Feinstein: Adam Schefter's Brady-Could-Retire Story A Sham

John Feinstein longs for the days when facts and sources mattered in journalism

July 22, 2019 - 3:47 am

Monday was the 402nd anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. He was only 52 when he died in 1616, but he created arguably the greatest writing legacy in the history of the planet.
As someone who has made a living as a writer, I feel completely inadequate, not even worthy of trying to explain what made Shakespeare unique—there have been hundreds of books written on the subject—much less writing anything that even deserves to be in the same language as Shakespeare.
I’m reminded when I re-read Shakespeare—which I don’t do often enough but do on occasion, especially Hamlet — of something Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals goalie, once said to me when I asked him if he had ever read Ken Dryden’s book, The Game.
Holtby laughed and said, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to read that book, much less understand how brilliant the guy (Dryden) must be.”
How about that—I just worked a quote from a hockey player into a brief ode to Shakespeare.
Believe it or not, I also thought about Shakespeare while doing my usual glance through the sports internet sites that day, thinking about what sportswriting has become in the 40 years (gasp!) since I first began getting paid to write about games and the people who play and coach them.
When I arrived at The Washington Post as a summer intern in the summer of 1977, I was assigned Robert Fachet’s desk, which was at the edge of the sports department. Fachet, who was a wonderful hockey writer for The Post from Day 1 of the Capitals' existence in 1974, always took the summer off. He covered Navy football in addition to the Caps, and, since he never missed a hockey game, he had so much comp and vacation time built up by June that he was off until late August. So, I got his desk.
As luck would have it, Bob Woodward’s office was about five feet from Fachet’s desk. In fact, his assistant at the time, Ben Weiser, sat next to me. Weiser has gone on to a distinguished reporting career at The New York Times. In fact, this past Sunday when James Comey was interviewed for the Times book section’s weekly Q+A with an author, he was asked who he would like to have write his life story. Every author is asked this question and most usually dodge it, either saying they’d write it themselves; they’re not worthy of having someone write their biography or naming someone like…Shakespeare. And why not?--he was the best writer who ever lived.
Comey named Weiser, talking about his devotion to detail and facts. Ben learned that from Woodward. So did I.
If Shakespeare was ‘The Bard" back in the 16th and 17th centuries, Woodward sas "The Man" of the 20th century. He is journalism’s Shakespeare. With due respect to other great reporters, notably David Halberstam, who I was also fortunate enough to know, Woodward is THE best reporter I’ve ever met or read.
His devotion to facts and detail AND his ability to uncover them are extraordinary.
The first time I actually met him was on my eighth day as an intern. I’d been assigned to cover Washington’s North American Soccer League team, the Diplomats. They played in RFK Stadium and averaged about 12,000 fans per home game. Soccer was going to be, according to the NASL’s propaganda, “the sport of the 80s.” That’s another story for another day.
In the first three Dips games that I covered—their slogan was, “Get your kicks with the Dips”—they didn’t score a goal. After the third loss, 1-0 in overtime, I wondered aloud to Terry Hanson, who was then the Dips' PR guy, if Coach Dennis Violett’s job might be in jeopardy.
To this day, Hanson’s a close friend. His failing as a PR guy was that he was unfailingly honest. “I’d make some calls tomorrow,” he said.
I did. I found out Violett was going to be fired and wrote it for the next day’s paper. I had to convince O.D. Wilson, the sports night editor that I KNEW he was getting fired. After all, I’d been with the paper for all of eight days.
Because it was June and Washington didn’t have a baseball team, there was very little sports news to report. So, George Solomon, the sports editor, had the story "stripped" across the top of the sports page. For me, that was a huge deal. For the readers of The Post, not so much. A story about a backup tackle for the NFL team twisting an ankle would have been far more important.
Still, I was pretty proud of myself as I sat at Fachet’s desk and re-read my story for the fifth time. The Dips had held a press conference that morning saying that Violett had "resigned." The semantics didn’t matter. I’d nailed the story.
I looked up and saw Woodward coming out of his office. He walked up, hand extended. “John, hi, I’m Bob Woodward,” he said.
What ran through my head was, “No s---- you’re Bob Woodward, haven’t you noticed me staring in awe at you every time you’ve walked by for the last week?”
My actual answer was something like, “nnnnnnice tttttooo mmmmeet you.” I think I got you out without stammering.
Woodward smiled sympathetically and said, “Great job this morning with the soccer coach.”
He was genuinely enthusiastic. Looking back on my life now, I realize that was one of those moments where I had a great opportunity and just flat-out choked. My answer was, “Thank-you, I got lucky.”
What I SHOULD have said was, “Oh yeah, thanks. And, nice job with Watergate.”
Nope. Blew it.
As judges like to say, “Is there a point here?”
Yes. Woodward was the best because of that respect he had—and has today—for digging out the facts. All facts. When I got the chance to work for him, he always emphasized things like making the extra phone call. “You might have the story, but that extra call might be the one that gives you the extra detail you were missing.”
He also told me that the key to reporting any story was "to get the documents." He said it so often that when I do my imitation of Woodward—he has a hard Midwestern accent that’s pretty easy to mimic—it always includes saying something about getting documents.
He also taught me perhaps the most important lesson I ever learned as a reporter: you don’t have to be rich and famous to have a story to tell.
When I was the night police reporter, many of the stories I wrote were three or four paragraphs long, basic descriptions of fires, accidents, people taken to a hospital. If someone actually died, they might grow to six paragraphs. In the news business they’re known as, ‘shorts.’
I wrote a short one night on an accident: a car had gone over the median and hit an oncoming car at about 3 a.m. There were two people in the car that got hit and all three were taken to the hospital in serious condition.
I made a note to myself to check on their conditions the next day and to find out what charges the police would bring against the driver who had caused the accident—I was guessing DUI.
When I got to work the next day, Woodward, who was then the Metro editor, had a different idea. “Why don’t you go to the hospital and see if you can talk to the three of them?” he said. “We never think how lives change in an instant when accidents happen. Might be a story there.”
I was skeptical, but if Woodward said do it, I did it. I drove to D.C. General Hospital. I asked for the three room numbers. In those days, no one asked why you were visiting someone in a hospital.
As it turned out the police hadn’t charged the driver of the first car with DUI. He was a law student at Howard University who had been studying for finals and was driving home to grab a couple hours of sleep and a shower before an 8 a.m. exam. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel. He was horrified by what he had almost done to the couple in the other car.
I say almost because the couple, newlyweds, had just learned that evening that she was pregnant. She had picked him up at a late work shift and had given him the news. They were holding hands and saying a prayer of thanks when the car was hit. Thankfully, the baby was ok.
The story ended up on the front page of the newspaper. From that day forward, I have always looked for stories that involve those that aren’t famous—often, they are the best stories. That’s why I wrote a book about the Army-Navy football rivalry and a book about basketball in the Patriot League. Not one of the people I wrote about played in the NFL or the NBA. But they had wonderful stories to tell. Both books were bestsellers and, I believe, my two best books.
The moral of this long story is this: When I look at what passes for sportswriting today, on the internet and even in my newspaper sometimes, I’m often appalled. Un-named sources are used constantly, often in stories where the source is allowed to rip someone without having to stand behind what he’s saying. Rumors are routinely printed under the headline, “Report:” Whose report? I always ask.
Years ago, if you made a mistake that led to a correction, it was embarrassing. Nowadays, no one cares. A week ago, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, amidst blaring headlines that “Tom Brady has not committed yet to playing this season.”
All the quotes in the story were anonymous and ALL said the same thing, “As far as I know, he’s planning to play, but, you never know.”
It was a complete non-story. If there was a story at all, it might have been that Brady wanted a new contract. He was as likely to retire as LeBron James or Bryce Harper. When Brady’s agent said this week that Brady was absolutely planning to play, Schefter defended the non-story by saying his "sources" had said they were at least 75 percent sure Brady would play. “That means,” he said puffily, “there was a 25 percent chance he would retire.”
Uh-huh. It’s what Woodward and Bernstein called a non-denial, denial.
I know I’m an old man shouting get off my lawn, but I really do miss the days when reporting was still reporting. When you had to get the documents.
Shakespeare once said, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
More than 400 years later, his words still ring true.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. His most recent young adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was chosen by The Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His new mystery, “The Prodigy,” set at the Masters, will be out in August.