Duty of a Commentator

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

It's been twenty years now that I've been delivering commentary on public radio. I take the job as if writing for the op-ed page of a newspaper. "Opinion" is the modus operandi of a commentator. The publisher or broadcaster makes it known that the views of the commentator are not necessarily those of the paper or station at large. Of course there are basic tenets of decency we all agree upon. Other than those, these four minutes each Thursday are mine. It's my time to play with words, to express outrage, to summon compassion, to forward hope for change.

It's a genre, commentary, so popular these days that there's as much of it throughout both the old school and new media as there is objective reporting. Reporters of this era, by and large, have considerably lesser standards than the three independent sources of yesteryear. But commentators, then and now, from the controversial Boake Carter of CBS Radio in the 1930's to the always-edgy Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's Countdown, are freewheeling mavericks, working without editors, without censors. The more outrageous we are, the more fervent the public response. Listeners have lambasted me, for instance, for believing a disabled athlete shouldn't be awarded a special set of rules if he's going to compete with professionals. Oftentimes I write listeners back and find credence in much of what they say. But, in the end, I do come away with the basic sentiment that these four minutes are in fact mine. Right or wrong, relatable to most or not, it's my time.

But last week I received an email response to The Score that got me asking myself if I've been taking too cavalier, perhaps even an irresponsible attitude toward these privileged four minutes. This listener is polite, intelligent, and yet, as he puts it, "upset" by my opinion that Roger Clemens is probably guilty of taking steroids. The listener, David, is incensed that a public figure can be pre-judged, before he undergoes American due process. David considers a guilty judgment of Clemens at this point nothing more than hurtful gossip and meaningless hearsay.

Well, David, you've given me pause to rethink the accountability of commentary in general, and more specifically to take very seriously declaring an edict about someone accused of a crime. But I do believe there is defense for weighing in on the Clemens situation. Compare his case to the Randy Moss allegations of this week. A woman says Moss hit her with the intent to do bodily harm. I would find it absolutely irresponsible to rant today that Randy Moss is a woman-beater and should be suspended from this weekend's AFC Championship game. This truly is a case of hearsay at this point. But even though the Roger Clemens affair basically boils down to his word against a former trainer's, the allegations against him are printed in a Congressional investigation. Senator George Mitchell, with a long history of conducting such professional investigations, stands by the credibility of his witness, pointing out that he had tremendous jail-time incentive not to lie about Clemens. Given my decade in covering drugs in sport, from the Tour de France to the Olympic arena, I have reason to back up an educated analysis of drug suspicions of various athletes.

It's the way of the 2008 blogging universe. We are not a restrained press. If the New York Times ran a headline, knowing what we know today, that claimed Clemens a steroid user, that would be biased and irresponsible journalism. But if I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times and threw out my opinion that, according to my experience in these matters, he appears to have used steroids, that's entirely fair. Is it really our responsibility to voice no opinion about Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Roger Clemens?

All I know is that David has prompted me to carefully consider what I do with my precious four minutes. This is a worthwhile dialogue between commentator and listener, the kind of exchange that makes for progress. Thanks, David. I sincerely value your prodding.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad