05/29/2007 12:00AM

Not all believe in balanced coverage


TUCSON, Ariz. - The media loves to cover racing, as long as there is a shred of scandal or the faintest sniff of drugs in the air. It loves to cover it, that is, as long as facts don't clutter up the story.

A prime example was a May 14 mishmash on HBO's "Real Sports, with Bryant Gumbel." The gist of the segment, called "Faster Horses," was the use of performance-enhancing substances. The contention was that since many major horse trainers, such as Steve Asmussen, Doug O'Neill, and Todd Pletcher, have had positive tests, the whole sport is tainted.

People other than the on-air talent produce these shows, of course. In this edition of "Real Sports," the correspondent was Jon Frankel and the producer Chapman Downes. One would hope, futilely, that they might have had some sense of fairness and objectivity. That was not their mission.

HBO producers and researchers spent almost two hours talking with Dr. Scot Waterman. Waterman runs the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, American horse racing's lead agency in its constant fight against illegal medication and performance enhancing substances. Waterman is this country's most articulate and eloquent - and clearly most authoritative - spokesman for racing's multi-million dollar efforts to detect sophisticated drugs, provide uniform rules for punishment for using them, and eliminate them from use. He is a world respected expert, and he gave HBO producers and staffers the entire story from racing's point of view, providing a detailed overview of the problem and what is being done about it.

Not only did HBO not use a word or line of Dr. Waterman's information, but the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium never was mentioned on the show.

This not only is bad faith but bad reporting. "Real Sports," of course, is commentary, not journalism, but even blather would dictate that fairness demands letting the public know something is being done about the problem, who is doing it, and what they are doing.

HBO also did an on-camera interview with Gary Bisantz, one of the most ardent and forceful of racing leaders bitterly opposed to performance-enhancing substances, but this too wound up on the cutting room floor - an editing choice that affected the objectivity of the presentation.

In an interesting magazine article recently, Beverly Smith, who writes for the Toronto Globe and Mail and has covered racing for more than a quarter of a century, wrote about coverage of racing.

She justified the coverage of bad news in a number of ways, saying the public loved the stuff, noting that her recent drug articles in the Globe were among the 10 best-read of that week. She also said sportswriters were not paid to glorify racing, a job she said the publicists were paid to do, and in many cases do poorly. And she railed against what she considered personal affronts from racing management, ranging from bad seats at banquets to being ignored or treated rudely.

I have read Bev's stuff for years, and do not plan a line item rebuttal or refutation here. She speaks for herself, from long experience, and is entitled to her views from personal encounters and observations.

A few facts, however, may be pertinent.

First, the public loves everything gory, gruesome, and grisly. It wallows in multiple murders, depravity, celebrity drunkenness, kinky sex, roof jumpers, multiple car crashes, disappearances, and kidnappings. So making the top 10 in stories of the week may be ego-satisfying but does not necessarily indicate Pulitzer prize accomplishment. It means you've satisfied a taste for the morbid.

Reporters certainly are not paid to glamorize or glorify horse racing. They should be held, however, to a standard of fairness and objectivity. If assigned to "go get 'em" stories with pre-directed verdicts, like the HBO piece, they should have enough professionalism - and pride - to report both sides.

As for publicists, whose job it is to provide fodder for the mill, many indeed have lost their way, grinding out mundane daily releases, some that seem like templates with the names merely changed daily. They are neither news nor newsworthy, and are treated as such.

The game always could use truly skilled racing writers, who are in short supply. It was stunning, therefore, when experienced wordsmiths such as Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times and Billy Reed of the Louisville Courier Journal left their papers and were not snapped up by tracks that could have benefited greatly from their racing knowledge and their ability to write about it in glowing prose.

Not all writers can be eloquent, but all in the profession, on television or anywhere else, should be expected to practice objectivity, and not selectively discard facts. There is a word for doing that. It is called disingenuous.