For three weeks I’ve tried unsuccessfully to let Tim Keown’s ESPN.com column, hyperbolically titled “Death of the Sports Interview,” roll off my back like a playground insult. After all, this is the guy who two summers ago wrote the story “Could Twitter destroy real journalism?,” and thinks the iPhone’s got nothin’ on the pica ruler.
Beyond the fact that it’s unclear to whom Keown is speaking – are media consumers outwardly upset with his theorized development? – is the mystery of why he chose to share publicly an issue more appropriately discussed in a newsroom or, better yet, after hours over beers.
What Keown concludes is this: the experience of media consumers is hurt by media members who don’t ask substantive questions.
For better or worse, the post-interview age has created a generation of athletes who are overcovered but underreported.
Keown’s conclusion isn’t wrong, not totally, but his article is because he doesn’t understand the timeline. He lacks an understanding of history and owns misplaced or fabricated memories of what he perceives sports journalism used to be. In short, Keown’s article is poorly conceived because it assumes A) That sports journalism has ever been different, at its core, than it is now. It hasn’t. And it assumes B) That herd beat coverage is parallel to the individual efforts of an enterprise or feature reporter. It isn’t.
Don’t take my word for it? Cool, then take one of the most reputable sports writers of all time, who 40 years ago admonished the state of sports media.
Most of the guys traveling with ball clubs are more publicists than reporters.
– Jimmy Cannon, “No Cheering in the Press Box,” 1973
Before the interview ossified into its current state — pith-helmeted archeologists pinpoint the approximate time of death to 2005 — the baseball clubhouse was a great place to have a conversation. After games, writers would sit in the manager’s office, wait for the radio guys to ask their questions and then just talk. You got to know something about the man: what he liked to drink after a win, what he liked to drink after a loss, whether he was exasperated or resigned. At some point a clubbie would arrive with a plate of food, and you got to know whether he was on a diet or whether the game had made the very idea of eating intolerable.
Said Cannon, again in Jerome Holtzman’s 1973 book:
I’ve seen sportswriters with World Series rings, and they wear them as though they had something to do with the winning of the World Series. … The sportswriter is given a reserved seat in the press box, and the ball clubs work to make it easy for him and it gets easier year by year.
Keown writes about baseball’s clubhouses so romantically. That’s not how I remember them at all, from when I began covering Chicago baseball in 1999 until my last game in 2006. Yes, there was access, but beat reporters complained behind each others’ backs and managers had no interest in breaking bread with us.
Nor is that romantic remembrance at all similar to how Gene Wojciechowski described a scene in the Angels’ clubhouse in 1989 after a game pitched by Jim Abbott, in Wojciechowski’s underappreciated book “Pond Scum & Vultures.”
Wojciechowski, then with the L.A. Times and now with ESPN.com, wrote:
Suddenly the doors opened and we (sports media) lurched forward, all headed toward Abbott’s roped-off dressing cubicle. That’s when I heard the moos. Moos so loud and clear that Elsie the cow would have been proud. Harsh, mocking boos, designed to let us know exactly how little we were welcome.
It’s hard to be angry with Keown or other current members of sports media, such as Dan Patrick, who have expressed frustration with the sorry state of interviewing. Obviously media consumers would be better served by journalists who ask questions instead of making statements that are passed off as questions. Or as Keown writes, “… what now passes for a question is prefaced with the two most dreaded words in sports journalism: talk about. As in: Talk about your defense. Talk about the interception. Talk about the game plan.”
And, yeah, “Talk about …” isn’t exactly Murrow-McCarthy.
But to blame it on modern technologies such as Twitter or the current climate of trying-to-always-be-first journalism is wrong. Jump to the 0:21 mark of this 1950s interview (below) with the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, in which the interviewer concludes his question by saying “You know that. Let’s hear a few words about that.” In other words, the interviewer told Mantle something Mantle already knows, tells Mantle that he knows that Mantle knows, and effectively concludes with, “Tell me something I already know you know the answer to, and you know I know you have the answer to.”
That’s a lousy question, and it’s 60 years ago.
There continues to be memorable work produced by sports journalists, but not so much by the beat writers. We appreciate them for their presence and effort and persistence and endurance, and we appreciate them most when they break news. Mostly, we don’t remember them at all. The stories we do remember from today’s generation of journalists are no different than the stories we remember from a half-century ago.
We remember feature stories. We remember Gay Talese’s “Silent Season of Hero” as we one day might remember something from Wright Thompson. We remember Cannon’s “Lethal Lightning” as we one day might remember stories from Selena Roberts or Joe Posnanski.
Keown’s memory has created something of a Matrix – a coping mechanism, perhaps – and he asks us to plug in and remember the good old days. But there were no good old days, just as there aren’t good new days. In sports journalism, there are just days. The only thing that changes – and I do mean only – is the technology. The methods of delivery and consumption.
The philosophical core of the people behind the messages – sports journalists, regardless of the medium – don’t change. There will always be a few great sports journalists, a majority of adequate sports journalists, and a few lousy sports journalists.
Death of the sports interview? That’s as laughable as Twitter destroying serious journalism. All this piece is, is the frustrated ramblings of a very good sports writer.
Reach Dave on Twitter @daveschwartz.