As far as spectacles go, all the will-he-or-won’t-he coverage devoted to Mack Brown this past week wasn’t exactly atypical. The potential ousting of a legendary coach at a premier college football school was big news in the sports world, and like most big news in today’s media environment, the actual end-result of the story — the anticlimax of Brown deciding to resign — feels far less important, interesting, and (in a weird way) relevant than how the story itself was covered. This is not exactly a novel insight about “news in the age of social media/blogging,” but it’s an observation that brings about an odd conclusion: With regards to the whole Mack Brown saga, the real victors were the commenters.
Feeling righteous (and misplaced) indignation, and expressing that indignation in a hyperbolic fashion, is something of a cultural hobby nowadays — no, I don’t have a citation for that, sorry — and the coverage of the Mack Brown story provided ample opportunities for a cast of smug characters to explode from the woodwork. Thanks to the feedback system created by comment sections, having a take on the Mack Brown affair, and especially having a take that doubled as a lament about the type of Real Journalism no longer practiced, became paramount. Every angry comment was a vehicle for the adoption of a certain and recognizable persona, allowing one to theoretically “say” volumes, both about the topic and about personally-held virtues, by way of a single phrase or insult.
Consider, for example, the flurry of reports that Mack Brown was going to be replaced by Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. I don’t know the exact number of stories that were written using that rumor as a thematic epicenter, but it’s likely you stumbled across some sort of Nick-Saban-to-Texas writing within the past week. Go track down one of those articles — heck, dig through our archives and read some of FanSided’s coverage — and take a look at the comment section. My guess is you’ll see, amongst other dramatis personae…
1) “Old” Texas Fan — Not “old” in terms of age, necessarily, but old in terms of adherence to tradition This fan hates how other Texas fans don’t “appreciate” Mack Brown. In the eyes of an OTF, inexperienced fans have no sense of Mack Brown’s importance to the University of Texas, and their urge to see him replaced represents unforgivable treason.
2) “Young” Texas Fan — Inverse of the above. YTF scores bonus points every time he or she can suggest an OTF’s loyalty to Brown is rigid, retrograde, and delusional.
3) Skeptic – Probably the only rational person involved in the discussion. The Skeptic urges caution and patience, choosing measured responses over heat-of-the-moment reactions. See, the Skeptic not only likes sports, but the Skeptic is probably one of those “smart” sports fans that reads Grantland and stuff. While not altogether a disagreeable character, the Skeptic does exhibit trace elements of…
4) Journalistic Purist – Ahhh, the JP is the real star of the whole shebang. The JP, thirsting for up-to-the-minute news, reads any article posted about the topic. But what’s this? An article that is more conjecture than fact? An article that offers hypothetical outcomes? An article that cites anonymous sources previously cited by other media outlets, and those sources may prove to be, god forbid, inaccurate? THESE THINGS ARE UNACCEPTABLE AND MUST BE POINTED OUT (preferably with snide comments about “credibility” and “integrity” and “tabloid material”). Does the JP really care about getting the story right? Eh, likely not. What the JP cares about is that the person who wrote the article — the article the JP voluntarily chose to read — is wrong, or at least hasn’t had their rightness confirmed yet, and that for-now-established wrongness is reflective of the Decline of America.
(Which is not to excuse lazy writing on the part of content producers, but expectations should be appropriately tempered. Misreporting a story about a murder or a terrorist attack? That would be a grave error worthy of reproach. But guessing about Mack Brown’s future and being incorrect/not basing those guesses on “enough” information? Yeah, I’d say there are worse sins one could commit. If you want your news fast-paced, you better be able to stomach an error now and then.)
Now at first these characters may seem no different than the usual blowhards who call morning talk radio shows — attempting to fill life-holes of various sizes by criticizing the people responsible for creating the entertainment they (the callers) rely on for marginal intellectual stimulation and illusory emotional satiation — but there’s a critical distinction between the two groups. Radio callers have opinions unable, or at least unlikely, of transcending ephemeral importance; a rare call may be saved for a show’s archives, but typically even the most wild of comments are forgotten by the next commercial break. This is not to say that people who call into radio shows can’t provide any observations of value, but rather they are expressing themselves in a medium defined by its impermanence (“Listen tomorrow to see what new topics will be discussed!”). They can be equally as opinionated as internet commenters, but their opinions have less staying power.
Conversely, internet commenters are blessed (and cursed?) with the ability to have their Hot Sports Takes forever linked to the story being commented on. Unless there is a purge conducted by moderators or editors, an internet commenter can have his or her criticism of an author permanently attached to said author. So not only is the prenominate JP able to land a vicious body-blow against inadequate journalism, but the JP is able to have his or her little moment of glory exist in perpetuity. See, not only is this Dumb Blogger wrong and practicing shoddy journalism, but I am the type of smart, insightful, and heroic person willing to fight the good fight for all of us.
Let’s backtrack a bit: It is unfair to paint with the widest possible brush and categorize all commenters as such insufferable megalomaniacs, and, as was stated before, all of this is not meant to be a criticism of commenting on stories or of occasionally holding someone’s feet to the fire when such feet-to-fire holding is appropriate. No, what’s important is that because a comment can be permanently attached to a specific article, and because many comments — yeah, yeah, “citation needed” and whatnot — tend to be critical for the mere purpose of positioning oneself as morally and intellectually laudable compared to the author, then the “real-time” reaction to the reporting of a story becomes part of the fabric of the story itself, even exceeding the story in terms of overall importance. To say the link between media coverage and the reaction to media coverage is exemplified, partially and tellingly, by the ability to post actual links to other (read: “better”/”more credible”) websites within one’s comment may inch things too closely to Lib. Arts 101 territory, but you get the picture.
This relationship between creators and commenters is what made the Mack Brown saga particularly entertaining. Because most of the information being shared and written about wasn’t able to be confirmed — or, in a whole different can o’ worms, wasn’t designed to be confirmable (see every Top Ten Potential Replacements listicle) — it is arguable, and legitimately so, that most of what was being reported was somehow hollow, a shell of “real” information. It was gossip and speculation and extrapolation presented, by the necessity of deadlines and adherence to the 24-hour cycle, as news, and such a false or misleading presentation angered the defenders of capital-n News. But the factual emptiness being criticized by commenters — and assessing the validity of that criticism should be done on a case-by-case basis, but we’re talkin’ generalities for the sake of simplicity here — mirrored the emptiness of the stock-character guises adopted by said commenters. It was a battle of hollow versus hollow. Think about the “fighting fire with fire” cliche, but substitute “simulacra” for “fire” and you’re on the right track.
This doesn’t mean both sides — if you’re willing to delineate sides even though the vague thesis of this article deals with the blurring of the lines between writers, who produce media content, and commenters, who produce a different and new style of media content — were equivalently “wrong,” because the commenter is always, at least on initial observation, “right” in the instant-feedback system we have with online news. Commenters, by virtue of having their thoughts be literally the last things viewable on a given page, and by virtue of having nothing to risk reputation-wise by being critical, get the proverbial last laugh. It is immaterial if that last laugh is or isn’t eventually substantiated; what’s important is that the ability to comment and criticize consequence-free, and the tendency to express said criticism through the adoption, either intentional or not, of a one-note character, allows commenters to exert control over the whole Story As A Media Event. Commenters have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and while what can be potentially “gained” isn’t necessarily anything beyond appearing smarter than someone else, it is unwise to doubt the power a single comment can have when it comes to ruining the perceived credibility of an article. A commenter doesn’t write the stories, but they can sure influence your reactions to said stories. This isn’t inherently bad or unjust or unfair, just notable.
So where does all this leave us? Unfortunately, likely nowhere new. (Well, besides the fact we now know Mack Brown resigned. And isn’t that what this story was about in the first place?) The observation that art (/content), even art that is lackluster, can be justified and even parasitically appreciated as long as it, as a piece of art, induces some sort of reaction, is a threadbare point I’m personally tired of poorly articulating. You can take whole college courses — heck, you can get whole useful degrees – in analyzing the elevation of Audience over Auteur, and the Mack Brown saga is only worth discussing as indicative of such a shift insofar that it is a “big” event in the sports world that is simultaneously hilariously insignificant outside the world of sports, making it a microcosm that can be dissected and twisted in numerous ways without fear of distorting something sacred and important. Treating a trivial topic with unnecessary rigor is an exercise in postmodern humor of the most middling variety, and all conclusions are required to be taken with a big ol’ wink, multiplied infinitely in the funhouse mirror.
Then again, the resignation of Brown necessitates a coaching search that will doubtlessly dominate headlines for as long as clicks can be mined from the topic. The whole cycle of coverage-begetting-response will begin anew, whether we like it or not, and perhaps the best we can do is hope the quality of the conversation will raised above the usual cacophony.
And if such elevation is impossible or undesired, can we at least get some creative insults this time around? Basement-blogger jokes are sooo 2010.