Thursday, August 6, 2009

Insight Into Newspaper Writing and Editors, Covering the Redskins and Gibbs; Newspaper Coverage Bias

I gave up long ago on the idea that it was possible to convince the world that obsessing over the NFL in July and August was nothing but a monumental waste of time. Back when I worked fulltime at The Washington Post, I knew once the Redskins went to training camp—actually once they got CLOSE to going to training camp—getting space for things I covered like tennis, golf, baseball, even college football, was going to be a battle.

The Post’s approach to covering the Redskins was summed up for me many years ago on an early season Tuesday afternoon. I was in the office working on a feature on a Navy quarterback named Alton Grizzard. If you ever wanted someone to be a role model for your kid, it was Grizzard. He was a very good player, but also the absolute poster boy person for a place like Navy. He graduated and became a Navy Seal—there is nothing tougher in the world than being a Seal—and was tragically murdered in December of 1993 by another officer who lost his mind after his girlfriend broke up with him and murdered Grizzard and the girlfriend before turning the gun on himself.

Grizzard—and the extraordinary influence he still has to this day on ex-teammates AND ex-opponents, is a story for another day.

As I was writing, George Solomon, The Post’s long time sports editor walked to my desk and said, “We don’t have anyone at The Park (that’s what everyone called Redskins Park) today, so can you make a couple of calls and see if anything’s cooking?

I was baffled. The team was off on Tuesdays. If there was an injury follow-up to report, we would hear about it from Charlie Taylor (not the wide receiver) who was the team’s extremely efficient public relations director.

“What could possible be cooking?” I asked. “No one’s there.”

“Make some calls,” George said—that was his answer to almost everything—and he walked away.

Annoyed, I called Taylor, who laughed when I told him the reason for the call. “I promise if we cut anyone or make anything remotely approaching news I’ll call you,” he said.

I went back to working on Grizzard.

A little while later, Solomon was back.

“Anything?” he asked.

I told him about my conversation with Taylor. He nodded and went back to his office. Five minutes later, he was back.

“Why don’t you see if Charlie will get you (Joe) Gibbs?”

“What for?” I asked, really fed up now. “So he can tell me the (0-5) Eagles are the best team since the ’67 Packers?”

It should be noted here that the reasons Solomon was bugging ME not someone else with this was two-fold: I had made the mistake of coming into the office (I was having lunch with a friend) to work AND he was planning to try to make me the Redskins beat writer at the end of the season. I vehemently declined, pointing out that he had promised me when I came back to sports that he would never ask me to cover the Redskins as he had done in 1982 when I had left sports to cover politics rather than take the Redskins beat.

I called Taylor again. Fortunately, he was a patient man who understood Solomon (and The Post’s) obsession with his employer. “Give me an hour,” he said.

Sure enough, within an hour, the phone rang and it was Gibbs. I don’t remember the questions I asked but somehow in the conversation I gleaned two unremarkable facts: Mark Rypien would probably sit out practice on Wednesday as a precaution for some minor injury but would not—NOT—be listed on the injury report Thursday and someone whose name I can’t even remember might—MIGHT—return some punts in practice as an experiment.

That was it. Even Gibbs saw the humor in the whole thing. “George giving you a hard time?” he said, laughing.

I walked back to George’s office, told him I’d talked to Gibbs, told him what I’d learned and offered to write, a couple of paragraphs, for what’s called a “short,”—a story of no more than 3 or four inches in length—if he wanted.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Write it.”

I went to get some coffee, mostly so I could amuse my friends in the newsroom with the story. When I returned, George appeared at my desk again.

“You’ve got 20 inches,” he said.

“Twenty inches!” I screamed. “I’d be stretching to write five!"
“Give me twenty,” he said and walked away.

Gagging, I wrote perhaps the most boring 20 inch story in newspaper history. I rewound every injury Rypien had suffered since pee-wee football and gave a complete life history on the maybe punt-returner-to-be. When I finished, I told George Minot, the day editor, “Bury this as far back in the paper as you can…please.”

I’ll bet you can guess the rest: The story was the LEAD on the front of the sports section.

Then I had to fight like hell to get half the space I needed for the Alton Grizzard story.

I thought about all that this morning reading the five stories in The Post on Redskins PRACTICE. It’s 38 days until they play a real game—I know that because there’s a countdown graphic in the paper—and you would think the future of Health Care was at stake during these workouts.

Which reminds me of one more story: A couple years after I left The Post, I was doing some work for The New York Times. Neil Amdur, then the sports editor, asked me to go to The Park one day to write a Redskins feature of some kind (actually I think it was on Rypien who was a sweet, wonderful guy) because the Redskins were playing the Giants that Sunday.

I was standing on the field before practice chatting with Richard Justice, who was then the Redskins beat writer (poor guy) for The Post. As we talked, Gibbs walked up en route to start practice.

“John, I’m really sorry,” he said. “I know you’re here for The Times and we only let the local writers watch practice.”

I laughed and said to Gibbs, ”Joe, I want to thank you.”

He looked puzzled.

“First, you’ve given me an excuse to not watch practice. Second, I’m flattered you would think for a second I have any clue what you’re doing out there.”

That was almost 20 years ago. I can honestly say that nothing’s changed since—EXCEPT that most coaches nowadays are MORE paranoid (if that’s possible) and the obsession with the NFL has actually grown.

Thank God my main connection to the game is still Navy football.


Anonymous said...

Pretty good insight into how stories get written, and the recent flap with the writer and the Mets always makes me wonder the true interaction between the teams and those covering them.

By the way, is this the same George Solomon who is now the omnabudsman (sp??) of ESPN?

Anonymous said...

I have ALWAYS been a HUGE admirer of your writing . . . and still am. Thank God we can now get you every day.

But PLEASE - lose the ugly bright green background on your web page!!

Thomas said...

How is the Navy team going to be this year? A victory vs. ND in the cards?