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When the laudable should not be applaudable

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Getty Images for NASCAR

I might as well chime in on this press box cheering debate - everyone else has.

To give you a bit of my own history, back when I was getting into sportswriting, the phrases "blog" and "new school journalism" weren't in the lexicon. There were blog-type websites - like mine - but in small numbers, nowhere near the incredible numbers of self-published outlets that exist today.

In other words, I was a blogger before there were really blogs. My ambition, though, wasn't to be a blogger in the current sense of the word - it was to be a journalist.

I had taken journalism courses in college in my endless search for a major (I finally settled on English after sampling everything from Computer Sciences to Psychology), and one of the first courses I took was in Ethics. Consequently, as "new school" as my method of publishing was, my thinking on proper media behavior was most definitely "old school."

The problem was, in my career path I had missed the extensive internship and dues-paying that "legitimate" journalists had had to undergo to get where they were. So painfully, bit by bit, I set about putting together the puzzle of how to find path into "the biz" my own way.

I remember clearly the first race for which I ever got credentialed. The only reason I got the credential was because I was freelancing for a startup magazine. My attempts to get media center access prior had been met with failure - most tracks were wary of "online writers" and "e-zine publishers" and so forth, and to be sure my body of work was less than informed because of my distance from the sport. Nobody knew who I was, nobody who counted read my stuff, and so it was easy to red-stamp a rejection onto my applications.

That changed when I had the clout of the magazine's editor behind me. Soon, I was standing in line for my credential and pit pass, not having a single idea of the process involved. I got a lot of dirty stares from hardened vets who knew all the right lines to stand in, knew the folks working the desks well enough to banter and ask about their families, and were familiar enough with the core group of traveling media to know that I was a decided outsider.

Let me tell you, it was nerve-wracking. I didn't feel as though I was entitled to be there at all. In my head, I had been given the privilege of access grudgingly by people who didn't need any additional warm bodies complicating things. Thus, I felt like I had to prove that my presence there was legitimate.

It was hard to convince myself of that when I walked into the media center, lugging a giant bag filled with rolls of film (remember, this was a while ago), camera equipment, my voice recorder, and several notepads. Most of the spots at the tables were neatly marked for national news - USA Today, Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, National Speed Sport News, Reuters - and I was obviously the odd man out. Over there was Chris Economaki, sharing an anecdote with someone. Mike Mulhern was scribbling away at something in another area of the room. David Poole was at the cubbyholes picking up press releases and media notes.

Who the hell was I to be here with such company? I wondered. So I found a corner of the room that didn't seem to have a name card (I looked for my name everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found) but had a power outlet, set my gear down, and watched. I was here, deservedly or not, and I had better get the lay of the land.

The first impression I got was that I was intruding on a muted frat party. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and the inside jokes, shared laughter, and easy familiarity spoke of too many nights on the road, in motels, and eating fast food while chasing down their stories.

More interesting were the personalities themselves. From what I could gather, most folks in the media room had dual personalities that appeared to change as if toggled by a light switch. There was the "media professional" personality, marked by a tight-lipped, mildly-squinting look and an impersonal, correct speaking manner in interviews. And then there was the "press room wag" personality - the Mystery Science Theater 3000 snark-infused cynical observer who was prone to nudging the neighboring fellow and make a comment about Tony Stewart's pet tiger or another driver's arm candy of the week.

The media folks seemed to be able to slip in and out of these personalities at will. I quickly gathered that there was an etiquette here. If you wanted to roll out the "wag" with a driver, team owner, or other personality in the sport, no problem (if you knew the person well enough) - but you only did it in certain areas. Never in the working press area. Never in a garage stall, on pit road, or at a hauler while the track was hot. You picked your moments based on the context and atmosphere of the environment.

Over the course of the weekend I would see a press guy hanging out with one of the drivers as if they were best friends during a down moment, leaning on a stack of tires and shooting the breeze about some inane subject or another. Five minutes later, these same two people would be standing stiffly, one with a tape recorder and a notepad and the other with his arms crossed, mouthing safe and sterile platitudes about how fast his car was, what a great crew he had, and so forth.

It was a dance, I realized. Each performer had their part to play and marks to hit. If someone stepped out, missed a mark, or turned the wrong direction, everybody knew about it. The embarrassment of being caught in a compromising or, worse, unprofessional situation provided an impetus for self-correction.

Over the course of the next decade I spent more and more time in media centers. I carefully built a history of respectable behavior in the press areas - not enough that I became a tenured member of "The Gang," mostly because I never reached hard card status or stuck to one particular series, but because I was low-maintenance and followed the rules - both spoken and silent.

It was - and still is in the rare moments when I return to a media room - a real treat for me to be acknowledged as someone who gets it. I never did have the backing of a first-line media outlet like AP, Getty Images, or National Speed Sport News, but I was able to keep getting credentialed because nobody ever had a cause to complain about my behavior when I covered a race. I knew which lines should not be crossed and did not cross them.

That reputation was hard-won and, since I had to do it on my own a piece at a time, jealously protected. So when I talk to the so-called "new school journalists" who can't understand why the people who cover the sport should maintain a professional distance from it, it rankles me. Those who genuinely don't get it are the ones with whom I spend the most effort trying to explain why I feel the way I do.

The others -the ones who actively disdain the "old way" of doing things because it's a new age of information - I usually just leave to their own devices. I'm not even sure that they don't have the weight of evidence on their side. Perhaps I am a dinosaur in my thinking, and the definition of professionalism and objectivity is fluid and malleable depending on the times.

If that is the case, then I will most likely leave the new world of journalism to them and recuse myself. I feel that just because something is old or time-worn does not automatically mean it needs to be replaced.

 It's not that I'm not human - there are moments when, even in a media center, I feel like cheering, or groaning, or even crying. But there is a time and place for everything, and sometimes duty and obligation to a profession takes precedent over personal impulses. It's more popularly known as "self-control," and while it has fallen out of style in recent years, there's still a place for it in the professional media.

The conclusion to this overlong tract is that, because of my own background, I don't much care what a person's background is or the about the nature of the outlet for which he writes. It's how he behaves and the attention he devotes to his craft. A blogger can be a more capable, more professional journalist than a writer for a mainstream newspaper if he respects not just his craft, but the environment in which he practices.

And that's why I feel that the media center cheering for Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 win - or, indeed, Graham Rahal's victory at St. Petersburg - was inappropriate. It was a lapse in decorum, an intrusion of the fan into an environment that strives to rise above fandom's subjectivity.

No matter what the "new school" folks say, I think we should strive to do better.