Don't care about how journalism works? Don't want to read more than 2,000 words? You can go ahead and skip this post.
This is the bio of Scott Carter, GatorZone's senior writer. (Yes, sic.)
Scott Carter is senior writer for GatorZone.com, the official website of the University of Florida Athletic Association. Prior to joining GatorZone.com, Carter spent 12 years at The Tampa Tribune, where he covered the Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning, Florida State University and the University of South Florida during his time there.
In case that didn't sink in: Carter was a sportswriter at the Tampa Tribune, then got hired to be the official senior writer of the official website of the UAA. Essentially, he went from doing journalism to doing public relations.
And that's the sort of thing that has more ripples — and comes from more ripples — than you might know.
Carter originally left the Tribune in 2008, but not of his own volition. This piece from Lynn Hoppes, then the president of the Associated Press Sports Editors and the Orlando Sentinel's sports editor and now the editor of ESPN.com's Page 2, explains a lot of it, but Carter was fired when the Tribune eliminated his position as Florida State beat writer.
Carter's case became something of a cause celebre among sports journalists: a thread about the Tribune's cuts at the message board sportsjournalists.com got over 20,000 views, and Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples — Carter's brother-in-law — penned a letter in support of Carter. By all accounts, Carter did good work for the Tribune, then got screwed by the shrinking market for print journalism, and possibly some smart notions about what journalism is valuable and how to run a media company. That happens. Firings happen.
So do re-hirings, though, and Carter returned to the Tribune, briefly, as the South Florida beat writer, before one of the more ponderous moves by Florida's athletic department in my lifetime occurred: Carter was hired to cover the Gators ... for the Gators.
I have jokingly referred to Carter as UF's answer to Pravda, the newspaper that was the official voice of Soviet Communism at the height of the U.S.S.R.'s hegemony of Eastern Europe. Read a little more into that "for the Gators" link and you'll find Gainesville Sun veteran Pat Dooley's broadside about UF hiring Carter as a way to shut out the media members that cover the team. While the Pravda nickname is for giggles and Dooley's tweet was at least partly whining about his own access being cut, the truth is that organizations bringing on former journalists to write about them as official reporters will always be troubling.
Journalism relies on a pretense of objectivity that was likely always as false as it is today. In an ideal world — one often extant in the minds of journalism school professors and nowhere else — journalists would gather and report facts and opinions from other people without their own personal considerations on the matter clouding those reports. That, of course, is nearly impossible: even a matter as small as the phrasing of a sentence is a subjective choice of author and editor, and, of course, the subjective choices to cover, print, front-page, etc. are evidence that journalism is far from its sacrosanct ideal.
Jay Rosen of New York University is perhaps the foremost thinker in journalism today, and has been cautioning about that myth of objectivity for years; that myth of objectivity is why SB Nation's "news and fan opinion" approach has been so popular: we produce content that is true not only to facts but to honest opinions, and never pretend that we're not sports fans. We don't have to pretzel ourselves into seemingly objective stances, or downplay how much we care. We don't have to pretend not to have thoughts of our own in order to fulfill some credo that is nigh unattainable. And our content is entertaining, enlightening, and valuable because of that.
What does that have to do with Carter? Well, the UAA employing Carter as a "senior writer for GatorZone.com" gives him a guise of objectivity, when, in reality, I would wager that his job requires anything but. Carter is a capable writer and journalist, and I'm certain he reports some of what he writes fully and fairly, but his scope is likely limited by his employer. Could Carter report and write on a scandal within the Athletic Association? Would Carter be motivated to keep tabs on Florida players' arrests? Are Carter's stories edited for content and tone by UAA personnel? I don't know the answers to those questions, but I wonder, and I suspect the answers aren't ones I would like, considering the trend that UF's relationship to the media has taken in recent years.
I worked for the Independent Florida Alligator during my freshman year at UF, from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008, covering the men's and women's golf teams — poorly, I might add. But I got jerked around a fair bit by the sports information directors who were in charge of those teams then, and I have had my fair share of friends at Alligator, past and present, tell me stories about Florida giving students and local journalists the cold shoulder in favor of ESPN and other national publications. (Cough, Pete Thamel of the New York Times, cough.) Oh, and then there was the time that Urban Meyer essentially threatened to fight Jeremy Fowler of the Sentinel for doing little more than reporting a spectacularly dumb quote from Deonte Thompson, which led to closed practices, which mlmintampa noted is part of a long history of "punishing the press" by the UAA.
If that's Florida's prerogative — play to national media, punish local media — well, one can't criticize Jeremy Foley's program for picking as its favored observers two very visible and conveniently remote media outlets. If an organization's choice for getting news to the public is between a megaphone that is easily turned on for good news and a microphone that will pick up both good and bad news, the organization will likely choose the megaphone time and again.
ESPN can't have people in Gainesville hunting down bad news like the Sun or Sentinel can, and, besides, it's less likely that an entity that is also an SEC broadcast partner will turn its lens on all the shadier aspects of a program that helps give it content to sell to advertisers; the New York Times isn't equipped to cover major college athletics on a scale large enough to fully gut a university's athletic program. And if either of those two entities is being granted access with a tacit agreement to be kinder in coverage, well, then, what critical word would ever be uttered without consideration of that agreement?
But that's not the smartest possible approach to the media Florida faces. By shunning certain outlets from having the sort of contact they want, the UAA forces those outlets to get more creative in their coverage. The Sentinel has been very critical of Florida's arrests in recent years, and not always totally fairly. I wonder if that's a reaction to getting marginalized by Meyer and the UAA, and I wonder if UF realizes that controlling its coverage will only encourage journalists to chafe against that control.
Twice in my short tenure as the editor of Alligator Army, pieces of information have filtered out to me that UF-affiliated figures did not want released to the general public at that moment. The first had to do with the Student Alumni Association's BEAT t-shirts: I posted a FanShot with a picture of the Mr. Two Bits-themed shirt with permission from the photographer who took publicity shots of the shirts, then was later asked to take down the image because the SAA didn't want to reveal the shirts at that point.
I complied with that request, despite finding it rather pointless: the SAA needing to reveal the BEAT t-shirts on its own timeline is not something I care much about respecting, though I did want to respect the photographer's wishes. It's not as if I don't know what the shirts look like or have the picture on my computer, though.
Today brought the second piece of news I was asked to un-report. I retweeted a note from Only Gators' Adam Silverstein about the beginning of Florida's fall practice, because that is what people on Twitter do to pass on others' reporting. (Gator Country's Thomas Goldkamp also tweeted that information.) Almost immediately, Silverstein got in touch with me to ask me to take down my tweet, saying UF didn't want that information announced. So I deleted it.
Now, what, exactly, does that premature revelation do? Is UF not going to start fall practice on the date Silverstein and Goldkamp tweeted because the date was revealed? Does having the date revealed impair Florida's ability to have fall practice? Is that information in any way injurious to anyone? I'm going to go with no, no, and no on those counts.
But Silverstein and Goldkamp knew when it was, likely thanks to an email of important dates that I'm told the UAA sent out this morning with explicit instructions not to publicize that information. Silverstein and Goldkamp reported it via Twitter, and then were either reminded of or realized the "don't publicize" provision; Silverstein and Goldkamp then seemingly reached out to any followers who retweeted it to get that deleted from their feeds. If they made mistakes, they were at least assiduous about rectifying their errors. (Because, hey, getting those emails from the UAA is access, too.)
All of that almost worked, but you can still find a RT of a RT that clearly indicates when Florida football's fall practice begins. The cat is out of the bag, the bell has been rung, and the tweet has been sent into the ether; there's no taking back of any of that, and although you have probably noticed by now that I'm writing around telling you when Florida's fall football practice will begin, I certainly know when it will begin, according to two people on Twitter whose reporting I trust. If the UAA didn't want this piece of information out, it should have kept it completely under wraps and internal; if the UAA's going to keep Silverstein and Goldkamp tweeting that bit of information in mind when dealing with them in the future, then the UAA is going to be overreacting to what seemed like honest mistakes from good journalists.
Nothing anyone does now is going to prevent that information from being available, that information becoming available was likely a mistake, and the information being available really doesn't impact anyone negatively. So, in a sense, this particular incident really doesn't matter because this piece of information doesn't substantially matter: Carter, to bring things full circle, is probably going to write up the UAA's official bit on when fall practice starts, and then it will be perfectly fine to tweet about it.
But this incident and all the ripples leading to and from it are part of a trend — not just at Florida, in college athletics, in sports, or in America — of institutions trying to control all of the coverage about them. And that trend will always, always be combated by people more interested in finding answers to questions than perpetuating back-scratching systems: "Let the bridges I burn light my way," someone will say, forsaking access in favor of truth. Pursuing the truth and doing good work usually works, even if higher-ups get flustered; pursuing the truth and doing bad work can backfire in a major way, but it will still likely reveal the truth. Truth and information have a way of finding the light, and best plan for any institution with truth worth knowing in this Age of Information is to hide as little as possible and make sure that the truth isn't damaging, lest someone take it and do damage.
It's conceivable that someone could do that at Florida. That person may not be me, and it may not be someone at Alligator Army — though our commitment here is to providing full and fair coverage of Florida — and it almost certainly won't be someone doing something as benign as accidentally tweeting about when Florida fall football practice is going to begin.
But Gators fans should hope, if Florida's combined antagonism of the press and ignorance of the vectors of information continues, that the Florida athletic program has no more significant skeletons in its closet for a bridge-burning truth-seeker to excavate.
Yes, the thought, "I'm going to embed a Lil B video" crossed my mind while writing this post." I'll just link it — it's got some NSFW language — instead.