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Press matters and not because it nailed A-Rod

March 08, 2009

"Stay away from steroids" may be the second most important lesson we can take away from the tale of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, whose drug dalliances have been made public over the last couple of months.

The main message concerns the value of the media, even as the established news industry seems to be crumbling all around us.

This side of the message has nothing to do with sports, home run records, the cream or the clear. It has to do with how we obtain information and the value of the professions designed to dig that information out of hard-to-reach places.

Nine seasons ago, A-Rod was traded to the Texas Rangers, whose locker room, we now know, was a hotbed of steroid use. Yet less than two months ago, no one seemed to suspect Rodriguez had bought into the philosophy of better hitting through chemistry, even though he was on pace to break Barry Bonds' tainted all-time home run record.

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Then Sports Illustrated's Selena Roberts got a tip: The Rangers slugger had tested positive during a 2003 drug test. The magazine reported the story on Feb. 7.

Rodriguez hastily agreed to a damage-control interview with ESPN's Peter Gammons. The drug - he couldn't remember the name - was supplied by a cousin in the Dominican, and he, being naive and stupid, played around with it for three years, but has been clean ever since.

The press is trained to smell rats, and soon major newspapers and sports-media outlets were breaking on the order of a story a day, many of which contradicted Rodriguez' version of the facts. They found his unnamed cousin. They discovered that the drug use smacked more of a carefully planned regimen than an experimental lark. They discovered that as late as last season he was hanging out with a shady steroid peddler.

In short, they did exactly what the press is supposed to do. Were there no traditional media, we would not know today that Rodriguez is apparently in the same category as Bonds.

Does this matter? Maybe not, especially if you have no interest in sports.

But the message is clear. There are a lot of people, corporations and governments with something unsavory to hide. And the only thing that stands between them getting off free and clear and meeting their just deserts is the investigating media.

To those of us in newsrooms across the country, it's a bit painful to realize that investigative journalism today seems to be doing a better job in sports than it does in the real world. Big, powerful papers with strong investigative teams have been gutted of their boots on the ground, as declining revenues have forced thousands of layoffs over the past decade.

Regardless of your opinion of the media, this affects you. Had the nation's big media outlets had the investigative resources or gumption to wade into the reasons behind the Iraq War or the reasons behind the banks' "mortgages for everyone" policies, we might have avoided some very serious problems.

Instead it's the easy stories that get covered - the cost or the number of dead in Iraq ... the extravagant bonuses and parties of Wall Street. These may be titillating, but the fact that the press is reduced to covering the aftermaths of disasters means in part that it wasn't able to do its job correctly before the horse was way, way out of the barn.

The reasons for the decline in legitimate media are far too numerous to mention here, and certainly some of the wounds have been self-inflicted. But at the very least, we shouldn't allow traditional media outlets to disappear without recognizing their value.

No blog was likely to discover and report on the A-Rod shenanigans, and if it had, it would have been dismissed as Internet gossip and lost in the electronic ether.

Without traditional, respected media, all manner of secrets, lies and flat-out corruption are poised to flourish. No one benefits from this, save for the liars and the corrupt.

Sadly, there's no magic bullet on the horizon that would reinvigorate the press and allow it to correctly do the job it is supposed to do. But everyone needs to hope that bullet is found, even those who have railed on so over the years about the "biased media." Conservatism may rule talk radio, but liberalism rules the Internet. If news gathering, or pseudo news gathering, is left to electronic bloggers and tweeters it will make traditional media look like Barry Goldwater.

The press was important enough to the Founding Founders to be first up in the Bill of Rights for protection. It's in everyone's best interest that in the decades to come there is still a press for the First Amendment to protect.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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