By Paul MacArthur
This column appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume IX, Issue 74. Copyright © 1998 Wrestling Perspective.
Greg Spring's smarmy remark that "Now another American Institution is in danger of crumbling. According to a lawsuit in an Atlanta court last week, professional wrestling is -gasp- all pretend!" in the May 4, 1998 edition of Electronic Media was not only insulting to professional wrestling fans, it was misleading.
So began my letter printed in the May 25, 1998 edition of Electronic Media, a weekly media trade publication with a circulation of over 26,000. There's no need to reprint my letter here. The two key points were simply:
1) Pro wrestling fans know pro wrestling is staged and don't care. Therefore, to suggest that somehow "breaking the news" that pro wrestling is "all pretend" will diminish its popularity is unwarranted based on the facts.
2) The fact that pro wrestling is choreographed is not news, nor has it been news for over 60 years (an understatement as it hasn't been news for over 80 years).
After several paragraphs lambasting Mr. Spring's lack of journalism and giving a long list of references he should have sourced before acting like he broke a story, I closed with the following:
Mr. Spring would never report the same type of lawsuit involving an actor by announcing movies or television shows are, "all pretend." Why did he feel the need to do so with pro wrestling? Either because he failed to do his research or because he decided it was appropriate to denigrate, pro wrestling and its fans. Neither reason is acceptable or professional and Mr. Spring should be admonished for his actions. They do not represent the type of journalism one would expect from a trade magazine.
At least they shouldn't.
Pro wrestling fans know better.
Though I didn't expect anything more of Electronic Media, I felt the need to force the issue with them. Pro wrestling has been a cash cow for television since the vast wasteland's inception. When you take into account pay-per-view, cable network ratings, and syndication, pro wrestling makes the television industry money.
Lots of money.
An obscene amount of money.
Or at least a profane amount.
Yet the media "experts" choose to ignore the monetary impact pro wrestling has on the television industry. You'd think these media mavens would at least express a journalistic interest in how this programming - for which they express only complete disdain - manages to be such a consistent money-maker on the tube. Instead, they take long, rambling drives through irrelevant side issues like "real vs. fake" and never come within hailing distance of comprehending wrestling's new found crossover-demographic appeal.
They ignore the fact that 34 percent of all pay-per-view revenue in 1997 came from wrestling. That means, if you believe the pay-per-view industry, wrestling on pay-per-view grossed over $350 million.1 They don't care that the seven hours of prime-time cable-network wrestling are consistently among the highest rated programs on cable. They certainly don't care that 49 percent of wrestling fans have a yearly household income of over $35,000. The media simply don't care about anything in pro wrestling except "real vs. fake."
Who does pro wrestling have to blame for this? The media? Lazy reporters? Eddy Mansfield? A&E?
No, no, no, and no.
He (Tony Parisi) was heavy handed. He said since people talk about wrestling being fake, would I mind a demonstration, which was a wrist-lock followed by a reverse head-lock. My mouth fell open and my head felt like it was blowing up. He squeezed until he knew it hurt. - Jim Friedman, Drawing Heat
Until relatively recently, pro wrestling went to great lengths to "protect the business." David Schultz assaulted ABC's John Stossel to "protect the business." Hulk Hogan assaulted Richard Belzer on television2 to "protect the business." Bruno Sammartino's book "protects the business." Pat Barrett's book "protects the business." Ted DiBiase's book is hardly an expose. Lou Albano "protected the business" on the new lie detector test program.3 Buh Buh Ray Dudley tries to "protect the business" to fellow wrestlers no less. Don't think for a moment Buh Buh's alone. There are still a few dozen active wrestlers who would be happy to stretch you if you're willing to "get in the ring" after telling them wrestling's fake.
Wrestling calls it protecting the business. The rest of the world calls it lying. The problem is, the media don't like being lied to, unless your lie serves as means to their ends. Witness Bill Clinton's ascendancy to the presidential office in 1992.
There is the root of the problem. Wrestling told everyone it was real. The media knew it wasn't. Since wrestling's lie was of no benefit to the media, they exposed the business. The scandal they reasoned it would be the demise of pro wrestling because scandals are bad for sports.4 But, something funny happened with wrestling. Exposing the scandal didn't affect the box office and wrestling continued to lie. Despite what the media reported, nobody really cared. Perplexed and angered by the fans indifference to the "real vs. fake" issue, the media ignored pro wrestling or on the rare occasions it honored wrestling with its ink, it recycled the same story: Pro wrestling is fake.
Perhaps the earliest record of the media calling pro wrestling fake dates back to 1908 with the first Frank Gotch vs. George Hackenschmidt match (Editors' Note 2/13/06: More recent historical research has revealed several pre-20th Century newspaper articles -- some dating back to the 1860's -- that accuse pro wrestling of being fixed/staged.) The media called it fake again after a scandal in 1915. Numerous articles were written in the Twenties about amateur wrestlers who turned down the pros because they refused to "Take a lose." Promoter Jack Pfeffer exposed the business to Dan Parker in the Thirties. Herman Hickman exposed the business in the late-Forties in Look magazine. The list is seemingly endless. In 1998 "real vs. fake" is still the rage. Just look at any mainstream newspaper or magazine article on wrestling. The subject always comes up.
Even television, which has made millions off pro wrestling and owes much of its early success to Gorgeous George, has often carted out disgruntled former wrestlers like Eddy Mansfield, Jim Wilson and Thunderbolt Patterson, and charismatically-challenged amateur wrestlers like Jeff Blatnick to tell us pro wrestling fake. The recent special on A&E cared more about "real vs. fake" than historical accuracy. Horrific television analyst Bob Trumpy5 once devoted a 30 minute program to the "real vs. fake" issue, as did ABC's Nightline, which ironically was probably followed by pro wrestling on at least one ABC affiliate later that evening.
Since their 80 years of exposes have failed to make a difference at the box office, the media just keeps hammering away at the same issue, figuring one day the fans will get it. Obviously, the media don't. All because wrestling wouldn't admit it was staged; forget the word fake6 - it doesn't apply to wrestling and never really has. So the media tells us wrestling is staged, over and over, despite the mountain of evidence before them that pro wrestling fans know wrestling is staged and don't care. Each time they tell us, it's as if they discovered the Holy Grail.7 They are so blinded by the "real vs. fake" issue that they keep their heads in the sand when it comes to understanding pro wrestling. The record ratings, the revenue, the drugs, the sex scandals, the premature deaths and all the other important issues that surround this business are overlooked. They're probably fake too.
After all, it's only wrestling.
I called upon Electronic Media to do their job and report on the wrestling industry with the same professionalism they use to report on other facets of the television industry. That means reporting on the successes and the failures, the pros and the cons, the steroids and the drugs, the abuses of power and the sexual harassment. That means examining the wrestling industry with the same microscope used on all other forms of entertainment. It's a daunting task, but a necessary one. Of course, the media will probably give that assignment to Peter Arnett, with the reporting done by Stephen Glass.
Don't worry about it, Vince and Eric. It will never happen. Ever. While we love pro wrestling, the media still considers it nothing but a bastard sport. In a time where illegitimacy is lauded, one would think that's a good thing. The problem is wrestling is our bastard sport, not the media's, and the media want nothing to do with someone else's bastard.
While calling for mainstream journalism to do its job when it comes to covering professional wrestling, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the wrestling press as it currently exists also fails to cover wrestling accurately at times. This business is filled with people who lie regularly. It can make ascertaining the truth difficult, if not impossible. It gets even worse when wrestling journalists allow their politics to cause them to kill a story or just give it a cursory mention when more examination is merited. Wrestling Perspective understands and sympathizes with errors in judgment and we freely admit we have made some ourselves over the years. However, too often this tightly nit business is able to successfully shill reporters and too often reporters allow their personal agendas and fears of supposed competition prevent them from doing a thorough and professional job. That is inexcusable.
The wrestling press has come a long way in the past two decades, baby. But don't think for a moment that it has arrived. The wrestling press may see the mountain top, but its barely begun to climb.
1. When doing pay-per-view research this spring, I talked to one of the editors from the trade magazine Cable World about buy rates. When I mentioned asking Request Television what their pay-per-view buy rates were, she said, "You can ask, but I wouldn't believe them."
2. Richard Belzer's short-lived talk show appeared on Lifetime Television during the mid-Eighties before the network realized its fortunes lied in female-skewed programming. While respected by his peers as a top comedian, though I've yet to figure out why, anyone who saw the Belz's talk show realized it had three major problems: 1) Lifetime was small-time network still finding itself, so guests on the program were typically third-rate or lower. 2) The totally unlikable Richard Belzer was hosting it. 3) See number two.
3. Noted criminal defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey, hosted the original Lie Detector Test program in the early Eighties, which included such memorable bits as James Earl Ray saying he didn't shoot Martin Luther King (the test results were inconclusive) and a woman who acted hypnotic while taking the test claiming Elvis fathered her child (the lie detector said she was lying - apparently Elvis was TCB elsewhere). Marcia Clark's aptitude on television lends credence to the suggestion that O.J.'s only crime was not taking an earlier flight. Bailey's version was canceled in its first season. Don't expect Clark to defeat Bailey in this arena either.
4. It is interesting to note pro wrestling's steroid scandal of the early Nineties had a greater negative impact on pro wrestling's popularity than any "real vs. fake" expose. Yet the only national journalist to regularly focus on it was wrestling fans' favorite whipping boy, Phil Mushnick.
5. NBC Sports has a tradition of horrible sports announcing. Bob Trumpy is inarguably one of the worst color men in the business. His competition is NBC's own Bill Walton, the most overrated center in the history of basketball. Walton's enunciation is worse than the late Andre the Giant's and his analysis is invariably proven wrong as the game progresses. Meanwhile, Bob Costas calls Dennis Rodman's forays into wrestling a "tired freak show" forgetting he was more than willing to play the stooge for Bobby Heenan on Later with Bob Costas. Costas has turned into a pompous version of Frank DeFord, sans the charm. He equates a bottom of the ninth homerun with General Douglas MacArthur's liberation of the Philippines. Costas is one of many sports announcers who was good until he started believing his own press clippings and lost his perspective. If not for the underrated Hanna Storm, the misused Ahmad Rashad and the venerable Dick Enberg, NBC would have nothing for its sports programming. Of course, NBC has no sports programming.
6. I resent the use of the work fake in reference to pro wrestling. Fake implies that it's not real. Pro wrestlers are real athletes, who perform real stunts and suffer real injuries. Are they producing a staged athletic exhibition? Sure. A fake one? No. For purposes of this article I use the term fake, but in general the term should be barred from the pages of wrestling newsletters.
7. As many readers know, I am a college professor (seeking Mary Ann). At least once a semester, upon learning that I am a pro wrestling fan, a student will blurt out in class, "Don't you know that's fake?" After showing my astonishment and taking a moment to applaud the student's brilliant assessment, another student usually asks, "Whatever happened to Jimmy Snuka?" Maybe Potshot would like a stab at that question.
Paul MacArthur is a co-publisher & co-editor of Wrestling Perspective.
For another perspective on the media's coverage of pro wrestling, see Write and Wrong by David Skolnick.
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