Editor's Note: This is an edited version of the presentation Marek Fuchs will give today at the University of North Carolina for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers' fall conference. After speaking, Fuchs will take questions on business and sports while sitting on a panel with Hubert Davis and Eric Montross, former North Carolina and National Basketball Association basketball players and current sportscasters.As I toiled away in college basketball obscurity, dribbling away along its lowest rungs, I always dreamed of being here at North Carolina in a line-up with the likes of Hubert Davis and Eric Montross. Well, more than a decade later, here I am. I'm still a foot short, two steps slow and, as my life's luck would have it, at a dais instead of center court, but as every one of you who has lived by daily deadlines eventually learns: There always comes that point in life when you have to sigh ... then be happy to take what you can get. Besides, talking business with these great Tar Heels is a fitting fallback. I write The Business Press Maven column for TheStreet.com and was named best business journalism critic by North Carolina's Journalism School's Talking Biz Web site. I've also covered a lot of sports and, for the past two seasons, have done back-up beat coverage of the Knicks for The New York Times. Between business and sports coverage, I'm probably in as good a position as any to pontificate on their comparative strengths and weaknesses. And in general, the business media could achieve a needed stitch of progress if it took a few marching orders from its sports brethren. You can entitle my thesis: How the business media can evolve into Charles Barkley.
This is overstatement, in tribute to Hubert and Eric's colleague in both the NBA and sportscasting, who is the king of overstatement, understatement, medium statement and any other manner of statement that exists. But those of you who haven't already left the room -- hold with me a moment. The process of collecting news in modern sports and business is very similar. Coverage of both beats is remarkably structured and systematized. Indeed reporting on these two great American pastimes is regimented beyond easy description or reason. Everyone in the sportswriter scrum is fed the same quote, just as in business where all the journalists are restricted to the same conference calls, collectively hunching the afternoon away over the same press releases. If you want a quote from anyone, be it a backdating CEO or a point guard with a suspect jumper, whatever you get will be vetted and rehearsed seven different ways before it is uttered. And let's be clear, said utterance will come under the tight supervision of a heavily armed public relations staffer. The upshot? The process of sports and business news gathering has officially been taken over by the public relations industrial complex. The process of gathering information has become systematized, processed, highly pasteurized, bleached and -- well, you get the point, but you don't get the news.
Now sports media as a whole is no pillar of excellence. But as a whole sports reporters have been able to be less exploited by the public relations industrial complex and that is where Barkley, the Round Mouth of the South comes in -- if only to serve as an example of the extreme fringe. Sixty years ago, sports reporters found themselves at the headwaters of change that the business media does now, thanks to the advent of television. What is the relevancy in merely summarizing a game, walking the reader right down the middle of it, when everyone had already watched it on television? Moreover, sports reporters had to drop certain journalistic pretenses. The business media -- especially newspapers -- have never been sure who they were writing for. Wall Street financiers? Less sophisticated regular folks merely looking to save for retirement? Or those with wider interests in the social significance of business? The business media always fretted between the three and never settled on a choice. But on the sports side, they could always have confidence in the level of knowledge of their readers. In general, it's as high as the reporters. People who grew up playing and loving a game and knew the sport's history. They had even, after all, watched the same game on television. And that clear realization was also a challenge. Sports media always had to go further than just-the-facts-ma'am. Why should personal viewpoints be liposuctioned out in a quest for total objectivity if the reader and viewer could see the same objective truth? And once that is settled, why go through what was increasingly seen as pretend play by the public anyway, where instead of the journalist giving his informed opinion, he instead rounds up a few quotes from those with biases anyway. Anyhow, forced to evolve by television, sports media, while far from perfect, was better situated to stay relevant with the rise of the public relations industrial complex. A team flack is going to try to iron Barkley free of a stray thought? Well, good luck. Or stop Manny Ramirez from saying he doesn't care if the Red Sox win? Sports coverage is replete with columnists, commentary -- true, too much gratuitous bluster -- but even in its day-to-day coverage, there is more room and flexibility for thought and (gasp!) perspective of the reporter. Perhaps this does not sound ideal to journalism purists, but the process of newsgathering has evolved over the years, which is to say it has devolved. The only way to rebalance the process is to give journalists the means to kick that public relations industrial complex in the shins, allowing them to serve readers something vibrant and with larger meaning. Look at how the business media fails needlessly in this regard. Half their work involves the rewriting of earnings press releases. Why any energy is expended doing this I will never know. A good portion of the remainder of what the business media produces involves harnessing deep meaning to fleeting, mathematically insignificant stock movements. Guided by the thought that when there is a "what," there must be a "why," the business media expends endless energy telling us the grand significance of a 50-point move in a 14,000 market. Meanwhile, tiny little issues like Enron or subprime lending are lost until they implode. Where are the larger counterintuitive thoughts? The honestly expressed stances that fly in the face of those press releases and rehearsed conference call claims? I don't want to belabor the point. I'll save all my belaboring for the Q&A section. So our patron saint going forward will be Charles Barkley. Not ideal. But it's better than serving the current master, the public relations industrial complex and the God of small, chaperoned thoughts.