Thursday, March 18, 2010

Media Criticism

Stan Grossfeld wrote two pieces about thoroughbred owner Michael Gill in The Boston Globe on March 2.

I read the story and sidebar and thought that others, who don’t see The Globe, might be interested. I shared the on-line version with a group of racing fans and handicappers at a blog I contribute to. The reaction was an almost deafening silence.

This got me thinking. Was the information so “old hat” to these people they did not bother to read or react? Were the charges and countercharges so commonplace in racing that no-one cared any more? It caused me to go back and re-read the piece. I think I know why some at least did not seem to care. It is just not very good journalism.

The article and the sidebar take up a very large chunk of real estate in The Globe, roughly 1 ½ pages out of a total of 7 in the Sports section that day or about 20 % of the entire news hole for the section. I calculated about 176 column inches devoted to the text and accompanying photos. And yet the article really came to no useful conclusion, nor did it allow the reader to draw a conclusion. What was the reader to take away? I think the evidence is clear that the majority of The Globe’s sports readers care very little about thoroughbred racing. If more cared, and they cared more passionately, The Globe would provide better coverage. This makes the sheer size of this particular piece more striking and leads to higher expectations.

What the reader gets is a very long list of accusations and counter accusations, with very little in the way of facts, and almost no sense of real pursuit of the story by The Globe. The story seems to be limited to a series of statements about “controversies.” Does The Globe routinely devote so much space to people’s interest in controversy? Would the science editors devote so much attention to “teaching the controversy” about Darwinism? Is it newsworthy in itself that not everyone at the racetrack is a choirboy? Dog bites man.

This problem begins to be illustrated by the two photo captions on the first page – an assertion by an owner at Penn National and a counter-assertion by Gill. Gill says he has been accused of a “crime” but The Globe does very little to clarify.

The lead paragraph attempts to set a context of threat and mystery, but does not follow up. Did Gill show the Globe the “multiple death threats?” Did Gill share these with law enforcement? The reader is in the dark.

The events surrounding the death of Casual Comfort and the jockeys’ action at Penn National are described, but again, the story is more concerned with “controversy” than fact-finding. And so we begin with the back and forth.

Penn National says 10 horses down.
Gill says six. Well, which is it?

Gill says Penn National has a bad surface.
Penn National says they routinely maintain it. Well, which is it?

Gill says he will sell out.
The Globe says he has said this before. Conclusion?

Jockey Sosa says Gill doesn’t care.
Gill “scoffs .” Conclusion?

Gill says his breakdown percentage is low.
Penn National says it is high. Well, which is it?

Ex-trainer Ferris asserts bad “horsemanship.”
Gill says he doesn’t remember her. What should the reader think? This is literally she said/he said.

Maggi Moss challenges Gill to document his actions with retired racehorses.
Gill “slaps a thick pile of 2009 receipts… .”
Did The Globe even look at the “receipts,” let alone follow up? The reader has no idea.

Mike Catalano “believes” Gill is honest.
Does The Globe know or tell the reader that Mike Catalano (Jr.) once worked for Gill?
Readers might want to know that Catalano (Jr.) was called to account by the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission (October 21, 2008) for having two of his horses break down on the same day.

Gill says he sued Delaware for antitrust, and that Delaware settled.
Did this happen? Did The Globe follow up? Guess we will never know.

PA humane police say Gill’s farm operation is “perfect.”
The Globe introduces his pending divorce.
Is this balance for balance’s sake?

Massachusetts has “findings of fact” against his mortgage business.
Gill says “not….fraud.”
Is this the same thing?

The Globe reports a 2001 drug violation at Suffolk Downs.
Gill claims trainer’s responsibility.
How was this resolved? Globe readers are still looking to find out.

In the sidebar on Casual Comfort, we read,
“Gill …. declared persona non grata at six racetracks”
Which ones? When? On what grounds? We are still in the dark.

“He claims…. , critics claim.” No attempt to resolve competing claims.

While I am sure that The Globe considers its readers to be sophisticated and analytical enough to draw conclusions from facts, there are precious few facts in the 176 column inches devoted to horse racing and Michael Gill. Many more are to be found at the website below.

Ultimately, I think The Globe fails its readers by failing to provide a point of view. Is this an article about a businessman who is afraid for his family because of multiple death threats, or merely a story about “horseplay” at the racetrack?