Lance Armstrong shows why the disruption in journalism matters

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