On Jessica Mendoza and (so-called) critics

The following bit of commentary isn’t about Jessica Mendoza, per se. Given my current employment status, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment directly on Mendoza’s skills as a broadcaster.

Or maybe it would be. I’m not sure. A couple of jobs ago, I would routinely critique Tim McCarver’s work on national broadcasts for another network. I believe that my employers had a sort of policy prohibiting that — on the reasonable grounds that if we weren’t willing to criticize ourselves (which we really, really weren’t), we couldn’t criticize anyone else — but I don’t believe anyone ever told me to stop. For better or worse, most of my time at that job was spent flying under the radar, and so I was allowed to write almost anything I liked. Those were, in some ways, simpler times. The absence of Twitter helped.

Regardless, the problem with critiquing broadcasters is that nearly all of us lack the language for meaningful criticism, just as most of us lack the vocabulary to meaningfully criticize books or movies (trust me; I’ve tried both). So most criticism of broadcasters really boils down to subjective taste: You like Hawk Harrelson, or you don’t like him. You like Joe Buck, or you don’t like him. With broadcasters it’s mostly about whether you enjoy spending two or three hours of your life with this person. Which, again, is wildly subjective, probably related to the sound and rhythm of the voice as much as anything else.

Of course there is room, or should be, for substantive criticism. If a broadcaster says something once or twice per inning that’s just factually incorrect or clichéd, I’m likely to run the other way. Especially if the untruths are unleavened with humor or insight. Which is, alas, the case with a goodly number of “analysts,” especially on local television broadcasts (as a group, the national guys tend to be somewhat better).

Which brings me back to Jessica Mendoza.

A few weeks ago, some of my friends on Twitter essentially accused me of lying when I suggested that I had not, until that very morning anyway, seen any sexist criticism of Mendoza. Anywhere.

Upon reflection, I realized that while I hadn’t been lying, I had been forgetful. The night before, while I was actively trying to remain in good cheer, someone I follow on Twitter was actively searching for, and then retweeting, sexist criticism of Mendoza. After two or three examples of this ugliness, I disengaged and then forgot all about it. Perhaps because those criticisms were coming from, influentially speaking, nobodies.

Does such exposure serve a worthy purpose? I don’t know. It’s probably good to be reminded that there are people out there who think such things. But how many times every day must we be reminded? Five? Ten? Fifty? I live in the city, and not in one of the nicer parts (although I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else). I read stories, every single day, about people doing terrible things to one another. Frankly, a bunch of dudes spouting off to their friends on Twitter is pretty far down the list of earthly horrors I need to know about.

Which brings me to Jessica Mendoza and this New York Times story by Katie Rogers that made me want to write something about all this. Here’s the headline:

Criticized for Being a ‘Woman Announcer,’ Jessica Mendoza Shines Anyway

Both of those clauses lead to a couple of questions.

First, criticized by whom, exactly? Rogers’ examples consist of five tweets, two of which focus more on Mendoza’s softball experience than her gender. Which, frankly, is a fair point. Considering that a network, whether national or regional, would never even think of hiring a male analyst who topped out in Double- or even Triple-A baseball, one might wonder why the rules were suddenly changed.

However, that’s a question for the suits. Once a softball player, female or male, is actually in the booth, then it’s time to cast aside your predispositions and just evaluate the work.

Except it’s really difficult to shed one’s biases. I know everyone who’s cheered for Mendoza has done so in good faith, but some of them (or you) are biased, too.

Right! Hard to believe, isn’t it! But we’re all biased in more ways than we can possibly know. If you’ve spent a good deal of your life noticing the multitude of ways in which women are discriminated against, you might naturally enjoy seeing a woman performing a job that’s historically gone exclusively to men. You might be aware of that impulse, but you might not be.

It would be great if we could critique Jessica Mendoza exactly as if she were a man; in that case, it’s unlikely that the Times would be raving; that word shines in the headline is telling, I think. But we’re not there yet, and probably won’t be for a long time.

Until then, though, let’s at least not “punch down” so much. Sure, we can all make examples of random dudes on Twitter who aren’t ready for what’s definitely coming. Or instead we can engage, as civilly as possible, with dudes who actually have platforms, and some measure of influence. You know, like this dude.

Of course, not so many dudes with platforms are actually foolish enough to say something so intemperate, at least not publicly. Which suggests progress! So instead we punch down because it’s easy. And maybe because it feels good, just a little. And establishes our bona fides as True Believers.

All of which is probably harmless. Or almost so. Still, while the best thing we can do is create space for anyone with the requisite skills to thrive, the second-best thing is to leave space where anyone can be criticized on the merits of their work, without the critic being accused of bias unless they admit it.

It’s not appropriate for me to critique Jessica Mendoza, at least not in this space. But anyone who does want to do that, and can do it without being a sexist jerk, shouldn’t be shy and doesn’t deserve to get killed for doing it.