Sensationalistic, Scummy Journalism
In June of 2010, General Stanley McChrystal was relieved from his command in the U.S. Military after Rolling Stone published an article featuring McChrystal and his men making openly insolent remarks about the Obama administration. Truth be told, there were probably a stack of reasons behind McChrystal’s dismissal, but that article presented the proverbial last straw. Such is the power of the press. While McChrystal probably regrets his interactions with Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, it’s difficult to deny that when a small man with a press badge, tape recorder, and notebook observes you for the better part of two weeks, certain truths will surface – for better or worse. And although it’s essentially laughable to draw comparisons with the McChrystal debacle to anything in surf media…I’m doing it. Right now.
A few days ago, I read a small article on Stab Magazine’s website that prophesied the retirement of Dane Reynolds from the ASP World Tour at the end of this season. “Dane tells me why the Pipe Masters will be (sic) almost certainly be his last world tour event, why he feels ‘surfing is in a weird place’ and will bare more of his soul than anyone in his position has ever done before,” writes Stab’s Jed Smith, describing the takeaways from a three-hour interview with Reynolds.
“Bummer,” I thought. What a loss for the World Tour.
Then a funny thing happened. Apparently, Dane didn’t appreciate the fact that Stab chose to leverage his indecision about the World Tour to sell magazines, and felt compelled to say so on his blog. Below a handwritten note featured on Marine Layer Productions reading, “Stab = Sensationalistic Scummy Journalism,” Reynolds penned the following defense:
“Sure, this has been on my mind a lot the past few years. it’s not cause the tour aint rad or i don’t like competing, it’s simply wondering what climbing up and down the ratings for the next 10 years of my life is going to benefit. It’s a serious commitment doing the tour for a whole year. that’s 8 months of it right there. i just wonder if i could be doing something more personally fulfilling with that time. i’ve never made a decision and i enjoy going to every event and it’s a shame that Stab wants to exploit me in this way to sell magazines. surely in their article i say some critical things, because for some god forsaken reason i have trouble not saying whats on my mind when a sports writer provokes it, but at this point in time i’ll save my harshest criticism for Stab because this was a sleazy way to advertise they’re upcoming issue. (sic)”
Sleazy? Maybe. Stab’s done sleazier. Like kicking off an issue with Hitler’s Mein Kampf or running a feature with Dion Agius chugging bottles of liquor while driving a Porsche. That’s sleazy. Aside from a relatively groundbreaking feature on gay surfer Matt Branson and several imaginative and bold pieces that defy surf media norms, I have little to say in their defense. And Smith, the same writer who referred to Jamaican surfer, Icah Wilmot, as a Negro in a sarcastic article about the fall of white supremacy in professional surfing, does little to substantiate his credibility as a journalist, but interviews are usually strong indicators of truth. They’re “quotations” from a firsthand source, right? “Right?”
So that brings us to today.
Unless Dane Reynolds, in fact, did not tell Jed Smith that the 2010 Pipeline Masters will most likely be his last event on the World Tour during the course of a three-hour, recorded interview, it seems unfair to call Smith’s article an act of “scummy, sensationalistic journalism,” or even to lament it as exploitation. I’d argue that allowing companies to place pictures of your head next to pairs of striped boardshorts is far more exploitative than printing a direct quote from a conversation that (by definition) will be published. Of course, as Stab’s track record has proven, I may be giving them too much credit. It’s feasible that Reynolds told Smith nothing of the sort, and if that’s the case, such an irresponsible misrepresentation deserves criticism, and I applaud Reynolds for using resources available to him to speak his mind.
But for some strange reason – mostly because Dane never denies the fact that he made such claims – I suspect that’s not the case. And as such, it’s feeling quite McChrystalish. Especially after reading Surfing Magazine’s take.
The following day, Surfing’s Travis Ferre posted a cryptic piece entitled From the Editor: Dane Was Afraid of This that neither confirms nor denies the Stab article’s premise, but instead offers this email exchange between Reynolds and Ferre: “‘I’d prefer if you didn’t run it,’ [Dane] told me…. ‘I don’t have a good feeling about that one.’ And all I can really tell you at this point is that we’re not going to run the piece.”
Travis is a nice guy. I’ve worked alongside him, surfed with him, and I like him, but I can’t help but recall a quote from Matt Taibbi regarding the McChrystal debacle when thinking about this interaction. It goes something like this:
“Hey assholes: you do not work for the people you’re covering!”
Excuse Taibbi’s French, but a simple quote from Dane regarding his intentions – not how he feels about what should be published – would put the issue to rest much more effectively than highlighting Dane’s ability to influence editorial decisions. Ferre’s piece actually reads a lot like longtime war correspondents’ reaction to the McChrystal debacle: sympathetic towards the General and dismissive of the journalist. Complacent war reporters called Hastings’ article egregious, but, in reality, they felt threatened by Hastings’ willingness to…well…report.
And therein lies possibly the greatest offense in this situation: Reynolds referred to the charade that is surf media as journalism. It’s fun, and it earns free surf trips. But very rarely is it journalism.
By my estimation, journalism is man’s exhaustive pursuit and dissemination of the truth. It takes into account facts, figures, context, and conflicting perspectives as it distills complex events down to their essence. Inherently, it has flaws and inaccuracies. Inherently, it is exploitative, and it usually conflicts with somebody’s interests.
Alternatively, surf media does not. Unlike the truth, surf media usually serves everyone’s best interest, which gets to the heart of Dane’s gripe: in this instance, the truth did not serve him, and instead of filing complaints against more powerful forces who have undoubtedly exploited his image over the years, he chose a more dispensable outlet, and strengthened his authority over the rest of the pack in the process. Because, let’s face it, no self-respecting surfer (or surf writer) wants to get called out by Dane Reynolds. (Gulp.)
Which explains Surfing’s unsolicited, kowtowing response. “We’re all on the same team, right?” Matt Taibbi could’ve delivered his message more politely, but it stands: “You do not work for the people you’re covering.” Dane doesn’t need an editor to clarify or champion his direct quotations. He’s got himself (and his management) for that.
Regarding Dane Reynolds’ future on the World Tour, the issue that incited this catty little spat: Reynolds’ manager told me that he is unavailable for comment, and has yet to make a decision about competing next year.
So we’re back to speculative square one, and a singular, undying truth – one that Dane Reynolds and Stanley McChrystal can surely verify: Be careful what you tell reporters. It might just end up in print.
 In case you were wondering, this isn’t journalism. It’s an opinion.