We've just wrapped the first day of the NASCAR Media Tour, a four-day team/NASCAR/media schmoozefest that's more akin to an elementary school field trip than an actual newsgathering expedition. And for the most part, Monday's events were rather straightforward: sponsor announcements, driver Q&As, bus travel from team HQ to team HQ. (Full disclosure: I'm not in Charlotte, though we have correspondents present.)
Everything Monday proceeded without incident, with one major exception. FOX/Speed analyst Larry McReynolds, serving as de facto master of ceremonies at the Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing media shindig, apparently went off-script and began chastising the media for their perceived negativity and focus on what's wrong with the sport.
"I know it's easy to write about all the bad things and I know it can't all be about the good things," McReynolds said (as quoted by SB Nation), "but (here's) the only thing I reach out to you: If it's television ratings (you're writing about), we know the ratings are down, how about also promoting that we're second only to the NFL? If there's 25,000 empty seats at Michigan, how about making sure you document there's still over 100,000 people in those grandstands? Things like that will get our sport back to where we were, along with storylines like this (Ganassi) group right here and with the type of racing that we had in 2010."
You can predict what happened next. The assembled media went into fits of frustration, taking to Twitter and Facebook to vent about the condescension inherent in McReynolds' statements. "'Be More Positive' Lecture From McReynolds Leaves Reporters Groaning," ran the headline from SB Nation's Jeff Gluck. The Gaston Gazette's Monte Dutton penned a column entitled "McReynolds stands up for all that is good: Nothing like being lectured to by a TV guy." And ESPN's Terry Blount called McReynolds' lecture "the flattest moment" of the day.
But here's the thing. We in the media, myself included, can be a thin-skinned bunch, quick to criticize but not so quick to take criticism. It's easy to say a crew chief should get fired or an underperforming driver should lose his ride; it's not so easy to hear someone saying the same thing about you and your job. (In our defense, we do hear some of the most horrid, hateful criticism of our work that you can imagine. And there's only so much you can take before you feel like confronting your accusers, either verbally as Jeff Pearlman did recently, or physically, as Kevin Smith implied in this very NSFW-language clip.)
So with that in mind, we need to take just a moment and wonder: What if McReynolds was right? What if we do go a little too heavy on the negativity? I'd like to think I'm honest and upfront about my biases, and I have a deep respect for every driver, even the ones I think could use a four-tire attitude adjustment, but maybe I'm deluding myself. Lord knows I've made quite a few Junior-stinks, Tony-eats and Hamlin-cries jokes in my day. Is it too easy to roll with the shorthand attendance-is-down, NASCAR-is-clueless, the drivers-are-vanilla storylines?
It's worth the media's consideration, isn't it? Should we blast the messenger without even pausing to think about the message?
Let me stress this: I have no beef whatsoever with any member of the NASCAR media. I'm a relative newcomer to covering the sport, and at all the tracks where I've worked, I've never been treated with disrespect by my fellow media folk. Gluck, AP/Yahoo! Sports' Jenna Fryer, USA Today's Nate Ryan, Landmark Newspapers' Dustin Long, ESPN's Ryan McGee and so many others have been nothing but welcoming and friendly to me whenever our paths cross. (The same can't be said about the golf media. Catch me in person sometime and I'll tell you a very different story about some of those clowns.)
Now, my schedule and job description don't have me on the road nearly as much as the folks I've named above, and perhaps that's part of the issue here. Perhaps I haven't sat in enough press rooms, getting condescended to by NASCAR brass or disrespected by drivers. Perhaps I haven't gotten ground down by the punishing schedule that has you on the road four to five days a week, 30-plus weeks a year.
Still, there's a reason we all went into sportswriting and not, say, insurance sales. (No offense, insurance salespeople.) There's a rush you get being one of the first people to arrive at the track on raceday morning, the haze of campfire smoke and anticipation in the air. It's bookended by the rush you get by being one of the last to leave at night, the engines of the haulers echoing off the empty grandstands as they line up to head back to North Carolina.
Look, I get it. Heaven knows racedays can be overwhelming with interviews and analysis and chasing down sources and transcribing quotes and Trying To Make Sense Of It All on a deadline that passed half an hour ago, but on every track visit, I try to take a few minutes and soak in things from the fan's perspective. (Yes, this sometimes involves me walking up to Kyle Busch's car and asking my Twitter followers what I should do to sabotage it, but hey.)
And that's why it drives me insane when anyone who's in a position of privilege at a track — media, administration, teams, track officials — takes the day for granted. I was in the press room at Daytona a few years back when the call came over the intercom that NASCAR would be giving track ridearounds the next morning, but you had to be back at 7 a.m. "Not a chance," grumbled a couple old-line media types. But here's the thing: You know how many of the 200,000-plus in attendance the next day would've gotten up early to take a spin around Daytona?
Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
Perspective, people. Try to hold onto it.
Now, don't get me wrong — this is not at all to say we should lap up whatever pablum NASCAR or the broadcasters spoonfeed us and present it to you as "news." As Gluck and Dutton pointed out, we have an obligation to portray the sport as it is, not as we'd like it to be. If the "changes" and "modifications" and "modernizations" NASCAR happily trots out seem shortsighted or misguided or just plain stupid, we owe it to our readers to draw on our years of perspective to say why. That's not mindless criticism, that's honesty backed by knowledge.
And McReynolds and the higher-ups in NASCAR and its broadcast partners are by no means without fault here. Demonizing the media, as was done so often last year, is a time-honored trick for politicians to get in good with the masses. It plays well with the fans in the grandstands if you can point to those cats behind glass in the press box and paint them as out-of-touch negativists. Saves you from having to answer uncomfortable questions if you've painted the people asking those questions as The Enemy.
Still, there's a middle ground here, one that critics of the media would do well to understand. It's possible to call out a sport while still loving it; it's possible to expose flaws not for the sake of muckraking or pageviews, but because you'd like to see those flaws corrected for the long-term health of the sport.
We all want the same thing here. If NASCAR succeeds, everyone benefits, right? Rather than pointing fingers at each other and away from ourselves, why not relax and understand that what connects us is far stronger than what separates us? That way we can all focus on our real enemy ...
... the NFL. Those guys are the worst, am I right?
Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.