On Chris Jones, criticism and context: lessons from Fast Break panel

We're seeing more and more sports journalism conferences pop up, which is largely a good thing. In addition to the Blogs With Balls series (the latest installment of which we'll be covering from Toronto next week), plenty of local groups are pulling together panel discussions on sports with prominent figures, and expanding the dialogue on sports coverage certainly seems positive. These discussions can have some unanticipated side effects, though, and those can vary dramatically depending on who's observing and how they observe. 

One example of this is the Fast Break conference, held in Toronto Tuesday and featuring Esquire and ESPN The Magazine writer Chris Jones, Tas Melas of The Basketball Jones, Canadian Press senior sports editor Julie Scott and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment digital producer/host Akil Augustine. By all accounts, the conference went extremely well and provided useful tips on getting into the sports industry for those in attendance. However, it did wind up creating an unexpected discussion on criticism and context, thanks to some comments from Jones. Here are the comments that started it, as per this J-Source (a Canadian journalism industry website) recap from Steph Rogers

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Chris Jones has seen young journalists create unnecessary drama on the internet by being rude to editors, writers, and friends of his. The ESPN The Magazine columnist says that he wouldn’t hesitate to hold it against someone should they try to get a job.

“It’s a people business,” said Jones. “Say nice things if you believe them. Online, it’s there forever.”

On first read, that sounded like a particularly vindictive approach, and one that would seem to discourage aspiring journalists from ever criticizing a media organization, regardless of whether it deserved it. After all, they might want to work there some day. That seemed like unfortunate advice from this corner, as it may lead to a few hirings, but also could lead to aspiring journalists being afraid to ever comment on media issues. It led to a Twitter discussion, and eventually convinced me to write a piece on it. However, after reaching out to Jones for comment, things took an unexpected turn. Here's his initial response:

I'd say, first off, make sure you read the rest of the quotes from me in that story. I think I've been really supportive of young writers and have gone out of my way to provide advice and encouragement. I believe that optimism and open-heartedness are important.

That part of the story you're talking about—and that's not a quote; that's in the writer's voice—came after Akil, one of the other panelists, talked about how your "likability" factor will play a big role in how far you go. I was agreeing with him: Journalism is a people business, built in a lot of ways on connections and relationships. You know that. It's important not only to get your job, of course—because so often, you'll get a break because someone else puts in a good word for you, which has been the case with my own career—but it's just as important once you're in this business. At both of my shops, I work closely and usually one-on-one with my editors, and if either one of us was an asshole, it wouldn't work. There has to be trust and faith and all sorts of good things there.
 
So if I see a young writer talking shit to veterans, about shops, just generally being cynical and miserable, I'll remember that. I'm hardly a gatekeeper, but if someone did ask me what I thought of someone, and I'd seen them acting like an asshole online, I wouldn't recommend them. (I'm not talking about thoughtful criticism here, by the way; I'm talking about being a snarky jerk, purposeless stuff.) Why would I? Who wants to work with assholes? If two writers were of equal ability, I'd pick the nice guy. The vast majority of people would. So my advice at Fast Break was: Don't be a dick. It is a bad career move. Tell me I suck and I'm an idiot and ESPN or Esquire sucks and then ask me for help getting a gig? Not going to happen. Give me a good reason why it should. This seems like common sense to me.
 
That certainly seems somewhat more reasonable. However, it's worth noting that Jones is not claiming he was misquoted, and he's not walking his stance back all that far. That's evident from the responses he sent to the two follow-up questions I asked. Here's the response to the first, "You say you're not talking about thoughtful criticism, but being a snarky jerk. Where would you draw the line between those two?"
 
This is a hard question. It's a bit like the old line about pornography: I know it when I see it. I'll give you an example of what I would consider constructive. If someone asked me why I started a story a particular way—did I consider a different beginning, perhaps this part of the story or that one? Maybe that would have been better? I'd have no problem with that. In fact, I'd be impressed by that, because I love talking about writing and because it shows thought and care. Snark would be something like, I thought that story sucked, beginning was zzzzzzz, tl;dr. (tl;dr, for me… You might as well put on a dunce cap.) I'm not saying AT ALL that writers shouldn't question other writers. But there's a way to do it that's positive. For me, again, it comes down to thought and care. You can see that in a story, right, when a writer has made careful choices and has thought about what he's doing? I can see the same thing in criticism. Carelessness, mindlessness, is an epidemic. It is a huge red flag for me.
 
And to the second (a long question, which can be summarized as "If you were hiring for ESPN and faced with two equal candidates, but one had thoughtfully criticized ESPN, would it affect your decision?"): 
 
Again, for me—and you're right, this would never happen; I've never hired anyone—but again it comes down to tone. Is the criticism thoughtful and fair and constructive? No problem. In fact, could be a positive. Is it mean and useless and destructive? Problem.
 
This stuff is important to me, because I'm pretty passionate about young writers and the choices they make. I see too often young writers making dumb, possibly career-altering mistakes for no good reason—slagging future potential employers for a fist bump from their bros. If that's what's important to you, then you're not my kind of writer. It's like the difference between an artist and a vandal. In addition to care, purpose is what matters to me. Are your intentions good or bad? That matters a lot to me.
 
Of course, it's less easy to get outraged following that explanation. However, there are still some interesting things here, particularly Jones' "I know it when I see it" comment. It's absolutely his right to judge people however he wants (and as he points out, it's a hypothetical discussion, because he doesn't work on the hiring side), and his standards aren't all that unreasonable. But, the net effect of comments like these still does seem likely to convince some journalists and aspiring journalists not to engage in media criticism at all; if there's a chance that you'll be seen negatively for it (and there certainly is: Jones isn't alone here), many just won't bother. Maybe that's a good thing for their chances of being hired, but a lot of the most thoughtful media criticism I read does come from people involved in the industry in some form. If they all keep quiet to avoid potentially burning future bridges, that's a loss for readers in my mind. 
 
Perhaps even more interesting than Jones' thoughts on criticism is how they were perceived. I had one reaction to them from reading the recap. Canadian Press reporter John Chidley-Hill, who helped pull the conference together, had a rather different one from hearing Jones' comments in full live. Here's what he had to say about those:
 
I thought Chris made some great points on the panel — really, all four guests did.
 
I agree with him that being polite and friendly is a key networking skill. There's no point in saying to me "I want your job" because, well, I like putting bread on my table. I'm going to be less inclined to help you out if your approach is to basically threaten me. Saying "Hey, can I ask you about your experience? What would you have done differently? What advice can you give me?" will go much, much further.
 
I think Chris' point was that sports journalism is a very small corner of a very small industry and if you turn someone off — either by unfairly criticizing them or by being overly aggressive or rude or whatever — you're going to make your own life more difficult.
 
Like I said above, I've only been at this for three years but already I have friends and colleagues at a bunch of different outlets (like, say, Yahoo! Sports). If I'm asked my opinion on someone, I'm going to be honest about my impression. Surely an aspiring journalist wants that to be a GOOD impression?
 
And here's the key part of what Rogers (who wrote the aforementioned recap that started all of this) had to say (an excerpt from a longer e-mail, which you can find posted in full at my site):
 
I thought Fast Break provided an extremely honest perspective from all four of the panelists as moderated by Nadine, and particularly Augustine and Jones on likability.
 
I'm amazed at the things I see said on Twitter, Facebook, and in the comment section of articles. Rude and malicious remarks are common practice because people feel the internet is faceless. Especially including someone's @-name on Twitter in an insult? Happens all the time.  
 
I've seen colleagues and classmates alike say things that I'm sure they wouldn't say to someone's face, and most certainly to someone who they may one day want to work with or for. As Chris said in his email to you, seems like common sense, but it's not.
 
I think hearing this from people who work in the industry (who have a hand in passing your resume along, who might be the person who can help you get to where you need to be, etc) was necessary.
 
You could know everything there is to know about sports, be the greatest writer in history, and if you were an asshole to those people on the internet with useless attacks on their career and character, don't you think they'd remember?
 
Employers are looking up prospective hires all the time online, and anyone would be silly to think it's not a factor, in journalism or otherwise.
 
It was refreshing to have the panelists, all important in their four corners of the industry, reinforcing how important it is to be nice in this people business. I think it might be one of the most important pieces of advice that a young journalist could take with them in a digital age, and I certainly believe it was more than just me who walked away from the event with that. 
 
Three people, three different ways of experiencing these comments, three different reactions. I certainly wouldn't say any of them are wrong. (And to be clear, this isn't blasting Rogers' recap: everyone at a panel like this is going to have different things that stand out to them, she reported the quotes that stood out to her, and those haven't been disputed.) It just says a lot about how our own backgrounds and experiences affect what we see and hear and our reactions to it, and it illustrates how even the medium of experiencing a comment can change how it's perceived. That's something panelists at these sorts of events should keep in mind, but it's also something those of us checking in on an event via recap should remember. While I'm still not in complete agreement with Jones' stance here, it's a lot easier to see where he's coming from with the context provided from himself and the two attendees.

 
This isn't necessarily as minor as it may seem, as it's no secret that comments at these kinds of events can have significant reverberations. One of the most memorable of those came from Josh Elliott's response to my question about handling criticisms of ESPN at the New York Blogs With Balls, which has been brought up when discussing ESPN sourcing controversies. I tried to report that quote as fairly and in as accurate a context as possible, but everyone at that panel probably had a slightly different reaction to it, as did everyone who saw it later. Our backgrounds and our experiences shape us all differently, and even the way we experience something can affect how we perceive it; heck, physics dictates that the simple act of observing can change that's which observed (that's right, some of us were into Heisenberg before Breaking Bad made him cool). As we head towards one of the most notable sports journalism conferences of the year, it's something panelists and observers alike should be thinking about. 
Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.

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