Friday, November 6, 2009

Reporting, fact-checking, or jumping to conclusions

Mebrahtom (Meb) Keflezighi won the NYC marathon last Sunday, a great and well-deserved victory, and the first for an American citizen since 1982. It will not surprise those who follow distance running closely that debates immediately broke out on running bulletin boards as to how "American" Meb really is. The New York Times has a good article reviewing some of the arguments.

Meb was not born in the U.S. — he immigrated at age 12. But he has been a U.S. citizen for years, and is a product of U.S. running programs (high school, college, post-collegiate). Personally, I am convinced that the real reason some people discount his American-ness is racial, not the fact that he was born elsewhere (after all, Frank Shorter was born in Munich). However, the point of this post is not to take issue with anonymous message board contributors spouting their ill-informed and ill-formed opinions.

Instead, I want to look more closely at the "contribution" to the debate by CNBC's sports business reporter Darren Rovell. Rovell wrote an online reaction to Meb's win titled "Marathon's Headline Win Is Empty". Why did Rovell think it was empty? Because "the fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies": "he's like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league."

So what did Rovell know about Meb? Apparently only that he was born elsewhere, as we shall see below. So what does a good reporter do to learn more? Nothing, it seems. And what did Rovell conclude based on his "knowledge"? That Meb is essentially a ringer, someone with an unfair advantage. How can one conclude this? There appear to be only three ways. The first is explicit in the article, the second and third are implicit.

1. Meb is not "really" American because he is inspired by the motivation of prize money equivalent to "a lifetime full of riches" for a poor African. This argument logically fails, since as Rovell could not help but notice, Meb actually lives "in our country", where his marathon winnings do not constitute a lifetime of riches.

2. He is not "really" American because his formative years, and the decision to become a professional runner, took place in Africa, where the lure of prize money does come into play.

3. He is not "really" American because he is genetically African, which offers an unfair advantage. This obviously, implies a racist understanding of what it means to be American.

Rovell ignored the fact that argument 1 fails, and did not elaborate on which of arguments 2 or 3 he subscribed to. Numerous readers complained about his "analysis", forcing him to write a response, which centers around the following few sentences:

"I didn't account for the fact that virtually all of Keflezighi's running experience came as a US citizen. I never said he didn't deserve to be called American. All I was saying was that we should celebrate an American marathon champion who has completely been brought up through the American system. This is where, I must admit, my critics made their best point. It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America."
Some comments:
• Rovell did not explicitly say that Meb did not deserve to be called American, but he did say that he was unwilling to "break out my red, white and blue" for him.
• He did not say that we should only celebrate someone who has completely been brought up through the American system. Indeed, he did not mention the American system at all.

Why, then, suddenly refer to the American system now? Because it allows him to claim that he was putting forward argument 2 above, not argument 3. But this raises another, equally uncomfortable point.

Rovell is identified as a "reporter" on CNBC's website, not a bloviator. His bio is all about the "reporting" he does. Yet apparently this "reporter" did not bother to check even the most trivially accessible information about Meb: the age at which he came to the U.S., and his running resume. Why not, if this was really the key to his argument, as he tries to claim in his follow-up piece?

We can draw one of two logical conclusions: a) Rovell does not deserve to be called a reporter; b) Rovell is, in fact, a racist. Or, perhaps better for Rovell but worse for the quality of our media, a third conclusion: many reporters nowadays believe (correctly?) that they can forego actual reporting and even fact-checking with impunity.

1 comment:

  1. Coverage aside, I think most Americans would be surprised to know just how strong American track and field programs still are. While this isn't dealing with the long distance you are a part of, most top track and field (short range) athletes are trained at American universities. That they represent their home countries in the Olympics generally fools Americans into thinking we only had good programs in these sports fifteen years ago and before. Anyways, as to Rovell, it's almost certainly the second of your options. News reporting today is based on the idea that you won't bother to check up on the facts. Really though, this is nothing new. People have been misquoting the bible since it was written.