a distinct sense that the company sees wrestling reporters as unprofessional fanboys. Just look at what Roberts said during the “bridge segment” (timestamp 37:02) of this week’s edition of his wrestling podcast: While he apologized to Meltzer and noted his status as a long time Wrestling Observer subscriber, he expressed heavy skepticism that wrestling journalism can or even does exist:
There is an issue, though, with this idea that—just with the idea in general of wrestling journalism. And I still think that’s up for pretty critical debate. As you know, [Pro Wrestling Torch editor] Wade Keller would probably describe himself as a wrestling journalist, and I love Wade Keller. I’m on [his] podcast all the time, he’s one of my favorite people to talk to about wrestling. But in my personal opinion, I think that talking about wrestling and wrestling websites and dirtsheets and things like that, perfectly legitimate form of entertainment, perfectly legitimate way to make a living if that’s what you do, perfectly legitimate websites. I don’t have any problem with dirtsheets existing. The issue is the phrase ‘journalist’ and the concept of journalism. Journalists go to college for journalism, there is a code that they abide by when they do interviews and they take notes and everything needs to be fact-checked. There are editors. There’s a responsibility that goes with being a journalist that does not allow you to report on rumors and to assume truths based on your expertise.
You are finding the truth with evidence, that being a reliable source, an eyewitness, something like that. Or it’s an opinion piece.
Roberts also added that he was “perplexed” that the websites of Sports Illustrated and Forbes (the latter under its Forbes Contributor Network banner) were running “dirtsheet news” from sites like the Observer. “Which is not necessarily news,” he went on. “It’s rumors. It’s ‘I heard it from this guy, who heard it from that guy, my sources are anonymous, and if I’m wrong, that’s just because things change.” In particular, Roberts said that he’s seen numerous reports that were false or outdated based on things that he knew from working at WWE, as well as saying that he didn’t use “dirtsheet” as a pejorative; he closed by asking wrestling reporters to discuss the topic with him on his show. Roberts does come off as completely sincere, but he appears to share a misapprehension that has become increasingly common in recent years—the perception that wrestling reporting is all about creative/storyline moves and nothing else.
That just isn’t so. Yes, a lot of wrestling sites, including some very popular ones, may lean this way, but at the risk of spamming some of the original reporting that I have done for Deadspin there is no shortage of actual journalism being committed across wrestling media right now. In general, wrestling reporting is moving further and further away from covering creative plans in-depth; more people than ever before are doing great work. Even in the past, Keller, for example, attended the entirety of Vince McMahon’s 1994 criminal trial for conspiracy and steroid distribution (McMahon was acquitted), and the writing he did about it is among the best work he’s ever done. Journalistic standards are higher and more rigorously applied, especially with the increase in coverage on mainstream sites causing something of a trickle-down effect. There are legitimate criticisms, even of the big names—the Observer, for example, doesn’t source or attribute in the way that you expect from mainstream journalism, something the Torch is usually better at—but they’re not the ones that are usually voiced.
Roberts, I think, can learn. Booker and Graves, I’m less sure about. WWE’s influence on people who work for it, the old distrustful carny paranoias—that I don’t see changing anytime soon. At the very least, there are probably some interesting stories to be written about it.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix