By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
The year was 2015. It ended up being the last time I would cover the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s most prestigious prize, the Triple Crown. It was my fourth time covering the event and anyone who’s ever worked it as a member of the media knows it’s a day-long grind. There’s the undercard. Then there’s the infield and the shenanigans that go on there. There’s the pre-race preparation. There’s the fried chicken and crab cakes, all provided by Pimlico for the press, that constitutes as lunch. It’s a lot.
2015 proved to be a memorable year, though, because American Pharaoh won the race and would go on to be the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown. The second place winner for the most intriguing story of the day, however, came when the president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, Sal Sinatra, made his way into the tiny de facto lobby area of the press box.
I, along with a couple dozen reporters from outlets as big as ESPN to as little as … well … the newspaper for which I was writing, gathered around him and grilled him about a rumored move for the Preakness venue. The race had been held at Pimlico, right smack in one of the most unsavory parts of Baltimore, for decades. Chatter had surfaced, as it always seemed to do, that the race could be moved to Laurel Park, which is decidedly more upgraded (Pimlico is the second oldest race track in the U.S.) and certainly more clean.
“My goal is to try and not let that happen,” Sinatra told us reporters about moving the race to Laurel as we stood there with our recorders out.
It didn’t really matter if any of us believed him at the time because we thought the move was inevitable anyway. On many levels, it was somewhat accepted that Sinatra was giving us lip service. Naturally, here we are, seven years later, and the Preakness has yet to move from Pimlico, so perhaps us media types were wrong that day (in the short term, at least). Still, that didn’t stop five more reporters from asking some variation of that same question time and again as the impromptu scrum continued.
I bring this up, why?
Because I couldn’t help but think of that moment in particular when, a couple weeks ago, the conversation about wrestling media began in the wake of the press conference that went down after the AEW Double Or Nothing show from Las Vegas (I call and a “press conference” and not a “scrum” because at this point, these post-PPV gatherings are no longer traditional scrums, to the point that someone runs around with a microphone for press members while the talent sits behind a table with microphones of their own, whereas a scrum, in my mind, means someone makes him or herself available for a short few minutes, encircled by media members, all the while making it known they have somewhere else to be).
As it goes, fans and media members alike were a little miffed that everyone let Tony Khan off the hook about the MJF situation. According to the commenters and criticizers, TK ostensibly came out and immediately set the ground rule that he wasn’t going to talk about MJF. The reporters didn’t really push back, and the biggest story of Double Or Nothing weekend became a non-starter at the only function where we, as reporters and fans, could actually hear from Important People as they speak about Important Situations.
It reminded me of the Preakness because even though we got an answer or two about the potential movement of the venue, it took a handful of minutes before someone moved off the topic entirely. And back then, Sinatra knew the game. Or, at least, I remember thinking he knew the game. He was tired of having to talk about the Preakness moving from Pimlico to Laurel. But he kept his patience in check and did his best to accommodate the reporters around him.
Tony Khan, meanwhile, knew he had the biggest story in all of wrestling at his fingertips, and opted (in what may have been part of a work?) to shut that conversation all the way down right away. I don’t know how much I blame Khan for that — especially if he didn’t want to dig the real-life hole deeper with MJF, assuming this was a real-life hole to begin with — but I did wonder about the legitimacy of the media if no one even thought to test the waters for a second.
But then, of course, I came face to face with a realization. That realization?
MY OWN FAILURE
I’m a hypocrite.
For some of us pro wrestling media members, getting media access to AEW events isn’t guaranteed. I was credentialed for March’s Revolution pay-per-view in Orlando. That included access to the post-event media scrum (even though it’s not a scrum, because … oh, well, you get it). So, I was in the room when CM Punk was intensely emotional after his victory over MJF in that dog-collar match. I was also there as Sting told everyone how much fun he was having, his face paint fractured from the work he put in about an hour prior to that. I was there when Hangman walked in. I was there for it all.
And I … didn’t ask a question.
I wanted to. And I had a few in my pocket that I thought could break the monotony of the types of questions that were being asked, which, to continue the Preakness comparison, would have been like if I used that scrum in Baltimore to ask the Maryland Jockey Club President if he thought it was going to rain that day (it did; the race was a mess). There were no real tough questions asked that night because the biggest news in the wrestling world back in March was Khan buying Ring of Honor, and anytime anyone tried to ask anything about that, Khan often met it with. “I just want to talk about tonight and how awesome it was!” And so, well, to a large degree, the reporters followed suit.
And “the reporters” that night included me. So, I failed. And, if there is such a thing as a problem when it comes to this stuff, I, on that night, was part of it. Do I have excuses? Of course I have excuses. First, the wrestling media world, as fascinating as it is, can veer into clique territory. I was in a room filled with people of whom I knew, but I also knew didn’t have the slightest idea who I was. For as much as wrestling superstars dominate the wrestling dialogue, wrestling media superstars often dominate the wrestling media opportunities. If my hand was up at the same time as pretty much everyone else in the room, someone from AEW was handing that microphone to anyone but me.
That’s not entirely uncommon in the media world, of course. As an editor, I once had a 20-something reporter cover something at the White House because there was a local angle. She got credentialed and attended the event, but if you’re the press secretary, you’re calling on NBC News before you call on Anonymous Small Town Newspaper Person. Relationships grow over time, and I’ve been on both ends of that equation, so I can’t be mad at that.
What did give me pause, however …
THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS
… was how weirdly threatened I felt by the potential of me asking the wrong question.
In short, the room felt like the haves and have-nots. The haves preach The Grind and get all the interviews and have all the relationships and gather all the scoops and accumulate all the followers. The have-nots, meanwhile, would just love the opportunity to dive into The Grind, don’t quite know the game, and don’t really know how they can know the game unless they play by a certain set of unspoken rules that are never really defined. And among those unspoken rules, it seems, is the simple edict that reads: “Don’t play hard ball and if you do play hard ball, you won’t be accepted here.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Before you go ahead and start thinking I’m just a disgruntled have-not whining his way through a Monday column, slow down a bit. First, I hesitate to throw all the blame at the feet of the most successful members of the wrestling media. I have no doubt in my mind that everyone is doing their best and trying as hard as they can to do the absolute right thing at all times. If you get the ball, run with it. Nobody can be mad at that.
But in the wake of the Twitter back-and-forth that rose like a Phoenix after the Double or Nothing post-event presser, the conversation, as it is wont to do on social media, distilled itself down to some people saying wrestling media is spineless and just a bunch of super-fans getting to occasionally ask softball questions, while others wondered what exactly the media was supposed to do once Khan put the kibosh on all things MJF. Respect Khan’s boundaries, some argued. Play by his rules.
Me? I can see value in both approaches to the argument. Yet even with that said, my favorite take came from one of the better Wrestling Twitter follows, Trevor Dame, who wrote on May 30, “If you think a WWE presser would be more than 5% different, you’re out of your mind. Wrestling media is anemic because no one took wrestling seriously for decades and no one pays to support actual tough journalism. I don’t blame it all on the reporters.”
Precisely. But what does that mean in the grand scheme of things?
Well, it means a few things. One, it calls into question the credibility of wrestling media when it comes to critical thinking, i.e. anything other than backstage reporting. Actually, that said, backstage reporting is even tricky because the relationship between everyone inside the pro wrestling bubble (bookers, company heads, wrestlers) and everyone outside the pro wrestling bubble (media, fans, onlookers) has often been a game of cat and mouse. What’s real and what’s not? Who knows, but we all buy into it because when we don’t know, it’s at its most fun. The credibility comes into question, however, when it’s accepted that taking important people to task could result in restricted access or the termination of future opportunities to cover the stuff, and therefore taking important people to task simply isn’t an option and/or worth it.
But two takes a look at what could be the future as we watch it unfold in the now: The LIV Golf fiasco. For those who don’t know, the PGA tour is getting its first taste of real competition as outrageously wealthy Saudis decided to start a golf tour and poach some stars from the PGA Tour, offering people like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson outrageous amounts of money to make the jump. The former made waves with comments he shared on the matter a couple months ago before disappearing in disgrace, and bowing out of the Masters, among other tournaments as a result.
Naturally, when LIV Golf kicked off last week, and Mickelson was there, reporters wanted to ask him questions about his recent absences. After a few tough ones were thrown his way, one reporter was escorted out of the press conference. There would be none of that, those intimidating, large men being paid with blood money said to the Associated Press media member. And the problem, as they say, was removed.
It’s like state-run media (though that shouldn’t be surprising, considering who’s funding the tour). “We are all happy, all of the time and things couldn’t be better.” That’s what LIV Golf wants you to believe, and, to be fair, that’s what AEW and WWE want you to believe, too. Both companies have multiple examples of not wanting to deal with hard-hitting media inquiries and both companies appear to have wildly thin skin. Because there is no real precedent for how pro wrestling should be covered on a purely journalistic level (no, social media posts, match reviews and star-ratings don’t constitute as purely journalistic), we have no idea what pure journalism might even entail in the wrestling world.
Is that because some in the media are afraid of ramifications like limited access to events or talent? It might just be. And here’s why.
CONTENT IS KING
Check out many of the most popular/successful wrestling media personalities out there from whatever websites you want to find. At some point along the way, you’ll find a post, a tweet, an audio clip of them saying the word “content” more than a few times. These days, that’s all that matters. At the post-show press conference in Orlando, the biggest media names were there, camera, cellphone and in some cases, microphone in hand. When it came time to dive into Ring of Honor acquisition questions, those only came from a select number of curious reporters. By and large, the biggest priority — or so it seemed — came in the form of getting the video content for their websites, YouTube pages or social media accounts.
And guess what? It must be working, because these people rule the wrestling media world. The most views don’t go to someone asking CM Punk what it’s like to be quasi-working with Colt Cabana again after their checkered history (by the way, has anyone, anywhere even asked that yet?), because that’d be a dick question, bro, and can’t we just talk about how great the show was tonight? Instead, the most views go to a 12-minute split-screen interview with a pro wrestler who, for some reason, is often sitting in a car answering questions about how great the fans in Louisville are or some such nonsense.
It’s a failure on all ends. Wrestling companies create the undertone of punishment for the media, should the companies or the talent be challenged; the media, meanwhile, acquiesces to said undertone in fear that they’ll lose the ability to accumulate content. Will it ever change? I hope so. And if it does, it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take buy-in from both sides of the equation. If pro wrestling companies stopped to think about it, being treated by the media like the media treats all other sports could actually help them break further into the mainstream, and that’s a longstanding goal for the industry at large.
At the same time, those same companies would have to learn to let go of a few things and also not hold so much of the talent under their thumb as much as they do (remember how the MJF mess started — he gave an interview to perhaps the most respected combat-fighting journalist in the world without clearing it with Khan first, and while that might needle some team owners in other sports, I don’t know that the fall out would have led to where it is now, work or shoot).
Those on the media side, meanwhile, could stand to not be so … cozy with the wrestlers. No matter where you look, most have their favorite talent, companies, etc., and it always seems to bleed through, meaning that objectivity in this world is at a premium in most cases. Even fans play a role here, because of how divided and opinionated and, frankly, nasty they can be in this age. If you love AEW and you make that known, you alienate WWE fans and vice versa and that means less eyeballs on your content and less eyeballs on content means less money and less money means … you get it.
It’s a strange, seemingly impossible web to untangle, but I’m optimistic that change can begin in earnest sooner than later. Wrestling media has never been more relevant within the context of the genre, and, being a part of it myself these days, I can say that it is awfully fun to even be a nearly invisible blip in that world. It creates fun debates and sometimes-necessary dialogue (when everyone plays by the rules, that is). Where it goes from here, I don’t know, though I am curious to see if AEW and NJPW will offer up a press scrum after the Forbidden Door event later this month.
In fact, I’m even more curious to see if anyone has the gumption to ask someone what exactly took so long for the two companies to put on a show together after navigating their ways through such a rocky start throughout the last few years. And if that brave person is allowed to stay in the room … well, let’s just say that perhaps progress isn’t merely a fleeting absurdity that currently appears impossible to achieve — and perhaps access to a brand new forbidden door could be plausible sooner rather than later.
If it could there would already be a story up here about Jeff Hardy getting yet another DUI and if Tony Khan will actually do anything about it, without fear that the billionaire trust fund money mark would try to shut your site down.
I write 99.9 percent of the news stories on this website and I can’t be around 24/7, but nice conspiracy theory. As I’ve told you before, if you really believe this shit, then please find another website to frequent. Agree or disagree with our takes all you like. But as I’ve also told you, this account and your burners can join the Thotless account if you want to keep making bullshit accusations.
Such a great article spot on for how I felt seeing that conversation unfold wrestling media has become a clique not only to not upset their fav companies or wrestlers but not to upset these other “media” members who can further their careers. Keep up the good fight bringing this type of questioning to the mainstream can only help.