Hindsight May Be 20/20 But It Can Still Be Short-Sighted

Before I start this post, I’d like to add a very, very strong caveat. It’s something I believe deeply in and have tried very, very hard to avoid doing anywhere: talking about someone else’s writing in the negative. I think it’s one-sided, I think it’s generally unfair, and I think it rarely allows any sort of positive discussion to really take place. At best it looks like bickering and at worst it looks like a cheap shot.

Sometimes, though, it needs to be said.

Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs has a very interesting post up today, and it deserves your attention; not because it’s beautifully written, though Tommy is in fine form—funny, and to the point; not because it’s excellently researched, though clearly Tommy has proven, many times, that he’s a quality journalist who does his homework.

No, it deserves your attention because it’s wrong, though not in the sense that it’s really factually off, is home to a misplaced a comma or ended a sentence with the grave finality of a preposition. (Anyway, where did that rule come from?)

No, it’s wrong because it’s an attempt to re-write history. The post is about the Hall of Fame nomination of former AP reporter Steve Wilstein, who first wrote this piece about Mark McGwire’s use of the testosterone-boosting drug Androstenedione.

This is the story that birthed a decade of questions, a decade of hearings and a decade of mistrust, for sure.

But Craggs takes Wilstein to task in his post for engaging in… well, I’ll let Tommy say it:

“The story established the model for everything that has followed: insinuation, heaps of pseudo-science, a whiff of Drug War-era moralizing, the assumption that use is the same thing as abuse, the fat paragraph of scary side effects in which the writer essentially holds a flashlight under his chin and goes whooooooo, a quote or two from Gary Wadler, who remains the go-to drug warrior for journalists too embarrassed to quote someone named Dick Pound.

This isn’t meritorious journalism. It’s Nancy Reagan in newsprint.”

Now, Wilstein’s story isn’t perfect. It is guilty, in some ways, of bending the truth. The most egregious example, to my eyes, is the quote Craggs highlights from Wadler, who states:

“You can’t even buy testosterone with a regular prescription,” said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an expert in supplement use and assistant professor of medicine at Cornell University Medical College. “You have to get a triplicate prescription. It’s a controlled substance by an act of Congress. The schizophrenia of all this is, product A, which is over the counter, becomes product B, which is a controlled substance.”

Certainly, that’s a loaded paragraph. The methoocarbamol I take for a back injury is a controlled substance. I’m on medication that I have to go through three different security measures to get because it causes birth defects were I to magically get pregnant.

I’m a guy.

Clearly, the government asks a little too much when it comes to drugs.

So yes, there is a good deal of boogie-man-under-your-bed, ghost storying here. And Wilstein’s a smart enough journalist to know what he’s doing.

But dismissing the story simply because Andro was legal at the time is among the weakest arguments you can make. Wilstein answers those criticisms himself, writing that, whether baseball wants to admit it or not, the drug could potentially be harmful.

He’s not calling for McGwire to be suspended. He’s not saying that there’s a pervasive culture of steroids in baseball, though he does partially insuate it. At what point does he even begin to moralize on the subject?

His sourcing and diction indicate he’s among those who believe the drug may be dangerous, but he doesn’t come out and scream to the high heavens like some writers would have.

All he does is make a very strong case that Andro, and drugs like it, are dangerous and deserve further study.

Honestly, he barely cracks the seal on the can of worms that baseball, the government, and the media have spent a decade cleaning up.

He is careful to draw the line between use and abuse of drugs like Creatine, which every coach I’ve ever talked to on the subject has suggested does much more harm than good.

He is careful to mention that the steroid-like enhancers are not banned in baseball like they are in other sports, that they are not illegal, and that they are widely (and cheaply) available over the counter in Middle America, 1998.

But Wilstein makes a very compelling case that perhaps they should be banned in baseball, that they are dangerous, and that further research is certainly warranted on the health risks of long-term use (and abuse).

Basically, he does his job. By today’s standards, especially given how trigger-happy the media has been lately (Read: Tommy’s own very astute reading of a Rick Telander article suspecting Ryan Theriot of PED use), he’s downright restrained here.

But my real problem here comes with the fact that Craggs is trying to use the last decade’s events to somehow discredit the work of a guy who, while not exactly perfect in his execution, just followed the two basic precepts of journalism:

Get it right.

Get it first.

In that order.

Look, the last decade’s been no picnic for sports fans. The open laments by media members that we can’t all just write flowery profiles anymore, the consistent and deliberate circumventing of the fourth amendment by lawyers and investigators (on the defense and prosecution) attempting to help their case and careers, and the fact that it took nearly the whole of that decade for the powers in baseball—the union and the league—to put any sort of testing in place.

None of this stuff is any fun.

But don’t lay the blame at Wilstein’s feet just because he was the first one in the pool and said the water was fine.

There’s revisionist history going on in both sides, to be sure. The New York Times’ Harvey Araton maybe goes a bit over the top suggesting Wilstein’s story is the “ultimate commentary” on those times, as have plenty of other writers.

I don’t know if Wilstein deserves nomination to the Hall of Fame. I’ve read, that I’m aware of, maybe a dozen of his stories.

But I know he doesn’t deserve to be called out in such a way for doing his job, and doing it better than most of his colleagues at the time, at least for this story, were doing it.

Journalists have a tough job. They have to serve the public interest and operate within the sphere of publicly available information and, if they’re lucky and good, the tiniest sliver of the world of information the public isn’t privy to.

We can’t compel testimony, we can’t draw blood or test urine, we can’t develop new methods of testing or force them to be adopted by the sport’s ruling bodies, and we can’t hold the threat of jail time over athletes to force the truth.

So don’t take the guy to task for doing what no other writer, until him, was really able to do.

If you want to blame the media for doing a poor job ethically covering the performance-enhancing drugs scandal in baseball—and there’s plenty of questionable ethics to go around (Read: The SF Chronicle’s Game of Shadows reporting tactics, which are questionable on a good day)—go ahead, but a myopic assassination of the guy’s journalistic career by cherry-picking a few of his columns for open ridicule is hardly the way to go about it.

And certainly, above all else, the way to do it isn’t to trace some bold, etiological line from all of baseball’s current ills back to Wilstein like he invented cheating in baseball or media histrionics.

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