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We Can All Do Better
2004-01-11 05:18
by Jon Weisman

Been lots of discussion and meta-discussion lately about print journalism vs. online journalism: goals, standards, ethics. Bloggers have been taking a hard look at all of it.

The print folk have, too.

In today's Los Angeles Times Magazine, staff writer Glenn F. Bunting profiles Frank Deford. Here's the headline:

Picking Nits with Frank Deford
In the Hyperbolic World of Sports Journalism, the Sports Illustrated Icon Is Considered a Master Storyteller. And Most of the Time, He Gets It Right.
Deford influenced my formative sportswriting years considerably, and apparently, Bunting's as well. Decades after "admiring Deford's magazine profiles in [his] sports-crazed youth," Bunting is spurred by the recurring complaints of a Rancho Park golf instructor, whose religion is compiling a rap sheet of Deford's exaggerations and outright errors, to engage the trepidatious task of confronting the master with his miscues.

I book a flight, feeling slightly apprehensive about the confrontation that lies ahead. I relish the opportunity to match wits with the "world's greatest sportswriter." But I also feel a bit overmatched, like a rookie stepping in to face a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Some of the golf instructor's relayed complaints are in fact nit-picks: subjective at best. (This reminds me of my all-time favorite newsroom moment, when one of our Daily News copy editors asked aloud, "I know this is gonna sound minor, but is nit-picking hyphenated?") Others are factual errors, but certainly minor enough, the kind that no writer wants to make but that no writer can completely avoid.

In facing the list of transgressions, Deford is defensive. Sometimes he's melodramatic, accusing Bunting of portraying him as a "serial killer." Other times, Deford struggles to hone up as easily as he could, such as in this example:

The next excerpt is from an Oct. 7, 1996 Newsweek article about hockey star Mario Lemieux. Deford wrote "posterity will never forget that no athlete—not even the sainted Lou Gehrig—has ever before Lemieux been struck down by a deadly disease at the very moment when he was the best of his sport at the best he would ever be."

Who else, Deford wants to know, could possibly rank beside Lemieux?

... Early in the 1991 season, Los Angeles Laker all-star Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus and was retiring from the NBA.

"Was he the best at that time?" Deford asks me. "Again, I think you're cutting hairs here."

Seems fair to say that Deford is the Barber of Denial, considering that, other than Michael Jordan, Johnson was quite arguably the best player in the NBA when the virus struck.

What's heartening in Bunting's article, however, is that a clear belief underlies Deford's defensiveness: Even the little stuff matters. Deford met with Bunting; he listened. He got frustrated, but he also told Bunting, "I'll be very honest with you. I had no idea that I had been so sweeping in these. I really didn't. I'll be more careful in the future."

He even kept his sense of humor, Bunting said.

On Nov. 13, 2002, he wrote that Myles Brand, formerly the head of Indiana University, is "the first college president ever chosen to lead the NCAA." But James Frank, the president of Lincoln University in Missouri, became the NCAA's first president in 1981.

"I anticipated that one," he says. While taking several minutes to passionately describe the changes in titles of those who sit atop the NCAA, Deford becomes so rattled that he nearly drives the Jaguar onto a median strip as the Jersey Turnpike merges into Interstate 95.

"Oh Christ!" he shrieks, steering the vehicle back onto the highway. "See, you are ruining me here!"

He tells me he is unaccustomed to arguing and navigating a car simultaneously. Surely, I suggest, he has had his share of front-seat spats with his wife during 38 years of marriage.

"Yeah," he retorts, "but she doesn't have evidence!"

The article was another reminder - and somehow, we seem to need these reminders all the time - that we can all learn. We can all do better.

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