April 9, 2008

I Want to Be a Journalist … What Am I Thinking?

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Airplane pilot — commercial not fighter, NBA player, filmmaker, teacher, historian, ESPNews anchor, journalist.
What do all these things have in common? They are all things I once wanted to be when I grew up (the dead giveaway: the specification of commercial pilot — I was probably the only five-year-old that thought that a DC-10 was way cooler than an F-16).
Each one died out for some reason: my development of a fear of flying, the doctor telling me I wouldn’t hit 6-0, my realization that I wasn’t creative enough to make films, didn’t enjoy research or literature enough to be a teacher (I think I just wanted to be taken seriously by adults at an early age) and couldn’t read a teleprompter well enough to be an anchor.
So that brings us to journalist, sports journalist to be specific. My life is consumed by trying to get myself into the sports media after college. My thought process was pretty simple: hey, I love sports and I did OK on my SAT II writing test. I would get to spend my life watching sporting events live instead of from my couch, as long as I jotted down a few hundred words every now and then.
Watching a game from press row gave me a different view, though. The first time I sat in the press box at Schoellkopf Field, I felt like I was nine years old again and sneaking out of bed to watch the ’96 Dream Team teaching the Eastern Europeans basketball skills that they would later use against future Dream Teams — no clapping, no cheering, no fun. At least it was only social pressure, not my mom, waiting in the wings to bust me.
Still, I relaxed and let myself get washed away by the uneven, sporadic bursts of tap-tapping on lap tops and the electronic buzz you only notice when you walk into an empty room with a TV on.
I focused on the game, filling the blank Word document with jumbled Times New Roman font. Insightful, hard-hitting questions were in caps: WHAT CHANGED DEFENSIVELY IN THE SECOND QUARTER?
But more than anything, boy was I awkward. After the game, I introduced myself in the press conference to kids that were a year or two older than me as “Cory Bennett, Cornell Daily Sun.” To my right was a guy from a small-market paper making small talk with the coach because he had covered collegiate sports for so long and knew everyone and everything. It felt like looking at myself in 30 years — bald, hunched over, denim jacket, painter jeans, all-white New Balance that are still made, but never advertised, because they only sell to the loyal over-40 fan base.
In front of me sat the reporter from the even smaller-market paper. He was me in three years, still wearing a button down and khakis to games, but not ironing the shirt anymore and letting corduroy slip into the rotation every now and then (wait, that could be me now).
Silent, jaded, bitter. I wondered if this was the life of a sports journalist. I wondered if my friends could tell me with a straight face that they didn’t think I was often silent, jaded and bitter. I wondered why I came across as such a power-nerd/sycophant when talking to these kids, stumbling through my words, laughing too loud at their jokes, trying to be buddy-buddy with them.
The relationship between reporters and athletes and coaches is inherently contentious. We have the agenda of prying away insider information from them, while they have the ulterior motive of creating an image for themselves in the media. We both put on a façade and play nice for the quick-hitting, 10-minute interactions, but rarely let down that veneer.
I respect to no end the professional reporters that seem to be liked by the people they cover and still be amiable with them. It really amazes me. And I know it is probably my inherent awkward nature and nervousness that leads me to feel uncomfortable in my relationships with coaches and players, but I doubt I’m the only one.
I had always thought reporting on a game would make you even more of a fan. The simple theory went that the more time I spent around a team and the more I knew about a team, the more I would inevitably care. That wasn’t exactly the case. It’s not out of the ordinary for a Sun writer covering a more time-intensive beat for the first time to look at me toward the end of the season and say, “Do you ever just get sick of covering a team?”
Don’t get me wrong. Being on a beat, being an editor for the paper, I have some sort of perverse love for it. I get access to all kinds of insider information. I enjoy actually knowing the personalities of the people I root for. I get to learn crazy stories about athletes that would get them in trouble, I find out details about injuries I couldn’t tell anyone. I get the best seats in the house. The work I’ve done for the Sun is more satisfying than anything else I’ve done here at Cornell.
I don’t know if that’s made me a bigger fan, though. My eyes sometimes linger on the clock more than on the score during a contest I’m covering. I yawn, send emails, unfocus my eyes for a bit, then get nervous about asking knowledgeable questions and writing a good story — you know, things most people do when at work.
People always ask me if my dream job would be to cover the Cubs for the Chicago Tribune. I used to automatically say yes, but now I’m not so sure. How far can work interfere with entertainment until the entertainment is ruined?
Until I figure that out, though, I think being a teacher is looking more and more attractive — is airline pilot still in the mix?