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The Yang Slinger: Vol. LIV
Is it OK for journalists to take photographs with the people they're covering? The answer: Well ... um ... eh ... ah ... hmm ...
As I’ve noted many times on this Substack, I am a dinosaur.
First, I’m a product of the early 1990s. A newspaper guy. A magazine guy. And not in the modern senses of the words, where we say “newspaper” and “magazine” but mean “staring at a screen.” Nopes. I know what it is to have ink on the fingertips. I miss the smell of a printing press. The thud of newspaper hitting driveway. I miss hard deadlines and I miss buzzing newsrooms and—more than anything—I miss the lines.
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I really miss the lines.
By lines, I’m not referring to lines of coke or lines outside Target during the irrationally violent days of Black Friday. No, I’m referring to the hard lines of journalistic behavior. Like, in the pre-social media time of our existences, when the divides between press and subject were cheesecake thick. When a reporter would never dare root for a team in the sport they were covering. When a reporter would never dare celebrate with the athletes after a win, or weep with them after a loss. When a reporter was there to ask challenging questions, not toss softballs.
And when a reporter would never—like, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever—think to wrap an interview with, “Hey, mind if we take a picture?”
Now, obviously before the arrival of the iPhone, this wouldn’t have been an issue. But, for the sake of this entry, momentarily replace “take a picture” with “sign an autograph”—because it’s pretty much the same thing. Beginning with my first-ever professional assignment, and through the recent days of my latest book project, I have never (not once) asked someone I’m reporting on for an autograph. And, truth be told, I know of only one time when any of my up-close-and-personal colleagues requested one. It was, oh, either 1999 or 2000, and a Sports Illustrated employee was leaving the magazine. He was a big Red Sox fan, and one of our baseball writers explained the situation and asked Boston’s Pedro Martinez to sign a ball.
That was it.
Times have, eh, changed.
Nowadays, there is nothing unusual in a journalist asking a subject to pose for a selfie. Just check enough Instagram feeds of our peers, and you’ll see them. Two smiling people—one in athletic garb or red carpet garb or [fill in the blank] garb, the other in some dweeby media attire—standing side by side. It’s become … a thing. Proof that the interaction took place. Proof that, even though we’re not a cool species, we have close-and-personal access to a cool species. Proof that we matter.
But, well, I dunno. Truly, I dunno. When I think of my three decades in the business, I consider a certain barrier that exists between the media and those famous people we cover. In my six years as a Major League chronicler at Sports Illustrated, for example, I can tell you the number of ballplayer friends I had using one hand …
And it’s not because there were no commonalities. During my MLB days, I was the same age as many of the players. We’d talk music, talk upbringings, talk restaurants and bars and women1 and everything in between. But I also knew it was important to never cross into the buddy zone. First, because I was there to do a job, not make wealthy pals. But second (and most important), because I’d wind up looking like an unprofessional goober. Why, I vividly recall the Oakland A’s had a beat writer named Mychael Urban, who covered the team for MLB.com in the website’s earlier days. Before entering the media, Mychael had pitched for the University of San Francisco baseball team—and on the beat he was known for rolling with the A’s players away from the diamond and (perception or reality?) going easy on them. The label was toxic: Fucker thinks he’s one of them. Now, Mychael was a warm, friendly, likable guy. I enjoyed seeing him on my trips to the Oakland Coliseum. But his inability/unwillingness to separate church and state killed his reputation in the insular baseball world. We all knew his bag. We all dismissed his work2.
So that’s where I’m coming from when I say I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of requesting a photo from a subject. Outside of an interview, I don’t want to request anything from a subject. I don’t want to owe him a favor. I don’t want him thinking I’m gonna take it easy on him. I don’t want him thinking we’re pals, or that he can now call in a favor I’d surely feel obligated to fulfill. As Eli Saslow, the New York Times’ Pulitzer winner, DMed me, “[It] skews the power dynamic and also makes you in some small way indebted to the person you’re writing about. That’s never a good place to be.”
Added Ethan Bauer of Deseret Magazine: “I would definitely not do it, and if I saw a journalist working for the New York Times or Washington Post or any other big-name publication do it, I’d definitely think it was odd.”
There’s also this: Why the fuck do we, the journalists, want photographs with the people we’re interviewing? Hell, we actually get time in their presence. We are recording their voices engaging with our voices. We have the story to tell at the next July 4 cookout. Isn’t that enough?
Like, a few weeks ago I had drinks with Kid from Kid ‘n Play. En route to the meeting, I texted my freshman college roommate to tell him about the coolness of the moment. Back in the day, inside Russell Hall B at the University of Delaware, Anthony and I wore out “2 Hype,” Kid ‘n Play’s debut album3. He thought, all these years later, it was pretty sweet I’d be sitting with the dude with the high-top fade. Truth be told, so did I.
But … what, exactly, would a picture do? I mean this literally. Let’s say Kid and I meet (as we did), we talk, we have a nice time. Before I leave I say, “Hey, mind if we take a photo?”
He says sure, and we do the awkward arm-wrap-even-though-we’re-not-pals thing. We smile. Click, click.
Let’s do one more to be safe?
We’re done. I have this photo of an old me and an older Kid. I text it to Anthony. He texts back, “Wow, cool!” I post it on Instagram. A bunch of friends tell me how neat it is. A few even use the fire emoji. Someone writes, “Is that Kid or Play?” My mom asks why he goes by “Kid.” I get that little endorphin rush. Woo-hoo!
And then … it passes. I have a photograph with Kid from Kid ‘n Play, and Kid from Kid ‘n Play knows I’m the type of unprofessional hack who wasn’t satisfied with the blissful coolness of two hours of company with a really nice, interesting, enlightened hip-hop artist.
I needed the fucking picture.
And yet …
Maybe it’s not that simple.
Like I noted at the top of this entry, I am from the prehistoric days of George Burns and the velociraptor. Kent Babb, the fantastic Washington Post writer, DMed the exact same idea when I asked for his take. “I’m a dinosaur,” he wrote. “Closest I’ve come was Kobe when we went to dinner in DC. Still didn’t. There were some people who got pictures and part of me hoped I was in one, but I wasn’t and that was probably for the best. Ultimately photos are the autographs of today so … can’t.”
Dave Sheinin, another Washington Post jewel, didn’t use the D word—but came close. “I think this delineates the generational divide in our business better than pretty much anything,” he wrote. “For me and my generation, this is a firm hell no. But I would venture to say for anyone under 40 or so, it’s a firm hell yes. Maybe the line of demarcation came with Bill Simmons and the whole notion that it’s OK to be a fanboy journalist.”
I mean, perhaps we’re making the mistake of applying old standards to a changed landscape. I’m not just saying that—one thing that happens with aging is you tend to lock into the ideals of your upbringing. You miss … the vinyl record. The hand-written Thank You note. Caldor and Radio Shack. You hear J. Cole and complain he sounds nothing like Heavy D. You go to a bar around the corner and long for the bar that was there before the bar around the corner. Even though the old joint had rat droppings and a watered-down tap and a bathroom that smelled of a dill Roseanne Barr.
Although, in my head, asking for a picture=selling your soul, does that really mean asking for a picture=selling your soul? Can it be that asking for a picture=being a human? One of the colleagues I respect most is Jonathan Eig, author of the best-selling, “King: A Life.” When I asked Jonathan about the whole photo thing, not only did he fail to flinch (“Oh, yeah. I’m cool with pictures. I get books signed too. I don’t have any problem with that.”), he recently posted this on his Instagram feed …
That’s ol’ Jon with older Jesse Jackson. And if I step down off my high horse, I can see why it’s cool. Jesse Jackson is a legend. A legend who probably doesn’t have a ton of time left on this planet. Why is it wrong to take the photograph? To post it? Who is it hurting?
When I asked another respected colleague, “An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created” author Santi Elijah Holley, whether he was kosher with the photo thing, he mirrored Eig’s sentiments. “I've done it and I have no qualms about it,” he DMed. “I don't approach it as fan asking for a selfie, but rather to capture a moment between two individuals who have (I hope) shared many good, long conversations together and wish to preserve the moment for posterity.”
And, indeed, here he is on Instagram with Ghostface Killah …
I’d actually say the best pro-pictures arguments didn’t come from the writers I interviewed, but from a handful of folks I know who get asked to pose.
Way back in the day, for example, my kids attended elementary school with the twin daughters of Tommy Dreamer, longtime wrestling superstar (and a helluva cool guy). I asked Tommy whether he would take a picture with a journalist (Yes), whether it would make him think less of the journalist (No) and whether it would annoy him. “It’s a newer mentality where everyone takes pictures,” he said. “[The one thing I’ll say is] if a journalist asks me for a selfie, I usually want someone else to take it. Selfies, in my opinion, are for teens and early-20-year-olds.”
Strangely, I have two Tommy celebrity friends—Dreamer and longtime Styx singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw. Like his more muscular namesake, Shaw insists a writer asking for a photo wouldn’t register negatively. “Maybe if I was an A-list celebrity who traveled with a handler and a stylist,” he joked. Then—“No, it’s not an issue.”
Newton Mayenge, the “Winning Time” co-star4, says being asked for a picture from a writer would serve to humanize. “Life’s too short in my opinion,” he DMed me. “None of these people are God. They are just regular people who just happen to be famous and on TV.”
A fourth famous chum, former Dodger slugger Shawn Green, joined in on the photo-requests-are-no-biggie pajama jammy jam. He wasn’t bothered by the prospect of a selfie request. It wouldn’t irk him. Irritate him. Annoy him.
But—he added—“I would also feel confident that he/she would write a positive piece.”
… that’s a problem.
Back in the summer of 2000, when I was confronted by Braves pitcher John Rocker for the first time since I’d written the Dec. 1999 Sports Illustrated feature on his racist/xenophobic/Alf-loving ways, he dressed me down left and right, high and low. We were standing in the bowels of Turner Field, and the steroided freakaholic was jabbing an index finger into my chest, doing his very best Hukamania tribute.
I took you around Atlanta!
I introduced you to my family!
I let you talk to my friends!
I paid for lunch!
And, with that last line, I found my courage.
“Actually,” I said, “I paid for lunch.”
And while the berating continued, the point was an important one. Namely, I owed John Rocker nothing. N-o-t-h-i-n-g. He could rant and stomp and scream and cry, but he couldn’t make the argument he did me any sort of favors; that the article violated an unspoken understanding of you do me good, I do you good.
But what if I had asked him to take a picture?
I posed for a selfie!
“Seeing writers, or editors, pose with their subjects doesn’t particularly bother me,” said Chris Stone, the Los Angeles Times deputy managing editor. “But you have to accept the perception that it might create.”
And that is, without question, a factor I cannot fully escape. I probably solicited the opinions of two dozen colleagues for this essay, and while some are steadfastly pro-selfie (Lisa Guerrero: “Like it or not, we live in a time of social media marketing and we can’t be too precious about what it takes to get attention on our stories.”) and others are strongly anti-selfie (Amie Just: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”) and some are sorta meh on the whole conflict (Tyler Kepner: “If he’s the guy I’m interviewing next [96-year-old Carl Erskine], yes. If they’re over 90, regular rules don’t apply. Otherwise, no.”) and some are a bit conflicted (Melissa Isaacson: “In my whole career, I only took one, with Dikembe Mutumbo at the Special Olympics World Games in Austria because he told me he knew I was dying to! Ok, maybe I was. But this was the verrry end of my career!”), I ultimately can’t deal with the idea of asking someone I’m writing about for a favor.
Even the tiniest favor.
So is my philosophy wrong? Not sure.
Is my philosophy right? Not sure.
Do I think people taking pictures with subjects are doing something injurious to journalism? No.
Will I be evolving from prehistoric Ampelosaurus to seflie-posting IG dude?
Not any time soon.
The Quaz Five with … Austin Aaron
Austin Aaron is a former Cal wide receiver who now works as an actor. He played Luke on “13 Reasons Why” and Mark Landsberger on “Winning Time.” He’s one of the nicest humans on the planet. You can follow him on Instagram here, and catch him on season two of “Winning Time,” which kicks off Aug. 6.
1. You played Luke on “13 Reasons Why” and Mark Landsberger on “Winning Time.” Which character felt more like home? Why?: It is a complete tie. Both roles are so near and dear to my heart. Luke was supposed to be a one-line role on one of the episodes as Jock #2 in the second season. But the producers liked what I did and created Luke Holliday in 20 episodes for seasons three and four! The writers just started to write to my personality (but more mean jockish than I am in real life) but it was so much fun to just show up, not think too much and be myself! Mark is so special to me too, and is such a blast to portray. I left every day on set with the most extreme gratitude that I am able to do this as my job. It’s a an absolute dream!
2. You were a scholarship wide receiver at Cal who walked away from being a scholarship wide receiver at Cal. Why?: I was very depressed. I realized at the next level I didn’t truly love the game and you have to have an insane passion for it in Division I or you shouldn’t be there. Plus, I quickly realized I wasn’t fast or strong enough to make the NFL so it was better I get out before I get seriously hurt and focus on getting my degree. Sonny Dykes could not have been more supportive about my decision to leave the team. He was such an incredible coach. I realized I just love to entertain people and always had a dream about being an actor. So I decided to go for it right when I left the team, and I quickly booked “13 Reasons Why” as the quarterback of Liberty High—which was very ironic. It’s way more fun to play football on TV when it’s not real.
3. Where’s the weirdest place (or strangest story) of being recognized by someone?: At the Walnut Creek Taco Bell during season four of “13 Reasons Why.” The gal started screaming with happiness. She was so excited and she really wanted to make sure my tacos were up to par. She told me several times to please come back if they weren’t good enough. Yt was adorable and incredible customer service (the tacos were incredible as usual, too!). I also had an older man at a wine festival who legitimately thought I was Mark Landsberger and thought I played myself in the show. He talked to me about what an incredible rebounder I was and knew every one of my stats even in Europe. I told him I was just an actor but he didn’t care. It was absolutely hilarious.
4. According to your IMDB page, you played “Deputy Long” on the TV show “Mayans MC.” Inquiring minds what to know—what was your Deputy Long motivation?: I booked “Mayans” in the thick of Covid. It was only one scene but I was so incredibly excited that I was able to work even for a day. I drove seven hours down from Napa, did my scene, got lovely feedback from the director … and the scene ended up getting cut. That’s acting. Some of your favorite moments might not make it and some you didn’t expect will. So much is out of your control. So you just do your best, be as prepared as possible and be a kind, decent person to everyone on the set.
5. You have an active social media presence, but you’re also seemingly sane and down to earth. What are the keys to thriving on the ol’ IG?: Be totally and completely yourself. Nobody will respect you if they can sense you’re being someone you’re not in real life and on social media. I really only post my wife, my two cats and dad jokes, and somehow I still have a following. Just be you and don’t be mean to people. You never know what is going on in their lives and the way you treat them on social media can have a huge impact on their mental health and well being. All in all, if you like cats5 follow me!
Bonus (rank in order—favorite to least): Grimace’s Birthday Meal, your wife’s family’s sporting goods store, the flute, Carson Palmer, Malik Rose, the tramp stamp, Manhattan Beach, Justin Wilcox’s offensive vision, the guy behind me talking way too loud into his phone at McDonald’s, Julia Roberts: McNamara Sports (go support them!), Julia Roberts (best smile in Hollywood), Manhattan Beach (goals), Carson Palmer (incredible arm. Go Bears, though), Grimace’s bday meal (McDonald’s is life), Malik Rose (picked Drexel in a March Madness upset years ago so … go Malik!), Justin Wilcox’s offensive vision (We averaged about 40 points a game with Jared Goff my freshman year, so could use a little of that. Wilcox’s defense is stout, though!), the guy talking loud at McDonald’s (be quiet and enjoy your sensational meal), tramp stamp (needles scare me), the flute (mediocre instrument. I was horrible in the fourth grade and it still haunts me).
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
Here’s a wacky idea—ask me any journalism question you like, and I’ll try and answer honestly and with the heart-of-a-champion power one can expect from a mediocre substack.
Hit me up in my Twitter DMs, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or just use the comments section here …
Via E.W.: Having read your substack entries and listened to many of your podcasts, I am well aware of your many early career mishaps which you have chronicled and been so open about. I applaud you for being so open and honest about it. I guess my question is what made you come to see the error of your younger self ways and what gave you the confidence to be so open about it? I believe most people wish they could have done things differently early in their careers and personal lives but are too insecure to admit it or for some never realize they were the problem.
Well, this sure is flattering. Thanks, E.W. I can’t say there was a singular revelatory moment, but leaving The Tennessean for Sports Illustrated was an awfully important career/life move for me. Not just because I’d long dreamed of SI, but it was like jumping from a really solid Triple A team to the Yankees. Suddenly I was surrounded by dozens of absolutely gifted writers. The best of the best of the best. Much of my cockiness vanished. How could I strut around when all these people dwarfed me in talent, drive, smarts? Who the fuck was I? It was very much a needed awakening.
As for being open—my mom would (angrily) tell you, I’ve never been one to hold in my feelings. The truth sets you free. It really does. I also know—factually—we all have out embarrassments, our failures. Someone once asked me, after I wrote about masturbating to Tanya Tucker photos as a younger man, how that didn’t embarrass me. And the answer is simple: We all masturbate to something. So why feel weird?
Cough. That might be more than you asked for.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On Aug. 5, 1980, Roger Kaye of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram broke down the arrival of Eric Carr to the lineup of the rock band Kiss. He replaced the beloved-yet-drugged-out Peter Criss. Carr died of cancer 11 years later. He was, by most accounts, the superior drummer …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Gracie Carella, Penn State University junior and columnist for the Daily Collegian
Gracie’s latest column, SPORTS NEED TO INVEST IN WOMEN, is both factually correct and perfectly written. In the sign of a high-level columnist, she takes an issue we’ve read about 53,654,332 times (women in sports) and makes a legitimately compelling, engrossing case case. Writes Gracie: “I worked as a reporter during the 2022-23 Penn State men’s hockey season, and speaking from the personal experience I gained, I can confidently say that women are grossly underrepresented in sports media. Now that I’m home and doing work with multiple parties, I can also say that women’s presence in sports media and analytics is borderline non-existent. Hockey media days were a routine that consisted of a room of reporters, who were predominantly male and white and a very small group of female reporters. I could usually count the number of us females on one hand. At first I was shy, even a bit intimidated — which if you know me, is not like me at all. However, as the season progressed, I established who I was with the players and staff — firmly and proudly standing my ground. By the end of the season, players openly said hello to me on campus, confidently answered questions I presented to them and prompted small talk with me during media days.”
Once can follow Carella on Twitter here. Bravo.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: An absolutely brilliant piece from The Nation’s Elie Mystal, headlined, THE SUPREME COURT HAS KILLED AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. MEDIOCRE WHITES CAN REST EASIER. The money point …
Musing 2: You don’t get a slew of memorable newspaper front pages in 2023, but this gem from the Amsterdam News is all bliss …
In case you haven’t followed the saga, Dr. Yusef Salaam—best known as one of the wrongly accused Central Park 5—won a seat on the NYC City Council in an election shocker. Take a few moments and Google Salaam and his saga. It’s a beautiful rise-from-the-depths ode to strength and conviction.
Musing 3: Especially considering last week’s substack about my long-ago NBA Draft saga, this piece—via Forward’s Louis Keene—hit home. It’s the story of a college student named Jordan Haber (aka: A Jewish TikToker) who, earlier this year, made a similar move to mine. Big props for the creativity and spunk.
Musing 4: This is a hair self-indulgent, but I’m a sports writer and a former baseball beat writer—and there are six guys starting in the upcoming Major League All-Star Game who I’ve legit never heard of. Not sure if that’s more a sign that the game has passed me by or … nobody really gives a shit about baseball in 2023. But were Jonah Heim, Yandy Díaz, Josh Jung, Orlando Arcia, Corbin Carroll or Randy Arozarena to knock on my door and tell me they were there to fix the gutters or campaign for local office, I’d have no reason not to believe them.
Musing 5: Hearing Charlie Sykes on The Bulwark Podcast break down Donald Trump’s latest inane document-hoarding defense sparked joy in what’s often a joyless universe. Worth the listen.
Musing 6: So there’s a guy named Matt Wolking, who works as a strategic communications director for Never Back Down, yet another dark money bullshit organization supporting Ron DeSantis’ pathetic presidential run. And yesterday Wolking Tweeted out this—writing, “Holy cow, it’s real and she’s leaning in.” Only, cough, the Twitter account was fake. Not just fake, but created by some right-wing asshole. And Wolking was made aware of this—all day long. And never removed it. Which speaks: A. To his non-integrity; B. To the pathetic state of willing disinformation.
Musing 7: Bonkers story in the New York Times from Emma G. Fitzsimmons headlined, MAYOR COMPARES HOUSING ACTIVIST, WHO FLED HOLOCAUST, TO PLANTATION OWNER. Eric Adams, a really clueless dude/New York City mayor, didn’t like a question asked at an open forum from a woman named Jeanie Dubnau.
Wrote Fitzsimmons …
Musing 8: Maybe don’t read this one if you’re situated near a cliff, but earlier this week 135-year-old National Geographic laid off all of its remaining staff writers. Wrote Paul Farhi in the Washington Post: “Departing staffers said Wednesday the magazine has curtailed photo contracts that enabled photographers to spend months in the field producing the publication’s iconic images. In a further cost-cutting move, copies of the famous bright-yellow-bordered print publication will no longer be sold on newsstands in the United States starting next year, the company said in an internal announcement last month.” Sigh.
Musing 9: Kay Hanley’s ode to Liz Phair in LA Magazine is a fantastic read, as well as a flashback to the golden age of early grunge.
Musing 10: The new Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post sports columnist …
Quote of the week …
I’ll always remember the post-game lines outside the MLB clubhouses of model-esque women waiting for their ballplayer husbands/boyfriends. Funny to think all those people are now in their 50s and 60s. Ah, time.
I just read this, and I truly hope he’s doing well. Again, the dude was always nice. This isn’t personal at all.
Don’t judge me. I was 18.
And a true gem of a human.
Confession: Not a cat fan. They’re always plotting to kill us.