It remains to be seen whether we’re in the midst or still merely on the cusp of the golden age of information. The presumption in this space is that we’ll know once and for all whenever the day arrives when personally selected holograms are delivering the night’s Red Sox highlights in your living room.
But from a purely sports perspective, there is not a lingering shred of doubt that there’s currently a saturation of mediums for news and opinion, a menu of options unprecedented dating to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the smartphone’s distant ancestor.
Consider Boston. Here, the media tally includes two potent local sports radio stations (plus a couple more up and down the dial), two daily newspapers with their own websites, a pair of regional sports networks also bolstered by their own websites, another New England sports-dedicated website tied to a national cable network, plus a variety of message boards, blogs, and that irresistible online sports bar, Twitter.
“It’s not only more opinions at more outlets, but at more hours,’’ said Michael Holley, the WEEI afternoon drive co-host, author, and former Globe sports columnist. “You get it [at] 7 o’clock in the morning on the radio after we’ve all watched the game together on Twitter, and everyone has an opinion. And that’s fine. That’s the lifeblood of what we do. Talk radio is not journalism. I think we all know that. You’re not necessarily giving all sides of the argument. You’re trying to make the case one way or the other.”
These are heady times when it comes to the fan’s fulfillment of getting the news or opinion you want when you want from the venue of your choosing. Fans are more informed than ever — 25 years ago, only subscribers to then-niche publication Baseball America or readers of Peter Gammons’s column had more than an inkling of their favorite team’s top prospects. Now, Jackie Bradley Jr. is bordering on being a household name before he’s had a plate appearance in Triple A, let alone the majors. But the modern information overload can also be overwhelming, and it raises an interesting question:
Do fans — specifically Red Sox fans for the sake of today’s debate — seek out media that is most likely to jibe with their own opinions?
Or does the media — whether it’s the written word, television, or sports talk radio — still have a significant say in shaping how the Red Sox franchise and its players are perceived publicly?
“It’s like the saying with politics — you look for coverage from someone who agrees with what you have to say,’’ said Jerry Beach, author of “Fighting Words: The Media, The Red Sox, and The All-Encompassing Passion for Baseball in Boston,” published in 2009. “[Former Mets general manager] Jim Duquette’s theory was that because there are so many colleges in the area and it’s such a well-educated region that everybody thinks they can do the job better than anybody else, that they’re smarter than the people providing the coverage or in some cases running the team.
“Fans give a longer rope to the players. They’re more skeptical of the media’s intentions and potential perceived biases, things like that.”
Holley said fans just want information and insight, not requests for sympathy when the coach decides to communicate in grunts that particular day, as frustrating as that may be.
“If reporters complain about access, fans have no tolerance for that whatsoever,’’ Holley said. “They will side with the team. They really will. ‘You get to go to games, stop complaining.’ But then you see stories like [Globe reporter Bob] Hohler’s [on the clubhouse dysfunction of the 2011 team] or Amalie Benjamin’s story the other day on ballpark prices, or something that affects the fans or lends insight to the team or its approach to certain things, that’s when you get that feedback and you know you do have an influence. It just depends upon what type of story it is.”
Red Sox owner John Henry certainly seemed to believe public perception was being affected when he made an impromptu visit to The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Massarotti” program in October 2011, during the aftermath of the Red Sox’ chicken-and-beer meltdown that September. And look no further than up the middle of the Red Sox’ defensive alignment to find examples of the media seeming to influence how certain players are viewed.
“Dustin Pedroia made one statement that he admitted was out of place,’’ said Holley. “He said, now famously, ‘We don’t do things like that around here,’ after Bobby Valentine called out Kevin Youkilis. And all of a sudden a guy who from May 2007 to April 2012 didn’t have anything you could criticize him for. Nothing. He makes one statement, and now we get it all the time, on the text machine, from callers, ‘Oh, he’s a punk.’
NESN’s Tom Caron, whose candor, particularly when paired with Dennis Eckersley on the postgame show, is refreshing and uncommon for essentially a team-operated regional sports network, also feels like the overreaction to Pedroia’s comments unfairly stained the player.
“The way he plays the game, just as the way Johnny Damon played the game, was the way you’d teach your kid in Little League,’’ said Caron. “There should be goodwill built up there. Pedroia’s the first guy at the ballpark every day. He lives baseball and breathes baseball and you want 25 guys like that on your team. Fans turned on him a little bit for the first time, and yes, to some degree that was talk-radio driven for sure.’’
Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a worse fate during the 2010 season — he was tagged as “soft.” It’s a label he’s yet to shake.
“I think where things become a real talking point is when it gets to that third level of talk radio,’’ said Comcast SportsNet New England’s Sean McAdam, who has covered the Red Sox since the mid-’80s. “Story lines or whatever originate with the guys who are writing about it, then people echo it as a discussion point and analysis on the TV shows, and when it graduates to talk radio, that’s when it’s really out there as something that people are talking about and responding to. And then there’s that fourth level where fans sometimes parrot what the hosts have said.’’
And subtlety is often the first sacrifice in the battle to have an opinion heard.
“You know, on the radio, they don’t want complexity,’’ Holley said. “They want either this or that. It can’t be complicated. You’re either the villain or a good guy, when in reality fans should realize there’s always more nuance involved. It’s just that sometimes nuance isn’t what they want, and nowadays with so many options, fans have the means to seek out what they do want.”