Feinstein: People Hate The Media But Love Accountability

Reporters aren't owed anything, John Feinstein says, but the public is

John Feinstein
May 07, 2019 - 3:27 pm
Kentucky Derby

USA Today Images


The first time I truly understood the disdain that many people feel for the media came when I was a very young reporter at the Washington Post.

I was covering the final of what was then the Washington Star International Tennis Tournament in Rock Creek Park between Guillermo Vilas and Victor Pecci.

Vilas was a four-time Grand Slam champion and Pecci was no slouch. Earlier in the summer, he had reached the final of the French Open only to lose to Bjorn Borg.
Pecci was 6-foot-4 and had been nicknamed “The Leaning Tower of Paraguay” by my brilliant colleague, Barry Lorge, because in those days he was the tallest highly ranked player in tennis.

It was a searingly hot July day, typical Washington summer––humidity so thick you could almost see it.

And, in the middle of the second-set tiebreaker, The Leaning Tower fell––brought down by the heat and humidity.

I was an eager-beaver 22-year-old, and as soon as Pecci went down, I headed to the court. I wanted to try to get as close to Pecci as I could and hear what the medical people were saying.

Not surprisingly, I was cut off by a security guard at the entrance to the court. Before I could even start to argue my case, a TV camera crew rushed up. The guard stood aside to let them pass.

“Why do you let them in and not me?” I said. “I have as much right to be in there as they do.”

“No you don’t,” the guard said. “They’re with TV. You’re just print.”

The “You’re just print” line infuriated me. (Still does). I walked to the back of the court and climbed the fence (remember, I was 22) and yelled back in the direction of the press seating area: “Hey, Charlie, tell the security people to let the print media onto the court!”
“Charlie” was Charlie Brotman, who was the PR guy (and PA) announcer for the Rock Creek tournament for about 100 years.
Before Charlie could even think to respond, I was drowned in boos and shouts.
“Screw the media!...”Get off the damn fence!...You don’t have the right to anything!...”
By the time a gaggle of security guards came to pull me down, I was almost glad to see them since I wasn’t sure how some of the hecklers were going to react when I came off the fence.
I’m often reminded of this moment, even now—maybe even more so now—40 years later.
It happened again this past weekend when I tweeted that the stewards who made the decision to take down Maximum Security’s number on Saturday after he won the Kentucky Derby refused to answer any questions from the media when they rendered their decision to declare Country House the winner, 22 minutes after the race ended.
I had read three stories Sunday morning, which didn’t mention the stewards refusal to answer questions, so when I tweeted, I expressed surprise that it appeared no one in the media had ripped the stewards for simply putting out a dry statement that really told people nothing beyond the obvious: Maximum Security had veered to his right at the top of the stretch impeding at least one horse and that was why he had been taken down.
I received three different sets of responses: 1. Many who covered the race had criticized the stewards for not answering questions. They were right, I hadn’t done enough homework before commenting. I instantly tweeted that. 2. How dare I criticize the stewards’ decision. They got it right and what the hell did I know about horse racing? This happens often: people don’t READ. I didn’t criticize the decision because I don’t know enough about horse racing to do so.
And, finally, 3—the one that was most vehement and most frequent: the stewards owe YOU nothing. Why does the media think it is entitled to an explanation?
This is the one I hear most often from people: YOU are owed nothing. When I have commented through the years on Tiger Woods’ disdain for the media and the pat, flat answers he’s traditionally given to most questions, that’s what I hear: He doesn’t owe the media anything.
That’s right and also wrong. The stewards (and Woods) don’t owe me or anyone with a media credential a thing. But they DO owe the public more than their dry, captain-obvious statement.
They owed answers to the following questions: If the horse swerving right was the reason for the number coming down—which even non-experts such as myself could clearly see—why did it take 22 minutes to make the decision? Did you think that the horse that ended up winning was impeded in any way? (Most do not). If not, then why change the result since some—many—believed the best horse won? How difficult was it on a personal level to find yourselves in this position? Do you think the large field (19 horses instead of the usual 20) was a factor in this occurring? I’m sure the experts in the room would have had other questions.
There were more than 150,000 fans at Churchill Downs on Saturday and millions more watching on TV. THEY—not any of us in the media—were owed answers because at that moment the stewards were public figures. Tickets were sold to the track that day; bets were legally accepted there and around the country and NBC paid a huge rights fee to televise the race.
That meant that everyone involved—jockeys, trainers, owners AND the stewards—was accountable to the public. They couldn’t all go into the media room, so the reporters who could had a responsibility to do the best they could to REPORT BACK with answers to the questions they weren’t allowed to ask.
I was also inundated with tweets from people saying, “No other sport allows officials to be questioned, why should horse racing?”
That happens to be untrue. I have often been a pool reporter at NCAA Tournament basketball games and gone to officials’ locker rooms to ask questions: not about block-charges or traveling but about technical fouls; decisions that were changed; ejections. I once got an official to explain a technical foul on Jim Boeheim to me at halftime of a regional final after explaining to him that it was Saturday night and everyone was fighting deadline.
What’s more, officials will always let a TV crew know why they went to the monitor and what they saw after looking at it. I’ve not only witnessed this, but experienced it first hand. Often, if I have a follow-up, they’ll answer it.
Baseball umpires will frequently answer questions if you just knock on their door and ask.
That’s called accountability. The NFL and Roger Goodell were (justifiably) ripped when it took 10 days for the commissioner to speak publicly after the Debacle of New Orleans in the NFC championship game.
A pool reporter DID speak to referee Bill Vinovich after the game. Unfortunately, Vinovich ducked the question of the missed pass interference call by saying, “I did not see the play.”
That’s on the NFL public relations people for not insisting that Vinovich look at the play in the locker room before talking to the pool reporter. If he admitted, “We missed it, I feel awful,” the league’s profile—and Vinovich’s would have been a lot different.
In 2010, Jim Joyce, one of baseball’s best umpires, missed a call at first base with two outs in the ninth inning that cost the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Joyce looked at the play as soon as he reached the umpires locker room that night and was horrified when he saw that he’d missed the call.
He didn’t talk to a pool reporter. Instead, he held an impromptu press conference and tearily said he’d missed the call and felt sick about it. He went to the Tigers’ clubhouse and apologized personally to Galarraga.
The next day, when the umpires walked to home plate, the crowd gave them all a standing ovation. Why? Because they’d been accountable and because Joyce had admitted his mistake.
I know a lot of officials. Most would prefer to answer questions. I’ll bet money that James Breeding, who made the controversial foul call in the Virginia-Auburn Final Four game last month, would have liked to have had the chance to explain what he saw and why he made his call. Breeding’s a good official and it was his first Final Four. He would have been a good story—just as Joyce’s humanity was a good story.
Instead, NCAA supervisor of officials J.D. Collins, put out a dry statement simply saying that Breeding called a foul because there was contact. The statement pleaded for follow-up. None was allowed. The pool reporters should have been allowed to talk to Breeding.
Because so many people misunderstand our role, we are often greeted with anger when trying to do our jobs. As I said, WE aren’t entitled to anything, but the public is, because it is the public that ultimately pays the salaries of all of those working in sports.
A few days ago, I watched The Post for about the fifth time. I choked up (again) when the key portion of Justice Hugo Black’s majority (6-3) decision to back the Post (and The New York Times) in its publication of the Pentagon Papers was read: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the GOVERNED not the GOVERNORS.”
The caps are mine, not Justice Black’s. Clearly, the results of a horse race, a football game or a basketball game aren’t one-millionth as important as the court’s decision on the Pentagon Papers.
But at a time when journalism is under constant attack from the president and his minions—many IN the media—it is worth remembering Black’s words. Serve the governed, not the governors.
In other words, make the governors—whether they be stewards or NFL officials or commissioners or coaches or athletes or those in government—accountable to the governed—the public.
I’m proud of all those in my profession who attempt to do that every day. And I will never apologize for attempting to do so myself.
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters but must fend off agents, equipment reps and his own father who all want to turn him into a human ATM machine. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in The National Football League.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com