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Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, and Post-Truth Football

Johnny Cash once asked, "what is truth?" To many head coaches, the answer to that famous question is, "whatever I say it is."

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Is that really a ball in your hand, Greg? (Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)
Is that really a ball in your hand, Greg? (Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)
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James Fallows is an accomplished, knowledgeable journalist, having written on subjects ranging from computer systems to China's progression as a world power to aviation. I can especially recommend his essay from 2010 on How America Can Rise Again, which is both inspiring as a reminder of this country's unique strengths and also depressing as a criticism of a dysfunctional political system. After reading Fallows' pieces, I invariably feel more educated, which is sadly not always (or even often) the case with political journalism.

Indeed, political journalism is one of Fallows' pet subjects. He has written extensively about what he has labeled as post-truth politics, which is the postmodernist tendency of politicians to lie in a brazen fashion, knowing that their supporters will cheer for anything they say and the media apparatus that unquestioningly supports their side will defend the statement. Fallows' point is that journalists have to break themselves of the lazy tendency for reporting on what each side is saying without evaluating the truth of the competing claims. That equivocal approach rewards the side that makes the most outlandish, frequent lies. Citing pieces by Alex MacGillis and Jay Rosen, Fallows explains:

The most important upshot of the surrounding discussion (plus this, from my sometime-nemesis The Economist, and this from Slate) is the indication of a growing cleavage within the political media. Some of the "savviest" and best-connected political journalists say that their duty is merely to recount the claims one side makes about the other, and whether or not they "work" in swinging votes. But, Rosen argues, a growing segment has concluded that "post-truth" politics requires reporters to do more than call play-by-play. As MacGillis put it:

Ah yes. If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator...

That's part of our job, isn't it, holding the candidates to some modicum of reality? Or we could simply sit by our screens and marvel at their "acumen.
Jay Rosen has been on this "false equivalence" / limits of "objectivity" theme for years. It's also what I addressed back in a more innocent age in Breaking the News. Amid all the reasons to despair about the course of politics, public discourse, and the predicament of the news, these may be signs of a positive and potentially very important change.

The post-truth world that Fallows describes is not limited to the world of politics. We can find examples all around us in college football. Just look at the last two weeks. Washington and USC have both forbidden beat reporters from reporting on injuries. In other words, they refuse to allow reporters to write about relevant, truthful information that is evident to anyone watching ten minutes of practice. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian - both coaches who came up under Pete Carroll, a coach who was famously open with journalists and fans - have decided that their supporters do not need to know the most basic information, treating bruises as if they are nuclear launch codes.

Last week, Nick Saban chided the media for daring to lionize his team after they wiped the floor with #8 Michigan at a neutral site and then for not giving proper respect to Western Kentucky, a team that was 101st in the country last year. The people who have actual skin in the game of determining the relative strength of teams had Alabama as a 38-point favorite. Alabama fans correctly perceived that the Hilltoppers were no match for the Tide, as there were tickets available mere days before the Tide's first home game since winning the national title in January.

Think about this. Saban not only wants the benefit of playing a tomato can in preparation for the start of conference play, but he wants the media to deny the fact that the can is, in fact, full of tomatoes. He wants the media to ignore all available evidence - the quality of the Tide's performance the week before, the quality of Western Kentucky's performance in 2011 (and in the two seasons before that, WKU went 2-22), the teams' relative strength as described by Las Vegas, and the value placed on the match-up by the Tide's famously passionate fans - and serve as an extension of his coaching staff by pretending as if David is Goliath.

My favorite recent example of the post-truth world in college football comes from ESPN"s version of Oprah: Tom Rinaldi. During his reporting at Penn State's first game in the post-Paterno era, he described having had a conversation with Jay Paterno about Paterno seeing Penn State's players before the game. Rinaldi reported that it was only fair for the Paternos to remain involved with the program since Joe Paterno had recruited most of the team to Penn State.

Thus, Rinaldi repeated the big lie that surrounded the Penn State program for the final years of the Paterno era, which is that Joe Paterno was anything other than a figurehead with purely symbolic value. Paterno's last off-campus recruiting visit was in 2008, when he visited Terrelle Pryor, a recruit whose home was roughly two hours from State College. In his final years as coach, Paterno was often "coaching" from the press box without a headset and with no obvious signs that he was communicating in any depth with the other coaches. Illustrating George Orwell's quote that "to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," the college football media repeatedly gave Paterno credit for Penn State wins and acted as if he were in charge of the program when it was plain to anyone with two eyes that Penn State's assistants were having a weekend at Bernie's.

Spencer Hall illustrated the problem nicely yesterday when describing Tennessee's decision to deny his request for a media credential and Lane Kiffin suspending a beat reporter for having the temerity to report on an injury:

That said, we really don't need [media credentials]. Reporters do, however, and that flow of information is either being cut off entirely, warped by the imposition of the teams, or being done by the programs themselves in some cases. We won't pretend for one second the reporting of news from a football program is comparable to something like the homicide beat or national security. It isn't, and never will be. But it's a tiny trend, and an ugly one across the board--especially when it comes to online outlets that do reportage and are denied coverage while a small daily of 4,000 people gets waved in handily.*

*Not talking about us, or even our employers, but others.

It is news that has to be verified, though, and if programs want to start dictating that access based not even on the online/offline distinction, but on what they want you to report or not report? Then reporters are way closer to hanging out with us at the tailgates than they might think, with only the sleepy, compliant hands of the Soddy-Daisy Crumpeter left twiddling in the press box to tap out precisely what the coaches say on their iPad.

In short, many college coaches want to live in a post-truth world where sprained ankles do not exist and Western Kentucky is a serious foe for the #1 team in the country. Those coaches are willing to condition access to their program on the willingness of the media to play along with the charade.

To come back to the Joe Paterno example, this is exactly the sort of mindset that made the Jerry Sandusky cover-up possible. If anything, the lesson from the Sandusky scandal is that college coaches and programs cannot be permitted to believe that they are above the rules, that they do not answer to any entities that could provide checks on their power, and that they get to make their own decisions on how those associated with the program will be treated. Joe Paterno and those around him ended up living in a post-truth world where the rape of a boy could be reduced to mere horseplay that does not need to be reported to the police. In the long run, it is good for coaches themselves to be scrutinized by a non-supine media, but they do not seem to have learned the lesson of the big college football story of 2012.

For more on SEC Football be sure to check out Team Speed Kills. For more college football news and notes head over to SB Nation's college football page.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.