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Jeff Simon: Pardon my opinion, but TV opinion needs help

I used to watch ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" religiously.

Not to worship, of course; just for the edification.

What Dick Schaap moderated 0n Sunday morning TV in the 1990s was a panel of some of the nation's best sportswriters to comment weekly on the erupting number of issues involved in contemporary sports.

Sports coverage had completely changed. It wasn't just scores anymore. And Schaap had some of the feistiest and most articulate newspaper sportswriters around to tackle the issues with wit, panache, verve and a whole lot of smarts. Among the best regulars were Mitch Albom from Detroit (who became an author of sentimental bestsellers about aged mentors), Bob Ryan of Boston, Jason Whitlock of Kansas City and, most controversially, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, who always came across as a fellow who would make a bad impression on your mother if your sister brought him home for dinner.

Lupica is smart and steeped in sports, but everything he says seems to come with a cocksure, sarcastic grin and the unspoken question "You got a problem with that?"

Schaap died in 2001. The new host became the genial and avuncular John Saunders, a man clearly born to sit at the head of the table and pass the mashed potatoes around.

Saunders died in 2016. Lupica -- not everyone's idea of "avuncular" -- took over.

That's a lot of human chemistry to alter radically over time every week. Nevertheless the show persisted.

I stopped watching late in Saunders' run--not because of a lack of interest in either the subject or the participants but because of increased interest in what else was available on Sunday morning TV--"CBS Sunday Morning," CNN's "Reliable Sources" and Fox News' "Media Buzz."

"The Sports Reporters" ended its remarkable 29-year run last Sunday.

Albom paid eloquent tribute to its demise last week in his paper, the Detroit Free Press.

"It was a simple idea. Collect sports reporters, put them around a host, let them debate and end with 60-second commentaries called 'Parting Shots.' This may seem incredibly basic today. But when we started long-form opinion TV was novel ..."

"It was not a screamfest. It was not a soapbox for the absurd. It was not a place where the weirdest or the wildest was encouraged. It was not designed to capitalize on the worst thing you ever said.

"It was not a set where you had to throw footballs in your suits. It was not a place for telestraters, chalkboards, highlight films or blocking schemes. It was not a stats analysis. It never spoke of fantasy leagues. It was not a landing spot for former athletes. It was not fodder for commercials....It was simply 30 minutes of serious, thoughtful and civil sports discussion."

In other words, it was something that, after 29 years, couldn't survive ESPN's current era of wholesale staff hemorrhages and reductions.

The network that arrived in 1979 as almost an entirely new broadcast sensibility, is taking a recent hit of at least 100 on-air personalities and writers.

When I look at the sad online list of people let go by ESPN, the thing that strikes me is how large and generous an employer and TV force ESPN became in its fat years, after so short a time. Not only did they support feisty Bill Simmons and his online Grantland for a while but its documentary series "30 for 30" was a hugely impressive achievement beginning in 2009.

The current digital apocalypse is causing everyone in all media to scratch his or her head, look at the ceiling and wonder "What ARE we doing here after all?"

The loss of "The Sports Reporters" is particularly unfortunate because, at its best, it was a TV rarity: opinion done right. That is, with wit, panache, authority, passion, knowledge and, most importantly, little or no weakness for B.S.

That is the current corrupting problem in opinion journalism. It has gotten a bad name in this media era and why on earth wouldn't it? After so much cheapening, it was inevitable.

TV and the Internet have so trashed what people think opinion journalism is that people are practically lining up to park opinion writers on the nearest ice floe and get everyone back to reporting.

God bless reporting. No opinion writing can exist without it -- or, just as importantly, research. But in a world full of so much unconscionable blunderbuss bloviation based on nothing at all, it's understandable if people are having a devil of a time figuring out what's good and credible and what isn't.

This, sadly, has been coming for a long time.

Siskel and Ebert turned the job of movie critic into a TV semi-comedy act composed of a couple of squabbling Chicago fan boys who established the profession as a haven for nauseating immaturity for the eternal amusement of Johnny Carson and his audience. It had the undeniable beneficial side effect of shining a light on a profession that had  become enormously interesting while being largely ignored. But what Siskel and Ebert brought to TV was, in my opinion, the hopeless degradation of so many real people who did the job.

The tidal wave of B.S. was only beginning.

Rush Limbaugh's success on radio established political posturing as a kind of performance art for power's sake. It was hard to listen to and believe that a human being subscribed to everything being said. The trouble was that all that strident simulation of political ideas was so enjoyable for some people that it was easier to adopt the "ideas" wholesale than give them some thought.

So what we have now on talk radio and wall-to-wall on cable are people with opinions -- vast mongol hordes riding over the plains or marching and waving torches and pitchforks in the moonlight. We're pretending it has something to do with democracy. Mostly, there's money in it, and power and the fame that Andy Warhol once said was our American birthright in a media age.

In a world devoted to celebrity uber alles, bloviating opinions became a short cut to that fame which is now cherished above all things.

Half of what went into truly great opinion journalism has been drowned out by Albom's nightmare world -- the "screamfest" and "soapbox of the absurd," the places where "weirdest and wildest was encouraged" in the name of "opinion."

Schaap and Saunders were very gifted at moderating and packaging seriousness and thoughtfulness that came with a many pounds of wit. Without them, "The Sports Reporters" was subject to the vagaries of the shortsighted  ESPN management now suffering the maladies of a former "start-up" that expanded far too quickly and too thoughtlessly to handle the inevitable changes the future would bring.

There's some talk of finding another network home for the show.

Wouldn't that be nice? Just for the sake of seeing it done right again?



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