Sep 13, 2013

Analyze this

With the kids back at school, I have been able to return to the world of sports radio and television. I don't sit there all day and watch a never ending stream of ESPN shows, mind you. I abandoned the Worldwide Leader years ago when it was apparent that what they considered sports coverage was some combination of loud-mouthed ignorant hosts arguing with each other. Instead, I usually have the Dan Patrick Show running on the radio or NBC Sports network while I am working. No matter where you get your sports coverage, one thing that is startlingly clear within a matter of days is just how much critical analysis has become the dominant source of content. This isn't analysis like Trent Dilfer may offer on ESPN, where he is breaking down plays and coverages. This is just plain criticism passing as journalism. It isn't limited to sports, either. I would wager that more words of criticism are written across the interwebs each day than any other tone. 

You see it in entertainment coverage, sports coverage, news coverage, food coverage, fashion, celebrity, travel - even religion.  Gone are the days of the simple reporting of facts or investigative journalism. Everything now has to have an editorial attached. One of the biggest examples of this was when CNN switched their sports provider from Sports Illustrated to Bleacher Report. SI is a (somewhat) respectable old school sports journalistic entity. Bleacher Report is basically a sports blog. Every article they write ends with some kind of editorial statement. Some of them are wildly out of place and unnecessary. But there they are. It is almost like the news outlets are worried we won't know what to do with the information they are providing us. So they also have give us the stance we should take now that we have the news. 

Look at political speeches. Some political entity will get on television and give a fifteen minute speech. Then the networks will run two hours of commentary breaking down and criticizing what that person said. And with the rise of Twitter, we don't even have to wait until the speech is over. We can start sending out our analysis as soon as the person hits the stage. "What a weasel." "What is that tie supposed to mean?" "How can this guy get elected when he mispronounces mujaheddin?"  

Slip back into the sports world for a moment. After last college football season, it was the unanimous opinion among sports people that Jadaveon Clowney would be the first pick in last year's draft. There was even spirited discussions about if he should sit out this season to make sure he didn't get injured like his old teammate Marcus Lattimore. He was the best player in college football, we were told. He is unstoppable, they said. It was like every college football expert was tripping over each other to join some insane Clowney posse. (No groaning, you should expect that by now people.) Living in Columbia, we have gotten more than enough coverage of Clowney. My twelve year old son, who could care less about football, wanted to watch the first game and came home telling jokes involving Clowney. (Why is six afraid of seven? Clowney) Two games into the season? USA Today had a headline this week asking if Clowney had already slipped in the draft. Sports outlets have already switched to debating just how overrated this out of shape wannabe is. The Gamecocks still have 10-12 games remaining this year. And he's washed up after just two?

Think about the news of Ben Affleck's casting as Batman. How much ink and web space was devoted to criticizing that choice? I clearly remember this uproar over Michael Keaton being cast. And Christian Bale being cast. And Heath Ledger being cast as Joker. In fact, the person who was the least criticized for being cast as Batman was George Clooney, who was so bad he has apologized for his role. Affleck is an Oscar winner for screenwriting and producing. He has been nominated as an actor. This isn't Zac Efron or Ashton Kutcher being cast here. We don't have any footage, any pictures, any script yet. But people have eviscerated the choice.  

So what, you may wonder. In fact, you may be waiting for me to be done to criticize me. I think there are several problems. First, being so critical all the time is a horrible way to live. It poisons your thought processes to where you start to find the worst in everything instead of the best. Think about if you go to a restaurant with a positive outlook. Let's say you know the owner or you're on a date. You will praise the things you like and overlook the things you dislike, unless the whole experience is a complete disaster. Maybe the chicken was a little dry. But the appetizers were great and the dessert rocked. You will probably walk out happy and see the experience as positive. If you go in angry and wondering if this dump will be any good, well, it will more than likely bring you down - no matter how good it is. 

Second, we get an overinflated view of our importance when we become full time critics. "People HAVE TO know what I'm thinking!"  It is like the universe is holding its breath to hear what we think of the new Harry Potter movies or Kate Winslet's dress. Since the Internet allows us to be anonymous in our criticisms. We can write rude things about an athlete who could tear our heads off in real life. We can say things about people we never would say to someone's face. Would you ever walk up to Ben Affleck and tell him he is going to suck as Batman? Would you tell the president to his face you think he is a jerk? Would you look an actress up and down and say she looks like a cow?  Of course not. But online, behind our screen names, we can be as cruel as we want. It makes us feel like we have power over those people, because we can cut them down. They may have the fame, money, and power we wish we had. But, dang it, we can be rotten on Facebook about them. We start to believe we are above the rules of common courtesy. We are superior to all those people who disagree with us. That's hardly a healthy view of things. 

The last reason I have to avoid the cult of criticism is something I realized yesterday in an unusual place. We fail to see the beauty of the "big picture" when we start to pick on and at everything. Last night one of my very favorite shows ended. We have been watching Burn Notice on USA since the end if season two. We caught up on the first two seasons quickly and have been avid viewers for five years. The show is far from perfect. It had had its ups and downs and its share of ludicrous story lines. It suffered from the entertainment trap of "too many layers of bad guys," where each conspiracy unveils another deeper layer. This season was much darker and different from the other ones. Instead of helping someone every week while constantly pursuing the bad guys behind the curtain, the team was kind of out to save their own skins. They were doing one job all season, only to stay out of prison themselves. They had to partner with slimy government agents to take down slimier bad guys. The problem came when the slime line wasn't so clear. Our honorable hero, Michael Westen, went so far under cover it looked like he wouldn't and couldn't come out. It was easy to pick on the season. Some episodes were frustrating. They weren't bad. But they were different. And that was hard. But as they tied all the pieces together, it culminated in one of the best series finales I have ever seen. Michael ended his quest the only way possible for a man like him. There were major sacrifices made - ones that were heartbreaking to see come to pass. But I couldn't have asked for a better ending after so many years invested in the show. 

So often we forget the big picture. We can be so critical of each quarter, half, and game that we miss out on the complete season or career. We get upset about a role being cast and miss out on the overall direction of the movie franchise. Think about the Avengers movie franchise. People griped about Robert Downey Jr being cast as Iron Man. It was originally supposed to be Tom Cruise. How stupid would that be in retrospect?  People were unhappy about just about everyone cast in the Avengers series, except Samuel L Jackson. But the movie itself was brilliant. The complete effort made sense. Imagine if the Internet existed when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel. Would there be constant online whine and cheese fests over each panel?  "I can't believe he painted Jeremiah that way!!!  Omg!"  Would Lincoln or Reagan stood up to the constant news influx and the age of twitter?  Doubtful. Personally, I also think of the Bible and how people get hung up on battles over tiny passages while missing the whole story. It is often quite detrimental to be so obsessed with the parts that we miss the completed project. 

I know that I have battled a critical spirit in my own life. I have been labelled by many people as a negative person, with one minister telling me in junior high that I was "the most negative person he ever met." (That felt good.)  I will admit that I have been negative a lot and I still can easily fall back into that. I also like to analyze movies, restaurants, music, sermons, tv shows, and books more than most people. I like to think about them and critique them (which is not the same thing as criticizing them.) A critic doesn't have to be critical. We can examine a thing and judge it without bringing an acidic attitude into the process. What is our reason for that analysis? Is it to help people or ourselves? Is it to make ourselves feel better and tear others down? Is it to stir up issues and brings readers to our blog or twitter account? Are we being fair and allowing people to present the completed work before we tear it to shreds?  Maybe it would be helpful to turn that highly trained analytical eye inward for a spell to make sure we are doing things right first, and doing them for the right reason. It may give us a richer view of things were we aren't constantly tearing them apart.