Monday, August 2, 2010

Pro-Wrestling Journalism and Ethics: A Conversation with Dave Meltzer

**For my 100th content-oriented post, I thought I'd do something a little different.  This is a paper I wrote for a media ethics class as an undergraduate about 10 years ago.**

I will start with a comparison of sorts. Most people like movies; there is such variety that there is always one genre for anyone. I’ll bet you could easily think of ten movies you enjoy. Look at how highly our culture regards actors, we are a people enamored with those who entertain us. Now pretend that only you are a movie-lover and there is an active negative stigma towards Hollywood. What if the majority of the country assumed all movies comprised of pornography, bad sci-fi and horror flicks, cheesy adult thrillers and potty humor comedies. Even if the great actors and movies still existed, no one acknowledged their greatness because the masses assumed the aforementioned garbage was what dominated Hollywood. That is what is like to be a fan of professional wrestling.

I personally do not remember a time in my life I was not a fan. Cartoonish gimmicks drew me in as a little boy and as I grew to understand how the sport worked, I enjoyed it that much more. Yes, I know it’s not “real,” but neither was Braveheart and I still liked that. The fact is pro-wrestling must maintain a certain level of illusion (the insider word for that is “kayfabe”) to keep the fans happy and non-fans just cannot comprehend that necessity. Regardless, pro wrestlers are real people with real lives outside of that “fake” world. When the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) began going into a more mature direction and enjoying great popularity, I began to lose my interest in their product. While I still enjoyed parts of it, I wanted something that was more like a serious sport than a ridiculous soap opera.

Enter Dave Meltzer. I had heard the name here and there, but it was not until I heard his Internet radio show that I discovered the other side of professional wrestling. He talked with the wrestlers, who were not the characters they were on television, instead they were regular guys who played the part. He smartened me up to exactly what I liked about wrestling. Similar to how one might like a certain actor’s movies, but not know why. The little things from facial expressions to believable delivery make actors great – wrestlers are no different. He told me what was going on in other parts of the world, notably Japan, which has the most realistic style of wrestling that I now find the most enjoyable. Dave’s exhaustive study of professional wrestling has been displayed in his successful weekly newsletter, newspaper columns, books, documentaries, TV shows, radio shows and so on. He provides more than just the facts; he gives fascinating insight, critique and analysis. Dave has been quite an inspiration to me in my college years as a student of journalism. So I leaped at the chance of being able to get his insight into media ethics.

Dave Meltzer went to San Jose State University and while he may not have studied ethics, he “absolutely believes in them.” While detractors of wrestling might consider anyone who would cover such a regularly unethical world, unethical by association, Dave is seemingly always the opposite. He understands “some choose to live by them and others choose to live for money or fame.” One who might live for the latter two is Vince MacMahon, the head of the WWF. When covering McMahon’s actions, Meltzer is anything but unfair; he does not avoid criticism when they deserve it or praise when they earn that. “It’s already established WWF will go to any lengths for money.” That sort of scrutiny might be considered harsh, but Dave backs that argument up week after week, showing his not a bandwagon-jumping opponent of the company. While some might believe attacking the most popular wrestling company in the world is career suicide, Dave is so well-respected amongst “insiders” that he does not have to compromise his integrity.

The necessity of “kayfabe” in wrestling makes Dave’s job trickier than in other reporting pursuits. He calls it this the “the biggest challenge [because] it's a world where people are constantly lying and [it is] a profession that considers it honorable to lie.” In spite of this ever-present dilemma, Dave expresses a desire to expose the truth whatever it may be because “it is the most important thing to try your best to do so.”
People who say things with ulterior motives or dodge the truth plague professional wrestling, so Dave’s approach is uplifting and as a result he is highly thought of by many. Since the development of the Internet, less credible “reporters” have been able to elbow in on reporting this other side of wrestling. They may get the scoops, but “it's far more important to get the story right than get it first” and in the end, it is always Dave Meltzer getting all the facts. Dave knows “the nature of all journalism is that sometimes you are going to get things wrong. It's impossible to avoid.” So, in the instances in which he is wrong, he admits his mistakes.
Being so connected to the wrestling community, Dave has his share of friends whose activity he must review. While that seems like a conflict of interest, he remains unwavering in covering their activities. “If someone who I'm friends with has a bad match, I don't have any kind of a problem saying so, and if they get arrested, I haven't had any problem reporting on it.” While his style of reporting has been met with public insults from wrestlers and uncooperative actions from companies, Dave refuses to let it affect his integrity. “I never really worry about how others judge me or will judge me when I'm writing.”

Lastly, he addressed the issue of social responsibility. “It's very important to address social responsibility, but you can only go so far.” Vince McMahon and the WWF are usually at the center of Meltzer’s attacks in this area. They are the ones who push the status quo and catch heat from outsiders and insiders alike. Dave has been featured on documentaries about the negative effects of pro-wrestling and is always quick to set things straight. He does not take the defensive position on McMahon’s side nor the uninformed opposing side that goes with generalizations, but rather raises important questions as to what is really going on because he knows best. When McMahon says the product the WWF produces is no worse than shows on late night cable, Dave always points out how they are in primetime and have a different target audience. “Once you're talking about someone who will peddle softcore porn to a sizeable under-12 audience, you can only say something so many times when nobody cares…you're going to be very disappointed if you expect a wrestling promoter (like McMahon) to be socially responsible.”

Dave Meltzer continues to be an inspiration to me in many ways. I once admired him because he knew so much about such a fascinating and secretive world. Then I saw how much he has done and continues to do as a journalist covering something with such a negative stigma. Now I appreciate his ethical beliefs. He is someone who sincerely believes in being as truthful as possible and does not let anything compromise that belief. People might disagree with his opinions, but no one can question his integrity and for that many people, myself included, are grateful.

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