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John Feinstein On Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Objectivity in Journalism

John Feinstein's job isn't to make athletes look good or bad; it's to report facts – even facts fans don't like

November 01, 2018 - 6:15 pm
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For many years, the refrain everyone in the newspaper business heard from those who didn’t like a story they’d written was this: “You’re just trying to sell newspapers.”

Actually, no reporter or editor I ever worked with cared about selling newspapers.

Nowadays, the refrain is a little different: “You’re just trying to get more clicks.”

When I was a kid at The Washington Post, the word used to describe a story that would get people’s attention was, "a talkie." Now the phrase is "click-bait."

And, being honest, reporters are aware of how many online clicks their stories are getting because their editors often bring it up to them.

For several years, I had an ongoing argument with my friend, Dan Steinberg, who I think is immensely talented. When Steinberg was made a columnist at the Post, I told him it was time to stop writing about what fans thought and be a real reporter/columnist.

“You’re a real boy now,” I told him. “You aren’t writing a fans blog anymore.”

Dan wrote some excellent columns. But he kept reverting to the fan blog stuff. Whenever I called him on it, his answer was the same: “Those columns get more clicks, and the editors want clicks.”

I didn’t doubt him, I just thought it was a shame. When you’re a columnist you shouldn’t be a slave to what the readers WANT; you should try to tell readers things they don’t know; give them something to think about and perhaps every once in a blue moon, change the way they think on a certain subject.

I often get tweets and e-mails from people complaining that I’m not "objective." Of course I’m not. When I taught a journalism class at Duke for three years, my opening question each semester was the same: “Tell me the definition of objective reporting.”

After the students got through with various answers, I’d say, “There’s no such thing.”

What we all try to do is understand we’re biased and try to be fair—willing to be critical of those we like when it’s deserved and praise those we don’t like when it’s deserved.

When I wrote about Tiger Woods in “The First Major,” and explained how he had thrown himself into his role as vice-captain and how much the players had enjoyed working with him and appreciated his input, a number of people expressed surprise that I would praise him as much as I did.

Actually, I didn’t praise him—the others in the team room did. If they had said he was a sullen pain-in-the-butt (as he often had been as a player), I’d have written that too.

The same was true at the U.S. Open after he missed the cut by a mile and stood and patiently answered questions after both his rounds. I noted that he had done that while Rory McIlroy (arguably my favorite player) and Phil Mickelson had both stalked off without talking after poor first rounds. Why did I write that? Because it was true.

There are always going to be people who get upset when you are critical of someone or something. When I wrote that Mickelson—who I have always gotten along with—should have been disqualified after his breakdown in the third round of the Open, the Phil-o-files came out in force saying, asking—among other things—what I had against Phil.

I have nothing against Phil. I like him. He has always cooperated with me. (read "The First Major," if you don’t believe me). But he was dead wrong that day, first to lose his mind and hit a ball that was still moving and then making his outrageous claim that he knew he was breaking a rule and that, in fact, “I was taking advantage of the rule.”

THAT is a gross breach of etiquette. I’m just grateful it was Mickelson, not Woods, who was involved in the incident because if it had been Woods, I’d have written the exact same thing and the Tigeristas would have gone insane.

I have never considered it my job to make athletes look good--or look bad. I have never considered it my job to cheerlead for the local teams here in Washington. The latter has made me something of an outcast in the D.C. media—which is fine.

Four years ago, I wrote a column during the Tiger Woods-hosted golf tournament here saying that the event’s future was in doubt because it was going to lose Congressional as its venue and because it was much too dependent on Woods’ presence in the field. Neither Woods nor those working for him had made much effort to get top players to come and play and that was reflected in the quality of the field.

The Woods people went insane, calling the Post’s golf writer and the sports editor demanding corrections. Naturally, no one ever called me directly. I had said the golf course was virtually empty on Saturday after Woods missed the cut. They insisted it wasn’t—maybe they were counting trees as people.

Some of my colleagues ripped me for the column—claiming, much as you would expected the Tigeristas to claim, that I had written the column because I don’t like Woods.

Four years later, the tournament is dead—two years sooner than I had predicted it would die. What was amusing was listening to Woods and his various employees claim during the week of the finale that they were "still working" on a title sponsor for next year, even though everyone already knew the PGA Tour schedule (finally announced on Tuesday) didn’t include Washington.

A friend of mine was talking to Mike Antolini, the tournament director that week. He mentioned that he’d had dinner with me the previous week in Hartford.

“Did you throw up afterward?” Antolini asked.

Funny thing: I’ve never MET Mike Antolini. If he’d been any good at his job, he’d have reached out to me at some point to tell me the Woods Foundation’s side of what was going on; why the tournament was struggling to stay alive.

That’s what smart people do: they try to find common ground with an adversary. Early in Woods’ career I was the one member of the golf media who was critical of his father and of some of his behavior. Through a PGA Tour PR person he trusted, Woods asked if I’d be willing to sit down and talk to him.

Of course I would. As I’ve written before we went to dinner in San Diego and spent four hours talking. We found common ground on some issues; agreed to disagree on his father and left that evening—I believe—with a better understanding of one another.

At one point he asked me why I had walked out of a meeting with two of his agents when they tried to blackmail me by telling my editors at Golf Magazine that if I continued to criticize Woods they would sign a contract with Golf Digest for Woods to be a "playing editor." Both magazines were bidding big money for Woods at that point and the agent, Hughes Norton, tried to use that as leverage to get the editors to muffle me.

My exact words to my editors were: “If you want to stay and talk to these two a----- go ahead. I’ve got work to do.”

Woods signed with Golf Digest. I didn’t get fired.

Woods asked me why I hadn’t been afraid that I’d get fired. I explained to him that I worked for a lot of people and that most of my income came from writing books.

He smiled. “So you can’t be intimidated by guys like Hughes I guess. Good for you.”

My point is this: trying to intimidate ANY reporter—at least the good ones—is usually a waste of time. Several years ago when Newsweek asked me to profile Woods, I explained to the editors that if they wanted a piece with any input from Woods, they should find someone else. By then his father—long before he died—had put the kibosh on any sort of relationship between me and his son—and my conversations with Woods when we passed in the locker room never went past, “Hey, what’s going on?”

They asked me to do the piece anyway. Doing my due diligence I sent a note to Mark Steinberg, Woods’s agent explaining that Newsweek had asked me to do the piece and that I’d be happy to come and see Woods anytime, anyplace if he was willing to talk to me.

The answer came back in under five minutes: “Tiger will pass on this.”

I’d done what I had to do. A short time later, I got a call from the editor who had assigned me the piece. Tina Brown, then Newsweek’s editor, had gotten a letter from Glenn Greenspan, Tiger’s PR guy, saying it was completely unfair for Newsweek to assign a piece on his client to me. She thought I should know.

I sent Greenspan a note telling him I couldn’t believe how foolish he (and I assumed Steinberg) had been. If they’d said nothing, Newsweek might have decided it didn’t like the piece and might have killed it or cut it. Now, it was guaranteed they’d run every word. Which they did.

I thought about all this again this week when I wrote that I had little interest in the latest Mickelson-Woods $10 million exhibition money-grab and the Tigeristas and Phil-o-files predictably lost their minds.

The two players have their agents and PR guys and, frankly, a lot of the golf media, to promote the event for them. They don’t need me. It’s not my job to be a promoter.

Or, for that matter, to sell newspapers or create click-bait. I’m just a reporter and a columnist. I’m not objective, but I always try to be fair. Period.
 

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 latest 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 novel, “The Prodigy,”—set at the Masters, will be published in August.