Feb 13


Unless you've been living under a rock (and if you have, I hope you didn't need a subprime mortgage to get it), you've probably heard about the whole Roger Clemens steroids fiasco.  Clemens, a supremely gifted baseball pitcher (probably one of the five best to ever play the game), was named in the Mitchell Report on steroids as a user, largely based on the testimony of his former trainer Brian McNamee.  The story's much more juicy (pun sort of intended) than that, of course; Clemens has commenced an all-out assault on McNamee (who admittedly isn't exactly a choir boy), who in turn has thrown Clemens' wife under the bus (told you this was good stuff).  Clemens hasn't been shy about doing the same thing to his wife, actually, and his mother or anyone else he can find to blame.  Even his best friend has bailed out on him.  Yep, things aren't looking good for Clemens, and the possibility of a federal perjury charge is getting more real every second. 

Now loyal readers might be double checking their address bar at this point.  This is a blog about language, literature, and music, not sports, after all…and a good thing too, since as much as I like sports the last thing I want is to start holy wars over whether Duke is better than North Carolina, or whether Ali would have beaten Tyson in their primes.  (Answers:  None of the above, and yes.)  But this week I've been inundated with news about the Clemens business, and today it reached its zenith with a hearing in front of Congress.  My take on the subject doesn't have much to do with the hearing itself, though, or whether the Rocket was using some additives in his jet fuel or not (seems like a whole lot of evidence against a whole lot of furious denial to me, but hey, it's not like the state's got a perfect record on this stuff).  No, I've been far more interested in the coverage…what different people say about the exact same event, and why.  Because the sports media, which naturally can't get enough of this business, is falling all over itself to classify what's happening early and often, with ever more ridiculous headlines:

"Clemens blames all but himself."  (Straightforward, to the point.) 

"Hearings: Untruth and consequences." (Cute.)

"Clemens shelled by Congress." (Now we've gone to Saving Private Ryan?)

"Is Clemens the Antichrist?" (Okay, this isn't really about the steroids business, but I love it anyway.) 

Wow.  Put these all together and you seem to have some serious consensus against the guy.  And it's not just the headlines; read the articles themselves and you'll see the writers lining up to savage the guy they couldn't stop praising a year ago:

"Question by question, disputed answer by disputed answer, Roger Clemens' house of lies came tumbling down upon him Wednesday…Clemens had nothing, just pathetic ramblings…and throwing everyone from his agents, to his mother, to his wife under the bus of blame."

"Wednesday was a day of losers. While the Mitchell report withstood its stiffest challenge yet, baseball lost. Roger Clemens lost and Brian McNamee lost. Clemens had his day under oath in front of the country, and he spent it flailing, splashing against relentless waves of facts he could not calm, even after 4½ hours."

"Clemens was a much more compelling personality….[he] spoke with passion and energy, and with what sounded like heartfelt conviction… He made a tremendous witness."

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  What the hell happened to the savaging?

It turns out, kids, that ultimately truth really is in the eye (or the pen?) of the reporter.  For Dan Wetzel and Howard Bryant, Clemens' appearance was an utter failure, "pathetic," "flailing," and the work of a "loser."  For Jayson Stark, though (who hasn't exactly been Mr. Objectivity throughout his career), Clemens was "compelling" and a "tremendous witness."  Same place, same time, same hearing.  Different Clemens.  

Why do I feel like I'm in a bad remake of Sliding Doors?

Of course, everyone knows that truth is ultimately dependent on those who perceive it.  It shouldn't be surprising that different observers will have different takes on the same event.  But the issue, ultimately, doesn't concern them–it's about us.  When you can have one person alternatively described as "pathetic" and "compelling," at the exact same moment, how are we supposed to parse the difference?  Check up on your sources, you say; do some research and discover the truth for yourself.  Well, sure…you can find out all you want about the backgrounds of your reporters, and decide whether one person's distant relationship by marriage to a given newsmaker taints his reports on that newsmaker or not.  Or you can go to one of the million online news sources and watch everything for yourself.  Maybe you'll let the meteorologist slide (he's probably not in bed with the hurricane, right, so at least he's not taking any kickbacks from Mother Nature), but anything which could even have a tinge of subjectivity gets vetted by your crack analysts (er…by you, in other words).  Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe.  Maybe you figure that you've got the education, the knowledge, the background to be able to get a sense of truth or falsehood from someone doing steroids, or testifying at trial, or describing wartime atrocities.  You're a well-rounded citizen, right?  But what about the deeper levels of knowledge?  Do you know enough to decide whether a medical professional got kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company, which might affect her prescription for your medical condition?  Do you know enough to figure out whether your special ed coordinator really is interested in the welfare of your child, not in getting the principal off his neck about his tendency to run over budget?  Are you savvy enough to know whether mechanics are telling you the truth about how safe or unsafe your brake pads are?

Uh-huh.  All of a sudden the Renaissance man theory is getting a bit strained, isn't it?

The point is not that you should be content to sink into the typical blissful ignorance which often characterizes a lot of your fellow citizens (and don't act shocked, all of you reading this feel the same way occasionally.  Smile).  We could all use a lot more healthy skepticism.  But it's clear that the position of objective fact-finder, the person whose job is to report on reality and put it in a context we can all use, is rapidly vanishing.  In its place we have a lot of very opinionated people (walk into any bookstore and you'll see their proxies screaming at each other from their respective bestseller tables) with very definite impressions of reality, and not a whole lot of ways to distinguish between them.  (We all know Ann Coulter is a lunatic, but what's the deal with Jon Stewart?  He seems trustworthy–I certainly trust the guy–but is that reasonable?)  And that leaves us either to become experts on everything–not very likely–or determined to know nothing, since at least that way we won't get fooled again, at least in theory.  The result is that we cede the field to the ones who very much know what agenda they want to promote, and truth suffers as a consequence.

Maybe this sounds too maudlin and sentimental, like I ought to be crying for the loss of the Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows of the world.  And maybe it's too much of a stretch to see some overzealous sports journalists going at it and worry about the fate of veracity in 2008.  But spin it however you like, there's something more than a little troubling about the he said/she said mentality that seems to be infusing all aspects of our world, from pundits to the ordinary people who listen to them.  Whether Clemens had something injected in his butt so he could throw a baseball faster may not really be important in the large scheme of the universe.  But whether we'll ever be able to get a fair-minded appraisal of how likely the possibility is–whether Clemens is indeed compelling or an Antichrist–without needing a medical degree to be sure, is.

The truth is out there, friends.  Just make sure you've got all of your search equipment in order when you set out to find it.