The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Outside Online is giving the Lifetime Channel a run for its money

That Outside Online has become source of thinly disguised clickbait is not a thesis any long-timer in the slapstick world of endurance-sports journalism would seriously dispute. It is perhaps to the organization's credit that people somehow expect it to survive while avoiding this practice, but avoid the scramble for traffic at the expense of quality Outside does not.

Every time one of its goons is assigned to cover a story with unusually transcendent ramifications -- and this year has already introduced several bona fide kabooms to the running world -- that person helpfully churns out a piece that is designed to do several things along the way to rapidly generating attention. The general formula is:

1. Assume a wounded tone. This never comes across as emotional labor.
2. Display evidence of shoddy or absent research, or otherwise misrepresent reality.
3. Quote a "big name" or two, even if their words make no sense in context or add no support to the general idea. For reasons that quickly become obvious to regular readers, try to rely on the same ones over and over.
4. Complain about how mean the anonymous jerks at Letsrun are, a true but facile observation that adds nothing and merely weaves vines of low-hanging, nameless fruit for the writer to grab for.
5. Propose no firm solutions, but suggest that you have pointed out a critical flaw in the psychodramatics of sporting culture that damn well needs to be solved. If possible, introduce possible nonwords like "psychodramatics."

As I see it, when a niche publication's bottom line isn't what its owners need it to be, its directorial team has a couple of choices: It can just eat mound after mound of excrement in full view, producing content that no one one either side of the journalistic transaction really treats as sincere, even if none of its content is actionable. Or it can take a more diabolical approach and pretend its output is 100 percent serious while posting piece after piece that doesn't pass sniff tests but is packaged strategically enough to fool most readers. In other words, it can be more like The Onion or the Borowitz Report and aim to primarily amuse, or it can adopt the Fox News model and aim to primarily misinform, depending on what the publisher sees as the clearest path to making (or not losing) money.

I think the result in this case more closely resembles the Lifetime Channel, and I have neither the motivation nor the ill will to explain this selection at this point. (It has nothing to do with my numbered list above.) But Outside, for the most part, has embraced moral outrage as its primary driver, complete with the Fox News tactic of smugly scolding everyone else to "prove" that its viewpoints are not only valid but uniquely superior, and continually quoting from the same pool of well-known but often blinkered athletes and observers to try to bolster its torrent of sophistry.

This tactic almost always fails even when it shouldn't, because most people are tired of "PC culture" (which means very different things to different people). When it requires tweaking reality or ignoring it outright, as it has with the Caster Semenya story and the one I'm writing about here, it seems to suggest that those running the publication have formally given up on running an earnest operation in the name of earning a living, because they have to know that, even in a world seemingly more powered by basic loathsome lying than ever before, the truth tends to prevail in same people's minds in the end. I suspect that this has led to a climate of combined embarrassment and hilarity amount the Outside staff and regular contributors*, because as bad as some of them have shown themselves to be at what they do, none of them are dumb. They know they fail at their core journalistic mission much and maybe most of the time. Perhaps they began their careers that way and were a good fit for the publication, or perhaps their cynicism only bloomed after they signed on. Almost everyone who wades into the publishing industry discovers, as do people in most other vocational sectors, that it is absolutely nothing like they wanted or expected it to be.

I have buried the lede below the break here because, while it's perhaps unlikely anyone out in Los Angeles formally connected to the greater story of Frank Meza -- and in all honesty, I can't think of the ideal place to even start if you want a quick summary of that saga, but if you're literally unfamiliar with it, this is as good as any -- will stumble upon this given both the attention the story has received and the comparative obscurity of this blog.

Still, since I'm indirectly using someone's recent demise here as an opportunity to further revile a decrepit entity with which I have had substantive disagreements on a business level, I'm not keen on exploring the cheating itself or litigating how Meza was treated by his public (one) and anonymous (the rest) detractors. (I may explore the truly startling -- or not -- similarities between this guy's lying and that of someone I've dealt with who has a far lower profile and, in contrast to Meza, no discernible honorable intentions. But I think that would needlessly harsh everyone's mellow, my own included, so I will settle for a dip in apophasis instead.) Besides, there has simply been no question from the outset that Meza was a flagrant, serial, startlingly dedicated and meticulous marathon fraud. If you don't already know this, you will as soon as you look into the matter; if you reach a different conclusion, schedule an appointment with a neurologist. In the pantheon of running cheats, Frank is what, say, Ted Bundy is in the revered trove of accomplished serial killers -- not, obviously, in the reach of his malfeasance but in the sheer manipulative cunning and charisma that allowed him to skate for a long, long time in ways that defy retrospective analysis. At the same time, the man evidently did a staggering amount of good in his life for a lot of people, and the fact that this provided him with cover in his other doings does not detract in any way from his service, in my view. On balance, he added far more good to humanity than he took from it with his running shenanigans -- far more than I ever will. There had to be a good reason people in the know were covering for his cheating and even helping him do it.

My own introduction to the scandal was recent in the overall scheme (the L.A. Marathon was in late March and the cheating came to light almost immediately) and somewhat jarring. Recent as in July 5, the day the doctor committed suicide. And somewhat jarring because in my occasional visits to the Letsrun message board, I had seen a thread titled "Frank Meza 2:53:10 at LA Marathon (70 years old) unofficial time (just finished)" persisting on the front page and growing to unlikely lengths. But I never opened it, and all along, my brain never really registered that it might be a questionable performance, since at least a couple of other septuagenarians have run that fast. Ergo, I never knew it was a cheater thread until about a week and a half ago. It took me ten days of intermittent reading, along with digesting Derek Murphy's posts on Marathon Investigation, to catch up. The thread was locked at 290 pages (5,800+ posts) by the time I got to it, which is probably for the best since I would have been tempted to waste an enormous amount of time observing and perhaps at points catalyzing its inexorable, cancerous growth.

Anyway, if you took my advice and Googled Frank Meza, you probably saw this result at the top of the page, which is precisely the point of its deliberately flawed content. Its author, Martin Fritz Huber, is an Outside regular. He writes fluently and well and with such an overarching dedication to macabre versions of both-sides-er-ism that it seems possible that he is seeking to be the athletic left's version of David Brooks. You may peruse and evaluate his body of Outside work at your leisure, but in my experience, thus far, he has used his verbal dexterity largely in the service of epistemologically suspect messages.

I will pause to interject that, in the spirit of policing my own motivations, I do wonder how much of my impressions about these awful stories I can separate from both my own general cynicism and my experiences with the same drone who, in a remarkably appropriate turn, is Mr. Huber's assigning editor all or most of the time. (It is via his connection that I learned, as can you, that Huber actually goes by "Fritz," not "Martin." I like this choice, always.) This is not surprising, since they're both clearly fans of some of the same dangerously bad ideas -- and worse, the same garbage ethos, which I think can be fairly summed up as: We'll write what we want if even if it makes us look not just uninformed, but bent on sabotaging running. It is the monetization of the canted ideas about social justice that have pervaded national politics for years but became markedly more acute in the form of pushback when the U.S. elected a brain-dead sociopath to the presidency in 2016. (That someone from Outside, of all publications, is suggesting that some offenses are too trivial to worry about is interesting, too, to use "interesting" in the same mocking, dog-whistle sense of "ironic." I can't put my finger on why.)

In an event, the subhead below the title, "If he cheated, he deserved to be disqualified, but the bullying crossed a line," refers to the very long Letsrun thread I mentioned above. Please recognize at this point that any article including the words "if Meza cheated" or variations thereof can be disqualified in its entirety and the author dismissed as either an ignoramus or an ideologue. This is of a logical piece with "If evolution does occur" or "If the noon landings did happen." And the caustic inanity of the idea doubt about Meza's cheating exists in rational minds obscures the fact that informed readers probably don't need to be reminded that proven cheaters should be disqualified from races. At any rate, criterion #2 from the list above has been resoundingly met.

Fritz makes an up-front reference to a political document to lend gravitas to the buncombe that follows. It is an impressive work, and one that in no way applies to the matter at hand. Perhaps Fritz is counting on most people having never heard of John Stuart Mill, although he does explain that a central tenet of On Liberty is that people who aren't infringing on others' rights shouldn't have their own infringed on. The lyrics to a randomly selected Brittany Spears song might have been equally appropriate here.

Fritz then wastes no time emphasizing what the piece is really about. Take, for example, this seemingly serious attempt to shoehorn a far-flung, decade-plus-long, systematic web of deception involving the claim of various running records into the category of "harmless road-race wanderings" or the like:

"Take, for example, the seemingly benign case of the course-cutting amateur runner."

Wait. Fritz's premise is that certain kinds of cheating are, on their face, benign? In what sense? While I agree with the trivial observation that some forms are worse than others, the reason it's called "cheating" is because there is nothing benign about it in terms of the ethics. Fritz is demanding here that his audience accept that certain ethical transgressions are not to be punished beyond a certain reasonable point of retribution. But along with not defining what level of punishment he thinks is okay, he doesn't even admit whether he agrees with the (inescapable, in case you've forgotten) conclusion that there was in fact a wrongdoing here to be punished. Both of these non-positions are essential to creating an illusion of noble purpose, which Fritz leverages throughout the piece in calling for people to just stop before this all gets ugly, or something.

Fritz segues from the apparent proposition that cheating matters far more to those directly affected by it than it does to those at various degrees of removal -- funny, given how little thought treatises like this give to those with "most affected" status -- to describing his interaction with the Meza affair generally:

"All of this came to mind over the weekend, when I read the sad story of Dr. Frank Meza—an amateur runner from California who was accused of cheating and hounded for it online."

I draw from this wording that Fritz, like me, apparently didn't even know about this story until Meza had already ended his life -- although I suspect that he wanted to project this notion without claiming it explicitly, for reasons I'll get into below, in the "time to be a real douchebag" section.

This means that he, like me, was -- it seems -- reading the Letsrun posts knowing that Meza had, in the most basic framing, not survived his own scandal. I suspect that Fritz therefore saw the especially nasty comments as especially loathsome, which is understandable. He was looking at the comments in the same way I was, knowing how it ended. That he suggests there was a causal connection between the thread and Meza's suicide (see below) is where we part ways, for reasons I will get into below, or someplace, if I can only remember to do it. I should write myself a note.

"In June, Meza told the Los Angeles Times that the allegations were 'pretty traumatic,' and that he was 'shocked' when he discovered that there were hundreds of derogatory posts about him on the Letsrun message boards."

I won't get into how many of those posts seemed genuinely abusive at this point, in no small part because we all have different thresholds for determining such things. But I will offer that it looks like really unruly posts were being deleted in real time and that overall, the remaining ones were actually more civil in general than most Letsrun opinions are. (Yes, that is a bar so low that a worm would have problems finding a way beneath it.) I also less-than-idly wonder whether someone as sharp, meticulous and longtime a course-cutter as Meza undeniably was could really have been unaware all this time of Marathon Investigations and its connection to Letsrun, but it's possible.

Also remember that at the time that L.A. Times article was published, Meza had not been disqualified. Most of the posts made to the Letsrun thread fell into the interval between the obvious evidence of cheating and the eventual July 1 disqualification. It can be soundly argued that many of the Letsrun "sleuths" were remarkably rabid about uncovering more and more evidence even when enough to get Meza banned had been collected, but 1) people were full-throated about seeing the disqualification happen and 2) some people honestly just like plumbing through mountains of grainy photos looking for another smoking gun. I can be the same way with baseball statistics.

Regardless, at this point, criteria #1 and #4 have been fulfilled, leaving only #3 and #5.

Fritz then goes on to review the salient details of the scandal in a "modern geology here, the biblical flood myth there -- you decide what's real for yourself!" way. Then:

"It’s important to emphasize here that we do not know—and may never know—the extent to which online harassment contributed to Meza’s apparent suicide. (Although, as his family’s testimony indicates, it clearly was very upsetting to him.)"

Again, it is not surprising that Meza was distraught; this seems like a proportional reaction. But it’s important to emphasize here that we do not know—and may never know—the extent to which Fritz thinks there could possibly be a way to objectively establish the extent to which online harassment contributed to Meza’s apparent suicide. A fairer treatment might have questioned whether those in Meza's orbit might have been able to do more to forestall his behavior and keep him on a less self-destructive course. I mean, I wouldn't write that, especially not in the wake of a suicide, but those who have decided to look for scapegoats might conceivable might want to explore all of the pertinent angles.

"Nonetheless, his story has caused several prominent voices in the running media landscape to speak out against tearing someone to shreds on the Internet."

At least he doesn't hide his appeal to authority, which is a sine qua non in all of his pieces. Fritz quotes tweets from the writer of the consistently hilarious Dumb Runner, Mark Remy (an entertaining inclusion in itself because this) and Erin Strout, the online editor of Women's Running. Both earnestly called for people to chill a little more on the public-shaming thing. Only Mark mentioned that the victim was a marathon cheater. I appreciate Erin's position, but the story, again, had been circulating for some time. Even those in the running world who don't read Letsrun had to have learned of the story in the two weeks between the June 21 L.A. Times piece and Meza's death. Maybe more of us need to the courage to condemn what we honestly believe to be inhumane treatment of fellow citizens while there is still time to do something about at. In any case, criterion #3 is in the bag.

As far as I am concerned there are no scapegoats here, really. But Outside does take a strongly pro-mental-health-as-total-health position. Perhaps this article's subtext is supposed to be "The man was clearly among the more vulnerable among us despite his station in life, and perhaps the online mob should have accounted for this in its pursuit of its version of justice." But with the de facto denial of the cheating itself, it instead instills the notion that the suicide victim was driven to his final decision more by distress over a wrongly ruined reputation than by the essential anguish over his own conduct.

Fritz then links to an anonymous Letsrun post in a different thread that says, in effect, "I hope you're all happy now." I think that when you have to link to a disjointed, nameless forum posting to try to make a point, you may have sourcing issues. Anyone can express basic contempt for the behavior of his fellows after the score has already been tallied. Hell, just look at me.

"If Meza did cheat, he surely deserved to be disqualified. But did he deserve to be bullied by anonymous strangers, as his family claims? Surely not."

You may be tempted to focus on the dubious claims of "bullying" here, but again, the use of "if" here once was bad enough. I would bet my life that Fritz has no doubt whatsoever that Meza cheated. But "A preponderance of evidence suggests that Meza cheated and surely deserved to be disqualified" in place of the sentence that is there would, I think, have rendered the rest of the piece somewhat less unctuous and insincere.

And getting back to whether the cheating was really a big deal, obviously it was to the person who perpetrated it. Otherwise, once definitely outed, Meza could have just come forward and said, "Okay, you got me," and offered some kind of token press release or something before fading into the news-cycle shadows. But his dishonest endeavors were plainly a big deal to him, as was the attendant online opprobrium, the level of which in turn signifies that others care, too, at least in the running world. I don't like to imagine what Meza was thinking and feeling in his final days and moments, but I think he knew such a conclusion was inevitable, not that this offered any comfort. The very qualities that compelled him to what he did in the first place, some of which were probably beyond his ability to fully manage, were probably more of a direct factor in how his life ended than any outcries from the mob being cited in this.

"Going back to the premise we started with..."

That would have been far more effective, and no less devious, in the form of "Going back to the concept of individual liberties," because "we" didn't start with any such premise. I don't know if the royal "we" is as much of a verbal thumb in the eye to others as it is to me, but in my experience it's the mark of an essayist who is shooting blanks and inviting you to stand there and let one hit you just to see if he's really packing. He's closing the essay in the way high-schoolers are instructed to (restate your thesis), but his blanks aren't even making any real cracking noises at this point.

" also seems reasonable to suggest that someone who actually took part in one of the races that Meza allegedly cheated in would be more justified in calling him out than some random cyber-troll."

This is an odd take on justice in human social systems. I have been led to believe that just as trees do in fact create noises when they strike the ground far from the reach of human ears, crimes (and formal violations outside the penal code) are still crimes no matter who is affected by them. The idea that an unaffected party would be as vigorous about going after a cheater as a affected party may seem odd, but it unfolds in human civilizations many hundreds if not thousands of times a day in the U.S. alone. I'm sure.

"Even for such an individual, however, there’s a point at which venting about Meza’s supposed affront crosses a line and becomes a separate affront in itself. But where is that line and, more crucially, who gets to decide?"

While we're asking questions that our article is supposed to answer, not dodge, if venting about someone's "supposed" affront is itself an affront, what should be done about it, assuming said venting remains within the bounds of First Amendment protections? I mean, honestly, could this dreck even exist in quantities sufficient to reach tens of thousands (I'm guessing) of people were it not for the entire phenomenon of Internet media, SEO and Google rankings? I have a hard time seeing how. It can best be characterized as the thoughts of a precocious but impulsive middle-school student channeled through the linguistic apparatus of a decent wordsmith, and the result wraps up with a perfect example of criterion #5.

The gloomiest aspect of the entire affair, as I see it, isn't that Meza cheated to break marathon records, but that he covered so many people in slime -- at Kaiser Permanente (not that I feel bad for an HMO), at the high school at which he coached, within his own family. He knew when he jumped that he was leaving behind a mountain of shit for other people to clean up and that some of this was going to be all but impossible.

Also, and to return to Fritz's embedded tweets, why call for extra civility on the part of everyone now that the "bullying" target has elected to end the show, at least for himself, on his own terms? This circus has been operating at about six million kilowatt-hours for three and a half months now. Ah, that's right; Fritz only just heard about it. Maybe. I can grasp the basics of why some people always have to say "Look what you people did" out of a legitimate sense of despair. But if anything, that crowd is too optimistic. Even if everyone being asked to shut their joyless bark-holes obliged, people with weird wiring would continue to do things to attract enormous amounts of rage and scorn, often from others whose sketchy wiring comes out in other ways. The Internet, owing to the kind of communication it allows and engenders, will in all likelihood always be more of a conduit for human misery, shame and disgust than a mechanism of positive change. The best way to bond with people is to talk to them in person. Most of the people screaming about this forget that much of life can be, and is, lived in three-dimensional meatspace. This is rudimentary stuff, but as a quasi-loner who has recently decided to be incrementally less of a ruminator and more of a participant, the first thing I want to do when I see someone posting a suicide hotline number is to scream that this is akin to trying to stop a femoral artery hemorrhage with a piece of gauze.

Fritz is a talented writer who, even if he is philosophically on board with path Outside is apparently attempting to chart toward continued financial viability, comes across as more of a PR type than a persuader in most of his work. Seen from that angle, he is wasting his brain turning out nonsense for this gang. But some people enjoy being hacks, and relish the rhetorical exercise of eagerly defending ideas they at some level know are somewhere between badly flawed and psychotically senseless.

Stepping back a few paces, I completely empathize with any given individual's desire or effort to add noise to what has become what I see as an existentially fluid culture in the age of Donald Trump. The guy makes up shit all the time, and while most of the people correcting him and opposing him more broadly make an earnest effort to avoid hypocrisy, this ethos is unfortunately far from universal. Some people are content to kick aside other people's patently false realities and replace them not with something that meshes with collective reality but another fucked-up personal version of it. I understand that Huber is getting paid to do what he's done so well here, which is not to inform (he'd get an "F" from any serious editor for his reporting on this were that the case) but to subvert his eloquence for the purpose of generating a shitty article assured of garnering the maximum amount of attention from all sources. But his previous contributions to the fly-swarmed Outside dung heap suggest that he likes to do this anyway. Kudos.

Taking another step back, Outside's rush to discharge this kind of kinky narrative into the public view without vetting the issues properly is ironic given that one of the reasons my editor there repeatedly gave me for not publishing my own story sometime within the first, let's see, ten months or so of its initial submission is that she had too much on her plate (a metaphor that's always bugged me for some reason and bothers me all the more now) as a result of more time-sensitive items. Her concept of time-sensitive material this appears to be some combination of her "newsletter" and making sure falsehood-laden or otherwise sketchy pieces make it live onto the Web as quickly as possible. Not that it matters, but I never believed I was a personal target in the forgettable mess I wrote about here months ago involving Outside Online, and I more firmly hold the same position now.

*Alex Hutchinson is perhaps the best overall running writer in the history of the sport.

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