This column appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume IX, Issue 74. Copyright © 1998 Wrestling Perspective.
Many people who work as reporters can be lazy, try to get by with as little effort as possible and rely too much on others to help them accomplish their work. I should know. I am a newspaper reporter. I have worked at four daily newspapers during my ten years in the business including the past three at one of the largest publications in Ohio. Although my specialties are covering city government and politics, I have extensive experience with stories dealing with school districts, crime, legal cases and the court system, business and even sports. During the past decade, I have come across dozens of reporters at papers for which I have worked as well as competitors who fail to understand the basic issues they cover whether it is law, crime, city government operations or school systems. Despite that, they cover those beats, report what they believe is happening and write articles read by the general public. The average reader believes most everything in the articles and even if a mistake is made and detected, corrections are not often made. If the corrections are made, they usually go undetected by the typical reader. After all, when a person pressed for time sits down and reads the newspaper, they turn to the front page, local news, sports, entertainment or the comics. It is the rare person who seeks out the corrections box to see if a mistake was made. Of course, reporters, like others, make mistakes. However, many of these mistakes could be avoided if they took the time to understand their assignments or were more careful in their reporting and writing.
This leads me to the mass media's coverage of professional wrestling. Most newspaper and magazine reporters do a poor job covering wrestling if it gets any coverage at all. I wish I could be as kind to radio and television reporters. For the most part, wrestling is treated like a joke so perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that the business gets little ink. A wrestler dies under strange circumstances and the public is lucky to find out that the guy died at all. You can forget about any of the details. A lawsuit is filed that affects the future of a key performer and if the legal documents make a single mention of wrestling not being legitimate, that becomes front-page news. News flash: Wrestling being staged has been reported in daily newspapers since 1908. There is nothing new there. Yet nine times out of ten that is the angle that gets played and the reporter that writes about it feels he or she has done a fine job by exposing something so obviously phony. It is like writing a story about a funding shortage at a school district and focusing on the fact that kids attend classes. Reporting on wrestling by the mainstream media has become an exercise in stating the obvious.
A doctor is indicted by the federal government for operating a long-time massive steroid distribution operation to wrestlers and we hear wrestling is fake. Another federal indictment but this one involves the head of the largest wrestling company in the United States and could have at the time crippled the business and the general public learns that wrestling is fake and that some of its top performers used steroids. That same company attempts to have wrestling deregulated by a number of state athletic commissions in a move that has major ramifications for the business and the states involved and yes, again, we learn that wrestling is fake. One of the biggest and most popular stars of our era is sued by a major wrestling company over a breach of contract which has quite the impact on an industry run by two companies in the middle of a bitter battle for supremacy and you guessed it, the public learns that wrestling is fake. The Junkyard Dog, one of the biggest wrestling stars of the Eighties who was loved by literally millions of pro wrestling fans and sold more tickets than many of today's sports heros, tragically loses his life in a carwreck and ESPN tells us pro wrestling is fake.
Anyone over the age of ten who does not live under a rock or in the former Smoky Mountain Wrestling territory realizes wrestling is staged. Most newspaper readers understand that about wrestling so a reporter who concentrates on exposing a business that has been overexposed for decades is not doing his or her readers a service. Nor is he or she doing their job. Just because I'm a so-called hardcore fan doesn't mean I do not have a perspective on what the "marks" believe. They may not understand the inside shoot comments they hear on television every week, but they sure comprehend the fact that wrestling is not legitimate. That's not to take away from the wrestlers who take punishment or put on outstanding performances on a regular basis. I believe wrestlers are athletes who take very real risks when they get in the ring, but the fact is the outcomes and angles are predetermined. We all know that and so does most of the general public. For most of us, it is something we understand and do not mind. For many hardcores, it keeps them interested in wrestling during matches featuring rest-holds and stiffs who can no longer work.
To understand why reporters continue to harp on this outdated story, you have to understand the thinking of a journalist. Most reporters have to deal on a daily basis with editors who are even less intelligent and creative than themselves. Most editors just want readable copy with a hook that they can give to their bosses to show they are keeping their reporters in line and working them hard. In most cases, editors do not work their reporters hard and the reporters, editors and higher-ups know that. But that does not stop them from playing that game. Most reporters do not want to cover professional wrestling believing it is below them to cover such a fake business. After griping about being forced to cover a wrestling story and still having to do it, most reporters will put as little effort into the job as possible. Instead of doing the research or actually reading and/or understanding a lawsuit or court case concerning wrestling, reporters will take a quick look at the facts and see something that shows that the business is a work. Hey, they think to themselves, there's the hook I'm looking for and they look no further. If a reporter does not have a source inside the wrestling business to help them understand what they are reporting, even decent hacks have sources inside the courthouse or a lawyer who can help them with a wrestling lawsuit to explain the legal issues or can ask the coroner's office or a police officer for more information on a suspicious death.
The situation is much, much worse with TV reporters who primarily get their information from a newspaper story or at a press conference where the pertinent details are fed to them. TV people will either pull file footage of a wrestling card that came to town, even if the show is decades old, and talk over a clip of wrestling action. Since that old footage is all they bother to obtain, viewers often get names dropped on them during the story from days gone by. That's why you will often hear a TV reporter say that such-and-such a lawsuit proves that the Iron Sheik and Ivan Putski are faking it. If there is no footage on file, no problem. TV reporters will go somewhere and ask regular citizens if they knew all the time that wrestling was fake. Some of the responses from these people will make you cringe. The TV reporter thinks he is his local affiliate's equivalent of Geraldo Rivera and no one ever tells him he did a poor job, primarily because no one at his TV station knows any better.
That is why people who somewhat cover the wrestling industry in the mainstream media stick out so much. Phil Mushnick of the New York Post and TV Guide is not breaking any new ground when he discusses problems in the wrestling industry. Even the worst-written newsletter or web site has vital wrestling news before Mushnick. When it comes to mainstream media coverage of wrestling, there is hardly any competition so Mushnick is in no rush to publish. If newspaper editors and reporters understood the professional wrestling business, they would realize there are dozens of stories that go untold. They should also realize this is a multi-million dollar industry with fans worldwide who might be interested in learning more about it. Journalists do not need to cover wrestling like baseball or local politics, but it should be covered. After all, journalists claim to be gatekeepers.
Some long-time subscribers may remember I received some criticism from my mainstream coverage of the 1992 Royal Rumble in Albany and more specifically an interview I conducted with Jim Duggan for a pair of articles in The Record, a newspaper in Troy, New York, previewing that event and the appearance of the Duggan interview in Wrestling Perspective. The criticism was why didn't I bring up Duggan's arrest five years earlier on drug charges, why didn't I hit him harder on the steroid controversy that plagued the industry and why I let him make obviously worked comments in the interview. Years later, I found out that publishers of some of the largest newsletters lost respect for me over the Duggan interview.
I feel some background is in order. I was assigned by The Record to do a story on the Royal Rumble. The Duggan interview was granted by the WWF as an interview regarding the Royal Rumble. I wrote an article as a preview of the pay-per-view and wrote a sidebar on the then-hot steroid controversy, which included excerpts from a Wrestling Perspective interview I conducted with Superstar Billy Graham, who at the time was outspoken about steroid abuse. Regarding Duggan's arrest, I felt at the time as I do now that bringing it up would have added nothing to my articles. As the interview was for The Record, not Wrestling Perspective, it was irrelavant. I brought up steroids to Duggan, who told me most of the WWF performers were not on them. In direct contradiction, Graham said 90 percent were on steroids. Because I cannot put my opinions into a news article nor should I or any other newspaper reporter, I had to let the readers decide who was telling the truth by giving them as much accurate information as possible with the space limitations.
In regards to Duggan working the interview, all I can say is I let him tell his side of the story and when he started to work me I moved on to the next topic. While I could have hit him harder on some questions and called him on the worked stuff, I saw no purpose for it given the assignment was for The Record and I knew none of the worked information by Duggan, save for the steroid comments, were going to see the light of day in the paper. Besides, it has been my experience that some wrestlers will not stop working a reporter even if you show them you understand the business. When we ran the article in Wrestling Perspective, it was an attempt to show how the average wrestler treats a reporter.
Did I make a mistake in not calling Duggan on it? Perhaps, but what purpose would it have served?
Should the interview ever have run in WP with its blatantly obvious worked lines? Definitely. Despite its content, it was an interesting read with a WWF headliner. It also gave WP readers a better perspetive on mainstream interviews.
In retrospect, I succeeded on the mainstream press level as gave I the readers a choice between two contradicting opinions. I received great praise for treating a business I love in such a professional manner. For some readers it was their first exposure to wrestling on an inside, intimate level. Those readers are probably still waiting for their second exposure.
David Skolnick is a co-publisher & co-editor of Wrestling Perspective.
For another perspective on the media's treatment of pro wrestling, read Fake This by Paul MacArthur.