Friday, July 8, 2011

Outside The Lines, Inside The All-Star Team

Recently, I ruminated about the wisdom of including sportswriters on the Journalism All-Star Team. This was done after being confronted with Grantland. Grantland includes some very stellar writing, but then, the focus is on sports and pop culture, two of the lesser-heralded beats of the industry. The fields just plain are not as important as others in the grand scheme of things; when world events such as 9/11 or the death of Osama bin Laden intrude on sports, sportswriters will often make a mention of how, when it gets down to it, it's just a game.

It is not, however, impossible to practice true, traditional, thoughtful journalism in these fields. It's just a lot harder to do than in fields of greater importance.

Which is why I am today kicking myself. There is someone covering sports, at ESPN yet, that practices true, traditional journalism day in and day out to such a degree that they deserve an All-Star jersey. In fact, there are two. But I was so worried about Grantland that I failed to notice.

Why did I not notice Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap earlier?

Ley, along with Chris Berman, is one of the only two anchors from ESPN's founding in 1979 to still be with the network. You currently know him as the host of Outside The Lines, and the most straight-laced reporter ESPN has. Ley was one of the anchors ESPN went to for the only airing of SportsCenter on 9/11, sitting alongside Trey Wingo. When ESPN has a deep, controversial issue to cover, one that is too heavy to be given the usual treatment of a couple of guys yelling at each other, you can be pretty sure Ley, an eight-time Sports Emmy winner, is not too far away. He has stewarded Outside The Lines from its start in 1990 as a monthly special to its current half-hour weekday timeslot.

And when Ley needs a day off, Jeremy Schaap is usually the first person turned to as a substitute. He has six Sports Emmys to his name for his work on Outside The Lines, as well as SportsCenter and fellow investigative show E:60, a weekly one-hour program. On occasion, you'll also see him on the mainstream-news circuit through appearances on Nightline and ABC's World News Tonight.

As is what we might as well call tradition at this point, Ley and Schaap will now be shown at the top of their respective games.

Ley first, showing how traditional journalism can be done at the sports desk on a daily basis with this discussion concerning concussions in hockey:

As for Schaap, when you type his name into YouTube and view the suggestions, above even his name alone will be his name sitting alongside Bobby Fischer. This will lead you to his most famous moment (one that got him one of his Emmys), the 2005 report "Finding Bobby Fischer". I remember this piece from when it was first presented, and part of why it got the level of attention it did was the fact that Schaap, who almost never editorializes, did so in this piece, and to Fischer's face at that.

Editorializing in journalism is a bit like using the word "fuck", or a comedian cracking up at a joke during their skit. The power it has when you do it is inversely proportional to how often you do it. If Quentin Tarantino says "fuck", you don't notice. It barely even registers. If the Dalai Lama says "fuck", you can just hear the record needle scratch.

In the same way, the more a journalist editorializes, the less you tend to notice any one editorial, including those in op-ed section itself. If you see an editorial by George Will, it probably won't register for long. It's George Will. That's what he does. That's ALL he does. But if Walter Cronkite editorializes, holy hell, sound the alarm bells.

The latter is what happened with Schaap when he, well, found Bobby Fischer. As it happened, Fischer had long ago befriended Jeremy's father Dick, but Dick over the years had become dismayed over Fischer's brewing anti-Semitism. Especially since the Schaaps were Jewish. As was Fischer. Dick would eventually remark that Fischer "did not have a sane bone left in his body," words still ringing in Fischer's years decades later when Jeremy found him in Iceland...

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