An Interview with Gary Andrew Poole

An Interview with Gary Andrew Poole

An Interview with Gary Andrew Poole

“I don’t want to rely on conglomerates, like ESPN, for all of my sports information. I think the death of newspapers and the rise of monopolization in sports media doesn’t bode well for sports journalism.”

“There are a lot of talented writers out there and they are producing some good stuff, but the system is working against them. Everyone knows it. Journalists and readers are disturbed. Journalists want to do good work but they are being hamstrung.”

“Many newspaper leaders have decided to misuse their best writers: in many, but not all cases, they don’t allow them to do what they do best—report, put issues into context, and tell stories. Readers are smart and they realize this lapse in quality and seek out their information elsewhere.”

Gary Andrew Poole: Interviewed on January 15, 2009

Position: Journalist/Author

Born: Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

Education: Colorado State, B.A.; Columbia University, M.S.

Career: Writing professionally since 1986, published in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, TIME, GQ, USA Today, Forbes, and Wired.

Personal: Married, two kids.

Favorite restaurant (home): Taco Truck, Temescal Canyon Road, Los Angeles. “Workingman’s food. Great huevos rancheros and fish soups for a few dollars.”

Favorite restaurant (away): Pizzetta 211, San Francisco. “A sentimental favorite. I know the owner, and she named a pizza after my daughter. “

Favorite hotel: Three-way tie: Hacienda Cucin, Ecuador “reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel”; Number 16, London, South Kensington area; Mauna Lani, Hawaii, “relaxing and my kids love it”.

Author of: The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend (Houghton Mifflin): www.garyandrewpoole.com

Gary Andrew Poole, Columbia Journalism Review, January 6, 2009:

http://www.cjr.org/essay/back_to_the_future_1.php?page=all

In the 1920s, The New Yorker published a piece that declared sports a “trivial enterprise” involving “second-rate people and their second-rate dreams and emotions.” The magazine went on to concede, however, that “the quality of writing in the sports pages is, in the large, much superior—wittier, more emotional, more dramatic, and more accurate—to the quality of writing that flows through the news columns.” Indeed, many of the greatest writers in journalism—Grantland Rice, W.C. Heinz, Jim Murray, Red Smith, to name but a few—found their home on the sports pages. Sports are big business and they have big themes: physical and intellectual tests, joy and heartbreak, hope and perseverance, teamwork and individual transcendence. The games and characters are ripe for vivid storytelling, and philosophic discourse about human nature and our culture. They are also part of a multibillion-dollar industry in need of dogged watchdog journalism.

But since the mid-1990s, two forces have diminished classic sports writing. First, television coverage in general has expanded, making hype and the sensational aspects of sports dominant. ESPN became a cultural and media juggernaut, sending fans to SportsCenter for highlights and scores, rendering game recaps and box scores in the next day’s newspapers obsolete. Newspapers gradually began reducing the size of game stories, dashing the more literary ambitions of their writers. Many of the more stylish writers migrated toward higher-profile and better-paying radio and television gigs, and the faster news cycle created a sports world in which the best reporting started getting sliced into smaller stories. It used to be that a star writer like Red Smith would cover the games and put all of his reporting into a substantial game story or one of his columns. “Red Smith was my inspiration to get into sports writing,” says Buster Olney, a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine who spent six years at The New York Times. “You read his writing and said, ‘Wow!’ Today, in four-hundred words you can get the basic details of the game story, but you miss the details and the anecdotes. It’s interesting, and important, to know how the players and managers think, why they made certain decisions. That’s the cool stuff, and it’s getting lost.”

The Web, meanwhile, did to sports writing what it has done to journalism more broadly: carved up the audience and exacerbated the more-faster-better mindset that cable TV began. Anyone can go to the Web anytime to get scores, rapid-fire articles about games, and gobs of analysis and statistics. There are generalized sports sites like ESPN.com and CNNSI.com, hyper-focused team news blogs, sites run by the athletes themselves, and irreverent sports sites such as Deadspin.

All this dramatically changed the job of the sports beat writer and columnist, traditionally the bedrock of sports writing. Malcolm Moran, who is the Pennsylvania State University’s Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society, says 2003 marked a sea change in sports writing. In April of that year, autigers.com, an Auburn University fan site, was flooded with posts about sightings of Mike Price, the head football coach at archrival Alabama, at a strip club in Pensacola, Florida. The scandal became a national story, and Price was fired. “We passed a threshold,” says Moran, who spent his reporting career at USA Today, The New York Times, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. “The next nine-hundred and ninety-nine pieces of speculation on a fan site have to be checked out, and it could cost you your job if you miss one. It changed the business, and not for the better.”

In addition to covering the games and the teams, beat writers now must chase blog-based rumors—and blog themselves. It’s an untenable situation, and most reporters simply react to the daily torrent of news bites while the bigger stories and issues go wanting. Even columnists are producing more hackneyed items. The last Pulitzer for a sports column went to Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times—in 1990. Mark Saxon, a beat writer for the Orange County Register, says today’s sports journalism is good for hardcore fans and fantasy league players looking for an edge, but the quality of the coverage and the overall storytelling have suffered.

These issues came to a head last April when Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, confronted Will Leitch, then the editor of Deadspin (now with New York Magazine), on HBO’s Costas Now. Bissinger railed against blogs and taunted Leitch, brandishing a folder of vulgar blog posts and asking him if he had ever read the sports writer W.C. Heinz, who was Bissinger’s symbol for a tradition of greatness. “I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty; they’re dedicated to dishonesty; they’re dedicated to speed,” Bissinger said. After the show, Bissinger was ridiculed on the blogosphere and did an about-face, apologizing repeatedly and granting interviews to the blogs he had chastised.

I think Bissinger was on the right track but blaming the wrong medium. It is easy to criticize and stereotype bloggers, but most bloggers and their readers didn’t grow up devouring the latest Red Smith column with their morning coffee. Sports fans under thirty spent their formative years watching shows like ESPN’s Around the Horn, which features newspaper columnists shouting at each other like lunatics.

An interesting thing happened in the wake of the Bissinger-Leitch dustup: Deadspin and other blogs started interviewing older, celebrated sports writers, like Frank Deford. Check out the comments section on these long and fascinating Q&As—the young blog readers loved reading about these guys and seemed to enjoy their long-form narratives. In other words, readers of Deadspin appreciate great writing; it’s the newspapers that have given up on it, feeling as though they have to chase rumors and deliver a ceaseless stream of chicken-nugget news. In marketing parlance, sports sections have degraded their brand.

Like anything, this devolution of sports writing is complicated. People holding AARP cards tell me, “There are no more good sports writers.” That’s just not true. There are excellent writers out there: Buster Olney, Damon Hack, Gary Smith, John Feinstein, and Rick Reilly come immediately to mind, and there are others, some at smaller papers—Terry Pluto, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example—working under the national radar. So far, the magazine industry hasn’t suffered the same kind of economic devastation that has befallen newspapers, and Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Sporting News, and The New Yorker still, on occasion, publish put-down-your-iPhone-and-read-this articles. SI and ESPN are publishing some nice narrative work in the magazine, and on the Web, particularly in The Bonus and E-Ticket sections. Yahoo has hired some ex-newspaper stars and done some good investigative stories. In other words, all is not lost.

But here is a typical scenario that illustrates the problem for newspaper sports sections. Beat writers covering a baseball game see a player strain a hamstring. Immediately they are all on their BlackBerries posting an item about the injury and how the batting order was just changed. Something must be posted! Any writer who misses the tidbit will be called on it by his or her editor. But everyone has the same information; no one “scoops” anyone. So why not wait and weave that tidbit into the game story? The reporter would have the chance to go to the locker room and ask questions, talk to the manager about the change in strategy after the injury—to add context and nuance and narrative. These days, that sort of insight is too often lost. “If I were the editor,” says ESPN’s Buster Olney, who also blogs, “I would say, ‘Don’t worry about beating the seven other papers on the hamstring story; focus on developing your thousand-word game story. Remember the great writing you loved as a kid? Write it up like that.’”

Tim McGuire, a former editor and senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune who now teaches the business of journalism at Arizona State University, says newspaper management is showing a lack of leadership. “It’s a mission problem. The reporters are doing too much, and they’re confused about their mission,” he says. “We’re pouring the same news on people that they can get anywhere.” What’s needed, McGuire says, is for newspapers to play to their strengths. Make statistical information readily available on newspaper Web sites, of course, but it’s time for narrative storytelling and vividly written game stories to make a comeback—because journalists know how to weave tales, put events in context, and act as intermediaries to the firehose of information on the Web. Most bloggers don’t have that skill or, more important, that mission.

I spent the last few years working on a biography of Red Grange, a football player who played in the 1920s. In my research, I studied a century’s worth of sports writing, from W.C. Heinz and Red Smith to Hunter S. Thompson. As I read through yellowed newspapers, I encountered descriptive writing, clever word play, references to Shakespeare, the Bible, heroic couplets—and a wise eye toward human nature. I could see, smell, and hear these games. And when the stars played poorly, the writers didn’t soften the language leaving their Underwoods. They were not glorified flaks, as they are now often portrayed. Thompson, for instance, would study game film with NFL players to better understand their athletic choices.

Sports journalism has had its failings—homerism, winking at behavior that should have been scrutinized, and turning a blind eye to racial inequality, to name a few. The biggest story of modern sports is performance-enhancing drugs, a story which has been subject to some uneven coverage. While there were whisperings in the press, and Sports Illustrated bravely highlighted the issue in 2002, I wonder if Major League Baseball’s steroid scandal would have gotten past Grantland Rice, Westbrook Pegler, Heinz et al. My bet? Through their dogged reporting and descriptions of the players’ ridiculously bulked-up frames, the juicing would have been exposed early on.

The sports section is called the “toy department” by those who think its mission is more fun than consequential. But go to any major sporting event and you’ll see that the importance of sports to our culture is obvious; they are part of people’s dreams, of how they define themselves. The sports pages used to hold the honor as one of the best-written and best-reported sections in a newspaper. It’s important for sports, for newspapers, and for our society that they recapture that mantle.

Q. Isn’t journalism market-driven? And if so, isn’t the market getting what it wants from sports media?

A. Journalism – like any business – is market-driven, but just because McDonald’s sells a billion chicken McNuggets doesn’t mean it is the most worthwhile food on the planet. It is easy to write-off any industry as not able to make it in the marketplace, but let’s think about our society. We live in an information culture, and there needs to be a premium on education, knowledge, and reason. An ignorant society makes ignorant decisions. Daily journalism plays an important function in our society, and should serve a watchdog role.

In sports media, I enjoy ESPN and SI, and I read a lot of blogs—I like the kaleidoscope of opinions, information, and humor. But I also believe newspapers play a critical role in a well-informed society. I don’t want to rely on conglomerates, like ESPN, for all of my sports information. I think the death of newspapers and the rise of monopolization in sports media doesn’t bode well for sports journalism.

A large part of my essay actually addressed the issue of the market, i.e. readers. I believe the public wants newspapers to serve a watchdog role, give context and tell stories. Newspapers are deluding their strengths. The number of people expressing their frustrations with newspaper content indicates that newspaper managers have mismanaged their strategies and have had a failure of vision by underestimating readers.

Q. You suggest that the quality of storytelling in sports journalism has suffered. But isn’t quality subjective and personal? And if so, doesn’t your essay say more about you than about the state of sports media?

A. I am not suggesting it has suffered: it is suffering. A good indication is the Pulitzer Prize: the last one for sports commentary went to Jim Murray—in 1990. And there are other signs of demise: layoffs and a frustration with the profession have lead to a brain drain–many of the best storytellers are leaving the profession. For example, Washington Post Pulitzer finalist Tony Kornheiser has migrated toward higher-profile and better-paying television gigs, and I could list other talented stars who are writing less and talking more.

Anecdotally, I have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the CJR essay. Newspaper journalists, from writers at the San Jose Mercury News, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, and many other papers, large and small, have sent me emails thanking me for writing the piece. They are sending it around to colleagues. Bloggers are tracking me down and writing letters of support; bloggers devour sports journalism and they want newspapers to do better. They all recognize the issues. There are a lot of talented writers out there and they are producing some good stuff, but the system is working against them. Everyone knows it. Journalists and readers are disturbed. Journalists want to do good work but they are being hamstrung.

My essay was a plea to editors and newspaper managers: let sports writers do what they do best.

Q. You seem to be saying that technology has bent art – within sports media – to its needs. But is that really a concern – hasn’t art always used technology to re-invent itself?

A. My essay was not intended to say that technology is bad, or blogs are bad, or instant information is bad. I like all three. Yes, technology does change art. New technologies have always changed writing, from Gutenberg’s printing press to the Web. I spent a lot of my career covering technology and I am definitely not Pollyannaish about it; I am not crying into my martini about the good ol’ days.

I was trying to make the rather logical argument that newspaper – online or print – sports editors are mis-allocating their best resources. If you were a football coach and you had the best throwing quarterback, the best receiver, and the best pass rushing line, and you decided to run the ball every play, you would get fired. Well, many newspaper leaders have decided to misuse their best writers: in many, but not all cases, they don’t allow them to do what they do best—report, put issues into context, and tell stories. Readers are smart and they realize this lapse in quality and seek out their information elsewhere.

Some people make the argument that the marketplace is speaking, and they don’t care if newspapers go out of business. I think if you’re a sports fan -or a citizen – you should care.

People need to consider the future. Bloggers tend to write off the news, but think about five years from now when newspaper staffs are greatly reduced. More than 15,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2008, and many papers are in trouble: the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle P-I are the two latest papers on life support. There will be more layoffs and shutdowns this year. While I like the democratization of the media, I also think it is good to have so-called mainstream reporters reporting the news. It is important to have a professional who is steeped in ethics and basic practices of journalism covering the local sports team, and the local school board.

Q. Are you aware that Westbrook Pegler was a notorious anti-Semite?

Yes. I probably should have painted a fuller picture of Pegler, a writer I admire for his sports writing, and whom I deplore for his anti-Semitic views.

In the course of writing my biography of Red Grange, I studied Pegler’s writing because he was a prominent sports columnist in the 1920s. He was an incredibly gifted writer, and he was envied among the press corps for his biting wit and brilliantly composed articles. His sports writing was a counter-point to the so-called gee-whiz school of sports writing popularized by Grantland Rice. In 1933 he turned away from sports and started writing a nationally syndicated political column, which would rail against the New Deal – he felt FDR was too powerful – and labor unions. He won a Pulitzer for his journalism. In the 1950s he started going off the deep end, and, as you point out, he was a notorious anti-Semite. I think the John Birch Society might have kicked him out, if that tells you anything about how much he lost it. Of course, I don’t condone his anti-Semitism, but Pegler has to be part of the discussion when talking about sports writing greats because Pegler was a master of the form. I guess it is akin to Henry Ford in auto making history, Ty Cobb in baseball history, or Bobby Fischer in chess history–for better or worse they are significant figures and can’t be ignored.

Q. You cite Grantland Rice as someone likely to have cracked baseball’s steroid scandal. Yet, Ira Berkow, in his biography of Red Smith, wrote: “Rice was the most notable practitioner of the “Gee Whiz” school of sports journalism….Rice hardly ever attacked anyone and seemed to accept sports virtually without qualm or criticism. He once said that “when a sportswriter stops making heroes out of athletes, it’s time to get out of the business.” Why do you find Rice so admirable?

A. In the context of my article, I am citing Rice’s writing chops, which were also, by the way, praised by The New Yorker magazine. But I must disagree with the characterization of Rice, and other 1920s era writers, as suck-ups. The press box was as varied as it is today. I don’t think Rice would have admired and tolerated cheaters.

I read a lot of the sports journalism of the 1920s, and I came away admiring the writers. Yes, some of the writers in the so-called gee-whiz school piled on the hyperbole – a significant amount of it was tongue ‘n’ check, which seems to be lost by more earnest modern readers of the copy – and people tend to focus on Rice’s story leads, but if you read past the leads there was a lot of depth and excellent reporting in the articles and the story-telling was top-notch. For example, Rice had no trouble criticizing Red Grange—his era’s most popular and largest star of the gridiron—when he played poorly, and when Grange had a child out of wedlock, and was sued, the writers covered it.

I am not saying these guys were without flaws, but my specific point in the essay was that 1920s era writers were masters of description and fond of the absurd so they would have loved pointing out the ridiculous state of athletes’ chemically-enhanced physiques. They would have had a field day with Jose Canseco.

Q. You cite Red Smith as a sportswriting great. Yet, Smith, prior to Jackie Robinson’s arrival, “did not attack the color barrier in print”, according to Ira Berkow. When Connie Mack unleashed a racist tirade against Robinson and Branch Rickey in March 1946, and gave permission to publish it, Smith decided not to write it. Not until a year after Robinson integrated Major League Baseball did Smith devote a full column to blacks in baseball. Why do you find Smith so admirable?

A. Obviously not for his silence on the color barrier and the Robinson incident you described, but given that Red Smith won the Pulitzer – he was cited for “erudition, literary quality, vitality and freshness of viewpoint” -, Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway called Smith “the most important force in American sportswriting,” and he was known as the “Shakespeare of the press box,” it is impossible to write an article about great sports writing and leave out Smith, a stylist of the first order.

Red Smith was a sports writing great. But I am glad you asked this question. It reminds me of Barak Obama’s profound speech about race during the election. He talked about the painful history of race in this country and its complexity, using the lens of his former church, “The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America,” and he went onto talk about his own white grandmother who “helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Our racial history is filled with grief, pain, bravery and cowardice and newspapers have not always been aggressive enough in covering it, a point, I note in the essay. Newspapers have a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. It is unfortunate that Smith didn’t attack the color barrier, as it is unfortunate that most writers, athletes, sports fans, and our society didn’t attack it. It is a national shame. When Peggy Noonan endorsed Obama for president she had an interesting line in her column: “A great moment: When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd ‘I have no comment,’ or ‘We shouldn’t judge.’ Instead he said, ‘My mother had me when she was 18,’ which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn’t have to.”

Jackie Robinson, a transformational man, did the same thing for the color barrier in baseball: through his grace he shined a light on small-mindedness. Sometimes it takes a brave person to expose our failings. It is a shame that Smith was not more of an advocate for racial justice because he would have carried a lot of influence. Journalists—and athletes–have a lot of responsibility and it is not always used wisely, even to this day.

Q. Congratulations on your new book, “The Galloping Ghost”. Why is Red Grange relevant today?

A. Thanks. His triumphs and struggles provide a pattern still followed, for better or worse, by today’s athletes. There has not been a lot written about Grange, who ESPN named the greatest ever college football player, and so I spent two years traveling across the country researching the book, reading lot of sports journalism but also digging through court records, oral histories, film clips, letters, etc.—the forensics of research—to tell the story of The Galloping Ghost.

Grange, who had his glory years in the 1920s, was the first significant college football star to turn pro, and to make a fortune – and lose it – playing professional football. As William Nack, a great sports writer in his own right and the editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2008, says: “Red Grange was the most important figure in the history of American football.” Grange partnered with the first sports agent who sold Grange into the movies, and other enterprises. He was a national star who rivaled Babe Ruth in popularity.

Sports play a significant role in our culture, and football has become our national game; I wanted to tell the story of football and explore its origins. If you draw a line in the mud of history and go back to the founder of our football culture, you will find Red Grange. He was our first sports commodity, and a significant figure—a transformational figure–in American sports history.

(SMG thanks Gary Andrew Poole for his cooperation)

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