Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Traction is In the Skid Mark of the Beholder

The media makes a living on selling and dismissing stories under the rubrics of "traction," that is, "Does this story have enough traction to pay attention to?" It is as if traction is a quality external both to the story and to the actions of the media itself.

As if. What they seem slow to acknowledge is that a story's traction is at least partly generated by the media and the medium (cue Marshall McLuhan) itself.

Here's a case in point. During the deciding American League Championship game between Cleveland and Boston the other night, both announcers, Tim McCarver and Marv Albert's Son (Kenny? I don't remember his given name, I'll just refer to him as MA'sS), created their own story line of the events of the game, and they made Cleveland's third base coach the fulcrum on which the story turned.

Despite the fact that momentum in sport can rely on a series or a sum of events, both McCarver and MA'sS locked on the single event of the coach holding a runner at third instead of waving him home, and they essentially put the weight of everything that followed (including Cleveland's loss) on his shoulders.

Truth be told: the held-up baserunner wouldn't have been a baserunner at all if a Boston infielder hadn't made an error by dropping a fly ball. Did McCarver and MA'sS dwell on that? Not for an instant.

They also ignored the momentous events that followed in telling their tale. The maligned third base coach neither hit into the inning-ending double play that followed his stop sign, nor did he allow eight more runs to be scored in the innings that followed his fateful decision that kept the momentary game-tying run of the board. And yet, McCarver and MA'sS overanalyzed and harped on the coach's decision throughout the rest of the game.

Even in the run-up to tonight's first World Series game between the Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies, the announcers once again referred to the Cleveland baserunning mistake as the tape of it re-ran. Hence, in this case, the media was pressing pedal to medal and forcing traction on an incident that could plausibly be interpreted as isolated given events before and after.

There is a metaphor that is used of media sensationalism: a circus. "Circus" sums up all of the misdirection, abstraction, and harm that an overzealous and overreacting media causes to the events it reports. I may be exaggerating to call the skid marks I saw during baseball's post-season a full-blown "circus," but I did see a couple broadcasters goofing on the game in their little clown car.

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