Why Is Barry Bonds' Case Front-Page News? Because the Media 'Think We're Stupid'

Categories: Media
2009-02-05T012446Z_01_BTRE51403XR00_RTROPTP_2_USREPORT-US-CRIME-BASEBALL-BONDS.JPG
Barry Bonds in his new home uniform

The sight of Barry Bonds, in uniform, performing in front of packed crowds is not a new one. These days, however, the uniform appears to be a dark suit and striped tie. And the crowds are gathered at his ongoing perjury and obstruction of justice trial.

Certainly, a federal case mounted against one of San Francisco's most recognizable celebrities is the sort of thing that attracts TV vans and print journalists as reliably as a downtown meteor strike. But, in the end, why is this so important? According to local media critics, Bonds' ongoing drug and (allegedly) lying about drug problems stay on the front page for the same reason an unhealthy percentage of us know that Britney Spears' children are named Jayden James and Sean Preston.

"I think the obsession in Bay Area media with Barry Bonds is a great example of commercial bias in the news -- giving us what they think we want rather than what we need because they think we're stupid," explains John McManus, the former director of San Jose State's GradeTheNews.org (it ran out of money in 2006). "It's not that the Bonds trial is not a story, but it's not the only story. There is too much happening in the world for the play it has been given on front pages and newscasts. There's a feeling in newsrooms that people take delight in the fall of the mighty, and this kind of coverage revels in the tragedies of public figures."

McManus, the author of the not-unrelated book Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware? sees Bonds coverage as the latest "Give the People What They Want" story dominating local airwaves, following in the footsteps of Scott and Laci Peterson or, more eclectically, the frenzied 2005 coverage of Anna Ayala's discovery of a severed human finger in a bowl of Wendy's chili -- which, it turns out, she planted

"People in the Bay Area years ago concluded Barry Bonds was using steroids," McManus notes. "Whether he did or didn't or whether he perjured himself probably will not change the quality of San Francisco's schools, the economy, the air, or water quality," McManus continues with a laugh. "It's absurd by any standard of ethical journalism to let a story like that take over the front page."

The San Francisco Chronicle
broke the Bonds -- and larger BALCO -- stories, so McManus understands the paper's drive to "own" the story and keep aggressively covering it. Yet he mocked the paper for its belief that the investigation was Pulitzer-worthy -- and worth keeping the paper's top investigative talent on the steroids beat and away from those in the city and state getting away with malfeasance that actually affected the lives of everyday people.

"The nation is in crisis. This is where the newsmedia ought to be pointing our attention -- not at a has-been baseball great being dragged into court."

Other media figures were more copacetic with the local coverage of Bonds' ongoing legal oddyssey. Paul Steiger, who heads the New York-based investigative jouralism outfit Pro Publica, described the situation as "a very legitimate subject for coverage, and I think the Chronicle did a good job. It is't just what athletes are doing, but what is the spinoff from what athletes are doing?" 

This would appear to be the "What about the Kids?" argument -- that is, high school athletes could start a massive doping orgy because they watched Bonds break home run records. There are legions of problems with this argument, but we'll limit our scope to an analysis of journalistic motives. And, in short, Steiger concedes that Saving Our Children was probably not the Chronicle's motive for its aggressive coverage of Bonds and the BALCO case. 

When asked if Pro Publica -- which describes itself as covering journalism in the public interest -- is following baseball's steroids revelations, Steiger noted he only had 17 reporters. Evidently the menace of steroidal athletes is not one of the 17 most important issues nationwide (and a quick trip to Steiger's Web site reveals storeis about the billions tied up in the stimulus package, a lack of criminal background checks for nurses, threats to our drinking water -- stuff, in short, that affects everyday people's lives).

The Barry Bonds story "Is not Watergate," admits Steiger. "But neither is it unimportant." 
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