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Ombudsman's Report: Bias

I will attempt to get to the bottom of a persistent problem.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Kennedy-McMann did not choose this picture, TSF staff did
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Kennedy-McMann did not choose this picture, TSF staff did
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Good day. I have spent the last few weeks immersing myself in TSF culture, and I believe that this is a good time to dip my toes into the waters and begin my solemn duty as an ombudsman, with the goal of elevating TSF's standards to be the best free content provider it can possibly be.

Our first issue was brought to my attention by a loyal reader (side note: I will never get used to the anonymity of the Internet), who raised that issue in the Q&A about author bias. As an ombudsman, that is both heartbreaking and music to my ears; bias is insidious and needs to be eradicated wherever possible, and that's doubly true in the sporting realm, where objectivity is clearly the desired end goal of any discussion between two partisans. In fact, the commenter even said that he hopes I can help provide "zero tolerance on bias", and that, sir or madam, is what I intend to do.

It was requested, as background, that I read this post on The Short Fuse in order to help frame my discussion. My first yellow flag (I believe that's what they use in soccer to indicate a foul, but I don't really understand the game, so please bear with me) was the author of that post, Travis King. I have gotten several emails about Mr. King's style of "writing" at TSF, and so my suspicions were already primed when I asked the TSF editors for more examples. We'll get to that in a minute, but first, let's address the specific claim of "quote manipulation" in that comment.

The quote Travis used in his piece, from Arsene Wenger after the game's conclusion, was:

"I wanted to go from A to B and somebody confronted me before B without any sign of welcome. B was Sanchez, to see how badly he was injured."

And the actual, complete quote was:

"I don't regret it. What is there to regret? I wanted to go from A to B and somebody confronted me before B without any sign of welcome. B was Sanchez, to see how badly he was injured. Honestly, I don't listen to what he says. You could see if I really try to push. Come on."

Clearly, Mr. King has manipulated the quote. But the only bias here is an apparent hidden one towards the other team; the version of the quote Mr. King used softened the sharp edges of a clearly heated discussion between two sporting competitors immediately after a battle.

That said, my investigation of this incident did turn up a number of other troubling tendencies. When I emailed the staff of writers to ask for examples of more of Mr. King's work, and more of the types of bias that I'm trying to eliminate, these are highlights (or shall I say lowlights?) from the emails I received:

"I don't know, maybe Google it"
"My lawyers will be in touch and will be happy to cooperate fully with your request in due course"
"Travis King? He's not here, maybe go look on the freeway median."
"What do I look like, your mother? Do it your damn self"

It's easy to see what I'm up against here: a culture that protects its own, regardless of whether its own needs protecting. So, I did what all intrepid ombudsmen and women do: I did my own research! I went looking for incidents of bias in the work of Mr. King and of the TSF staff in general, and I found many. So many.

For instance, there is this question and answer session, coincidentally also about a Chelsea game, but not the one referenced above. The author, pdb, clearly shows bias in this question:

Was the cliff Cesc Fabregas fell off this season anticipated, or was it a surprise?

That question is, as we say at Ombudsman Club meetings, so loaded that it might actually explode in somebody's hand. It presumes, for one, that Mr. Fabregas is a terrible player, and I can only assume that Mr. or Mrs. pdb (I seriously dislike this internet anonymity) believes Mr. Fabregas may have sold Chelsea a bill of goods as regards his level of ability. There is no basis for any of this; from what I can see, this Mr. Fabregas is an exceptionally talented football player who happens to play for a team that pdb (I'm dropping the honorific until I can determine pdb's gender) does not like.

This is a textbook case of bias; I would suggest to pdb that in future, sentence constructions such as "Has Cesc Fabregas played well this season or is there room for improvement?" be used, in order to avoid the appearance of any bias whatsoever, and in order to make The Short Fuse as welcoming as possible to fans of all teams.

The last example of clearly stated bias I'll cite in this month's column comes from site owner Thomas Wachtel. He wrote a piece about an interaction between an Arsenal player and a media figure in which Mr. Wachtel's bias was so clear you could see all the way through it to the other side. His intention is plain from the very first line:

"Nobody in the world likes Piers Morgan."

Anybody with any sense of objectivity at all knows this is not true. As of this writing, there are approximately 7.125 billion people on Earth; it is simply not possible for all of them to know, much less be able to form an opinion on, Piers Morgan. So the least Mr. Wachtel is guilty of is hyperbole, but it gets worse:

It's more because he's a loudmouth Arsenal fan who represents the worst of what our fanbase has to offer, but since he's relatively famous, he gets to be considered The Public Voice Of Arsenal Fans even though he's almost always wrong.

In one sentence, Mr. Wachtel simultaneously exposes his bias, slanders a public figure, and makes value judgments on what kind of person Mr. Morgan is, all in the name of...what exactly? Comedy value? His article wasn't that funny, in my opinion.

So what are we left to believe, then, if we cannot believe that The Short Fuse can be objective? I don't know, but I do have some suggestions for how TSF authors can remedy these issues going forward. The next time one of you is assigned an article, please consider the following when you're writing:

1. Always make clear your biases at the beginning of an article.
2. If you don't like a particular player, as in the example of pdb above, ask to be recused from an assignment if you can't write about it objectively.
3. Seek out opinions from both sides of everything you write.

Those aren't magic bullets; the pervasive bias problem at TSF won't be solved overnight. But if we all continue to be diligent and call out obvious biases when we see them, TSF will be a much better place for it, for Arsenal fans and for everybody involved in the sport that visits TSF.