On Mussina, media didn't cover selves with glory

Media Watch

May 21, 1998|By MILTON KENT

The image of Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina taking a line drive in the forehead last Thursday was harrowing and troubling at first glance, if only because it was so rare. After all, baseballs fly around at top speed either from a pitcher's arm or off a hitter's bat on a regular basis, and ballplayers are skilled at avoiding that kind of contact.

In that regard, the constant and repetitive showings of the replays are somewhat warranted, because the beaning off the bat of Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar was so unusual.

But how much is too much? At what point does the constant re-airing of an event pass from the legitimate telling of a story to the gratuitous display of an image simply with the intention of shocking?

From this perspective, the most disturbing image from last Thursday was the gruesome shot of Mussina with blood covering the area near his right eye.

Though the replay of the actual moment when ball hit pitcher has been seen much more, the image of a bloodied Mussina has been a close second, and that's most unfortunate, because it was, from this vantage point, unnecessary in order to tell the story.

This isn't a particularly easy judgment to come to, because the press should always be able to tell a story in the manner it deems appropriate. But there are times when a responsible press must curb its excesses, and the shot of Mussina covered in blood should have been one of those times.

The reason is this: Though it is imperative for the press to show the world as it is, not as we want it to be, we also have an obligation to recognize that many of our viewers and readers are sensitive and may not prefer to have the truth delivered to them or their children unvarnished or without warning, especially from the world of sports, where many of us go to escape the horrors of our day.

It's in a similar vein of thinking that explains why most responsible newspapers and television and radio stations bleep out profanities that may be condoned in private adult conversations, but not in public. Those may be parts of a story, but they aren't necessary to tell the story.

It was obvious from the groans heard at Camden Yards last Thursday when the first Home Team Sports replay of a bloody Mussina came up on the house monitors that the image was upsetting, and a second airing only confirmed that notion. That, by the way, was the last time HTS showed that replay, and that was responsible.

However, Channel 13 showed Mussina's bloody head three times in its 11 p.m. news show -- once in a tease leading into the news, again in another tease at the top of the show and again in the sports segment. There was another airing the next morning during the 7: 30-8 half-hour and again during the Friday noon news, all in slow-motion and all without warning. The clip ran again during the 5 p.m. news, again in slow-motion, but this time with a warning.

By contrast, Channel 11 ran the bloody clip only once, from this reporter's count, while channels 2 and 45 didn't run it at all. Sadly, after not running that shot at all last week, ESPN has started running it this week. And, as many readers noted in protest, this newspaper ran a photo of a bloodied Mussina on the front page of Friday's editions.

The point is that the notion that Mussina was injured was effectively conveyed, or should have been, by a shot or replay of the pitcher holding a towel to his head -- run and aired by virtually all news organizations in town -- without showing blood, a sight that needed to be shown only once, if at all, and probably not splashed across four columns on the front page of the newspaper.

Forked tongues

So all of that talk out of last November's ESPN town meeting on sportsmanship must have been just that -- talk.

How else does one explain the judgment of "SportsCenter" producers to lead yesterday's overnight show with the Orioles-Yankees melee over NBA and NHL playoff highlights and a three-homer performance from St. Louis' Mark McGwire?

Oddly enough, the fight was going on as senior ESPN managers were accepting congratulations in Washington for "SportsCenter's" 20,000th show and praising themselves for not playing to base interests.

The fight was significant, to be sure, but no more so than the other events, unless the decision was made because the Orioles and Yankees were playing last night on ESPN or the fight footage was too good to ignore.

And, of course, promotion and titillation are never factors in what runs, right?

In the ballpark

A hard-hitting look at how the new retractable-roof ballpark in Phoenix was rammed down the throats of the local citizenry is one of the highlights of the new "Real Sports," which airs tonight at 8 on HBO.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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