“Rumor and Innuendo”: Fake News Discourses in Pro Wrestling Podcasts

(images Westwood One Podcasts)

 

“Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

— Donald Trump, speaking at a VFW convention

“False. Every fucking bit of it is false. This is shit where Dave Meltzer and the wrestling journalists, if you will, they take a piece and they try to thing what are they doing? And they just make shit up.”

— Bruce Prichard, addressing Dave Meltzer’s reporting (Episode 16: Vader)

Introduction

We are living in a golden age of professional wrestling podcasts, whose emergence has become a driving force in the pro wrestling discursive universe.

Fans seeking deep dives into wrestling’s past and present enjoy free and ready access to insider podcasts featuring ex-wrestlers (e.g., “The Steve Austin Show,” “Keeping It 100 with Konnan,” “The Taz Show,” Edge and Christian’s “Pod of Awesomeness”), bookers (e.g., “The Jim Cornette Experience,” “Booking Memphis Wrestling with Jerry Jarrett”) wrestling journalists (“PWTorch Dailycast,” “The PWI Podcast”), and fans and commenters from outside the industry (e.g., “The Masked Man Show,” “The Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast,” “Cheap Heat with Peter Rosenberg,” “Solomonster Sounds Off”). Even the most omnipresent force in wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment, has inserted its booming voice into insider podcasting with the recently unveiled “After the Bell” with Corey Graves.

No longer confined to guarded interviews with wrestlers and waxing nostalgic about events and figures from the past, wrestling podcasts have emerged as a premier venue for spectacular bombshells and pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of the industry (e.g., CM Punk’s internet-breaking 2014 interview with Colt Cabana on “The Art of Wrestling,” and Jon Moxley’s emancipatory 2019 interview with Chris Jericho on “Talk Is Jericho”), as well as for bridging between wrestling and other realms of pop culture as evidenced in Jericho and Austin’s many interviews with actors, musicians, athletes, and other non-wrestling cultural figures.

Beyond their obvious popularity and accessibility, it is worth exploring the role wrestling podcasts play in the ecosystem of wrestling-related discourses. Wrestling podcasts are often laden with insider details and shoot comments that for previous generations of fans were cloaked in practices of kayfabe and rarely publicly acknowledged outside of obscure shoot interviews and insider newsletters such as The Wrestling Observer Newsletter and the Pro Wrestling Torch. The peeks behind the curtain and delineations between reality and unreality that wrestling fans so powerfully crave are now disseminated for free to thousands of fans daily. If what happens behind the curtain was once wrestling’s hallowed ground, today’s podcasts penetrate it and tear it asunder with the force of fracking drills.

Where does one begin exploring the myriad discourses flowing from the universe of wrestling podcasts? The origins of this essay are rooted in my interest in the ways these podcasts empower industry insiders — wrestlers and creative types — to publicly assert their own agendas and (counter)narrative claims over history and reality. Such strategic claims over historical fact, context, agency, authorship, and motivation involve more than constructing a historical narrative judged on its own merits. They frequently involve discrediting or subverting existing historical records and often the reporters or sources of those histories in ways that echo one of the prevailing issues with stakes far beyond kayfabe and shooting.

Hey-Hey, It’s Conrad Thompson

In the subgenre of wrestling podcasts in which insiders delve into figures and events of the past — prime ground for historical (counter)narrative — the constellation of podcasts hosted by Conrad Thompson stand above the rest in terms of volume and cultural resonance. The Conrad-verse includes, as of this writing, “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard,” What Happened When” with Tony Schiavone, “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff,” and more recently “Grilling JR” with Jim Ross and “ARN” with Arn Anderson.

Whether covering current promotions WWF/E and TNA/Impact or defunct promotions such as WCW, ECW, AWA, Mid-South or Jim Crockett Promotions, shows hosted by Thompson generally follow a recurring format and a common approach to documenting history. Most weeks’ format focuses on either (A) a past pay per view and the events both on-camera and behind the scenes leading up to it, or (B) the career or a specific period in the career of a wrestler or performer. Conrad establishes a series of chronological events (e.g., career arcs, weekly television, behind-the-scene machinations), and the star of the show (Prichard, Bischoff, etc.) expands upon or responds to Conrad’s retelling by telling stories or adding first-hand insights.

Sometimes these historical records are researched from the biographies or on-record testimonies of the performer being discussed. More commonly and of particular interest to the topic at hand, historical narratives are constructed from then-contemporary issues of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter or the Pro Wrestling Torch of Wade Keller or Bruce Mitchell.

This recurring format, in which Thompson begins with the implied assumption that the Observer or Torch are credible historical records (though not infallibly so), sets the stage for all manner of historical (counter)narrative ranging from concurrence to gentle correction of small facts (timelines or figures) to bile-filled ad-hominem attacks and raging denunciations of the entire industry of wrestling journalism. Of the latter end of the spectrum, the rhetorical strategies of Prichard and Bischoff warrant further exploration.

If you listen to, for example, “Sometime to Wrestle,” you know you’re going to get a handful of recurring beats. Prichard shares his personal recollections and perceptions of what was going on behind the scenes. You’ll get a range of catchphrases and impersonations ranging from Vince McMahon to Johnny Ace to Michael Hayes. There will probably be a BlueChew ad. And you’re likely to experience a long-winded expletive-laden rant about the credibility of Meltzer, Keller, or another wrestling journalist. These attacks frequently branch out into sweeping attacks on the credibility of the so-called “dirt sheets”: a mild pejorative term for insider newsletters that up until the advent of YouTube and wrestling podcasts were the primary documented records by which fans got “smartened up” about the inner workings of the wrestling business.

So, in either Prichard or Bischoff, we have a powerful voice representing an all-powerful entity responding to criticism from journalists with repeated and formulaic attacks on the credibility of journalists and journalism as an institution. Why does that sound familiar?

The Rise of Fake News and Fake News Discourses

Just as wrestling podcasts have radically altered the landscape of pro wrestling discourse, fake news has similarly shaken the foundations of journalism and attitudes toward it. Named 2017’s Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society and Collins Dictionary, fake news is a contested and amorphous concept that has assumed an ideographic-like capacity to be utilized for hyperpartisan political purposes.

Defined by Collins as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting” and “disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news” and “actual news that is claimed to be untrue” at ADS, the term “fake news” has maintained cultural currency since at least the heyday of satirical news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

In that incarnation, “fake” did not equate to purposeful deceit and rather a humorously and reflexively critical combination of news and commentary through which the employment of humor “is not perfunctory; rather, humor is often used to provide critiques of political, economic, or social affairs” (Tandoc Jr., Lim, and Ling 141). However, the concept’s tone and tenor has changed significantly from its earlier uses to something more pernicious through the events leading up to and following of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That transformation is worth considering here.

The concept of fake news as the spread of misinformation (“the inadvertent sharing of false information,: according to Claire Wardle) or disinformation (“the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false”) through media channels, and its potency to work against the press’s capacity to contribute to a well-informed citizenry is not a recent development. Nor is it only recently that the aims and practices of the press would be the concern of a sitting U.S. president. As David Uberti notes in the Columbia Journalism Review, Thomas Jefferson penned the following message in 1807:

“It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood,” the sitting president wrote. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The current connotation of fake news took hold of the public consciousness in the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, borne of legitimate and since-corroborated concerns that outside malevolent forces were infecting the U.S.’s news and information ecosystem with false and misleading news-like propaganda. It is in its current manifestation that fake news has piqued the public’s anxiety: Vargo, Guo, and Amazeen note that more people Googled “fake news” in November-December 2016 than in the previous 15 months combined. According to the Pew Research Center, “more Americans view made-up news as a very big problem for the country than identify terrorism, illegal immigration, racism and sexism that way.”

Scholars such as Geoffrey Baym have observed that parody news (e.g., The Daily Show, The Onion) has potential to inform the public through its recursive capacity to comment on the commercial news media as an ideological state apparatus (in the words of Althusser). But our current strain of fake news — deepfake videos, conspiracy theories, and hyperpartisanship masquerading as speaking truth to power —lacks such any such reflexivity. As Bakir and McStay suggest:

“The fake news situation is socially and democratically problematic on three fronts: (1) its production of wrongly informed citizens, that (2) are likely to stay wrongly informed in echo chambers and (3) be emotionally antagonised or outraged given the affective and provocative nature of much fake news. (6)

The short-term effects of the weaponization of fake news have been profound. Researchers such as those from the Pew Research Center and scholars such as Mihailidis and Viotty have observed that the anti-press campaign of powerful actors from the right wing of the political spectrum has damaged public trust in the news media and harmed the public’s capacity or inclination to distinguish fact from opinion and truth from misinformation or disinformation. As David Graham observes in The Atlantic, “More than making people believe false things, the rise of fake news is making it harder for people to see the truth.”

Concurrently, we must not lose sight of the other side of the fake news gambit: the impact of the weaponization of “fake news” as an epithet to discredit credible journalists and legitimate news.

For the sake of brevity and nerve preservation, I will limit my delving into the anti-journalism rhetoric of the 45thpresident of the United States and WWE Hall-of-Famer Donald J. Trump. I will assume that most readers will be familiar with the U.S. president’s near-daily attacks on the Very Dishonest and Lying Fake News Media. The president’s well-publicized attacks on journalism and his proclivity for wielding the epithet “fake news” as an all-purpose cudgel against criticism from commercial news media have been documented and discussed by journalists, critics and scholars in great depth and breadth.

According to the ever-updating Trump Twitter Archive, the first permutation of “fake news” of Trump’s presidency appears on December 10, 2016:

Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!

Trump appears to have fallen in lust with the term as a means to deflect media criticism on January 10, 2017 — exactly one month after his first tweet using the phrase — when he used some permutation of “fake news” in three tweets, then three more the following day. The Trump Twitter Archive indicates that as of May 11, 2020, Trump has used some permutation of “fake news” in 783 tweets. This tally does not incorporate attacks on specific news outlets, journalists, and the institution of journalism in public appearances, speeches, or tweets that do not include the specific term “fake news” or “fake media.”

The president’s strategic end to co-opting legitimate concerns about mis- and disinformation from hostile outsiders is clear: a “broader deflection strategy whereby Trump attacks the mainstream media as a means of removing public trust in it and seek[ing] to establish himself as the primary source of truth (Ross and Rivers). Whether uttering the specific phrase “fake news” or not, Trump has strategically, and inarguably successfully, harnessed the concept of fake news to further poison the institution of journalism for a significant proportion of the American public.

He’s not alone in doing so. In this essay I argue that fake news discourses — rhetorical strategies such as those favored by Trump to attack and discredit journalists and to circumvent critical coverage — are employed regularly and problematically on the podcasts “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” and “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff.” I will demonstrate how Prichard and Bischoff — though their respective shows are frequently enjoyable and entertaining, and their frustrations with inaccurate reporting are likely valid —  have strategically utilized fake news discourses to subvert historical narratives counter to their own claims while simultaneously targeting the credibility of journalists in ways evocative of Trump’s own news media bashing.

Fake News Discourses on “Something to Wrestle” and “83 Weeks”

The first appearance of fake news discourses on “Something to Wrestle” came on September 15, 2016 — a big moment for fake news in the American imagination — when Prichard responded to criticism from Bruce Mitchell, senior columnists of the Pro Wrestling Torch, on Prichard’s retelling of the Montreal Screwjob on the previous week’s episode.

Here, Prichard debuts several go-to rhetorical strategies for attacking wrestling journalists: accusing his critic of fabrication and lacking ethics and integrity, and insertion of bias and agenda:

“The issue I have with the wrestling media, if you will, is they have no credibility. They will report rumors or just make shit up as fact, and then when it doesn’t happen, they’ll say, “Oh, well they changed their plans. When the people who are in the know, who are actually doing it, are sitting there saying, “No, that never was the plan. No, really they changed their mind.”

In the coming weeks, Prichard ramped up his attacks on Meltzer and The Observer after Meltzer dismissed Prichard as a “conman” on Twitter and criticized him for stating that Jesse Ventura suggested burning an American flag in the lead-up to WrestleMania 7’s politically charged main event between Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter.

Two weeks after teasing banning the word “Meltzer” on air, Prichard upped his vitriol. Here, Prichard leans into his go-to appeal to credibility: he was there; Meltzer, Keller, or Mitchell (whom Prichard bestows with the Trumpian nickname “The Greensboro Jackoff”) was not, thereby, to recall the words of Ross and Rivers, “seek[ing] to establish himself as the primary source of truth”:

“I have spent 43 years actually getting a payday and working within the business itself, and helping to create it and work within it. So if that makes me a conman, because I’ve made a living doing what I love, then I guess I’m guilty.”

In a flourish that Walter Fisher would likely appreciate, Prichard attempts to enhance the viability of his narrative by name-dropping WWE officials who were there and locating his story on WWF property:

“I say 100% fuck Dave Meltzer because Jesse Ventura did suggest it in Edit One in Stamford, Connecticut before a voiceover session while he was discussing politics with our director Kerwin Silfies. I was there, Kerwin was there. Kevin Dunn was there. And when Vince [McMahon] came in Jesse pitched the idea to Vince.

So unless Dave Meltzer or whatever the beep you want to call him was in Edit One or has it bugged … he doesn’t know…. (Heated) Meltzer doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about as usual. He’s going on rumor and innuendo and what someone decided to tell him or other (sarcastically) media outlets and … chose to follow their narrative.” (Episode 11: Prime Time Wrestling)

The term “rumor and innuendo” becomes Prichard’s all-purpose epithet for coverage he disagrees with or claims is false. It becomes a bellwether phrase on the show and his analog to Trump’s “fake news.” When asked about the Torch’s reporting that Tony Schiavone called SummerSlam ’89 because McMahon partied too hard the night before, Prichard replies: “See, you reported it as fact, kind of like the tabloid newsletter people do when it’s just rumor and innuendo” (Episode 173: SummerSlam 89).

One week after Meltzer criticized Prichard for denying the longstanding historical narrative that Vince McMahon created Survivor Series in 1987 to undercut Jim Crockett Promotion’s first foray into pay-per-view with Starrcade ’87 (“As it pertains to history of Vince undercutting Crockett’s Starrcade, Bruce’s explanation is inaccurate,” Thompson reads from Meltzer’s Twitter), Prichard again leans hard into his “he wasn’t there” maneuver:

“I could care less what people have to say about me as far as those things go. They weren’t there. They don’t know; they’ve never experienced it. I love people who have never ever been in the business and promoted and been in business where it’s their money and their reputation and everything else. And then they try to say they’re doing this to hurt another business, they’re doing this for this reason, only they just don’t know.

It is all speculation. It’s all rumor and innuendo, and that’s all it is. And Meltzer, without being there, doesn’t know. All he knows is what he surmises and what he thinks he knows. I’m giving you what I was a part of. The meetings I was involved in and the explanations I got.” (Episode 76: Jake “The Snake” Roberts)

Similar to attempting to discredit journalists for “not being there,” Prichard often attempts to discredit the same journalists for not being industry insiders: never having owned or booked their own promotions. For example, in the Jim Cornette episode (Episode 42), Prichard dismisses Meltzer’s discussion of the delicate dynamics of interweaving WWF talent into Smokey Mountain Wrestling:

“This coming from the wrestling genius who’s booked so many territories and been so successful with all of his own money promoting wrestling territories and the mad genius that he is with all the creative ideas he’s come up with on a blank piece of paper.”

When Meltzer criticizes WWF creative for giving Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho false pushes (Episode 170: Chris Jericho), Prichard responds:

“And this again comes from all of his expertise of booking so many finishes on so many territories and writing hours upon hours of television and actually booking things that have ever drawn and putting his own money and promotions and things of that nature. OK.”

Though usually less bombastic in his criticisms than Prichard, Bischoff has also relied on the insider/outsider dynamic to discredit wrestling journalists, reserving most of his vitriol for Meltzer:

“Someone like Dave who’s never really promoted anything, who’s never been in the business, who’s doesn’t really understand despite the 10,000 words that he puts out every week, whatever the fuck it is. And the stooges that he talks to and he tries to pretend what the wrestling business is about. He’s never done it. He only comments on other people that have, and tries to make himself sound intelligent in the process.” (When Worlds Collide)

In another flourish, Prichard and Bischoff rely on the trope of media bias through a loaded connotation of “narrative,” suggesting intentional and pernicious bias. A budding favorite of the president, Trump used “narrative” as a deflection device 12 times from September-November 2019: e.g., “Adam Schiff’s phony narrative has been “OBLITERATED” by testimony given to the House” (Oct. 22, 2019). But the words “bias” or “biased” appear over 200 times, carrying the same water as “narrative”: “Project Veritas-Obtained Undercover Videos Highlight Jeff Zucker’s (@CNN) Campaign To Destroy Trump. Videos Reveal @CNN’s BIAS!” (Oct. 14, 2019).

During the Vader episode (Episode 16), Prichard reacts to Meltzer’s reporting that Doug Furnas and Phil LaFon were intended to be part of Bret Hart’s anti-American Hart Foundation: “Once again that’s a situation where your wrestling journalist media tries to make up their own stories, and their … narrative fit the situation.”

Two episodes later during the Sunny episode (Episode 18), Thompson asks for Prichard’s input on whether a report from Meltzer that Sunny was coming in to WWF in a package with Chris Candido was fed by Meltzer by the couple:

“Who the hell knows where he gets his bullshit. Or he does what he does with everything else, just sat there and make it up…. He sits there and makes up a narrative in his own mind.”

Bischoff relies on a similar trope, asserting that misinformation or disinformation in Meltzer’s reporting is the product of self-motivation and ego. In response to Meltzer’s reporting that Hulk Hogan’s contract was about to expire in 1995 and that Hogan had creative control over other WCW wrestlers:

“I don’t want to try to put myself inside of the dysfunctional mind of Dave Meltzer, but perhaps that whole page and a half from whatever he wrote, he needed something to write about, and he needed something to make himself sound really smart…. If I were writing a newsletter or a dirt sheet, and I wanted to make myself sound really, really smart, I would point out a horrible flaw, even if it didn’t exist, or a horrible mistake, or a horrible situation that someone set them up for, set themselves up for, and then write about all of the reasons why that was such a bad move. Now in the course of doing that, I would sound really smart. The only problem is it didn’t happen. If it wasn’t so insane it would be funny.” (Clash of the Champions XXIX)

Much like Trump’s claims that he is unfairly targeted by biased reporters, Bischoff asserts that Meltzer has an agenda of slandering Hogan. In response to reports that Hogan nixed Steve Austin getting his win back from Hogan ally Hacksaw Jim Duggan after dropping the U.S. championship at a prior show:

“It’s just petty. It’s like Dave’s own distaste, or whether he’s pandering to a certain portion of his audience who didn’t like Hulk Hogan at the time, whatever the case may be. Everything had to be Hulk Hogan’s fault. Everything had to be Hulk Hogan’s fault.” (Clash of the Champions XXIX)

If Meltzer represents disinformation to Bischoff, Keller represents misinformation, which Bischoff approaches with less disdain:

“Look, I’ve had my rounds with Wade, but Wade typically didn’t just make stuff up, nor did he often — although he did from time to time; I think he was trying to be competitive with Meltzer — did a lot of speculation that was cloaked as fact or reporting, you know, rumors from unnamed sources as fact. So I have in the past called him, but for the most part Wade called them as straight as he could for the business he was in.” (Slamboree 99)

In Prichard and Bischoff’s rhetoric, we see strategic fake news discourses employed to discredit not only specific pieces of journalism but also journalists and journalism at large. It is insufficient on both fronts to reject a specific piece of reporting: it also functions as an intentional inoculation against past and future critical reporting while claiming the right to assert control over the historical records at hand.

Lest there be any confusion about what Prichard is working toward by employing fake news discourses, on April 7, 2017, Prichard first uses the actual term “fake news.” In response to a Meltzer report that Undertaker was in negotiations to become a semi-regular character in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Prichard responds:

“Whenever you hear those rumors of the Japanese stuff, that’s always indicative of somebody over in Japan wanting to get things out. And they usually go to the fake news wrestling media people and put those things out. That’s my new term now, fake news. (Episode 93: Undertaker ’93-’94),

Later in the same episode, when Meltzer criticizes the Undertaker/”Underfaker” main event at SummerSlam ’94 as the worst main event in WWF pay-per-view history, Prichard retorts:

“Fuck Dave Meltzer…. It’s real easy to sit behind your computer and typewriter when you’ve never taken a bump, you’ve never been in the ring, and you never put your own balls on the line to promote something or actually produce something other than, like I said, sit behind your computer screen and critique and bitch and moan about somebody like Meltzer and these fake news people do. So fuck him and his goddamn opinion because what they don’t know is what did take place behind the scenes.”

Three months later in two consecutive episodes — Episode 56: Fully Loaded 1998 and Episode 57: SummerSlam 2000 — Prichard goes full Trump and dismisses ABC and Time Magazine, respectively, as “fake news.” Though the term itself faded from the “Something to Wrestle” lexicon quickly, its rhetoric work never did.

Dave Meltzer, Enemy of the People

Fake News Equals the Enemy of the People!

— Donald Trump (Twitter, July 22, 2019)

“We couldn’t get through a fucking podcast without Dave Meltzer bullshit. How in the name of fuck would Dave Meltzer know that? He doesn’t. He didn’t. It’s Dave Meltzer bullshit.”

— Eric Bischoff (Collision in Korea)

“Fuck Dave Meltzer.”

— Bruce Prichard (multiple episodes)

On February 17, 2017, five weeks after ramping up his use of “fake news” as an anti-journalism cudgel, Trump escalated his fake news discourses beyond the pale by declaring media critical of him as an “enemy of the state”:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK! (Feb. 17, 2017)

These escalating attacks have since persisted:

The Mainstream Media has never been as corrupt and deranged as it is today. FAKE NEWS is actually the biggest story of all and is the true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! That’s why they refuse to cover the REAL Russia Hoax. But the American people are wise to what is going on…. (May 20, 2019)

The LameStream Media, which is The Enemy of the People, is working overtime with made up stories in order to drive dissension and distrust! (Nov. 7, 2019)

THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Sadly, our Lamestream Media is TOTALLY CORRUPT! (May 11, 2020)

The gambit here is transparent and alarming: to correlate criticism of him and his policies with anti-Americanism and treason.

Though not so explicit, Prichard embraces similar techniques in his escalation of attacks on Meltzer and wrestling journalists. Rather than relying on a single phrase, let alone one as incendiary as “enemy of the people,” Prichard relies on a bag of rhetorical flourishes to portray Meltzer et al. as enemies of true wrestling fans. These techniques include painting Meltzer as a hostile foreign agent, an emasculate and predatory voyeur, and a snobbish media elite.

Among Prichard’s recurring criticisms of Meltzer is a hyperbolic ridicule of Meltzer’s affinity for Japanese wrestling. We see this technique on display in the Royal Rumble ’98 episode (Episode 83). For example, when Meltzer criticizes the “weak finish” of the Vader vs. Jake the Snake match, Pritchard again deflects Meltzer’s assessment: “This coming from the guy that has done so many convincing motherfucking spots in this illustrious career as a great worker in the goddamn Tokyo Dome, right?”

Here, we see one of several recurring evocations of the Tokyo Dome, which Prichard uses to mock Meltzer’s oft-noted praise for Japanese wrestling and his perceived tendency to overrate matches that take place at Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan’s marquee event. By splicing deflection of outsider criticism with hyperbolic ridicule of Meltzer’s praise for Japanese wrestling, Prichard frames Meltzer as an anti-American puppet to a foreign regime, diametrically opposed to American wrestling as represented by WWF/E.

When Thompson cites Meltzer’s criticism of Shawn Michaels dropping the WWF European championship to D-Generation X and Kliq mate Triple H in a non-competitive match — HBK’s third forfeiture of a championship without taking a loss — Prichard ridicules Meltzer as follows:

“I would love for Dave Meltzer to invest all the money that he’s made being an expert these years — ‘cause he’s the smartest man in the business – to invest his money, start a wrestling promotion with who he thinks is the greatest draw in the Tokyo Dome with his 42 stars, and let’s see how he handles the personalities with who he thinks should go over, and let him do it for a year, and let me critique his shit.” (Episode 83: Royal Rumble ’98)

Later that episode, when Meltzer criticizes the match between Ken Shamrock and The Rock, Prichard climbs onto his “soapbox” to reinforce the strawperson of Japanese wrestling (and appreciation of such) as an antagonism toward WWF/E style wrestling:

“To hear somebody like Dave Meltzer who’s never been in the ring, doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, who watches and adores the Japanese whatever when they do spots and they don’t sell anything and they just smoothly go into the next spot.

Here’s where working comes into play. When you have guys and things aren’t perfectly smooth and synchronized and pretty and beautiful so that, OK, you go into this and I’ll go into that and we don’t sell anything and it’s a smooth pretty bump and I’m right up. To me that’s not a great match…. Someone that doesn’t know that, that wants their synchronized crap, just, it drives me fucking nuts.”

In addition to framing Meltzer as irrational, biased, and low-key un-American due to his embrace and support for Japanese wrestling, Prichard also emasculates and dehumanizes him and his fellow reporters, portraying them as unsavory and unclean presences amongst the wrestlers. After referring to Mitchell as Thompson’s “bitch boy,” Prichard portrays wrestling journalists as pathetic nerds who “sit behind your computer and second-guess everything and send your little newsletter out” (Episode 12: TNA Wrestling).

Bischoff partakes in this strategy, as well, both emasculating and feminizing Meltzer. In response to Meltzer’s reporting that Paul “The Giant” Wight is 6-foot-10 and not a true 7-footer:

“For a guy like Dave, two inches, as inadequate as he obviously is, as hard as he tries to make up for those inadequacies, I’m sure two inches seems like a lot. To him, I’m sure it is. But I’m pretty sure Paul’s at least seven foot tall.” (World War 3 ’95)

Later that episode, in discussing Hogan’s infamous “Observe This!” anti-dirt sheet promo at the beginning of the inaugural World War 3, Bischoff mocks Meltzer for his incorrect prediction that Hogan’s waning popularity would result in future bitter attacks toward him:

“What’s even funnier is listening to Dave talk about somebody being bitter. I mean this is a guy that’s, I guess, is in some kind of male menopause and needs to take a couple Midol because the first time somebody points out that the things he said that are inaccurate or lies or misleading or, you know, any number of the things that he does on a weekly basis, he blocks people. He gets bitter as hell. He has meltdowns … talk about bitter. Really, really, Dave, get a fistful of Midol, get over yourself. It’ll all be OK.”

Among Prichard’s most lurid attacks on Meltzer involves Prichard recounting a sensational anecdote from Bret Hart (so much for not dealing in rumor and innuendo). Prichard attributes a narrative to Hart by which Meltzer lingers in the lobby of a hotel at which wrestlers are congregating, portraying journalists as pseudo stalkers with strong sex offender vibes:

“Think about that story. (Meltzer)’s hanging out, just kind of leering in the lobby, looking at people. I remember him and Wade Keller, in particular, is one that I really remember doing that, where they would kind of hang out in the lobby or hang out on the outskirts of the bar and stare at the boys and try and be eerie and eavesdrop on people’s conversations and shit like that. Just kind of unsavory. That’s my feeling.”

Finally, Prichard has made reference to Meltzer and wrestling journalists as snobbish media elites whose criticism proves they are out of touch with what real wrestling fans want or like. When Thompson observes the irony of Undertaker winning the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Worst Feud and Worst Match awards while simultaneously winning Top-Drawing Feud, Prichard concludes, “Obviously he has no finger on the pulse of what the real fan wants,” incorporating the Media Elite trope that is opposed to the People. When Meltzer criticizes a program in which Chavo Guerrero Sr. is portrayed as having implied interest in wearing women’s underwear (Episode 157: Judgment Day 2004), Prichard again portrays Meltzer as arrogant and out of touch with wrestling fans:

“Fuck Dave Meltzer…. Everything Meltzer is accusing they of making him do, those are Chavo Sr.’s ideas that took him over the top, that gave him that extra dimension of personality that was entertaining, that people could identify with. So that’s the kind of shit [that] just pisses me off.”

Interestingly, Prichard’s ideas of what constitutes authentic fanhood seem to extend beyond wrestling journalists but to those who read and correspond with them.

The Wrestling Observer Deep State

Tonight, we forcefully condemn the blatant corruption of the Democrat Party, the Fake News Media, and the rogue bureaucrats of the Deep State. The only message these radicals will understand is a crushing defeat on November 3, 2020!

— Donald Trump (Twitter, Oct. 17, 2019)

The first so-called second hand information “Whistleblower” got my phone conversation almost completely wrong, so now word is they are going to the bench and another “Whistleblower” is coming in from the Deep State, also with second hand info. Meet with Shifty. Keep them coming! (Oct. 5, 2017)

So now they are after the legendary “crime buster” and greatest Mayor in the history of NYC, Rudy Giuliani. He may seem a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he is also a great guy and wonderful lawyer. Such a one sided Witch Hunt going on in USA. Deep State. Shameful! (Oct.12, 2019)

Neither Prichard nor Bischoff ever employ the phrase “deep state,” but they effectively construct a deep-state narrative by extending fake news discourses to correspondents of the Observer and the Torch. In doing so, both invoke the specter of a network of conspiracists who empower Meltzer et al. to slander WWF/E to further their agendas.

Prichard debuts this trope in Episode 25 (Royal Rumble 1994) when Thompson reads a report from Meltzer disputing that the WWF’s announcing the show as a sellout, noting that tickets were available. Prichard speculates that Meltzer’s source that tickets remained was an anonymous friend-of-a-friend correspondent: “Now if somebody said they called their friend who said that, ‘Well I called the box office two weeks ago and they said there were still tickets available’…”

In the Owen Hart episode (Episode 40), Prichard lashes out at Meltzer’s reporting that matches between Bret and Owen Hart were suffering, resulting in dwindling house show business:

“He [Meltzer] makes a comment, the matches suffered. The matches weren’t good. How does he know that? How in the hell, he didn’t see all those matches. You’re getting a report, a report, a second- or third-hand report from somebody that was at that event that for whatever reason didn’t like it or what have you, then makes these grandiose assumptions, and I just don’t think that’s fair. I think that’s bullshit, the way that he goes about… you know, on Twitter, ‘anybody going to this show?’ ‘Hey, I am, Dave. I say the show was 3 stars.’ So he reports it as fact, the show was 3 stars.”

In the coming weeks, Prichard constructs a mythical “fan in the third (or fourth) row” who supplies Meltzer with ungenuine and ungenerous reports, which Meltzer then reports as authentic records of fact. For example:

“I know I sound like a broken record here, but Meltzer is a broken record when he says this dribble, and these guys that write these dirt sheets and have these websites that get their information from someone else, that they have an ability to see records and see athletic commission reports and what have you and tax reports, but they ignore those and listen to a guy that bought a ticket sitting in the third row that says, “Oh, it was half a house, um, that match was a two-star match.” Or they hear hearsay from somebody else and they report it as fact. That just drives me insane: they have it based on nothing.” (Episode 59, SummerSlam 1996, on Vader being booked as weak in house show matches with Shawn Michaels)

“It sounds so silly when you read these things from somebody that wasn’t there, and he’s getting it reported from somebody who was in the third row, their perception of things, and it’s just … again, I’ve never seen it, never heard of that, and it just sounds silly to me.” (Episode 83, Royal Rumble 1998, on reports of Michaels “getting racial” with an African American fan at a Chicago house show)

(Sarcastically) [Meltzer]’s a fucking genius because of all his experience and because he’s actually been there, worked in the business. He doesn’t just get phone calls from guys who just want to tell him whatever they want to tell. Or, or, or, he doesn’t just go out on Twitter and say, hey, anybody go to the show last night, give me a report? And that’s what he reports from somebody who bought a ticket in the fourth row to give their this is exactly what happened and why. So he’s got shitloads of credibility. So much credibility.”

Bischoff, too, attacks journalists’ credibility for relying on sources that provide him “second- and third- and fourth-hand information from what I refer to as stooges, or snitches —basically disgruntled people — that would feed information that was not true” (Randy Savage 1995). They motivated to print “fiction and filler,” Bischoff suggests, to “add somebody’s 10,000 word count in a dirt sheet” (Halloween Havoc 97).

Distrust of anonymous sources is often misunderstood and is not confined to fake news discourses. But similar to this Trump tweet …

Do not believe any article or story you read or see that uses “anonymous sources” having to do with trade or any other subject. Only accept information if it has an actual living name on it. The Fake News Media makes up many “sources say” stories. Do not believe them! (Dec. 6, 2019)

… accusing journalists of fabrication sources or giving voice to deceptive or agenda-driven sources is an attack on journalism as an institution.

To Donald Trump, the antithesis of fake news is Fox News, specifically Fox and Friends. Bischoff, too, has his own go-to antithesis of Meltzer’s “digital diarrhea” (Clash of the Champions XXIX) in reporter Guy Evans, whose expose book NITRO: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner’s WCW is regularly praised as “real” reporting:

“I’m so grateful to Guy Evans, who is a legitimate journalist, who did the hard work and actually did real research and conducted real interviews, at what I’m sure was a great expense to him in publishing this book.” (Slamboree 97)

Whereas Bischoff accuses Meltzer and Keller of damaging the industry with his reporting …

“The boys, the wrestlers who are in that state of mind, then talk to the Wade Kellers and the Dave Meltzers of the world or whoever they talk to, and now it’s being reported as fact. And that did have, and I think still does in some cases, have a really adverse impact on the business. When people say you know, I really respect the business, you know, I’m reporting on it because I respect it and I want to be better — bullshit. Half the stuff that is being reported directly or indirectly has an adverse impact on the business” (Slamboree 99)

… Evans’ brand of investigative writing is a healing and reparative agent:

“[Evans] not only recapped. He just, phenomenal job of doing research, real research, not just talking to marks and stooges and people who have their own agendas. But he went right to the sources and key management who affected just about everything during that time. It’s a very credible book.” (Starrcade 98).

Though this comparison in no way equates Evans’ remarkable book with Fox News’s strategic disinformation, Bischoff’s embrace and promotion of Evans is noteworthy as an explicitly sanctioned antidote to the dirt-sheet deep state he abhors and works to discredit and marginalize.

Conclusion

“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!

— Donald Trump, chastising Iranian President Rouhani on Twitter (July 22, 2018)

“So Dave Meltzer and the rest of you fuck-alls can be fuck yourself. There’s a personal message to you. Go fuck yourself. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t just take second-hand information from somebody buying a ticket because they’ll never be employed in the wrestling business telling me the business that I’ve been in for 44 years. So I do take offense to it, and I do take offense to somebody who refers to me as a clown and that I’m making up shit. So you can kiss my ass.”

— Bruce Prichard, chastising Dave Meltzer on “Something to Wrestle” (Episode 93: The First Draft)

I envision this essay as part ongoing project whose goal is to contribute to wrestling fans and scholars understanding of the messages shared on wrestling podcasts and podcasting’s overall impact on how we talk about wrestling. One hundred hours into this project and podcasters are cranking this stuff out faster than one can critique it.

Of all I ever set out to accomplish with this essay, there is one conclusion that remains beyond the scope of this analysis: with each side accusing the other of disseminating mis- or disinformation, what is the truth and who is telling it?

For any critiques of Prichard and Bischoff’s rhetorical strategies toward discrediting the wrestling journalism sphere, we as observers don’t truly know is who’s telling the truth and how much of it. As society threatens to veer into a so-called “post-fact” existence, these concerns are hardly confined to the famously blurry world of wrestling reality. As Mihaidas and Viotty observe:

If it is the case that our relative disinterest in sources and trust in peers is leading to a new ecosystem for consumption and sharing of news, then normative approaches to media critique and creation may fall short of effectively responding to the emergence of post-fact society, and a lack of engagement with a singular, generalizable truth. (10)

Without getting too far into the weeds on the nature of a post-fact epistemological epoch, let us agree that it is reasonable to conclude that many of Prichard and Bischoff’s reactions to Meltzer et al.’s reporting are conceivably borne of legitimate frustration about inaccurate or incomplete reporting.

It must be acknowledged that journalists, wrestling and otherwise, do get things wrong, and they must be held accountable for their mistakes. For example, Prichard rightly rejects and corrects Meltzer’s reporting that Ray Apollo — not Phil Apollo, as Meltzer reported — would replace Matt Borne as Doink the Clown (Episode 70: Doink the Clown):

“Meltzer with his half-assed reporting, just heard an Apollo, he knew there was a Phil Apollo about the same size. He’d never heard of Ray Apollo. Another case of he had no real clue. He didn’t know; he was just going on rumor and innuendo.”

In another example, when Thompson criticizes Meltzer’s misleading description of Jim Ross’s on-air commentary of Vader’s physical appearance (Episode 16: Vader), Prichard seizes on the opportunity to criticize Meltzer for editorializing: “This wrestling journalist adds his opinion, and he adds his perception of what he thinks the message was. Not what the message was.”

Prichard and Thompson also rightly call out and criticize Meltzer’s problematic coverage of Sable, which has veered into misogynistic criticisms of her figure and age (Episode 107: Sable). Just as Lawrence O’Donnell learned in 2019 when he botched a story of Trump borrowing money from Russian oligarchs, in the age of heightened fake news discourses every mistake or professional breach lends credence to anti-journalism rhetoric.

Prichard, Bischoff, and every critical thinker has the right and duty to criticize inaccurate reporting and, when equipped to do so, to correct that misinformation for the public. This can be done with grace and civility, as on Grilling J.R. when Jim Ross simply corrects Thompson when he cites a Keller report that Mick Foley’s WWF contract was to expire in the summer of 1997: “Wade Keller reported erroneously that Mick’s contract was up in the summer. It was up 18 months later” (King of the Ring 1997).

But too often on “Something to Wrestle” and “83 Weeks,” both Prichard and Bischoff frequently and systematically go beyond setting the record straight, or even criticizing specific journalists for specific professional lapses, to attacking journalism as an institution. Toward what end? Outside the sphere of professional wrestling, the endgame of fake news is to sow division and anger amongst the public. As Wardle notes, “When humans are angry and fearful, their critical thinking skills diminish.”

The endgame of embracing fake news discourses, similarly, is to incite anger and anxiety toward journalists and journalism who might otherwise inform the public with, in the words of veteran reporter Carl Bernstein, “The best obtainable version of the truth.” The danger of fake news discourses, it appears, is when concerns over fake news compels consumers of the news to withdraw completely:

“If people stop reading a website, because it’s peddling conspiracy theories, that’s good news. If they stop consuming any coverage from mainstream outlets like CNN or The Washington Post, because they believe a story is biased, or because the president has labeled it fake news, that’s less positive” (Graham)

Research suggests many people (“over half of respondents,” writes Graham) avoid engaging in conversation with someone out of fear they might reference fake news in the discussion, and significant proportions of both surveyed Democrats and Republicans have reduced their overall consumption of the news.

Sadly and regardless of what quantity of Prichard and Bischoff’s criticisms of wrestling journalists may very well be legitimate reactions to misinformation, it is reasonable to conclude that their embrace of fake news discourses shares a similar goal of other purveyors of fake news and fake news discourses: the obliteration of journalism and journalists as contributors to the field of discourse.

This is illustrated no more starkly than in Episode 173 (SummerSlam ’89) when, in response to Keller questioning in the pages of The Torch why Barry Windham and The Bushwhackers were left off the card, Prichard questions: “Why didn’t Wade take his money and start his own promotion and book his own wrestlers and book his own show?”

In response to this, at least the third evocation of fake news discourses on the episode, Thompson asks why Prichard is being, in Thompson’s words, a “whiny bitch dickhead.” Prichard retorts:

“The whiny little bitches are the ones that bitch about everything and say why didn’t they do this, why didn’t they do that? The whiny little bitches who have never done anything to prove that why would that work, why wouldn’t that work? They don’t have the balls to get out there and actually do it. That’s a whiny bitch.”

To this, Thompson responds with a sentence that baldy captures the silencing gambit of branding a critical journalist as fake news: “I get it: they should just shut the fuck up.” And verily, the silencing of dissent is indeed what Prichard endorses:

“Yes, they should shut the fuck up. It’s fucking like me telling an engineer how to design a building. I don’t like the way he designed that building because I think the air conditioner should have been over here…. I don’t know fuck all about designing a building! So I’m not going to comment on something I don’t know how because I’ve never done it. So I either like it or I don’t like it, and if I don’t like it then I choose not to live in it, rent it or whatever the fuck. It’s that simple.”

Let us forgive the irony of criticizing journalists by rejecting the possibility of criticizing another industry from the outside. Let us also forgive what appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how journalism works: how much could one report if journalists only (1) covered events they witnessed first-hand and, (2) only covered institutions in which they are also professionals? The more pertinent implication remains.

By appealing to fake news discourses, insiders such as Prichard and Bischoff are working systematically to diffuse critical coverage and to preserve exclusive ethos over historical narrative and motive. By arguing repeatedly that only people who “were there” and/or are industry veterans have credibility, Prichard and Bischoff indirectly endorse a state media model, a Pravda-style control over history and fact. I can think of a certain leader of the free world who would sign off on that in Sharpie.

Matt Foy (Ph.D., Southern Illinois University-Carbondale) is an assistant professor of communication at Upper Iowa University. He is Chief Journal Editor of the inaugural issue of The Professional Wrestling Studies Journal. He can be reached at foym38@uiu.

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