Commentary

When journalism becomes hero worship

By John McManus
Posted April 21, 2004

Click here to see how much other papers covered Bonds.

With just two swipes of his bat, Barry Bonds brought the San Jose Mercury News to its knees on successive days last week.

The boldest American newspaper, as it calls itself, put the world on hold to devote most of its front page two days running to reverential accounts of Mr. Bonds' 660th and 661st home runs.

"With one swing for the ages Monday, a home run that leaped into the sky like a cannon shot and splashed into history, Barry Bonds tied his godfather, Willie Mays, for third place on baseball's most sacred list," Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami adulated on Monday. As if heaven were reading, he began: "Babe Ruth, you're next."

There's no question that Mr. Bonds is one of the most prolific homerun hitters in baseball history. Tying Mays' record deserves note, perhaps even on the front page. But when the Mercury News made Mr. Bonds the dominant story on page 1A two days in a row it crossed from following the news into promotion.

When a newspaper goes beyond the sports page to celebrate an athlete on its most-read page in order to excite more sales, journalism suffers in at least three ways:

"Lighten up," editors will say. "The man has just become the third most productive home run hitter in baseball history. People need a break from gloom and doom." But Barry Bonds is not a break, he's a staple on the Mercury News' front page despite never having played in San Jose.

More newsworthy than the mayor

In fact, a search of the Mercury News' archive shows the paper has written more stories about Mr. Bonds since Jan. 1 than San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, and more than the combined total for South Bay congressional representatives Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo and Mike Honda plus California's two senators, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

In contrast, the San Francisco Chronicle, whose offices are located almost within Barry's range as a slugger, didn't spend a second front page in awe of Mr. Bonds. Instead its report of home run 661 played on the sports page and it ran a pull-out tribute to Mays and Bonds; 1A was reserved for items many might consider more important than the 10-second flight of a baseball.

Bonds dominates page 1A.

News media write about Barry Bonds, of course, not because they consider him a role model or even admire him, but for commercial reasons. "Names make news," the saying goes. The more important Mr. Bonds' long balls can be made to seem, the more public excitement that can be generated, the more reason to follow the news of his dramatic climb in the record books.

"This is how the great sports entertainment-media complex works," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Giving prominent play to the drama of Mr. Bonds' daily pursuit of Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's records, Prof. Thompson explains, "you build up his cultural equity. He becomes, in essence, a media cottage industry."

Creating an aura

A byproduct of that enormous public attention is the creation of a model of success that appeals not just to youth, but across the culture. "By continuing to place these people on the front page, you're giving them the aura that comes with slobbering attention. That aura is incredibly seductive," Mr. Thompson adds, for adults as well as young people.

He notes that it's ironic because Mr. Bonds is being praised for being better than others at what he does at the same time that his achievements are under suspicion as being enhanced by drugs. Mr. Bonds has denied using steroids to power an upsurge in homerun production late in his career.

"The problem with athletes and actors and singers," explains Donald F. Roberts, a professor at Stanford who studies the impact of media on young people, "is that they are all role models. They don't get to choose. They have to be aware that kids pick up all their characteristics. They wear their shirts; they imitate their walk."

The combination of Mr. Bonds' alleged steroid use with all of the media attention troubles Prof. Roberts. "I do think the steroid thing is a big deal. When kids identify with heroes, when they look at heroes they tend to say it's OK, these things are good things or not bad things."

The Mercury News, of course, is not trying to push Mr. Bonds as a model for young people. Nor is the paper trying to become a diversion from troubled times, unessential reading.

Those are just byproducts when marketing logic overpowers journalism's interest in making what really matters compelling -- at least on the front page.