Saturday, September 10, 2005

Another Berger Fix on Internet Message Boards

UPON FURTHER REVIEW…

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

Alright, you Maple Leaf message-board junkies: You’ve brought me to my knees. I thought I’d never receive anywhere close to the number of e-mails I got after the columns I wrote back in August on the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore saga. But, you folks have annihilated that figure. On Thursday and Friday, I had more than 750 messages on my personal e-mail. Combine that with the various chat-site threads on the subject, and there must have been 3,000 bits of discussion. Obviously, this is more of a cottage industry than I imagined, and it prompted me to take a closer look at the phenomenon.

But, I continue to have some questions, so bear with me. While my column was undoubtedly critical of the message-board concept (for reasons that have been documented and debated in the past 48 hours), why is it that those of you on the chat-sites, in particular, chose to completely overlook whatever balance I tried to interject? Though you were wildly protective of the concept, there was virtually no mention of me writing:

“WHILE THERE IS A LEVEL OF SOPHISTICATION TO SOME OF THE COMMENTARY AND DEBATE, it is practically obliterated by people who have nothing remotely intelligent to offer…” The first half of that sentence was all but completely ignored; the second half, targeted.

The reason I ask is this: So many of the e-mails I received (and even some of the Internet debates) were from people who freely admit that they spend countless hours corresponding on the message boards and trying to submit sensible, well-reasoned arguments. Some even informed me of their aliases. But, they went on to emphasize how ashamed THEY are of being associated with the obvious lunatic fringe. It detracts from their enjoyment of participating, and they claim there is nothing they can do to prevent it.

I’ll say one thing; they’re bang on about the first part, and that’s where the argument I made about “lowest common denominator” comes in. Take a look at any of the sites and you’ll see it, even when a person submits a valid point of contention. In most cases, the subject is initially responded to in a reasonable fashion, but then disagreement occurs, which should be an integral part of the overall process. Ultimately, however, so many of the issues dissolve into a petty exchange of insults and (in many cases) profanity.

Perhaps I’m taking the whole thing too seriously, or according it too much credit. But, I’ll admit it does have possibilities – as does any forum for debate. Can you imagine, though, what would happen if a group of subjects on Larry King’s nightly CNN show began calling one another school-yard names? Then, holding up photographs of each other with horns painted atop their heads? I laughed myself silly when I noticed that one of the message boards took my Fan-590 image and de-faced it. Particularly by affixing me with a Montreal Canadiens hat. That was cool. But, is it the image that most of you who contribute to these sites want to project? Certainly not based on the e-mails I’ve received. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I quickly sensed an undercurrent of pride among those who regularly participate. In fact, the “TMLFans” site appeared to have a thread that dealt with some form of contest among the various message boards.

Alongside the nonsense, I also took notice of a number of issues that were original, compelling, and worthy of a cosmopolitan-style debate. I even saw that many of you are rather enterprising – surfing sports news-sites all over the world to unearth hockey stories we may not be aware of in Toronto. That’s pretty good stuff. Why, then, don’t you take it among yourselves to try and weed out the nincompoops who smear the boards’ image and credibility? I realize it isn’t possible to eliminate these people; after all, just about everyone has access to the Internet. But, surely, there must be a way to dissuade the large number of contributors who couldn’t form an intelligent thought if their life was on the line – perhaps by refusing to acknowledge their drivel in any way, or deleting the threads altogether. Don’t these sites have moderators who rotate around the clock? That’s the way it’s been explained to me. Is it not an option to work with these people to try and maintain a better overall standard? I think it would make the message boards a great deal more attractive to those on the outside, who don’t actually participate.

Then there’s this doozy: A couple of wing-nuts suggested to me in e-mails that I secretly post items on these boards under my own alias. Now, THAT makes a lot of sense. Here, on this website, viewed by half-a-million people every day, I have an open forum in which I can state the strongest of my opinions – unedited – with my real name and affiliation… and I’m going to spend my time going underground on a message board? That’s not meant as a put-down of these chat sites; I think I’ve made it clear in the previous two paragraphs what I feel about the possibilities. But, it’s certainly not a forum that I require in order to get my message across. What shocks me is the fact that some of you claim there are legitimate members of the media who DO sign up under aliases and take pot-shots, with immunity, at their colleagues. That’s kind of sad. If the opportunity is there for you to reveal your true public identity before posting these critiques, why hide behind a moniker?

Others wonder why I wouldn’t openly debate my views with participants on the message boards. Well, you’ll find the answer two paragraphs above this one. First of all, you know who I am, and I have no idea who you are. So, again, there’s an accountability issue. I think I’ve made it clear that I have no real desire to argue with an alias. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of messages to my private e-mail site are light-years ahead in terms of sensibility and thoughtfulness. Even the most biting criticism is accompanied with a measure of reason and balance. And I find it far more enjoyable and productive to conduct business in that manner, rather than responding to: “Berger’s a tool, who has no right to hold his job. He can suck my ****. No wonder the players won’t talk to him. I never listen to the guy, or read anything he says.” Like many of you suggest, that level of commentary is out there, anyway. Why grace it with a response?

And, it has nothing to do with dodging bullets. No such thing is even remotely possible in a hockey-mad city like Toronto. When you’re in the public spotlight here, it is second-nature to place your neck in a guillotine. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not encouraged by my employers to vehemently state my opinions, and it has never taken much of a push on their part. Speaking out on the Maple Leafs, however, is a hazardous exercise that tends to impair one’s popularity. And that’s putting it mildly. We are constantly saying and writing things that others can store for future reference, and we do so with our familiar names and images. A thick layer of skin is a wonderful possession. I wish I had more of an opportunity in my radio role to spar and interact with Leaf fans, but hockey reporting is a ‘round the clock kind of job in T.O. That’s why we’ve got night-owls like my pal, Stormin’ Norman Rumack. But, you can bet I’ll probably drag my keester into the studio any number of times in the coming NHL season. And I’ll gladly take on any of you “horn painters”.

A couple of other things: Some of you post messages saying, “Don’t pay attention to Berger and these other media types, they’re just trying to draw a reaction.” Well… duh! I think next time I go to sleep at night, I’ll dream about how I can bore all of you to tears the following day with a flat, emotionless column on a topic you have absolutely no interest in.

Also, why is it that so many people take a prediction or opinion about the Maple Leafs, and condemn whoever is making it to a lifetime of “negativity” and “pessimism”? In my case, I have clearly stated that I think the Leafs will scramble for a playoff berth this season. I still feel that way, but not to the extent I did in early August. On the day Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk became Florida Panthers – thus joining Alex Mogilny, Owen Nolan and Brian Leetch among Leaf defectors – my cell phone rang at the airport in Las Vegas with a request to go on the air and react to the double-signing. It was obviously well before any of Eric Lindros, Jeff O’Neill, Jason Allison or Mariusz Czerkawski joined the Leafs, and I happened to suggest that the Toronto roster of that day wouldn’t “win 25 games in the coming season.” Looking back, I probably gave the club five wins too many. Even a “Leaf hater” like me can see the team is better today than it was back then. But, be honest… how many of you have e-mailed me in recent days, continuing to challenge my 25-win prediction? Brilliant!

I would also like to address those who claim that I “…pick the Leafs to miss the playoffs every year.” To refresh your alleged “memories”, I chose the club to do exceptionally well prior to both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, when Leaf teams were replete with scoring balance on the wings, and enough depth to carve out a solid place in the standings (though not to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup). And I made those points repeatedly. That’s why I was flabbergasted when the Leafs stumbled out of the gate with Ed Belfour in the first month of ’02-03. You might recall they went into a Friday/Saturday set in Dallas and St. Louis the second week of November with a 4-7-2 record… and with Leaf Nation in total panic-mode. When the club was completely unresponsive in dropping both ends of that weekend trip, I strongly vouched for Pat Quinn to dynamite the roster. Just blow it to smithereens. What I didn’t realize at the time (along with most everyone else) was that Belfour had habitually been a slow starter. None of us had seen much of him in the Western Conference during the previous years. And, Curtis Joseph had usually been a strong starter for the Leafs. When Eddie finally got his act together, the team fell in line and performed as many of us predicted it would.

Anyway, I hope I’ve addressed some of your concerns here. Allow me to apologize for using a couple of terms in my last two columns that were unprofessional. Things got a bit out of hand. Despite appearances, it is neither my prime objective in life to insult Maple Leaf fans, nor to turn you against me. The Leafs, in recent years, have given you more of a return for your unconditional loyalty… but, in my opinion, still, not enough. That’s where the word “delusional” sometimes creeps in. I believe hockey fans in our city are far too easy to appease. And, it works to the detriment of the team. But, it’s always perilous to offer a dissenting viewpoint. Trust me on that. As always, though, I invite any of you to personally e-mail me (howard.berger@rci.rogers.com) with your thoughts.

Training camp starts on Monday!