Andy Stone: What’s a cheerleader for?
This is one of the old, established rules of journalism. I was reminded of it this week when I found myself in the press box for the Broncos’ Monday Night Football game against Indianapolis.
Shortly before game time, there was an announcement over the press box PA system, stressing that no cheering was allowed. The announcer went so far as to explain that it was because the box was filled with “working reporters” who must not be distracted from their tasks.
I thought that explanation missed the point.
In fact, none of the reporters seemed to be working all that hard. They were watching the game, to be sure. But they were also telling a lot of jokes and generally carrying on. Still, they certainly weren’t cheering.
At one point, when the Denver quarterback threw a perfect spiral pass directly into the arms of an Indianapolis player, one reporter groaned, “For crying out loud! Why don’t you just hand it to him?”
That counted as a breach of ethics and there was an immediate round of condemnation – laughing condemnation, to be sure – including one call to “Throw him out of here!”
In any case, the point of the ban on cheering is related to the ideal of journalistic neutrality.
We’re supposed to be in the press box as reporters, not as fans.
We’re supposed to be able to praise a good play or criticize a bad decision because we have some expertise in the sport we’re covering – not because we love (or hate) the quarterback or the coach. If we report that the game was decided by a referee’s bad call, it should be because that’s what happened – not because we can’t stand the fact that “our team” played badly and lost.
To be sure, there are sports reporters who are rabid fans and whose reporting is shaped by their passionate tunnel vision, and not by their calm expert view of what actually happened. Still, we like to maintain a certain decorum by not cheering in the press box, just as some high-class restaurants insist that men wear ties and jackets in hopes that, if they are well dressed, they may be inspired to be well behaved.
Certainly, there was an air of neutrality within the press box. The absence of cheering was part of it. As was the PA announcer, who described every play in a voice totally devoid of emotion. As was the fact that the press box is high above the field and insulated by thick panes of glass.
We were at the game, but we were not caught up in the game.
And I found myself wondering about the entire concept of journalistic neutrality.
We work very hard at it these days. We’re supposed to be professional, objective, unbiased. As reporters and editors, we are constantly told we should be balanced, we should give both sides of the story.
But, for all that we try, it doesn’t seem to satisfy.
I remembered how the network television news anchormen were criticized during the war in Iraq when they refused to wear American flag lapel pins to “show which side they’re on,” as one right-wing critic put it.
Those anchormen were, in effect, trying not to cheer in the press box.
They were trying to maintain a position from which they could report what actually happened, not what they, as patriots, wanted to see.
I guess that’s the right way to do it, yet sometimes I think there’s a price to pay for losing the passion.
The First Amendment was written to guarantee the freedom of newspapers that were wildly partisan – vicious on a level that makes even today’s most rabid radio talk-show hosts seem like pussycats.
That was the press whose freedom was guaranteed, not the cool professionals of today’s journalism.
I sat in the press box and wondered if we’re missing something when we refrain from cheering.
And then, as I pondered, the television screens in the press box were filled with a close-up of a Denver cheerleader, bending over in her low-cut uniform and wriggling in a kind of ecstatic frenzy.
In fact, the other team had just scored, but there she was, wildly (if professionally) excited.
“What’s she celebrating?” grumbled one reporter.
“The success of her breast implants,” someone shouted in response.
There was a moment of wicked laughter and then a calm voice spoke from the crowd, quoting – almost – the great English poet Robert Browning.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” the voice said, “else what’s a cheerleader for?”
My point, exactly.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.