By Patrick O’Grady
Argument in Defense of the [British] Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials [December 1770]
Okay, how many of you out there have read “LA Confidential – The Secrets of Lance Armstrong?” Raise your hands. Nobody? Not a single, solitary one of you?
Then shut the hell up about it already.
Didn’t a teacher ever smack you down for trying to bluff your way through a question about a book you hadn’t read? Never heard the old saw about opinions and a-holes — how everybody has one and thinks it’s the other guy’s that stinks? And they say the Irish never let facts sway them in the face of higher truth; I’ve yet to see a bog-trotter who could trump an American sports fan when it comes to matters of faith.
Author David Walsh is Irish, but he appears to have an interest in facts nonetheless. Honored thrice as Sportswriter of the Year during the British Press Awards, most recently just three months ago, Walsh has covered the Tour de France 18 times and written a number of other books, including the biography of another heralded Mick, the inimitable Sean Kelly.
His co-author, Pierre Ballester, is a former cycling writer for the French sports daily L’Equipe and the ghost writer behind “Breaking The Chain” by Willy Voet, the tale of the Festina affair that nearly upended the 1998 Tour de France.
In short, these guys have some chops, a little time on the job. They get a little closer to the action than you or I do. And when you deride them as fabricators, scandal-mongers and money-sucking scum, without so much as a glance at their work, you are doing what you accuse them and the rest of the press of doing — making it all up, without a shred of evidence to support your point of view.
This eagerness to shoot the messenger is hardly of recent vintage. “Nobody likes the man who brings bad news,” as Sophocles noted, and a couple thousand years after he said it journalists as a class enjoy the respect and admiration normally accorded child molesters, necrophiliacs and IRS auditors, thanks to fabricators like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, and to the hordes of sluggardly, talentless hacks infesting many a newsroom nationwide.
Still, there are a few reportorial diamonds to be found among the lumps of coal, and you’d know very little about your world, the good or the bad, without them. I’m not talking about the Woodwards and Bernsteins here, either; I’m talking about the guys who cover the cops, courts, school boards and city councils, working long shifts for short wages. Newswriting, like bicycle racing, is mostly hard, thankless work, and only a very few get rich and famous doing it.
Like you, I haven’t read “LA Confidential.” My French depends upon Babelfish, a pocket-edition Webster’s and a hazy recollection of what few phrases I picked up as a tyke in Ottawa. But from what I’ve read about the book, Walsh and Ballester don’t claim to be in possession of the truth, merely of a few facts. They propose that you examine what they believe to be the facts and make up your own minds as to whether they add up to a smoking gun. A partnership is implied. When you clap your hands to your ears, shut your eyes and shout, “LA LA LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEEEEARRRR YOOOOUUUUU,” you are declining to shoulder your fair share of the burden of staying informed.
I’ve never met Walsh or Ballester, nor do I have their experience covering elite European racing. As for Lance, I’ve spoken with him exactly twice, once before his diagnosis and once afterward. What I know about him, and them, is what I’ve been told by journalists – some of them real ink-stained wretches, others no more than fans with laptops. If it ever comes out in English, “LA Confidential” will provide yet another perspective on the five-time Tour winner, as will the authors’ legal combat with their outraged subject. Whether we will ever learn “the truth” is anybody’s guess.
Frankly, whether Lance has engaged in questionable practices is not (or should not be) on a par with the “third-rate burglary” that brought down an American president, or the specious arguments for warfare that may bring down another. Lance is a wealthy, talented athlete, an entertainer, a guy who gets paid to do what he does because we all like to watch. Nevertheless, if you count yourself a serious student of the sport, you should have the intellectual curiosity to take a good, hard look at him, warts and all.
The media being what they are, there will always be plenty of eager hands to polish the halos of the gods. It takes a firmer hand to point out any grimy tracks their feet of clay may leave on the world’s stage.
Wish your monitor was a newspaper so you could crumple it up and throw it in the trash? Ordering a copy of “LA Confidential,” and taking a Berlitz course in French? Send your bouquets and brickbats to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your FULL NAME, CITY and STATE, or your nation of residence. Letters will be edited for length, content, spelling, style, grammar and usage by the usual gaggle of fabricators, scandal-mongers and money-sucking scum.