Feinstein: I Judge People, Not Institutions

John Feinstein explained the challenges of being a columnist in the age of social media

John Feinstein
January 16, 2019 - 10:24 am

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“This is the business we have chosen.”…Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in The Godfather II.
The business I chose was reporting.
By the time I was a sophomore in college, I knew I wanted to graduate and get a job working at a newspaper. I loved sports, but wasn’t wedded to the idea of covering sports.
As it turned out, my first job at The Washington Post was as the night police reporter. I had been a summer intern in sports and George Solomon, the sports editor, wanted to hire me when my internship was over.
But there were no openings in sports—they were called slots and, even then you couldn’t add someone to your staff unless a slot opened up. There was one, though, on the metro staff as the night police reporter. Leonard Downie, the metro editor offered me the job and I jumped at it.
 I could have gone to Winston-Salem to cover the ACC, a lot easier job than working from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. in the cop shop. But now way was I going to say no. It was The Washington Post, the paper of Woodward and Bernstein, the two reporters who had brought down Richard Nixon with their reporting.
Note that word: reporting. That’s what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were: reporters. Brilliant, dogged reporters. They didn’t have an axe to grind, they weren’t out to get Nixon or anyone else in the Republican Party; they just saw a story and pursued it.
I was fortunate enough to work for Woodward—he was the metro editor during my time on that staff; to learn from him and, later, to become his friend. There is no reporter I’ve ever admired more. He’s as fair and honest and thorough as anyone who has ever lived, and he’s better at the job than anyone I’ve ever known—or read.
I’m not as good as he is. I’ve known that forever. But I’ve always tried to come as close to the benchmark he established for me as a 21-year-old police reporter.
Reporting has changed greatly since then—much of it to the detriment of the business I cherish so much. There are far too many stories that are headlined, “Sources.” Woodward and Bernstein used anonymous sources only to protect people from losing jobs or perhaps endangering their lives—something they were often told was possible.
Now, in my world, “sources,” are allowed to anonymously criticize players or coaches or sometimes, reporters. Now, it’s a story when Stephen A. Smith and John Wall get into a public jousting match. Or when Scott Van Pelt criticizes his alma mater.
But one thing about my business that hasn’t changed is this: no matter what you report, you are bound to make someone unhappy. And, you are going to be accused of bias.
Let me make one thing clear: I’m biased. EVERYONE is biased for one reason or another. But when you are a reporter, part of the job is to recognize your biases and try to be fair.
I’ve said this often about—one example—Tiger Woods. I’m not a fan of Woods off the golf course, although – I’ve often said and written – I think he’s a victim of his father. He was raised to be selfish; to trust no one (except Earl); to view winning golf tournaments and making money as the only things that matter in life.
That’s a lot to overcome. Even so, I’ve seen Woods treat the media with disdain and the public with disdain and—until recently—acted as if other players were beneath him as people, which is a separate issue from being better than them as a player.
I’ve criticized Woods for his behavior and been criticized often for criticizing him. I’ve also said and written repeatedly that Woods is the best player of all time; better even than Jack Nicklaus because, even though Nicklaus has won more major titles, I believe Woods did things no one has ever done in golf during his dominant period from 1997 to 2008.
I was also very complimentary of his role as a vice captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2016 because the players and Davis Love, the captain, said he was a different person than they’d seen in the past in that role.
I think I’ve been fair to Woods. But those who adore him—including a number of people who regularly cover golf—disagree. They see and hear the criticism and accuse me of being unfair to him.
Frequently, I see tweets or comments that I don’t like Woods because “he wouldn’t do a book with you.” I’ve never asked Woods to do a book and, frankly, would have no interest in doing a book on him unless he (a) pledged to answer ALL questions, including those about his relationship with his father and (b) ceded control of what appeared in the book to me.
That’s never going to happen. And that’s fine.
Woods is just one example of what I deal with—and what real reporters deal with.
Last Friday, I learned that Notre Dame had fired John Heisler, after he had worked there for FORTY-ONE years. I’m not close to Heisler, but I’ve known him for almost that long. When I covered national college football and John was the SID at Notre Dame, we dealt with each other often. I’ve also known his wife, Karen, since her days working in the SID’s office at North Carolina.
Putting aside the fact that I like them both, John was as good as it ever got at his job. Apparently, Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director, has decided that he can save some money by removing Heisler from the payroll.
I find this outrageous and I said so. Swarbrick is someone else I don’t like—although I certainly don’t know him well. I find his behavior arrogant and self-righteous. I thought his handling of the Declan Sullivan tragedy was inexcusable and that both he and football coach Brian Kelly should have been fired.
Does that make me biased against NOTRE DAME? Here’s a partial list of the people who have worked at Notre Dame through the years who I have liked and respected: Roger Valdiserri (Heisler’s mentor); Gene Corrigan; Digger Phelps; Gerry Faust and Mike Brey—who is one of my closest friends in coaching. I campaigned for Mantei T’eo for the Heisman Trophy in 2012 because I thought he was the best college football player in the country.
I judge people, not institutions. I have been largely estranged from Duke—my alma mater—ever since then-President Nan Keohane lied to me on two occasions and then hired Joe Alleva over Tom Mickle as athletic director in 1998, which was the equivalent of choosing me over Woods to play a round of golf on your behalf with your life at stake.
Does that mean I think any less of Mike Krzyzewski? No. He’s one of the greatest basketball coaches ever and a better person. Unlike people who love to attack him, I actually KNOW him. So, when I REPORT what he’s done as a coach to create a remarkable program and legacy, it isn’t because I went to Duke; it’s because it’s true.
When I tweeted last week about Heisler, the response was overwhelming. People who had worked with John as student assistants; people who had worked with him as reporters; people who had known him for years while working at other schools. All said the same thing: how can this possibly happen? What in the world is Notre Dame thinking?
Sprinkled in though were tweets from people—ALL of whom had some reference of allegiance to Notre Dame in their profile—accusing me of bias against Notre Dame. I was accused of trying to "stir things up" by bringing up Heisler’s firing. Heck, when Tony Barnhart weighed in and expressed dismay and surprise, HE was accused of being anti-Notre Dame.
One wonderful human wrote this: “John, do all Jews hate everything Catholic or just you?”
Are there times when all of us fail as reporters? Of course. We make mistakes and sometimes we make misjudgments. But most of the time we old-timers report FACTS. I very rarely quote an anonymous source. I don’t let people take shots unless they’re willing to do so on the record.
As a columnist, there are times when I have to criticize people I like and others when I have to praise people I don’t especially like.
Woods’s comeback last year was remarkable. I said so repeatedly. I also criticized the over-the-top reaction of the media, especially those on TV—Dan Hicks, who I very much respect—called his win in Atlanta the culmination of, ‘The greatest comeback of all time.”
Why’d I do that? Because it WAS over the top. The easiest thing in the world would be to jump on the bandwagon and go along for the ride. That’s not what reporters do.
This is the business we have chosen.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in the National Football League,”—is currently on The New York Times sports bestseller list. His latest work of fiction, “The Prodigy,” is set at the Masters and tells the story of a 17-year-old trying to contend in the Masters while also contending with outside forces trying to turn him into a human ATM machine. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com