Legitimate media members want to report the news not be the news. Sometimes it is unavoidable. That was the case this past weekend in NASCAR where driver Kurt Busch and Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass had a tense exchange that resulted in Busch being suspended by NASCAR for a week.
On Saturday following the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover International Speedway Busch (who was already on probation for other incidents) was asked in a post-race interview by Pockrass about tough racing with Justin Allgaier. Specifically, Pockrass asked, “Did it (probation) impact you on how you raced Justin?” Busch who was clearly annoyed by the question responded, “It (probation) refrains me from not beating the shit out of you right now.”
NASCAR’s suspension of Busch has drawn the ire of some media members who believe the sport does not need to protect the media. Following yesterday’s penalty announcement some of those media members spoke out via Twitter.
Alan Cavanna, Charlotte television reporter from ABC affiliate WSOC, expressed concern on Twitter in a string of tweets that included:
- “I’ve got mixed feeling on the Kurt Busch suspension…”
- “I hope that #NASCAR did it with its own image in mind, and not to protect a journalist.”
- “Journalists don’t need protection. We ask questions and the subjects answer knowing it’ll reach an audience.”
- “The court of public opinion, fans and car owners can judge if Kurt Busch is a bad guy or not. I don’t know if #nascar needs to.”
Nate Ryan of USA Today expressed support for Cavanna’s position, tweeting: “Already posted my thoughts on the KuBu outburst Saturday …but co-sign on what @copacavanna is saying today. #nascar
David Caraviello of NASCAR.com said in a tweet, “Writers get chewed out by athletes in every sport on regular basis. It happens. We accept it & move on. Story here is the #NASCAR reaction.”
What made this different is that Busch didn’t chew out a reporter – he threatened a reporter. That is a significant difference. Busch, who has a pattern of bad behavior, has probably spent the majority of his NASCAR career since 2001 on probation. What if NASCAR did nothing about the threat and next week in Pocono Busch actually did “beat the shit out of Pockrass”? Surely NASCAR would be faced with severe questions from media as to why it didn’t take action sooner.
There’s another factor at stake. NASCAR knows that news helps to drive interest in the sport. NASCAR can’t allow drivers to potentially intimidate reporters when its time to ask the tough questions. Athlete’s blowing their top makes for a good news day. NASCAR and the media are actually aligned on this point. NASCAR wants the tough questions to continue. NASCAR’s actions were not so much to protect the reporter but to empower the reporter.
As for Busch, his self-destructive behavior is reducing a brilliant racing career that includes a championship to rubble. Former crew chief and FOX Sports analyst Larry McReynolds commented, “He alone is holding his career in the palm of his hands and he’s absolutely throwing it away.” But Busch has been chiseling away at his own reputation since the beginning.
In 2003 Busch’s then sponsor Newell-Rubbermaid asked me and the late Jody Powell to help Busch better manage the media. Busch was fresh off an incident with rival driver Jimmy Spencer who hit Busch in the face after a race in Michigan. While NASCAR punished Spencer for the incident, Newell-Rubbermaid focused on Busch’s actions leading up to him getting hit. As if to say he deserved it, Newell-Rubermaid officials ordered Busch to get “guidance.”
There we sat in a room at Roush Fenway headquarters. Jody Powell, a former White House press secretary, said, “You are a professional racecar driver, you’ve got the hard part down – dealing with the media is easy.” Busch was animated for the first time in the meeting and responded, “You don’t understand, driving to me is easy, it’s what I do. I don’t understand the media – that’s the hard part to me.”
Nine years later Busch continues to struggle with the media aspect of his job and it could cost him his career.