CJR Outbox

On Cheer, and journalism beyond news pegs

January 28, 2020

The joy in journalism, for a writer, is the opportunity to take some subject or event or hobby or happening you might not ordinarily care about—maybe even one you actively hate or willfully misunderstand—and make it, suddenly, the most interesting and urgent thing in your life. But our compulsive need to justify even basic joy, for everything to have a “news peg”—a euphemism which masks the unearned power we wield, as self-appointed gatekeepers, to decide which thrills matter, and in what ways—dilutes journalism’s ability to cater to this most basic human need: to be surprised, and delighted.

Our media appetites have changed with our attention spans; with this shift have come concerns about thought silos—worries that we, especially young people, are disinterested in the many worlds that rub up against the ones we hunker ourselves into. But what role do we, the journalists, play in failing to present these many worlds in ways that lack pretense, that delight, that push people to care about things they think they do not, that abandon the flawed hierarchy of news judgment in favor of the interesting? 

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On Netflix, the documentary boom fills a space that perhaps magazine journalism once did. Where engaging with journalism is today often seen as labor—stories are too long, too boring, too hard to understand, too much and not the mood—Netflix provides a salve: the sweet nothingness of a binge watch.

Some have held the platform responsible for the end of television as a collective human activity; gone are the days when, in the morning, upon arrival at school or work, everyone rages about the same show, which they had all watched the previous night. Conversations today are more likely to begin with caution: What episode are you up to? But every so often, and despite concerns about quality control, Netflix enables what television used to: a collective watching and, in the case of documentaries, a collective learning. Such an event is not niche, and does what other modes of journalism often hope to, but don’t.

And so the story of my dreams had to happen on Netflix, despite my latent desire to write about it. It was the perfect medium for Cheer, the recent docuseries directed by Greg Whitely about Navarro College, a tiny junior college in Corsicana, Texas, with a dynastic competitive cheerleading program headed by the venerable coach Monica Aldama. On Netflix, this documentary did what no magazine story on the topic could have: entice viewers who, undoubtedly, still harbored silly and outdated ideas about the sport, to spend six hours in a layered, insular world with its own vocabulary, celebrities, and rich history. (Regrettably, the documentary did not comment on a 2018 lawsuit in which a former Navarro cheerleader accused a volunteer coach of rape. The athlete said that Aldama was informed of the abuse; Aldama denies that.)

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Reading long stories that must always be justified and intellectualized can be a chore. But the point of Netflix is to escape all that. The best binge watches reframe education as couch-based discovery.

For those of us already deep in this world—I began the sport in middle school and cheered on sideline and competitive high school, college, and all-star teams—it was a thrilling, if disorienting, mainstreaming of a rabid but invisible love. Think for a moment: When is the last time you showed up in social spaces free of journalists and media-adjacent folks to excited, smart, frenetic chatter about a thing that was neither a domestic nor an international crisis, and that nobody in the room was an expert on?

One cold Monday night earlier this month, I met with friends from my running crew. We spent the first of three frigid miles discussing what would become of Lexi, the power tumbler from Houston featured on the show. We ran through Fort Tryon Park, three of us abreast in the road, and bantered about the athleticism on display throughout the show—about just how impressive it was, these kids’ dedication to their coach, to routine, to themselves, to each other. Here, unlike so many conversations I’ve had before, cheerleading required no qualifier, no explainer, no tired debate about whether what is obviously a difficult sport was one at all. This was the success of the documentary; it was at once an overview of the rules and regulations of competitive collegiate cheerleading, a historical look at its evolution as both a sport and a big business, and a humanized saga about a team of elite athletes, each with disparate backgrounds, working hard toward a goal that, unlike in any other sport, comes with devastating consequences in the absence of true collective effort. 

In the days since, I’ve watched other friends and strangers become suddenly engrossed in this crazy, unique, impressive sport. My phone is full of texts from people who weren’t sold on the sport after years of my pleading via YouTube link, but who were ready, finally, to talk after watching Cheer. We were obsessed with Jerry’s infectious laugh, and we learned what mat talk is. We could not believe the stunts, or the injuries. Many of us had cried through some episodes, and almost all of us had lost our breath when the team finally took the mat in Daytona. We craved more. Ultimately, we are learning, together, about a thing that, to most of us, did not matter at all yesterday. And now it does. People! Care! About! Cheerleading! 

There was no news peg—no pressing reason for this documentary, or for people to watch it—other than that it exists, and it is magic, and it is fun, and we had a little time to fill. Imagine a world where all journalism could again do that.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.