Monday, January 17, 2011

Who Watches The Watchmen? (And Who Appoints The Watchers?)

The problem with the media appointing itself the populace’s watchdogs in matters of opinion is when said media is not particularly perceptive about, well, what we like and what’s good. So when Richard Deitsch of gets outraged about Mary Carillo’s apparent dismissal from ESPN, you can’t help but say, huh?:
The world's best tennis players are in Australia this week. The sport's best analyst is not. Mary Carillo quietly left ESPN last year during the middle of the U.S. Open, leaving the network with one year remaining on her contract.

If you've read this column, you've read about Carillo. Last year named her the best game analyst of the 2000s for excelling in a sport that far too often soft-pedals commentary because of the many conflicts of interests and relationships. As my colleague Jon Wertheim once wrote about the analyst: "Her bold, 'I don't care who might be chapped by what I'm about to say approach' separated her from too many of her colleagues."

Deluged with e-mails on the subject of Carillo's departure, Wertheim dropped an interesting line in a column two weeks ago, saying there was a "philosophical difference" between Carillo and ESPN, and that she left the network on her own accord.
It doesn't take a leap to surmise that the philosophical difference rested in Carillo believing the tone and tenor of ESPN's coverage was closer to cheerleading than reporting. Sources told that Carillo was distressed by a culture that frowned on critical analysis of the top players on tour, particularly American stars. When last year's men's final switched from CBS to ESPN2, Carillo did not follow. It was a surreal end for a broadcaster who elevated ESPN's tennis coverage to new heights.

To which, of course, my reaction is—huh? Not just some of it, but practically every assertion in here is something I find more surreal than Carillo’s surreal end.

To clean up minor factual assertions: it seems to me ESPN is sometimes a cheerleader, sometimes not—didn’t Patrick McEnroe just call out Andy Roddick last year, for example?

But of course the bigger problem here is that Carillo is not very good at all; in fact, were I to be less than charitable, I’d call her terrible or bad. I’d be that way if I had even noticed her absence from either the U.S. Open last year or the Australian Open this year. If I don’t even notice when you’re gone, chances are you are not a particularly memorable analyst and I doubt too many truly excellent things—let alone the most excellent thing of an entire decade—are unmemorable.

But I accept this is a matter of opinion; if Mary Carillo butters your toast, go ahead and enjoy the margarine. But don’t pretend to get outraged on my behalf. This problem is one that all critics face: on one hand they feel they are recommending a product; on the other, they just want to talk about what they like and why they like it. If you’re, say, a gadget reviewer like David Pogue the job seems pretty clearly to be tilted towards the “recommending a product” pole, but it seems that critics of all other stripes have the conflict. The conflict often manifests itself along highbrow-lowbrow lines, a subject which has been exhaustively ruminated over, usually by highbrow people. (The most interesting thought on the subject I’ve read—and I can’t find the link—is that highbrow people tend to favor difficult and abstruse stuff, like, say, Dom DeLillo, because they’ve read/watched/listened to so much that the novel subversive art thrills like you’re reading it the very first time…whereas for everyone else, more conventional work still delivers the thrill.) (That said, I don’t think Deitsch’s enthusiasm for Mary Carillo can be classified on the highbrow/lowbrow scale, because I have heard literally no-one, no matter where their eyebrows are lodged on their heads, express enthusiasm or even mild approval for Mary Carillo. And I’m not using literally as a sarcastic amplifier as so many do, I mean no one has ever told me, “Hey, that Mary Carillo sure is good!”)

It’s my opinion—and what I try to do when I review something—is that the latter tilt is better. People are so individual that trying to predict on their behalf what they’ll like and dislike is a bad game to play. If you’re interesting enough in talking about what you like, people will figure out on their own whether they’re likely to align with you.

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