Escape from the Rituals of Cynicism

For many who know me, the subject of New York Daily News writer Frank Isola is a touchy one. I’m a fairly vocal critic of his work on the Knicks beat. It’s not so much that Isola is alone in his pathology. A lot of the long term guys on the Knicks beat have become invested in their own narrative brands. Isola is iconic in his disdainful tone, while Marc Berman at the New York Post is his sometimes sycophantic alter-ego. There’s a Knicks beat writer for whatever your mood.

In my day job, I teach various ideas related to media and communication. Those ideas sometimes involve journalism, and other times sports communication. In the bigger picture, my work orbits around cultural studies giant James W. Carey and his “ritual view” of communication. From Wikipedia:

The ritual view of communication is a communications theory proposed by James W. Carey, wherein communication–the construction of a symbolic reality–represents, maintains, adapts, and shares the beliefs of a society in time. In short, the ritual view conceives communication as a process that enables and enacts societal transformation.

Carey defines the ritual view particularly in terms of sharing, participation, association, and fellowship. In addition, Carey acknowledges that, commonness, communion, and community, naturally correspond with the ritual view. In a similar way, the term “ritual” holds religious connotations. For Carey, this connection to religion helps to emphasize the concept of shared beliefs and ceremony that are fundamental to the ritual view.

When it comes to journalism, this view emphasizes the power of public discourse to give shape to community. The production of common symbols and understandings offers the public a frame in which to negotiate shared meaning. Journalists and news organizations propose particular “truths,” based on their observations and understandings, and the public chooses to accept or reject those truths in figuring out who “they” are as a group. Carey notes, “We first produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world we have produced. Alas, there is magic in our self deceptions.” Our self deceptions are found in the faith we put in those “truths” as essential qualities of “reality.” Realities built in flawed human perception, translated into imperfect language, are hardly real at all. We’re talking about the inherent subjectivity of human cultural work.

This comes into play with our sports journalists as they observe a limited range of circumstances around teams and players, construct narratives about those observations, and promote them as “Truth.” There’s a clear danger in promoting your work at Truth, when the best you can hope for is truth in a matrix of possible truths. To be overly self-righteous about one’s position as a journalist is to ignore the limitations of your perspective in favor of your byline. Journalists of all stripes can fall prey to this sort of things, not to mention academics.

My running complaint about Frank Isola has been his tone. There is absolutely no disputing that the Knicks have been a dysfunctional organization from top to bottom. Perhaps, the Knicks continue to be dysfunctional to this very day. Al Bianchi was dysfunctional before Dolan ever arrived. Beyond Dolan, you can point your finger at Scott Layden, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Larry Brown, and a host of other characters who’ve passed through MSG’s doors. You can put Phil Jackson in there as well if you wish. I won’t begrudge anyone that point of view, although I don’t share it 100%.

Those facts are not in dispute. However, why do we engage with sports, generally, and why the Knicks, specifically? What is this ritual act of communication for in the end? Fandom is a ritual of belonging. It’s a cultural act that distinguishes an “us” from the wide world of “thems.” Beyond simple boundary setting, this sort of cultural act is related to meaning. We build this house in sports communication and take up residence in it. The tone we take in performing this sort of work tells a lot about the type of community we create. Even in the midst of great dysfunction, the right tone can result in a critical but positive cultural climate. There’s a place for “truth-telling,” when it comes to persistent problems and dysfunction, but more than the factual content of that communication, the tone determines the direction and character of the culture.

Knicks fans are masters of gallows humor by now. We’ve been conditioned to accept dysfunction and we’ve developed elaborate memes to digest it in small doses. The cultural production of catharsis is a grassroots phenomenon, and is most prominent in online communication via social media and in the many excellent blogs that follow the team….including this one. There is a dramatic difference between gallows humor as catharsis and deeply entrenched cynicism. Humor is a coping mechanism. It helps to preserve the positive spirit of a culture, even through the darkest nights. This is where the Daily News and Frank Isola come in…

Some time ago, I tweeted some criticism of Isola. It probably wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last. I never expected to be DMed by the man himself, but it happened. Mr. Isola began serial tweeting me in private, attacking my character, intelligence and so on. I couldn’t reply privately to him, as he wasn’t following me on Twitter, so I was forced to reply publicly. This went on for some time until I realized my own feed looked insane and he wasn’t going to become any more reasonable in private the longer it went on. Much more recently, I openly criticized Isola and Mike Lupica for their coverage of the Knicks, tweeting something about the joyless coverage of sports in their paper. I meant it then, and I mean it today. There is a very deeply ingrained cynicism at the Daily News, which is their editorial prerogative. Soon after my tweet, Mr. Isola searched the Internet for my private e-mail and “inboxed” some spiteful business in my direction. I was taken aback that he’d go to such lengths to contact me privately, but it didn’t seem completely out of character based on my past experience. In fact, I’ve found a number of online accounts of this kind of behavior, including this bit from five years ago. It’s a remarkably similar tale of social media stalking that mirrors my own interaction with Isola.

I’ve often thought about writing something about my experience, as it figures prominently in the personality of our highest profile Knicks journalism. I held back because it seemed to be more personal than newsworthy. I knew Isola had gone after other critics in this way, but that’s just social media, right? Well, perhaps by now you’ve read some stories about the Isola/McLovin Twitter feud that took place recently. If not, give this a read. It’s pretty funny. I suddenly felt that my own experience with Isola, an experience shared by other of his critics, was relevant.

Mind you, I’m not arguing in favor of being a Garden apologist, or for avoiding the hard “truth” about the Knicks’ many problems. That’s what Marc Berman is for. Instead, I’m taking the point of view espoused by James W. Carey and suggesting that journalistic narratives play a very important role in channeling the culture of the community. Healthy criticism and deeply entrenched cynicism are not the same thing. The magic of sports is their capacity to unite a community around the joys and sorrows of a team. They have a civic purpose that informs the tone of a community’s culture. They give shape to the experience of life. Cynicism robs sports of their capacity to bring joy. People like Isola will tell you that their job is to tell the hard “Truth.” The “facts” surrounding the franchise are dismal and therefore the “Truth” is dismal. He’s just telling it like it “is.” It’s an overly simplistic view of truth that denies his own personal biases and vendettas. The same story can be told 100 different ways. He chooses to inject his work with dripping sarcasm and disdain, subjective qualities that obscure “Truth,” if there is such a thing, in favor of his own private “truth.” Editorially, the Daily News has made this brand of “truth” their calling card when it comes to the Knicks, which, again, is their prerogative. I feel perfectly secure in my right to critique them for that brand, as a fan, a cultural scholar, and a writer.

I’m certain I’ll hear from Isola again about this piece. I’m okay with that. My interest is not to impugn his work or to attack him personally, however he goes about his business through social media. My bigger interest is in promoting less cynical communication around the Knicks, in particular. That has to start from the highest profile sources of Knicks information, as the gatekeepers of public sentiment. Consider this a general appeal, rather than a specific attack….although I recognize that past interactions have colored my perspective on a prominent character in question.

The views expressed in this piece are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinion of Knickerblogger or any of its writers and members. 

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42 thoughts to “Escape from the Rituals of Cynicism”

  1. Obviously, there’s no reason at all for him to insult people over DMs and/or e-mails for their criticism of him. That’s very uncool.

  2. The problem is that we assume sports journalist care about anything more than attracting eyes to their writing. Most are seeking a narrative and a way to continue the narrative until the next event. There have not been a lot of events to do actual reporting on, so narratives begin to drive everything.

  3. As Alfred, said, “Some people just want to see the world burn.”

    I stopped reading The Daily News years ago. It doesn’t sound like it’s gotten any better.

  4. @ reub

    “Signed Wroten.”

    I think Wroten is going to be a real impact player in China someday. Until then, he’s going to be a “real physical specimen” with “tons of upside” who can’t shoot at all and turns the ball over as often as any player in the league.

    He is quite literally the worst point guard in the NBA since he joined it. He is the Andrea Bargnani of point guards. He is the actual worst at the things that people at his position do to be successful.

    Emmanuel Mudiay was the worst guard in the league last year and he had 5 turnovers per 48. James Harden just set a record for most turnovers in a season with a per-48 average of 5.71.

    Tony Wroten’s career average per-48 is 5.9 TO/48.

    If you have to dip into “signed Tony Wroten” to justify Jackson’s tenure, you are doing it so far wrong that you may be past the point of sanity.

  5. @7

    Wroten has also been playing heavy minutes on a tire fire roster while shouldering insane levels of usage for a player of his talent level.

    It is unlikely Wroten amounts to much, but if he just improved his finishing at the rim and takes better quality shots instead of forcing the junk he was in Philly he might be able to be an okay NBA player. If he got better at shooting somehow he could be better than okay

    Odds of all that happening are pretty shit, but I think he’s a logical player to take a low risk gamble on given his athletic ability, size and skill set.

  6. Odds of all that happening are pretty shit, but I think he’s a logical player to take a low risk gamble on given his athletic ability, size and skill set.

    I didn’t have a problem with the signing. It was a low-risk/low-cost move. I wouldn’t point to it as much of anything, really, positive or negative. It was kind of negligible.

  7. With you on that BC. It’s just a thing we did. If it pans out and he turns in to a useful combo guard off the bench that’s great. If not, whatever.

  8. I will say this for Tony Wroten; he’s an excellent way to earn a top three pick in the draft.

  9. I don’t like the wroten move specifically, but it is at least the right kind of move, and the kind of move we should have tried more often instead of trashing a roster spot on KS

  10. I don’t like the wroten move specifically, but it is at least the right kind of move, and the kind of move we should have tried more often instead of trashing a roster spot on KS

    Oh, I definitely agree with that. They should have been making Wroten-esque moves for some time now, instead of well into their second awful season in a row and with better players than Wroten, to boot.

  11. Kevin Seraphin is pretty great on Snapchat, which helps with team morale and culture. You have to look at that.

  12. Won’t sign Seth Curry to minimum rookie contract even though he shares genes with a perfect basketball robot

    Will sign Tony Wroten and blame his horrid basketball failure on his teammates

    Yup checks out

    #knicks

  13. It was a low-risk/low-cost move

    I agree.

    It’s a no risk move.

    OTOH, what about signing guys that in 3000 min had decent numbers?

    I mean, we are talking about really bad numbers from Wrotten.

  14. Won’t sign Seth Curry to minimum rookie contract even though he shares genes with a perfect basketball robot

    Will sign Tony Wroten and blame his horrid basketball failure on his teammates

    Yup checks out

    Question: Did JR Smith become a better player when he left the Knicks or did playing alongside better players and in a lower usage role accentuate his strengths as a spot up?

    Role and surrounding talent, whether you want to accept that or not. None of that means Tony Wroten will be good at basketball and like I specifically said the odds are very much against that being the case.

    Another thing to consider is he’s 22. There is still time for him to improve as a player. Draymond Green is an outlier for sure, but at age 22 he didn’t look likely to become an All-NBA defender and top-10 player in the league.

  15. @17

    Sure let’s sign better players. I’m not saying we’re set at guard because Wroten is locked up for the season, but who are these better guards we’d be signing in that age bracket?

    And fwiw Seth Curry will be an FA this summer.

  16. It wasn’t a gamble. It was pure zen genius at work. And you forgot to mention acquiring Porzingis, Grant, Galloway, Willy G, keeping draft picks, and fixing our cap situation through excellent signings like Lopez. You guys are so negative that it’s sickening and you’ll be eating your words this time next year. Phil inherited a mess and has us on the right track towards greatness. I can’t believe how negative you’ve become because of the Knick’s prior tendency towards screwing up. That’s not Phil’s fault.

  17. If you sort that list with a minimum of 1000 minutes played, Galloway and Grant show up on it.

    The gettable free agents are Shane Larkin, Isaiah Canaan and JaKarr Sampson, Bradley Beal and Jordan Clarkson. I have no interest in the them over what we have.

    Beal and Clarkson are RFAs that the Wizards and Lakers will match any offer on most likely.

    Waiters is actually also on that list, but I don’t think that’s an answer to our problems.

    Fournier and Crabbe are possible RFA targets on there, but I think you’ll have to offer near max or full max offers for them. If we were to roll the dice on either, I’d choose Fournier easily.

  18. There’s also Bazemore, Lance Stephenson, Solomon Hill and Seth Curry as other unrestricted free agent possibilities. Plus a few in Europe.

  19. I agree that none of those guys will solve our problems and probably are gonna be expensive to sign.

    I’m talking low risk/some reward players.

    Players that in limited minutes showed some professional basketball productivity and would sign for near minimum salary.

    There are plenty of those in the league and D-League that deserve a shot.

    It’s a similar mistake we made with Bargnani. Expecting a terrible player to be decent because system.

    At least this time it’s for the minimum.

  20. Question: Did JR Smith become a better player when he left the Knicks or did playing alongside better players and in a lower usage role accentuate his strengths as a spot up?

    Role and surrounding talent, whether you want to accept that or not.

    Luckily we have a comp for Wroten in Michael Carter-Williams, Wroten’s backcourt mate in Philadelphia in 2013-2015. In Philadelphia, both were inefficient scorers and turnover machines.

    Carter-Williams left Philly and played with better players, but somehow remained an inefficient scorer and a turnover machine. His usage went down, and his TO/36 rate went down, but his TO% stayed the same: high.

    If Wroten is asked to do less in NY, that is a step in the right direction. But asking him to do nothing would be better.

  21. If we grab Vogel (and we might with Hollins apparently in the run for the Memphis job), I’d like to see us offer Lance Stephenson and Seth Curry three year deals (the third year being a player option) to be our starting back court. Both guys are 26 years old and are probably good bets to play well under Vogel and in a triangle-influenced offense if not the actual triangle. I’d actually be jumping for joy if we got all three of Lance, Seth, and Vogel.

  22. Oh, as much as I love watching Tony Wroten’s highlight reel, that guy has a 10% shot at being a productive NBA basketball player. I’m not going to sit here and do what I did for Bargnani for an entire summer, so I think I should advise everyone else against it. Don’t watch the tape, don’t ignore the numbers, and don’t do the “what if” situations that lead to his success. Because all Tony Wroten has to do in order to be successful as a basketball player is stop turning the ball over, develop his right hand, and become a shooting threat. None of that is likely to happen, so let’s just enjoy his pre season highlights this year and hope he doesn’t eclipse 500 minutes played.

  23. Question: Did JR Smith become a better player when he left the Knicks or did playing alongside better players and in a lower usage role accentuate his strengths as a spot up?

    I don’t know there’s an easy answer to that. I mean, sorta. He became a more efficient scorer on the Cavs now that he takes 60% of his shots from beyond the arc, but they don’t utilitze his playmaking skills (JR for all his problems is a good passer). He’s definitely better than he was during his last half season with the Knicks, but there are also mental and physical health reasons for that.

    And with JR, he’d been a decent NBA player over a long career before he wound up on the Cavs. Tony Wroten has been terrible .

  24. What’s that?

    Oh shit-it’s the Kawhi isn’t a true superstar takes-and they’re coming in hot!

  25. I love how sports avoids narratives. The Spurs/Warriors is what everyone expected would happen and OKC doesn’t care.

  26. At least it’s a compelling series-these playoffs have been a bit of a stinker. Mia-Tor is close, but it’s a trainwreck. And as a fan you can’t go wrong with OKC-GS or SAS-GS

  27. Phil’s patience/foot dragging in his coaching search may yet pay off if/once San Antonio is finished off by OKC. Popovich gets fired and in swoops Phil. Well, maybe not swoops. More like lopes.

    I’m joking of course. I think. Who knew Vogel would be dumped?

    Melo has apparently weighed in and wants Blatt!!??

  28. Interesting. He actually specifically mentioned the name of a coach out there? That’s ballsy.

  29. Oh shit-it’s the Kawhi isn’t a true superstar takes-and they’re coming in hot!

    He’s a true superstar but Aldrich is not, Duncun is done and Parker is a shadow of himself. Get him some help!

  30. Questions from the Spurs game, since I didn’t get to watch it:

    1) Can you imagine a more Aldridge-like stat line than 20 points on 25 TSA? Almost Carmelian.

    2) Bench was 5-18 for 11 points. Somehow worse than Aldridge.

    3) Boban didn’t play again. Are the Spurs really playing the long game so deep that they won’t risk some idiot GM throwing big money at him over a couple of typical Boban games (20 pts, 10 reb in 15 MP) in the playoffs?

  31. LMA was ridiculous for two games and not good for three, which is about right. The thing that stood out last night was the Spurs getting obliterated on the boards. OKC looked like a bunch of kids catching every firefly that didn’t happen to land on a tree. One somewhat minor story of yesterday and maybe this whole series thht doesn’t exactly fit my preconceived notion is that Enes Kanter is a big problem when you stick an old guy on him, especially if that old guy is David West or someone else who can’t hurt him too bad on the other end. In general the Spurs great depth has not looked like depth in these five games as they’ve had a whole bunch of veterans who have been very close to worthless: West, Duncan, Diaw and also Patty Mills/Kyle Anderson.

    I also don’t think for a minute they are hiding Boban. Pop is a smart, long now kinda dude but he’s not Gandhi. If he was willing to extrapolate 600 minutes of stats into expected playoff production against OKC, Boban would be in there. I honestly have no idea if he should be, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him try in game six.

  32. @massive, Donnie Walsh, DRed, MSA

    I agree, the odds are very much against Wroten being good which is why I stated that multiple times. I was only making the point that sometimes the role and fit can impact a players performance and that at age 22 he might still have upside. I would bet quite confidently that Wroten will still suck moving forward, but he does have some goo physical tools to work with and by all accounts seems to be a hard worker so I’m okay with giving him what is virtually a zero risk gamble.

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