Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Sage Of Minneapolis: An Ode To Dan Barreiro

A few days ago Twins Geek made an interesting post about paradigms. To summarize, paradigms are the lenses through which we view the world. Through our paradigms, some aspects of our environment are drawn into sharper focus while others are obscured. The larger point is that the reality behind the paradigm does not change: a paradigm-free perspective would perceive an unfiltered reality, whereas a paradigm-generated perspective shades things.

So far so good. But now we toe contested ground. Some would have it that there is no such thing as a paradigm-free perspective. For instance, those who allege a "liberal bias" in the mainstream media claim that media members’ liberal paradigms inform everything they report, including what issues they choose to cover. Stepping outside of those paradigms and reporting objectively is not possible, the claim contends. Others believe that we can step outside of our paradigms long enough to view and process reality objectively.

As an old philosophy major I'm aware that the above was a gloss on a controversy loaded with complexity. Nevertheless, I think the positions at stake are clear enough. I also believe that the paradigm-centric assumption has a profoundly negative effect on our discourse. Not only does the position discourage people from attempting to stake out objective perspectives on issues; its prevailing status as conventional wisdom discourages us from criticizing those who broadcast ostensibly "objective", but evidently agenda-driven, points of view. Why challenge the intellectually dishonest if all argumentation is paradigm driven and thus biased in some way?

I do believe that we have the ability to mostly shed our paradigms and consider the world from a mostly objective point of view. I don't believe that to do so is easy. A paradigm simplifies the world by setting reality into a pre-configured mold. In addition, paradigms allow for a community of paradigm-sharers to find solace in the company of others who have predictably similar perspective on things. To step outside of one's paradigms is to step away from the security of those paradigms and to face a world full of frustrating nuance and complexity.

But with what values, one might ask. Shed the paradigms and don’t you shed the value systems that are the product of them?

Not entirely. Leave behind the paradigms and one is left with a commitment to taking the world as it is without “spinning” it so that it will fit into a paradigm. The paradigm-free make a virtue of intellectual honesty.

For reasons I won’t get into so as not to make a long post longer, I do think the world would be a better place if we were quick to brand the intellectually dishonest with a Scarlet D. And I think more would be inclined to think critically and with a healthy independence if we celebrated the intellectual honesty of those who attempt to process the world paradigm-free. Which brings me to former Star Tribune sports columnist and current KFAN radio personality Dan Barreiro.

As a columnist, Barreiro's contrarian spirit and his willingness to savage the eminently savagable raised faint echoes of H.L. Mencken. That echo has grown even louder as his radio personality has evolved over the years. Barreiro doesn't suffer fools lightly, and his willingness to take a hatchet to purveyors of ignorance, intolerance, and fraudulence rivals Mencken’s own motivations in tone and tenor if not in the quality of the resulting criticism. When I listen to Barreiro, I am greeted with the same thought that visits me when I read Mencken: here is someone who both values and practices intellectual honesty, who desires nothing more (and nothing less) than to view the world objectively.

I believe his body of work supports this interpretation. As exhibit A I’d point to the befuddlement with which a certain segment of his listenership greets his program. The frequency with which his callers and e-mailers accuse him of being, alternately, liberal and conservative, is both laughable and distressing. Laughable because the accusations see-saw as conclusions arrived at without the assistance of a paradigm driven-agenda take on an alternatively liberal or conservative hue. Distressing because the comments demonstrate that some accustomed to paradigm-driven, intellectually dishonest talk radio don't know what to make of someone who is intellectually honest. These listeners seem troubled that you cannot approach Barreiro’s show with the same confidence you can approach so many shows up and down the AM dial. In fact it is not possible to predict how Barreiro will respond to any given subject by holding that subject up against an agenda. After fifteen years listening I still don't know exactly where his politics lay. I offer that as a form of tribute.

Before you suggest he and I get a room, I’ll mention here that I don’t believe that Barreiro is above criticism. His fondness for creating, and then destroying, argumentative straw men can make his criticism gratuitous at times. His “Done as a Society” segment, for instance, which features bizarre or troubling news items, is related with an incredulity that suggests he believes he is the last sane man in America. Likewise, on the subject of local sports, his tendency to find a cloud behind every silver lining draws him perilously close to paradigmatic-blinkered thinking: at times Barreiro seems programmed to see the negative to the exclusion of the positive.

Still, even these tendencies can make for colorful, entertaining radio. And I don’t believe they detract from his accomplishment, which has been to carve out in the competitive drive time slot a radio program that has managed to remain intelligent, eclectic, and above all, intellectually honest. Barreiro may not be another H.L. Mencken. He’s the closest we have to him in this market however. For that I believe he has earned our respect.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jim Souhan's Lazy Journalism

Jim Souhan devoted his Sunday column to cataloguing local reaction to epochal events in Minnesota sports. The public’s supposedly unanimous responses -- “Minnesotans hated these deals”-- to moves that worked out well served as a refrain that lent the piece a satisfying cohesion, stylistically speaking.

That the refrain also painted a misleading picture did not seem to concern Souhan. How else to explain his decision to include among the "hated" moves the decision to draft Joe Mauer over Mark Prior in the 2001 draft? No doubt some observers felt that the Twins were choosing the lesser but more affordable talent in Mauer. But to suggest that Minnesotans in general hated this deal? Didn’t the excitement surrounding that pick suggest that most took pride in the selection? I suspect that Souhan decided to include the Mauer pick near the end of his list because the pick turned out so spectacularly well, and the suggestion that Minnesotans hated the pick served as a fine exclamation point to his contention that Minnesotans react with knee-jerk and ultimately myopic unanimity to sports related events.

Of course the obvious problem with that contention is that it is wrong. Turn on sports talk radio or enter the Minnesota sports blogsphere and you’ll discover a diversity local opinion on most any local sporting subject you’ll care to name. To remain ignorant of, or possibly ignore, that diversity for the sake of thematic and stylistic integrity of a piece is to engage in lazy journalism.

Souhan is the Crown Prince (or rather the Court Jester) of lazy journalism in that his pieces are loosely constructed and typically favor glib humor over analysis. That approach makes for entertaining, but rarely informative, pieces. As someone who relies at least as much on humor as analysis in his own writing, I’d be a hypocrite to suggest that there is no place for his style of writing in the sports page. I will suggest, however, that Souhan ought to recognize where his contribution rates among those who elevate substance over style.

Certainly that substance is out there. There are local bloggers who write some very informative stuff. For instance, Nick Nelson, Aaron Gleeman, Ubelmann and company over at SBG, the crew at Twins Territory, Kyle Eliason, John Sharkey, the inimitable John Bonnes (aka Twins Geek), and a host of others frequently featured at MNGameDay.com and whom I do a disservice by failing to mention often write posts steeped in detailed, research-driven analysis.

Which brings me to a throwaway line in Sunday’s throwaway piece:

“Gentle readers – and bloggers who remain ever-hopeful of gainful employment – hate everything about the (Santana) deal…. And they remind me that I must be wrong, because Minnesotans’ gut reactions are always right."

The implication in this line – and indeed in the entire piece – is that bloggers base their opinion on their gut, whereas Souhan bases his opinion on informed argument. Certainly one might argue that this should be the case. With the exception of Gleeman, the bloggers I have mentioned are not full time scribes. They are college students and business men and women and blue and white collar professionals who shoehorn their blogging into crowded lives. Indeed, it is precisely because bloggers are gainfully employed by organizations that don’t pay them to write that one would expect to discover in their works a species of lazy journalism. Likewise, it is precisely because Jim Souhan is gainfully employed by a newspaper that pays him to research and to write that one would expect much research-backed analysis.

That this is not always the case -- that Souhan’s Sunday column stands as an exemplar of his loose, style-driven approach while MNGameday.com is loaded with links to research-driven blogs -- suggests that, at the very least, when Souhan tars the purveyors of relatively uninformed sports commentary, he feathers himself in the process.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Mocked NFL Draft: The First Ten Picks

So we only know baseball, you say? Bah. Gameday projects the first ten picks of the 2008 NFL Draft.

1. Miami (1-15)
The Pick: Bill Germanokos, OL, Winner of NBC's "Biggest Loser"
The buzz: In Germanakos, NFL’s biggest loser lands a proven winner already accustomed to humiliating himself on national television. Should have no problem regaining dirigible proportions; elephantine buttocks could anchor O-line for a decade.

2. St. Louis (3-13)
The Pick: Paul Douglas, QB, Meteorologist
The buzz: Consensus number two a supremely talented backpedaller who always manages to avoid being exposed when fronts collapse. Polished, cerebral improviser has mostly dodged concerns over accuracy. Toolset includes spectacular Doppler Unit. Needs to bulk up a bit.

x - 3. Atlanta (4-12)
The Pick: Steve Irwin (deceased), QB, Animal Planet’s "The Crocodile Hunter"
The buzz: After the Vick debacle, Falcons must rate character over physical ability. Strong commitment to animal rights will offset Irwin's figurative, literal lack of pocket presence.

x - 4. Oakland (4-12)
The Pick: Pat Robertson, RB, Host, The 700 Club
The buzz: Al Davis and company looking for battering-ram type back. Robertson, who believes the earth is 9000 years old, comes with rocks in his head.

x - 5. Kansas City (4-12)
The Pick: Rachael Ray, OL, Celebrity Chef
The buzz: Chief's once dominant O-line in need of some help. Ray is a pancake machine. A no-brainer here.

6. N.Y. Jets (4-12)
The Pick: Fox NFL Robot, DT, Fox NFL Pregame Show
The buzz: Robot tumbles all the way to six after disappointing Super Bowl showing against the Terminator. Jets enamored with jumping, knee bending, finger pointing abilities.

7. New England (From SF (5-11))
The Pick: Cloverfield monster, DE
The buzz: Monster has size, strength to dominate the edges. Performance in East River puts to rest doubts concerning swim technique. Patriots love proven track record against New York.

8. Baltimore (5-11)
The Pick: Michael Jackson, RB, Pop Superstar
The buzz: Shifty and elusive with plenty of dazzle. Scouts agog over unusual "moonwalking" gait, which can make him seem to go forward even while he's losing ground. Nose for football, nose lacking.

9. Cincinnati (7-9)
The Pick: David Blaine, WR, Street Magician
The buzz: Dynamic performer with great hands and magical skills. Signature levitation move will make him unstoppable in end zone fade routes.

10. New Orleans (7-9)
The Pick: Dennis Kucinich, LB, U.S. Representative
The buzz: New Orleans in desperate need of Douglas and his Doppler but may have to settle for Kucinich instead. Tenacious but undersized, inability to range to his right limits his appeal. Probably a reach here.