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While advertisers play an undue influence in sculpting editorial at surf magazines, I’d like to think editors' aversion to controversy has a more dignified justification. One that involves tempering the public’s lurid curiosity.


The Inertia

Surf magazine editors have been taking a lot of heat lately for choosing to almost
exclusively cover the most flattering elements of surfing.
That might not be such a
big deal (it’s hardly a revelation), except the personal lives of prominent figures in the industry have become exceptionally relevant since the tragic death of Andy Irons in November. Journalists are tasked with reporting fairly and without prejudice, but in surf media, advertisers seem to play an undue influence in sculpting the editorial. Even so, I’d like to think the silence on certain topics has a more dignified justification that has to do with tempering the public’s lurid curiosity.

In October during the Cold Water Classic in Tofino, Canada, I pitched a dicey story to a reputable surf magazine. It involved professional surfer Mitch Coleborn, intoxication, indecent exposure, and elementary school property. It wasn’t pretty, but, hey, it happened. I figured editors drool over controversy like this. Apparently, I was wrong. “We’ve already got someone working on that,” they told me. Hey, that’s okay. As long as someone is working on it, right?

In most other sports, the media obsessively reports on the lives of professional athletes. They recklessly fling juicy, personal stories about public figures into the mouths of an insatiable public. But it’s understandable. If it bleeds, it leads. Curiosity is part of the human psyche, so it’s natural to be interested in the lives of others, especially when they’re ubiquitously on display, but sometimes the focus on athletes’ extra-curricular exploits provides an unproductive distraction. From football to figure skating, everyone remembers the off-field exploits of O.J. Simpson and Tanya Harding (not that homicide and assault are comparable to Coleborn’s case), but in surfing, there is a concerted effort to shelter athletes from bad press. For the most part, surf media leaves its athletes in the ocean. As far as we know, we don’t have a Michael Vick. While I don’t condone Vick or Coleborn’s actions (I think they’re terrible), I’m not sure events of that ilk always warrant coverage.

My question, to myself as much to anyone else, is this: is it always in our best interest to report every unflattering detail of celebrity life?

Journalists have the responsibility to report subjective, unbiased information to the citizenry, and according to Bill Kovach’s The Elements of Journalism, journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. It fosters accountability, not just for the people, but for society as a whole. But another important canon of journalism – and this is where it gets complicated – is called the harm limitation principle. Basically, if a journalist uncovers information that could potentially harm the subject of an article, it must be weighed judiciously before being printed. And if it’s worth printing, what’s the least damaging way to do so while still following that first rule?

The pitch I submitted back in October boiled these concepts down pretty well for me. After reading the few reports I could find, I came to my own conclusion: Coleborn got drunk and did something really, really dumb. And the disparity between the blockbuster coverage I anticipated and the absolute dearth of reporting that ensued was possibly more shocking than the event itself.

It turns out that the magazine either decided to scrap the story or never intended to cover the event at all. At first, I was a bit puzzled. I was curious to know why something like this wouldn’t be of major interest to the surfing world. I blamed the lack of coverage on advertisers, and while I still think that was probably the case, I don’t think the event necessarily warranted the kind of coverage I initially expected. Other forms of media, yes, but surf media… maybe. In any case, I can (kind of) understand the silence.

Some people think that media has an obligation to expose every detail of the lives of public figures. That’s not so. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics offers some sage advice on the matter when it states: “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” In an article written by Surfing’s Stuart Cornuelle, Cornuelle defends his publication’s lack of coverage (in this case, it was AI’s death, but it’s relatable to my point) by saying that he, and surf writers in general, are “not journalists”.  Judging by reader response, his defense was widely interpreted as a cop-out (that makes some giant leaps of false logic in the process), but he may have stumbled upon a justification I find more palatable: covering all the gruesome details of AI’s death could be construed as pandering to lurid curiosity. It’s just too bad he said they’re not journalists – instead of taking a more respectable standpoint.

And it’s the same thing in the Coleborn case. Sure, he’s a surfer. Sure, he did something that warranted attention. And it was covered. Just not by surf magazines. But, no matter what reasons surf magazine editors use to justify their inattention to sensitive issues, whether it’s a cop out (we’re not journalists) or a straight-up answer (the advertisers said don’t run it), I believe, in certain cases, that they arrive at the correct outcome: not pandering to our lurid curiosity.

Which begs a possibly more compelling question: who decides when public curiosity is distasteful?

Short answer: it’s complicated…and entirely subjective. Journalism is supposed to be unbiased, but in the incestuous climate of surf journalism, editors often have personal relationships with the subjects of stories, so the issue of lurid curiosity becomes even more delicate. Yes, I realize that there’s a difference between smearing someone and simply reporting the facts, but it’s impossible to objectively report on your friends. Mutually beneficial professional friendships are more convenient without cold, hard facts.

That said, we’re always going to be interested in the lives of others, especially those in the public eye. I wish that weren’t the case, but the stacks of sensationalist periodicals and gossip magazines flying off the Kroger endcaps beg to differ.

I am an avid proponent of journalistic integrity. Honest reporting is necessary to maintain accountability. It’s essential to democracy, but the surf industry is not a democracy. Surf magazines are not comparable to hard news publications, and to expect them to act like they are is simply unrealistic. The balance of power between advertisers and editors is skewed to one side, and from a democratic perspective, it’s tilted dramatically in the wrong direction. Even so, in choosing not to cover the shameful details of surfers’ personal lives, surf magazines often make the correct decisions. They’re just using the wrong logic. And that’s an inconsistency I can live with, because, hey, there are always plenty of pretty pictures.


  • Jamesonistheone

    Did you realize that if you replace “surf magazines” by “surf websites” your text is also totally truthful? So… when is The Inertia tackling all those issues to become surfing’s first tabloid?

    • wornoutozzie

      I assume surfing magazines are pitching to a 13-25 year old male demographic (which presently includes my son, but in the 70′s and 80′s included me) . They are unlikely to be very interested in intrusions on their heroes personal lives, and nor should they be. I find it curious that surfers with plainly average communications degrees/journalistic careers (who are usually crap surfers in any event) consider that they have an obligation to engage in these intrusions and/or to complain about magazines who dont. Perhaps the whingers could go and write about issues of substance to the surfing world, such as environmental/social issues. Or something a little deeper about the sport itself? But, please spare me from sanctimonious wankers.

      • Anonymous

        Point well taken. We’d encourage you to flip back through some of the articles on the site. You’ll find pieces addressing homophobia, sexism, drugs, environmental concerns, and other serious topics in surf culture alongside pieces expressing love for the ocean and appreciation for alternative surf craft (with humor, beautiful imagery, and optimism mixed throughout) – a balance almost identical to the kind you just suggested. Regardless, thanks for sharing your opinion, and Happy Holidays.

      • Guthrie

        Appreciate your take, but I can’t quite follow your logic. When you say “they” are you referring to mags or the readership being interested in the personal lives of their heroes? Either way, both parties are interested. Publicity generates public interest and the readership surely craves it – especially when it has to do with breaking the law…which isn’t not exactly intrusive – it’s already in the public record.

        I also can’t wrap my head around why you feel confused as to why mediocre surfers with mediocre journalistic credentials feel compelled to cover the uglier moments of a sport they love. By your logic, an up and coming writer who loves baseball and covers baseball (but who himself – is not very good at baseball – which seems pretty irrelevant to being a good writer) should not cover issues of steroid abuse or corruption within baseball. That doesn’t make sense.

  • Blasphemy Rottmouth

    I hope to untangle my eyeballs at some point in the next decade after attempting to read the lines on that spaghetti. Ye gods!

    Blame it on the readers?

    Yeah.

    “Surf magazines are not comparable to hard news publications, and to expect them to act like they are is simply unrealistic.”

    No shit, Sherlock. The masses have and will continue to move on.

  • Ctwalrus

    considering the age group that most of the surf media catalogs are aimed at. There might be some duty to point out to the readers “dam, this was dumb and maybe you shouldn’t do it” since the ad$ pay’s the bills, i don’t see any journalistic responsibility raising it’s ugly any time soon in -er, -ing, or tanyworld. Thats just the way the media rolls at this time.

  • stuu

    stop using these guys to sell trunks to kids and the point’s well taken. Otherwise, it’s bs. You want AI or Mitch to be heroes to kids, that’s fine, but just like anywhere else, once in that role they’re public figures and mags owe readers the truth. I don’t need to know when he sh*ts or who he’s banging, but if my kid’s seeing Mitch portrayed as a some sort of cool guy in the surfing press then he deserves to know if he’s hanging his c*ck out in front of an elementary school too.

  • Chris Cote

    Here’s an idea, to all the true “Surf Journalists” who use this blog as a soapbox to stand up to the tyranny of current surf media—start your own magazine. Write what you want. Print the facts. As it stands now, nobody on this blog seems to actually report on anything, you just complain about the current state of surf media. Do something about it. Start a magazine. Print is surely not dead, although the life expectancy of surf blogs seems to be getting shorter and shorter …

    • Clairvoyant

      Mr. Cote, the transformation you speak of is happening before your eyes, yet you are unable to see it.

      • stuu

        his glasses are pretty thick…

    • Alex Haro

      Chris, not sure if you read the whole thing, but it’s not about standing up to the tyranny of surf media, it’s about possible reasons why surf media differs from other forms of media.

      • Chris Cote

        True, and i actually enjoyed this piece. But there is no doubt an underlying negative tone throughout. I will thank you for voicing your stance, which appears to be “for” traditional surf media. Sometimes I just take things personal. I like this site and I hope it bucks the trend of previous surf blogs and stays around and actually starts to report on real stories, instead of begging others to report on real stories.

        I think someone put Visine in my coffee cause I’m kind of bitter today, sorry.

        • stuu

          Why don’t you step back and examine where the criticism is coming from, Chris? Really, what is TWS other than ad space? Your website offers the same PR dribble as Surfer, Surfing and even Stab now and the mags rarely feature anything but fluffy team-trip shots. There’s an opportunity for real surf journalism yet the major mags seem to skip this in favor of ever-larger fluff just so they can keep the doors open. The “try starting a mag” routine is weak, and seems to imply you have no choice but to turn out a crappy product if you want to keep your doors open. I don’t buyer it (literally – your mag can be read in 5 minutes at Barnes & Noble over a cup of hot chocolate with my kids).

          Show us we’re wrong, Chris. Hire Lewis Samuels to write the real, unedited, AI story. I dare you.

          • A.M.

            I think that’s the “lurid curiosity” he was talking about.

          • !!!

            I thought it was a joke when Cote called out people also. His act is old, the mag is nothing but a catalog for 12 year olds.

          • Chris Cote

            Damn, I was hoping for some actual banter but I should have known the pool of people who comment on these message boards is pretty shallow, and repetitive.

          • Alex Haro

            Hey Stuu,
            one of the points I was trying to make (apparently not very successfully) was that maybe we don’t need to know the real, unedited story… it may fall under the category of pandering to the public’s lurid curiosity. As much as I’d like to know exactly what happened, I don’t know whether or not it should be published – and if it should, how many of the details we should have. I just thought it was an interesting point.

          • stuu

            I actually got you, Alex, but I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to sell my kids on trunks, boards and t-shirts using AI or any pro surfer as the go-between, they deserve to know who’s selling to them. How many stories did TWS (not to single them out, but Chris is here participating) write telling us how awesome AI was over the years? How many did you read telling us about his problems? I don’t care so much for the specifics of AI’s death. I’d have much preferred to read about his human struggles while he was still alive. If the surf biz wants to remain locked in a vapid, make-believe world that’s fine. But I don’t imagine anyone’s really going to care when TWS, Surfer and Surfing all eventually go away.

          • Alex Haro

            Come back Chris! There’s actual banter happening!
            I see your point about reading about his human struggles stuu, and I agree. It’s a fine line to walk between identifying real world problems and turning them into tabloids, but it sure would be nice if it were cut-and-dry…

          • stuu

            not so sure. Sponsored pros put themselves out there. They’re in ads, videos, pictorials etc. In the real world these are called public figures and with the good comes the bad. I’m not sure where there’s a sense that the mags etc. need to protect the very people making their coin off an image they and their sponsors are intentionally selling the surf world.

    • headhunter

      Yeah! Start a magazine. You can use transworld as a model of what to do. Never write stories that matter, never have product reviews that say anything improtant or critical to the BUYER, Don’t really report on the biggest stories to the surf world (cause you might make the sponsors mad and it might take more than five minutes to write), and heavily censor your blog from people that write comments that disagree what the blog’s opinion is about. Pretend you are the party(the kind of party with a bunch of chaperones), who cares, vision for the surfers. Oh, ALWAYS,ALWAYS keep the sponsors happy and #1.

  • Blasphemy Rottmouth

    Chris,

    I am available anytime. You know where. Don’t worry, no one else will ever know…

  • Steve Briggs

    Let’s start with a couple facts. Chris Cote and his brother did not “start” Transworld Surf. To start a Surf magazine in this current economy would be a sure financial failure. So for Chris to proclaim start your own magazine is a shallow response. Transworld and Surfer/Surfing are all fighting for the almighty dollar. They are finding it harder and harder to make a profit with dwindling sales of print magazines. That is a simple fact. Surf mags will never be Sports Illustrated and will never get into serious topics with few exceptions. Surfer broke that mold with the story on Flea and Peter Mel and their stuggle with drugs and how they were dealing with that journey. The sad fact today is that Billabong, O’Neill, Hurley, Nike, Quiksilver and their Ad buys are more important than an in-depth story on the struggles Andy Irons had with drug addiction. To hope that Transworld Surf would address the Andy story would be like asking TMZ to do a 60 Minutes style story on our depressed economy. Chris Cote will be remembered for his signature story, the Cali Rally, and its assorted story lines. Does it appeal to educated and mature audiences that want something from true “Journalist”? If you like seeing a 16 year old make out with a cougar. Long live the choices we have out there and remember that you can’t have everything. So enjoy what you have.

  • JJaspan

    “but the surf industry is not a democracy” -Mr. Haro

    There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only Quiksilver, and Volcom and Transworld, and Rip Curl, Billabong, O’Neill, and Surfline. Those *are* the nations of the surf-world today. What do you think the Brazilians talk about in their councils of bro, Jadson Andre? They get out their swell prediction charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their drop-ins and claims, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Bro. The surf-world is a college of surf-corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The surf-world is a business, Mr. Bro. It has been since man could ride the line. And our children will live, Mr. Brote, to see that… perfect world… in which there are no crowds or flat conditions, oppression or localism. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common Laird, in which all men will hold a share of Bro-Stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

    The surf industry is a conglomerate whose primary religion is money. In business, you never allow the truth an opportunity to take away from your money.

    From Quiksilvers 2009, 10-K SEC Filing.
    -”negative publicity concerning any of our athletes could harm our brand and adversely impact our business.”-

    Surf media is just a PR front for multinational fashion corporations who use boardriding sports as the primary marketing tool to convince kids, teens and young adults to cover themselves in cool logos which harmonizes the culture and eahaaaaaaf…..yaaaaawnnnn.

    Like Rottmouth said, “The masses have and will continue to move on.”

  • Chris Cote

    I’d prefer to be remembered for my huge penis. Our Buyer’s Guide Issue is coming out next. The Inertia demographic will love it!

  • stuu

    Let’s not be too harsh on Chris. Sure, the Cali Rally is perhaps the worst thing ever in the history of surf publication, but Chris really does care about the guys he writes about. He even commented that Ruffo was a “good guy” after his most recent run in with the law. If he can see the good in a bit meth-head drug dealer, how bad can he be?

    • Greenleaf

      Bagging on Cote is a cop out. Transworld has always aimed to get kids stoked on surfing, and it nails it. That’s fine, and there’s not much to dispute with that. They stay true to their mission. I think it’s the other publications suffering from a bit of an identity crisis who hope to bite off a bit more for their (slightly) more mature readership, but they can’t fully commit – for a variety of reasons – (advertising, avoiding “lurid curiosity,” incompetence, fear, etc..) and the product looks just as confusing to us as it does to them.

  • Tropikal777

    Reality is surf mags could GAIN readers by publishing stories with a bit of substance. Just one or two Sports Illustrated style stories per issue would be all it would take. Instead (like someone else before said), magazines like Transworld can literally be “read” in 5 minutes at an airport kiosk, Barnes and Noble, etc. I read my issue of Transworld right before I hit the checkout line at the supermarket. Not worth buying.

    As far as advertisers go, yeah they matter to an extent, but they need the magazines as much as the magazines need them.

    For instance, you think Billabong is going to pull ads for a new line of boardshorts from all the major publications after they report something controversial about one of their guys? Maybe, but with a disastrous effect on their sales. I rest my case.

    Meanwhile, Pezman’s $12(?) Surfer’s Journal keeps chugging along…because it has substance.

  • Skip Jones

    When Frank Deford failed to mention Kelly’s accomplishments here:

    http://www.npr.org/2010/12/22/132236163/sports-sucked-in-2010-admit-it

    Couldn’t believe Deford and mainstream media missed this. I think we would all agree Kelly has earned to be mentioned among other champions Pacquiao, Armstrong, and even Jordan. Could this be a direct reflection of
    our maturity level as a whole group? The sporting world may see Kelly’s x10 as a domination of a bunch of immature adolescent youth. If you don’t think so we should talk about our number two in the world’s post “Pipe” heat comment “Hung like a donkey!” Wasn’t the contest broadcasted live on Hawaii cable tv station?Come to think of it I don’t think I have seen one red carpet online event coverage that hasn’t tasted like ( E or TMZ…) Do most WCT’ers refer to themselves using informal slang “Pro” or formal “Professional”? Another interesting research or study would be to take all professional surfers, local pros, and sponsored amateurs from the late eighties to present and see what social class, education level, marital status, criminal record …. Wonder were the the stats would fall… In the long run if surf media, surf brands like Volcom, Billabong /Steve Clark, Oneill/Tarlow can’t hold a level professionalism for their athletes. As we are seeing Target, Nike and the rest of corporate America embrace our sport mainstream media will no doubt have questions and expose
    our athletes frailness!

    • jaquelyn cresap

       The difference being it is SURF CULTURE, all surfers to some degree are free spirits. Their job is to surf, not to conduct a proper interview. As far as I’m concerned I’m glad that the media doesn’t put a bunch of attention on surfers/surfing, there are already to many people out in the water.

    • jaquelyn cresap

       The difference being it is SURF CULTURE, all surfers to some degree are free spirits. Their job is to surf, not to conduct a proper interview. As far as I’m concerned I’m glad that the media doesn’t put a bunch of attention on surfers/surfing, there are already to many people out in the water.

  • Al Baydough

    That is one of the most eloquent cop-outs I have ever read, at least in anything related to surf media anyway.

    I don’t think that many surfers care about the “grody” details of a surfer’s sexual exploits or basic personal details.
    However, when North Shore heavies (and surf thugs in general) hit people in the head with a shovel, traffic ultra destructive drugs (meth, ice, etc.), and rape young women it is a crime in itself that the surf media turns a blind eye.
    When a surfing icon, with a pretty poor behavioral reputation in lineups around the world, demonstrates an inability to stay clean and the surf media behaves as if there is no elephant in the living room despite the demolished furniture, well… You can’t really be expected to be taken seriously when discussing the concept of accountability. Hell, just the mention of the word to most surfers is akin to watching the the reaction that the Wicked Witch of the West has to a bucket of water.
    Surfers are notoriously well known for an unwillingness to take responsibility for much of anything and the media/industry not only protects this infantile behavior, it literally endorses it.

    You don’t have to name names to discuss a crucial issue but you have a responsibility to open it for discussion.

    The bottom line is that if you seek a profession that requires a public presence you have a responsibility to that position and the influence it has.

    The media and the industry have destroyed many lives with overly permissive negligence. Bad pool.