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Summary:

Journalists like Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward have questioned whether social media or the web have anything to contribute to journalism, but the case of Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong shows alternative sources like blogs and Twitter can play a powerful role in breaking news.

Even if you don’t follow professional cycling, you’ve probably heard about the almost epic fall-from-grace experienced by former Tour de France superstar Lance Armstrong, who was shown to have boosted his performance with illicit drugs and has since had all of his previous awards removed. Was it an investigative report from a sports magazine or a high-profile mainstream journalistic outlet that finally brought this sports super-hero down? No. As New York Times media writer David Carr points out in a perceptive post, amateur or “citizen” journalists using Twitter and little-known cycling blogs as their platform were the ones who were the most responsible for bringing the story to light.

In the wake of the decision by cycle-racing authorities to strip Armstrong of his awards and ban him from the sport, a number of outlets that were devoted to covering the cyclist admitted that they had been suspicious of Armstrong and his performance for years, but weren’t able to prove that he had been “doping” and therefore weren’t able to write about it. As Carr notes in his post, apart from a few standouts who questioned Armstrong’s performance publicly, “for the most part, the journalists who seemed to know the most about professional cycling told us the least.”

Why did this continue for so long? One likely reason was that the Armstrong story was so incredibly inspirational — an athlete who fights back after cancer and not only becomes healthy again but becomes a world champion. But there were other reasons as well, including the fact that media outlets focusing on the sport were reluctant to poison the well, since Armstrong was such an amazing story (although as noted in the comments here, some did try — including Irish sports writers Paul Kimmage and David Walsh).

Journalists were afraid to pursue the story

The former editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine recently wrote about why he didn’t try harder to make the case against Armstrong, despite years of widespread suspicion by journalists who covered the sport. Among other things, he said that the “burden of proof was huge” because of Armstrong’s stature, and blamed cycling’s “code of silence” for a lack of corroborating evidence. But he also admitted that he was concerned about the effect that an investigation might have on the magazine and its financial health, given what he called Armstrong’s “Corleone-like influence” on the sport:

“Through his various sponsorship and endorsement deals, he could make an advertiser disappear from our pages with the same flick of an elbow that one rider uses to silently tell another to pass him. Helmets, sunglasses, wheels, bikes, all of these companies’ ads were the lifeblood of the magazine, the one that paid my salary and that of my staff. If we couldn’t make money during the boom years, when could we?”

Although the Bicycling editor doesn’t specifically mention it, there were undoubtedly other concerns as well, including the fact that questioning Armstrong publicly would have meant losing access to anyone in the rider’s inner circle, and that would have made it almost impossible to write about him or the upper echelons of the sport. This is the same fear that can cause mainstream media outlets to avoid covering contentious stories about virtually any kind of public figure, including the president — what if pursuing such a story meant losing access to the White House or senior officials?

In some comments earlier this year about the internet and journalism, Washington Post investigative superstar Bob Woodward questioned the validity or usefulness of digital media when it comes to important stories like the Watergate affair. According to Woodward, only good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting of the kind that he and his partner Carl Bernstein did was able to break the case of the Watergate break-ins. The senior journalist scoffed at students who said that “the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.”

So blogs and Twitter picked up the journalistic slack

But as Carr points out, it was exactly those Twitter accounts and bloggers who kept the heat on Armstrong and the doping allegations while the mainstream sports press were celebrating his achievements: Twitter users like @TheRaceRadio and @UCI_Overlord, and a relatively little-known blog called NYVelocity — a site run by a commercial photographer and amateur cycle-racer. Since founder Andy Shen didn’t have any connection to cycle-racing, he was free to pursue whatever stories he wanted, and others picked up and redistributed his links and commentary. As the wife of a former Armstrong team-mate tells Carr:

“Not every single person in the mainstream media bought the story, many did good work, but many just went along out of fear or self-interest. The beauty of NYVelocity is that they knew the sport, knew the reality, and they were not beholden to any advertisers and the powers in the sport. They weren’t afraid to print the truth.”

This is another example of the benefits of what Om has called the democratization of content: the fact that anyone can publish information and distribute it allows sources that might never have been available before to reach a fairly broad audience — whether it’s someone live-tweeting the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound or demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Egypt. And as NYU professor Jay Rosen has argued, while some of this commentary and publishing might appear to be noise, journalism as a whole tends to get better the more people there are engaging in it.

Whether a professional bicycle racer took blood-doping products may not be an earth-shattering public interest story on the scale of the Watergate break-ins, but there is no question that sources outside the mainstream media can do a lot to advance such a story — whether through blogs or Twitter or any other platform — when those covering it might be reluctant to do so. That’s not to say that blogs or “citizen journalism” can replace traditional media or investigative reporting, just that they can be a powerful addition to the journalistic ecosystem.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and Yan Arief Purwanto

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  1. peculiarblend Monday, October 29, 2012

    Excellent article. You guys always have been one of my favorites. Lance I still admire your talent regardless of all the controversies.

    http://peculiarblend.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/nature-has-its-own-voice-hurricane-monday/

  2. Bob Woodward $old out long ago. I concur with your main point but it’s a lot easier to sell it if you hold up Woodward as the representative of mainstream journalism.

  3. Twitter – “Kept the heat on Armstrong”? Seriously? You don’t really get it….but go ahead and pat yourselves on the back for the delusion that Twitter brought down Lance. Nice try.

    It was the fact that Floyd needed money and Lance would not give him a radio shack contract – so he spilled his guts to the USADA, and Hamilton did the same. The USADA brought down Lance.

    That’s what brought down Lance, not Twitter. Sure social media “covered it” if you want to call it that, but the story was in no way created or even driven by social media as you argue. Lance could ignore the twitterati as easily as he could ignore the Times of London or the book by Irish Journalist David Walsh years earlier.

    1. lance did not ‘ignore’ David Walsh, he first tried to get an ‘emergency ruling’ in France to take the book off the shelf, Then he sued Walsh, he sued his co author Ballester, he sued the French publisher Martinere, he sued the French magazine L’Express that had printed excerpts of the book, he sued the Sunday Times in England for referencing the book, and his English lawyers threatened the entire English media system to not repeat what the book said, and then he sued Emma O’Reilly, who was one of the sources for the book, apparently in England and in France. The book has never been published in English.

      1. True enough Decora – Lance dealt with Walsh, then moved on. Dealt with the Times of London, then moved on.

        I think the issue here is what finally brought Lance Armstrong down. Based on the facts, it would appear that neither conventional journalism (aka Walsh, the Times, others) nor social media, but rather his ex-teammates who went to the authorities. As was pointed, the biggest tell-all came from Floyd Landis who did due to economic driven reasons (i.e. if lhe has doing well financially this may have never happened). This case had been closed, but Landis’s desperation led him to the USADA.

        While we will never know, the facts lead to the conclusion that Lance would have been brought down if social media never existed at all as it had nothing to do with the actions of either Landis, or the USADA.

        There are plenty of good examples of new journalism ala Twitter having tremendous impact where old-school shoe leather journalism is unable to where access is traded for softball stories that lead to change. The Lance Armstrong affair is not one of them.

  4. Alastair Sloan Tuesday, October 30, 2012

    Great article. But I can’t help but think that the way legislation is going on use of social media, the same lawyers who limit mainstream press from publishing controversial articles will soon be exerting their influence on bloggers. And individual tweeters will soon learn that controversial views will end them up in court if they air them too publically.

  5. There’s no question that Landis’ tell all was the impetus behind the wall crashing down, but it’s foolish to ignore the impact of social media, particularly in the war of public opinion. The mainstream press was still doggedly adhering to the spin from Camp Armstrong (which hunt, waste of tax payer dollars, they all did it, Lance cured cancer, he was tested 2,000 times!, LeMond is just bitter….). Non-traditional media helped beat back all of this well-orchestrated propaganda, even to the point of calling out Public Strategies and Demand Media’s role in trying to infiltrate and shape opinion in these new media forms.

    While this may not have had a direct effect on USADA’s investigation, it certainly helped indirectly by holding accountable those involved in the investigation, and by providing a less hostile environment for those willing to finally be truthful. Main stream media eventually picked up on the lies around the “600 tests”, a number which grew like a fungus, along with the “never tested positive” myth and many other facets of the charade.

    The bottom line is that there were a lot of things that led to the fall of the myth, and intense scrutiny from new forms of media was one of those things. The conventional forms of media really need to take note as to just how irrelevant they’re going to become. When there’s more content on the forum section of a site than on the main page, some serious questions need to be answered.

    1. Very Well said Bike Ninja!

  6. Nice article and thanks for your hard work. Will wait for more like this.

  7. It’s clear that mainstream journalists were intimidated and awed by Armstrong. They lost their objectivity and bought into the cult of personality. As such, journalists were cut-off and cut others off from the news: http://www.pelotonmagazine.com/Wilcockson/content/21/1939/One-More-Confession,-One-More-Apology
    But, I suppose that’s what happens when you’re dealing with some one so nefarious as Armstrong. The parallels with Sandusky, Nixon, OJ and other deniers are warranted and lessons to journos: objectivity doesn’t mean that you need to abandon your sense of things.

  8. Another Fine Day Wednesday, October 31, 2012

    Disruption may have it’s benefits, but it also has its downside. Journalists, musicians, film makers, photographers and anyone else whose work can be digitised are fast finding it hard to make any kind of living. How far do we want to see these professions become, in the end, the province of amateur practitioners only ? Do we really expect to get the same level of quality from those with only part time resources, both time and money ? At some point bloggers are going to have to face up to this question. There’s an awful lot of noise about how disruption is good with almost no acceptance that it also threatens the capability of professionals in these areas to survive, financially. I’d far rather read a story where I know proper checks have been made to vouch for the truth of that story, by an editor who knows what they’re doing, that some unchecked, possibly untrustworthy and biased account from someone who has heard some rumour somewhere and just spouted it verbatim. The Internet is full of that already. Yes, Twitter et al are mighty useful in flagging up events or stories that need further investigation. But to rely on that alone to supply us with the ‘truth’… No thanks. We need professionals. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

  9. @Decora: “The book has never been published in English.” – It was, just under a different title. It’s called From Lance to Landis. In French, it was called LA Confidentiel.
    And an excellent read it is, too :-)

  10. The bloggers and citizen journalists are taking far too much credit. It was the force of law that brought Armstrong down. Nothing could have been proved without this. Pat McQuaid head of the ICU said “We couldn’t put a gun on the table or a badge and say you’re up in front of a grand jury, which is what happened in this case. None of these witnesses volunteered to come forward. They were subpoenaed by the police.”

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