Racism and drug abuse stories covered up in the endless summer of sycophancy

Fred Pawle
From:The Australian
April 05, 2010 12:00AM

THE objective of surfing magazines is simple: get readers “stoked” on the dreamy pursuit of perfect waves and a cool culture. They achieve this, albeit with shockingly low grammatical standards, making them the ideal promotional vehicle for the multi-billion-dollar surf industry.

But, like all things, surfing is not that simple.

So what happens when the dream is shattered, as it was recently by the alleged racism of a popular world champion, or, to take two other examples from recent years, a former world champion dropping off the tour allegedly to go into drug rehab, or an influential photo-journalist being kicked off the tour for life for repeated sexual misconduct?

Silence. Surf journalists are conditioned not to rock the boat. Most of them are enticed into the customarily low-paid profession by the promise of occasional surf trips, cheap equipment and hanging around with pro surfers. Accurately and fearlessly reporting the sport often comes a distant second.

“The surf media are gutless,” says 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson. “They are controlled by their advertisers. It’s quite simple.”

Tomson, South African born now living in California, was astonished when he read online in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald last month that world champ Mick Fanning had, in an uncharacteristic outburst, called Charlie Smith, a journalist for surf magazine Stab, a “f . . king Jew” during a confrontation in Hawaii in December.

Smith, who is not a career surf journalist (an American, he is a graduate of international relations and formerly taught literature at UCLA), published his account of the encounter in Stab, a magazine that has traditionally demonstrated recklessness towards the concerns of advertisers (disclosure: I am friends with Stab’s owner, Sam McIntosh, and editor Derek Rielly, and have worked with both).

Fanning responded by hiring a lawyer to request that Stab pull the issue off the shelves. It did, but only because a new edition was due anyway.

It was then that the story came to the attention of The Australian and the Herald, and subsequently Tomson. The latter, who is Jewish himself, has since badgered every surf magazine editor he knows to follow up the story, to no avail.

On his own website, Fanning said he was trying to be ironic, and apologised unreservedly for any offence he caused. At the time of the outburst, Fanning was responding to Smith writing unkind things about him, including that he was a “boring” person, his surfing was “uninspiring” and his dress sense was questionable. Fanning has made no other comments about the issue since.

Only one of the world’s major publications – Surfer magazine in California – has since broached the topic in a blog by writer Zach Weisberg.

He used Fanning’s outburst as a hook for a debate about racism in surfing in general. He found his readers generally sympathetic towards Fanning. “I was really impressed by the level of intellect among the readers. Considering the delicate nature, it could have gone a lot worse. A lot of our readers understood that Mick made a mistake. There was an understanding that inappropriate language had become common, and they forgave him.”

Nevertheless, the blog was removed from the site by publisher Tony Perez after only two days.

“There was pressure from advertisers,” Weisberg says. So who tried to stifle the debate? I contacted three of Fanning’s major sponsors. Two of them – Dragon sunglasses and Red Bull – said they had not contacted Surfer or tried to influence the magazine’s editorial department. The other main sponsor, Rip Curl, and Perez, did not return my calls. Rip Curl has not, however, tried to stand over Stab. In what may be a sign of an advertiser nobly maintaining an arm’s length editorially – at least in Australia – Rip Curl has not complained to McIntosh about the Fanning story. Its relationship with the magazine remains cool but cordial.

So why did the other Australian titles ignore the topic?

Luke Kennedy, editor of Tracks, one of Australia’s biggest selling titles, says the debate would only have promoted the opposition. “If I thought Mick Fanning was an anti-Semite, then I would have made it more of an issue. But I don’t think his intention was (to be racist),” Kennedy says. “It was an unfortunate choice of words.”

Besides, Kennedy says, Tracks doesn’t shirk controversy, citing debates about a surf contest at Gnaraloo, Western Australia, and French surfer Jeremy Flores’s complaints about the supposed regional favouritism of contest judges, as stories that could have offended advertisers.

Kennedy adds, however, that controversy is not a big part of his brief. “The main objective of surf titles is to inspire someone to go surfing,” he says. However, two issues have emerged that should have sparked the surf media into action. On both occasions, the journalists did not cover themselves in glory.

I know what it’s like to be on either side of the outcome. A few years ago I was commissioned to help compile a profile for Stab magazine of a former world champion who seemed to suffereing a kind of breakdown at the time. Rumours were rampant that his problem was drugs. However, the surfer’s heavily protective manager made it clear that access to the champ was conditional on controversial topics not being raised.

Surf forums and blogs have published speculation about the surfer’s drug problem. US surf journalist Lewis Samuels was granted an interview that made a brief and ambiguous reference to the rumours. Even this was vetted by the manager.

Samuels is sanguine about having to “play the game” and even respected the need for privacy for the former world champion during a difficult time. But what he can’t tolerate is editors who cave in to the commercial interests of advertisers, which he says is common in the US.

He was commissioned by Surfer magazine to write critiques of the surfing ability of all 45 surfers on the pro tour. The piece was critical of some. It was pulled from the magazine and Samuels reckons he knows why. “When the surf media pulls a story, it’s not because the publishers are worried about hurting a surfer’s feelings – they’re worried about hurting a surfer’s ability to sell boardshorts.

“The publishers are terrified of offending sponsors and thereby losing advertising dollars.” There was no response to requests for comment from Surfer’s publisher.

Similarly, when veteran Australian photo-journalist Paul Sargeant was banned from the pro tour for life in 2005 over allegations of sexual misconduct, not one magazine mentioned it, despite Sargeant having at one stage been the most prolific and influential surf journalist in the world.

I eventually wrote a 7000-word investigation of Sargeant’s transgressions in 2007, which was published in Stab. I was surprised to learn that Sargeant’s behaviour had been an open cause for concern among those on tour for a decade before 2005, and in a subsequent online debate accused other surf journalists more closely connected to the tour of deliberately ignoring an important story. None denied doing so.

The occasionally conflicting interests of readers and advertisers place a huge burden on surf magazine editors, most of whom are only in it for the fun. But Weisberg says their compromises come at a cost to the culture itself.

“In a lot of ways the surf industry insulates itself from the consequences of transgressions. In some ways that  fosters a more fraternal environment – people are friendlier with each other. But it comes to the detriment of the culture of the sport, where the participants aren’t held to the highest of standards.”

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