The current debate over journalistic ethics and conduct in NASCAR media centers and press boxes is long overdue. With the introduction of Citizen Journalists into the NASCAR media corps, it's time that the reset button is hit and everyone is brought onto the same page, both professional journalists, broadcasters, and bloggers alike.
As an avid news and blog reader, I believe all viewpoints of the sport should be welcome. It's a stroke of genius by NASCAR to welcome bloggers into the media corps as it broadens the coverage of the sport in a time when traditional media outlets are cutting staff and space devoted to motorsports.
But just because a blogger doesn't have the training of a traditional journo, that doesn't mean he or she shouldn't be held to the same standards of behavior of the rest of the media circus. And that goes double for those broadcasting the races on Fox, TNT, and ESPN - in fact, it should be doubled or even tripled since they have the largest audience and therefore a bigger responsibility.
As part of my New Year's resolution, I've been to the gym five to six times a week trying to slim down and get in better shape. I spend long periods on cardio machines and it gives me pause to think, and I've spent some time this week thinking of this situation and then learned of the termination of Tom Bowles by Sports Illustrated for admitting that he cheered as Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500.
Bowles is a fantastic writer, which is augmented by a strong passion for the subject matter. However, he did break - even for an instant - one of the cardinal rules of sitting in the press box: no cheering. Was termination warranted? Probably not, but a warning from both the sanctioning body's media relations department and his former employer would have both been warranted.
But how is what Tom Bowles did different than what Darrell Waltrip did during the Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona? Waltrip openly cheered for, and even gave his best redneck hoot, for his brother as he crossed the line to win the race. Is that appropriate?
Okay, so the next comparison then is if Waltrip can't do it, why was Ned Jarrett allowed to when Dale Jarrett won at Daytona in 1993?
What's the difference?
It's a huge difference. Jarrett did it reluctantly; remember, Ken Squier was told to lay back and Ned was told to bring him home on the last lap. Furthermore, he never used his position as a broadcaster with CBS and ESPN to get his son a ride. The younger Jarrett spent many years toiling in virtual anonymity on the North Carolina short tracks and in the Busch Series before earning a shot at the big time based on talent alone, not because his father would give his team or sponsors additional coverage if he was hired. In fact, he never went out of his way to promote any of Dale Jarrett's sponsors. Can Waltrip honestly say that? Can Larry McReynolds say it? No, neither can. They both promote their own agendas, which includes Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, Brandon McReynolds, and any other company or entity that offers them cash for an endorsement.
How many other television broadcasters have a conflict of interest? The question would be better answered if you asked which broadcasters do NOT have a conflict of interest within the garage area.
The NASCAR audience deserves unbiased coverage and commentary from broadcasters. Bloggers, who may only be covering the sport from a narrow perspective, say they're covering a certain driver, team, or manufacturer, should still adhere to the same professional standards of behavior as their professional brethren. Dress professionally, act professionally and courteously, and check your fan card at the door to the press box or media center.
Now that the gates are open, maybe NASCAR should offer some sort of Citizen Journalist orientation at each event, or at the very least send along a sheet of guidelines with each credential confirmation. It could be very simple: here is what you can do (go into the garage area, sit in on press conferences, ask questions, take pictures, etc.), here is how you should dress (business casual), here are some tips to get an interview (be polite, work with public relations reps, ask for a scheduled appointment, or join in one of the media availabilies), and here is what NOT to do (wear a driver t-shirt, cheer in the press box, interfere with a one-on-one interview, etc.).
And with that, NASCAR and its broadcast partners should set similar guidelines. No cheering for anyone. No wearing of sponsor logos on your apparel. No emceeing media or hospitality events for teams and/or drivers involved in the series you cover. No active team owners on the air (imagine Jerry Jones in the booth calling the Super Bowl!). If you have a relative on a team or on the track, check emotions at the door - and if that repeatedly proves to be a problem then you're out. The viewers at home expect - and they deserve - unbiased commentary and analysis.