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Douglas PictureIn The Eyes Of . . . The Judgmental Beholder

I consider myself reasonably informed. I read a lot of newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and a number of online news services. Sometimes I even check out what’s trending on Twitter.

I’m also a selective sports fan, amateur and professional (although amateur seems to be a dying breed these days). I like to watch Grand Slam Tennis and Golf, NBA basketball and NCAA football. (I might even return to NFL football now that the Rams have come back home to Los Angeles.)

In particular, I am a major fan of the Olympic Games, more Summer than Winter. The Wife and I have attended four Summer Olympics live (lots of fun) dating back to 1964. What Olympics we haven’t attended in person, we’ve watched without fail on television from 1964 to date. As for the summer games, we especially like track and field, swimming, diving, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, and boxing (The Wife parts company with me on the wrestling and boxing), to name just a few. We also like gymnastics.

I consider myself an authority when it comes to gymnastics. I competed on the 1964 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team. I’ve had the privilege of living in one Olympic Village for several weeks straight and spending quite a bit of time in still another Olympics Village. It was the bees knees!

Bill Plaschke

So, back to the Los Angeles Times for a moment. One of its sports journalists who I follow—sometimes—and enjoy—sometimes—is Bill Plaschke. I think Plaschke’s a nice guy. And fairly sincere. And reasonably smart and insightful, but not as smart and insightful as he thinks he is (a shortcoming not unique to Plaschke.)

Journalists need to tell stories, and to meet deadlines. When they have the luxury, they tell real stories, and ones where they even first learn the facts. When they don’t have time, they make up stories, and they don’t first check the facts. Or tell you that they haven’t. After all, they have to meet their deadline quotas to justify their paychecks. The latter is particularly true when the Los Angeles Times sends Plaschke on a boondoggle to Rio to cover the current Olympic Games. Presumably, Plaschke has to file a story everyday he’s in Rio. And, if necessary, he cuts corners to meet his deadlines.

Bill Plaschke On Gymnastics’ Gabby Douglas—About Whom He knows . . . Nothing

Plaschke just did a story on Olympic gymnastics. Well, more precisely, he did a story on one U.S. women’s gymnast in Rio, Gabby Douglas. Well, even more precisely still, Plaschke did a story in which he accused Gabby of disrespecting the U.S. because she failed to put her hand on her heart when she joined her teammates on the podium the other day to accept their team gold medal. (The other four U.S. gymnasts placed their hands on their hearts when the American anthem was played. Gabby did not. She stood with her hands at her side.) Even more presumptively, Plaschke accused Gabby of not appreciating the “weight and meaning” of the words of the U.S. National Anthem.

The Uninformed Plaschke Story

Here’s a summary of what Plaschke wrote that same evening to appear the next morning in the Los Angeles Times:

“During the medal ceremony for her gold-winning USA gymnastics team on Tuesday at the Rio Olympic Arena, Douglas failed to show what many [including apparently Plaschke] considered appropriate reverence. As her four teammates stood at full attention with their hands over their hearts, Douglas was slumped with her hands held casually in front of her as if she had just finished last. Even during moments when she showed a smile, her body language was disconnected. The difference in aura with the other American gymnasts was palpable.”

“It wasn’t long before an angry Twitterverse kicked into gear: Some accused her of being unpatriotic. Others applauded her for what they perceived as a protest. One person commended her for what he believed was a statement on the two-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.”

Here’s how Gabby responded when she saw those few tweets, which Plaschke quoted in his story: “In response to a few tweets I saw tonight, I always stand at attention out of respect for our country whenever the national anthem is played. I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone. I’m so overwhelmed at what our team accomplished today and overjoyed that we were able to bring home another gold for our country!” (Italics emphasis added.)

Seems to me that should have ended it right there. A few comments from a few people who had no idea what they were talking about, and whose words carry very little weight. When I started reading Plaschke’s story, I thought he was about to call to task the authors of these tweets for not knowing what they were talking about.

The Ugly American (Plaschke, Not Douglas)

But no, was I ever wrong! Plaschke was actually egging them on, taking their side, joining them, giving them a platform for their ignorant remarks. Here’s how Plaschke looked at it:

“She did not explain her slumping. She simply apologized. If Douglas was truly overcome with emotion as she claimed, that would have been visible, yet her expression was blank and distant.”

The Common Sense Thought Plaschke Overlooked In His Quest To Play Our “Leader”

Take a moment to look at the above photo of the gymnasts up on the podium. Does Gabby look to you like she was “slumping”?

Take a moment to reread Gabby’s above quoted remarks about her appearance. Are those the words of someone who was being disloyal or disrespectful to our country?

Those who criticized Gabby made a mountain out of a molehill, mainly because they spoke before they thought. That goes double or triple for Plaschke because, as a journalist, he has a far greater responsibility than individuals to get his facts straight before he starts preaching. And preaching was exactly what Plaschke did in his article. Without knowing the first thing about which he was speaking.

Plaschke’s article isn’t worthy of further quotation. Suffice it simply to say that “Dr. Plaschke” (he does have a PhD in Psychology with a specialty in the interpretation of body language, doesn’t he?) concluded that Gabby was nothing more than a sore loser, pouting because she was not the darling of these Olympics as she was in 2012 when she won a personal gold medal in the All Around and led our team to a team gold medal. (This time, she “only” finished with the third highest All Around performance and helped our team successfully defend its team gold medal. Note that was not the third highest All Around score on our team, but the third highest All Around of all of the gymnasts in the competition. Not exactly chopped liver!)

Plaschke then added insult to injury by having the unmitigated gall to lecture Gabby to “never again ignore the weight” and the meaning of the words of our national anthem. What a bully Plaschke is! A mature man of words in his late 50s picking on a young woman barely 20 years old. Why doesn’t Plaschke pick on someone his own “size”? I wonder if it isn’t Plaschke who needs a course in the meaning of our national anthem?

Plaschke’s Crystal Ball

Not only does Plaschke purport to know what was on Gabby’s mind, that she was pouting, but he also purports to know that Gabby is unaware of the words and meaning of our national anthem. For all Plaschke took the time to check, Gabby might have been suffering from a migraine headache or an upset stomach. The point is that Plaschke had no idea what he was talking about.

Check out the adjacent picture of Tommy Smith and John Carlos with black gloved fists raised high on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games. Plaschke says they were “better” than Gabby because they were honest about their position, and their protest, while Gabby was not!

The Wife and I were there, sitting less than 100 feet away from Smith and Carlos when they shared their political views. I was there to watch sport, not politics. I happened to think that what Smith and Carlos did was wrong. There is a time and place for everything.

John_Carlos,_Tommie_Smith,_Peter_Norman_1968crThe Olympics Is A Rare Opportunity For Pure Youth, Joy and Sport—Not Politics

The Olympics is not the time for politics. The Olympics is an occasion for the youth of our world to come together, to celebrate sport, to build good will, friendship and camaraderie. It is not meant to provide a political platform. We already have more than enough of that in this world. The Olympics offers a brief moment every four years to take a break from that kind of stuff. Politicians not wanted. Politicians stay home.

A Little More Thought, Please

As much as I disagree to this day with what Smith and Carlos did in Mexico City, I think what Plaschke did in Rio this past week is even more wrong. In passing judgment on, and convicting and condemning Gabby in a large, public forum like the Los Angeles Times, wouldn’t you have thought Plaschke would have first done a little homework, perhaps first spoken with Gabby? Or that Plaschke’s editors would have insisted on that first even if Plaschke did not.

I wonder if Bill knew the first thing about Gabby or what she has been going through as member of this team? Oh, that’s right, never mind Gabby. This wasn’t about Gabby. This was all about Plaschke. He had a deadline to meet. And apparently nothing else more reliable or interesting to say. Gabby was just a vehicle to be used by Plaschke to meet his deadline.

For those who might just be a little more thoughtful than Plaschke: Gabby was the darling of the 2012 Olympics. At the tender age of 16, she won the All Around Gold Medal and led the U.S. team to the team Gold Medal. She’s only 20 now. Not exactly old, wise, sage or worldly. Like Plaschke.

Gabby chose to return to the 2016 Olympics and, once again, be a good teammate, knowing and accepting that she would be playing second fiddle in every respect. There was no way she (or anyone else in the world) could touch Simone Biles. Nor was she old enough to play the mother hen captain’s role that older Aly Raisman did so nicely, or young enough to play the cutesy, bubbly role that Olympic rookies Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian did.

Gabby was the odd “man” out, the fish out of water, so to speak. All she did was do what she was asked to do—with consummate dignity—to help our team win another team gold medal and to quietly let the other team members have their day in the sun. If Plaschke had spent enough time watching the several weeks (if not years) that led to that fateful podium, then he would have known this and he would have known better than to be such a backseat driver. Unless all he cared about was his almighty deadline. In terms of a perfect 10, Gabby’s trip to the podium, may only have earned a 9. What score would you give Plaschke’s story?

I will make sure that Plaschke sees this blog. (I can’t make sure he reads it.) It will be interesting to see how he likes, and handles, being criticized? Especially without a prior opportunity to explain himself. And whether he will have the class to respond to this blog by posting a responsive comment? (Don’t worry Plaschke, I’m even older and wiser than you. I can take it.) And, more importantly, whether he will write a follow up article to make amends for his poor behavior? And to apologize to Gabby—as publicly as he condemned her. Bet he won’t. Because he’s probably on deadline. Too busy solving another one of our world’s problems. As only he can do.

And A Sweet Opportunity

If Plaschke’s classy enough, however, it will occur to him that making things right will actually meet another one of Plaschke’s deadlines.

I’m not holding my breath. But hope springs eternal and I don’t want to give up on Plaschke. Yet.

After all, Plaschke is a nice guy. He’s just not as smart as he thinks he is.

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  • Jane S Taber

    Journalists today are not neutral. Everything is game.

    Everything is polarized. Everything is political. Well, of course not “everything,” but too close not to be called everything.

    Truth…facts…logic…common sense is no longer valued or important.

    • Sad but true. There are exceptions here and there, but they are few and far between. Probably why there are few Pulitzer Prize winners! In Plaschke’s case, it’s too bad he doesn’t practice what he preaches, always being on your toes, because he actually is a nice guy. He just has a tendency to lead with his mouth instead of his head. Journalists have a duty to be better than that.

  • I am familiar with the writer. He served as a judge on a panel for a journalism award I sponsor. I also am familiar with a son of his who went to college with a daughter of mine. These are well meaning people. Bill is a talented writer. I am surprised to read his comments, though, on Gabby Douglas and find myself at a total loss to understand why he wrote what he did. As a journalist and a critic of the profession, I agree with some of what you wrote about newspaper columnists. I wrote a column 5 days a week for more than 5 years, so I know the temptations to dog it. Unfortunately we are living in a different era than when I wrote a column. My own personal pet peeve is that (as you alluded to), too many writers today show up for an interview with the story they want to write already partly written in their minds and they merely want their subjects to confirm their story. Instead of showing up to find out a story, they presume to invent or shape it. Sad times for the profession. I hope this was a rare lapse for Bill, because he is a talented guy.

    • Barry, thanks so much for visiting, and sharing your knowledge and experience on journalism in general and Plaschke in particular. I was especially taken by your comment that journalists often pre-judge the stories they write. Even scarier, I’m aware that sitting courtroom judges, both at the trial court and appellate court levels, often do precisely the same thing. And this is a phenomena on the rise rather than on the decline. Very scary. And don’t get me started on our officeholders!

      I was conflicted about doing this blog because, as I said, I really do think Plaschke is genuinely a nice, well-intentioned person with a good heart. I decided nonetheless to do this piece because (i) his story about Douglas was SO over the top bad form and out of line, (ii) this is not the first time (nor I suspect will it be the last time) that Plaschke does something like this, leaping before he looks, talking before he thinks (bad for anyone to do, but especially bad for a journalist to do — journalists are not my favorite people, present company excepted of course!), and (iii) this piece Plaschke did is such a great “Exhibit A” example to illustrate some of the points I feel and wanted to make. (Plaschke just turned out to be “collateral damage” of a message I felt needed to be sent.)

      Plaschke will see my blog, or at least receive notice of it, because I also tweeted a headline and a link to the blog and included Plaschke’s Twitter “handle” to make sure he’ll receive notice of the tweet, and thus the link to the blog as well. If he’s not too busy with his deadlines and other more important stuff, and if he’s indeed the good guy you and I think he is, after he returns and recovers from Rio, perhaps he’ll post a thoughtful comment to this blog so we can all gain some insight into his point of view.