From the Desk of Patrick S. Washburn: The Importance of Asking “Why”

Patrick S. Washburn is a professor emeritus of the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He is the author or editor of several books, including A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government’s Investigation of the Black Press during World War II and, most recently, co-author of Sports Journalism: A History of Glory, Fame, and Technology (Nebraska, 2020).

“You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

That saying refers to a person who fails to see something obvious. It happened to me in 2007-08 when I was putting together a book proposal on the history of American sports journalism from its beginning in a Boston newspaper in 1733 to the present. I anticipated primarily examining the contributions of noted sportswriters and sports broadcasters. However, when Sports Journalism: A History of Glory, Fame, and Technology was set to be published by the University of Nebraska Press, the major focus had shifted from the journalists to the impact of technology on the history of sports journalism. Let me explain why the change occurred.

Forty years ago, as a doctoral student in the journalism school at Indiana University, I concentrated on becoming a historical researcher. It was a natural fit for me. I had read a lot of history, I was a history minor as an undergraduate, and I had spent more than ten years as a newspaper reporter and columnist, which was good training for a historian. I knew how to interview, and I knew how to write well and tell stories in a non-boring fashion, which is something many academics cannot do. But I still needed to know about the historian’s craft.

One of the first things that I read was the book The Historian as Detective in which noted historians explained how they solved historical puzzles. An early chapter titled “Who Killed John Doe?” had an enormous impact on my research. It was a fictional account of how an English policeman solved a murder by examining the evidence and then asking “why” questions, which led him to new evidence that he otherwise would never have discovered. As the chapter explained, asking “why” differentiates a scissors-and-paste historian from a scientific historian. “Scissors-and-paste historians . . . collect all the extant testimony about a certain limited group of events, and hope in vain that something will come of it,” a historian explained. “Scientific historians study problems; they ask questions, and if they are good historians they ask questions which they see their way to answering.”

That advice directly affected my proposal on the history of American sports journalism and explains why the book’s major focus became technology rather than noted sportswriters and broadcasters. The proposal posed two questions: How did sports journalism change over almost 300 years, and why did those changes occur? The first question could be answered by a reasonably smart person, even someone in high school, by examining what has been written and broadcast on the subject, but answering the second question was more difficult and was an intellectual exercise. This turned the book into hard-core, scientific research.

Since I wrote the book chapters in a chronological fashion, I did not notice the impact of technology at first. That is because in the 1700s, there was only one applicable technology impacting sports journalism: hand-powered printing presses. But that changed dramatically in the 1800s. Steam-powered presses came along early in the century, making it possible to print newspapers more quickly, which led to larger papers and thus more sports news. Other technologies in the century, all of which changed sports journalism, included photography, railroads, the telegraph, telephones, linotype machines, and wireless telegraphy. That was followed in the 1900s and the 2000s by radio, television, computers, and the Internet. All of these changed the way that sports journalism was done and presented.

As for individual sports journalists, it became obvious as I researched and wrote the book, paying careful attention to my proposal’s “why” question, that only a handful of them were worth more than a brief mention. Many of them promoted excellence in their craft and enjoyed considerable national fame for their work, but they did not change sports journalism.

A rare exception was Roone Arledge of ABC television in the latter half of the twentieth century. As the producer of the network’s weekly college football games and the originator of ABC’S Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football, he employed a dazzling array of technologies that added excitement to his shows and made them ground breaking as they changed television sports coverage forevermore. They included computers for the announcers, instant replays, super slow-motion cameras, blimps, helicopters, cameras with higher zoom capabilities, electronic first down lines in football, microphones on the field, and satellites. All of this led to a historian labeling him “the dominant figure in sports television” by the mid-1970s.

One change created by Arledge that I found particularly interesting was on Monday Night Football. Two of the three initial announcers, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell, created controversy by continually and deliberately bickering on the air during the games. Before the season was over, Arledge told a reporter that he was pleased with what ABC labeled “outspoken journalism” because it made the broadcasts “bigger than the game.” Is that what sports journalism should be?

In my twenty-eight years of teaching a graduate historical research course at Ohio University, I always told students that if they had only one “why” reason in their research, they needed to think some more. Nothing ever happens in history for only one reason. And that was true in my book on American sports journalism. While technology was the major reason for why changes occurred, there were other reasons besides what was done by a handful of noted sports journalists. These included women sports journalists, whose numbers mushroomed beginning in the 1980s despite being the victims of sexism that continues today. There also were Black newspaper sportswriters, who began pushing hard in the 1930s for Blacks to be elevated to baseball’s major leagues. The result was Jackie Robinson becoming the first Black in the modern major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As the book shows, other factors changing sports journalism included religion, immigration, ethics, racism, blogs, and how social media has made it possible today for anyone to be a “journalist.”

Thus, when the book was finished, with the help of coauthor Chris Lamb, I knew that I could see the forest and not just the trees. It is all because I asked “why.”

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