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December 15, 2010
 

Jonathan Alter: Twitter Tease

What’s in a Tweet? If you’re Courtney Love, it’s most likely a load of nonsense or some self-indulgent pictures, but really, the same could be said of all of us.

If you’re Jonathan Alter, respected longtime columnist and reporter for Newsweek magazine, it might occasionally serve as a place to spill some secrets, though not in a way that any of us could glean much of worth. For example, his little burst on Saturday, presumably after a chat with someone in the know:

Scoop!

Salacious stuff, right? And exactly the right, and wrong, thing to post on Twitter. Many of us soccer bloggers and reporters ran with it in various directions; some dismissed it as the burgeoning move in a smear campaign (weird, but ok). others thought it to be vague confirmation of misdeeds long suspected since the World Cups were awards, and others just kinda mocked it and moved on.

All of them right to do what they did, because until Alter spills a few more beans—or gives someone beans—it’s hard to know what to make of it.

Fueled by indignant outrage and justified bitterness over the awarding of 2018 and 2022 to Russia and Qatar respectively, Alter’s tweets provided little comfort but plenty of hope for those searching for a smoking gun. If you study the FIFA organization long enough, pretty soon all you see is the rancid plumes of smoke emanating from various weapons, so to hear Alter’s “news” that Qatar had indeed paid out cash to secure their 2022 bid is unsatisfying. It resigns us to what we think to be the truth, but doesn’t give us every piece of the puzzle needed for full closure or that post-coital cigarette.

Like the guy in Pi, we might want to conclude this search with a well-placed drill bit to the frontal lobe.

Gasoline on an open flame!

If anything, Alter’s revelations cause more confusion than clarity.

Several questions arise:

1. Why would FIFA let its facade slip now?
FIFA has been implicated in several scandals over its 106-year history. The 1974 presidential election, David Yallop’s work in How They Stole the Game, investigative work by the esteemed David Conn, the collapse of ISL as detailed by Andrew Jennings in FOUL! (plus the Transparency in Sport web site), the Visa/Mastercard fiasco in 2006, and even the various misdeeds and miscellaneous chicanery pinned on the bespoke CONCACAF chief, Jack Warner. For that entire hegemony of closed-rank dealings to be toppled by 140 characters just doesn’t make sense, not that the glass house is in danger of being shattered by this tiny stone.

Even so, the complete lack of whistle-blowers—Jerome Champagne and Michel Zen-Ruffinen aside, neither of whom escaped without various character assaults in the wake of their revelations—make this slip of the tongue seem disappointing. When you’ve been trailing such loathsome individuals for a while, you’d hope that the takedown has more oomph to it than the equivalent of catching them with a busted headlight. It’s all hung up on that use of the word “legal” in the phrase “legal bribe.” What does that even mean?

Exclusive tweets!

2. Why is Alter not chasing the story himself?
If his juicy, tabloid-friendly morsel does contain plenty of truth—and Alter seemed sure enough on Twitter, where everything’s a lark—then why is he imploring others to pick up the baton? I understand full well that it’s not his beat and never was, but to publicly hope for Twitter to run with his initial blast is also disappointing. When a journalist grabs a scoop by the scruff of his neck, he doesn’t let go until every drop of blood is wrung from the target between his teeth. Alter’s unwillingness to chase suggests to me that there either isn’t much to go on, or that his initial 140-character salvo is about as far as it goes.

An opaque inference of money changing hands. Hardly the kind of thing to disrupt Sepp Blatter’s midmorning tea, is it?

Someone else do it!

3. Why is no-one else talking?
If there is a serious mountain of corruption being hidden under the flimsiest of rugs, why is Alter’s source—I assume it’s someone within the Washington political machine, which is Alter’s domain these days, but I have no confirmation—the only person whispering in reporters’ ears about it? Andy Anson, head of the failed England 2018 bid, offered nothing substantive beyond the expected sour grapes. Sunil Gulati was polite and contrite, hinting at impropriety yet dancing around it like any good diplomat. Chuck Blazer was respectful and opined briefly upon the need for change within FIFA’s voting system.

There are plenty of other angry people who were involved in the bidding process; the Australian contingent has spoken out with fury, in particular paid consultant Peter Hargitay, a man with a less-than-clean slate himself, marked with a reputation for sleaze. And yet, the best we’ve got is Jonathan Alter’s source buzzing in his ear? If there’s a lot more to this story, you’d imagine plenty more to be forthcoming about it, though perhaps I’m underestimating the power of FIFA’s omerta.

Call to (Twitter) Arms

Ultimately, this story could have legs, but could just as easily be a big sloppy false alarm. We all want to see proof of FIFA’s sin unearthed with every passing day, and yet, a compelling case against soccer’s ruling body has been a slow drip instead of an avalanche. The Sunday Times made a breakthrough in uncovering voter corruption, but the follow-through, especially if Alter is indeed speaking truth, needs to arrive momentarily.

And so, I put it to established journos worth their druthers to give Alter a ring and see what he has to say. Heck, give us a name or a number. If he’s got a few names in the rolodex, it’d serve him well to hook others up beyond just “Twitter” and get some real reporting on these stories. Something beyond he-said, she-said. Something more substantive than a short shrill note on a social networking site. Maybe it’s in the works, but considering the screeching halt to Alter’s gossip, it remains to be seen.

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James T