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The Yang Slinger: Vol. LIX
We all receive angry/vile/threatening/disturbing letters, e-mails and Tweets from pissed-off readers. But should we respond? And how?
So a few days ago I was scrolling through the Instagram feed of Sean Patrick Small, my friend and the actor who plays Larry Bird in the HBO series, “Winning Time.”
And, if you have yet to see the show, Sean’s portrayal of the grumpy, moody, mercurial Bird is pitch perfect and spot on. Seriously, I’ve heard my share of complaints about various performances, but most seem to be in agreement than Sean’s Bird is near-perfection.
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Except (cough) for Steven A. Ansell.
Who wrote this …
Now, I don’t know what’s bothering Steven Ansell. I don’t know whether a relative just died, or he ate a moldy banana, or he was unable to land Taylor Swift tickets, or he remains irked by Jason Bay’s 26 homers over three seasons with the Mets. Hell, I don’t even know if Steven Ansell’s real name is Steven Ansell (I tried reaching out via Instagram, but with no success).
What I do know, however, is that you have to contain a certain level of douchebag asshole motherfucker to watch a TV show, have the TV show conclude, turn off the television, pull out your phone or laptop and go out of your way to let a 31-year-old actor in his first major role know that you think he sucks.
I mean, I would love to know what Steven Ansell does for a living. I would love to know what set him off. I would love to know what gifts he possesses. I would love to know if he loves wearing mittens on a cold winter day, as he sips mini-marshmallows off the lip of a cup of fresh hot cocoa. I would love to know if, like me, he cried at the end of “My Little Pony: The Movie.”
I would love to know so many things.
Alas, Steven Ansell is a coward.
And cowards hide.
In case you’re wondering, this week’s substack concerns assholes.
But not any ol’ assholes.
Assholes who reach out to journalists in the pursuit of being, well, assholes.
They are a special breed, these folks, in that they take time from their lives to tell us how badly we suck/how terribly we write/how little talent we possess, knowing the odds are very high we will either:
A. Never see their message.
B. Never reply.
I like to think the vast majority of said cretins compose the ol’ DEAR JEFF—YOU BLOW CHUNKS note solely to let off steam. I mean, back in the day I’d write negatively of, oh, Roger Pavlik, and some Texas Rangers fan would inevitably e-mail the Sports Illustrated offices calling for my dismissal. Did that person really want me to lose my job? Did he really want me to lose my family’s source of income. I doubt it. Truth be told, we all have our dick moments. We all vent.
That being said … there are few subjects I find more interesting than how we, as a profession, should respond to the hostile e-mail, to the blistering Tweet, to the scornful Instagram screed. It’s a complexity that dates back to the earliest days of newspapers running Letters to the Editor sections, when some bobo in Urbana, Illinois surely complained about the lack of molasses in Bessie Sue Rae’s Sunday apple pie recipe. Over time, those innocent notes turned darker and darker. Anonymity grew in appeal. The world wide web infected our frontal lobes. Trumpified anger emerged as, eh, Trumpified anger. Shit got bad.
For me, the low point probably came back in 2012, when a radio station outside of Chicago set my Walter Payton biography aflame while live broadcasting the roast …
It was weird. The hosts couldn’t have possibly read the entire book, because it had only come out a day or two earlier. The stunt was just … mean, for the sake of yuks and giggles and cruelty. I actually reached out to one of the dudes in the video, who insisted—via Facebook DM—that it was all in good fun. But, man, it didn’t feel like good fun to me. It felt deliberate. It felt targeted. It felt …
And that, if we’re being honest, is often how it feels to receive deliberately harsh correspondence from a reader. We all want to be loved. We all want people to think our work stands out. We don’t want to be rejected.
So … what to do?
One of my closest friends in media is Jon Wertheim, the veteran Sports Illustrated scribe and 60 Minutes correspondent. Jon and I came up together through the ranks at SI, and in those earlier days we both found ourselves occasionally dumbfounded by nasty notes.
This was an era (the mid-to-late 1990s) when every … single … letter written to the magazine was printed out, placed into a bundle, then distributed throughout the Sports Illustrated offices. That meant, every week, one would be gifted with a parcel containing, oh, 250 or so notes. Many praised the writers. Some offered insight. And a couple always blasted away.
Those befuddled Jon and I.
Every so often, were a letter (concerning our work) received via e-mail, Jon and I would respond. But it was never nastily, or even combatively. Mostly, it’d be … bewilderingly. I asked Jon if he recalled this—and he literally DMed me the type of reply he occasionally turned to. It mirrored what I was thinking, too: “I’m genuinely curious: disagreements are cool, but what would lead to that level of incivility? I am open to the possibility I’m missing something here but would love to learn more about your thinking ”
“Nine out of 10 times,” Jon recalled, “there was an apology and an ‘Oh my God—I am so embarrassed.’”
Jon is not exaggerating. When someone spews anger, and we reply with … decency, it almost always results in some sort of retreat. This actually recently happened to Vincent Bonsignore, the Las Vegas Review-Journal Raiders scribe and a guy who’s seen a few things.
Not all that long ago, this e-mail appeared in Vincent’s in-box …
And, clearly, it oozes motherfucker. The message is cruel, the tone is harsh, the takeaway is, “You suck.”
But here’s what followed …
And, spoiler alert, this is the clincher …
Vincent wins the day. Clearly, he wins the day. Because, ultimately, people want to be heard and seen. Also—and this certainly sounds a bit bonkers—many of those sending angry letters see us (the media) as celebrities. Or at least famous people. Or at least folks who hold really cool jobs. And they believe such because (flaws be damned) we do hold really cool jobs. We’re the ones who didn’t shuffle off to law school because our parents insisted we should. We’re the ones who didn’t go into accounting. We’re the ones who don’t put a family Christmas party to sleep with the gripping saga of trading X stock for Y stock before Z stock became available. “And then my boss comes in and says, ‘Jerry! You need to get down to HR and make sure they’re aware the 683 form is filled out on both sides!” We attend games. We talk to athletes. We’re living the dream.
So when Angry Raider Goober Fan Q tells Vinny his article is “crap,” what he’s (often) really saying is, “I wish my life were your life, and I’m jealous.”
Back in December of 2010, I got into a fairly heated Twitter exchange with an anonymous baseball fan named Matt. We went back a forth a few times, until he wrote: “I got caught up in the anonymity of the internet. I'm sorry and here is a legit post with my criticisms.”
When I (stupidly) clicked on the link to his post, a page opened to a photograph of a woman, legs spread wide open, vagina innards in full view. My daughter Casey, then 7, was sitting by my side.
I complained to Matt, who wrote: “lmao. You're so full of shit.”
Inspired by the awful exchange, I pitched an idea to the editors at CNN.com: What if I track a couple of nameless commentators down, figure out who they really are, confront them and write about it? A few weeks later, TRACKING DOWN MY ONLINE HATERS ran. The piece highlighted two agitators—Matt and another dude, Andy, who literally lived in his mother’s basement and and referred to me as “a fucking retard.”
Both guys were—via phone—equal parts terrified and apologetic. They begged me not to be named. They insisted they were caught up in the moment. They were sorry. Truly sorry.
And here’s what’s fucked up from the experience: For weeks post-publication, I was eviscerated online for calling Andy’s mother’s house. Like, not just eviscerated. E-v-i-s-c-e-r-a-t-e-d. I was a loser. I was an asshole. I was picking on someone who shouldn’t have been picked on. I was the bully. Not the guy who called me a “fucking retard.” No—me. Jeff.
That’s probably the first time I was awakened to the complexities of this shit-stained quagmire the higher-ups call “reader engagement.” When someone is mean, you want to punch back (ESPN’s T.J. Quinn: “Oh man. I tend to ignore, but there are times when it’s too hard to resist”). But then you punch back, and suddenly you’re on the other person’s level. So, instead, you look past the next cruel letter (Michael Bamberger of The Fire Pit Collective: “I ignore. As the Quakers say, War begets war.”)—and feel unfulfilled Plus, we are (by nature) communicators. We live to communicate. It feels oddly wrong not to reply to a letter. So you reply to the letter (NBA.com’s Shaun Powell: “Social media tends to bring out the worst in us so I pick my spots and always weigh the potential (if any) ramifications”). And it accomplishes nothing. And you think, “Hmm, maybe I’m just better off not reading this shit (The Ringer’s Mirin Fader: “These people don't know you and talking to them accomplishes nothing. It only is for people to feed their egos that they are dunking on somebody. That's just not my style”). But then you’re curious: What are they saying about me?
“Crazy as this sounds I spend way too much time every single week that I’m on the clock obsessing about the right thing and the wrong thing here,” said Mike Vaccaro, the New York Post sports columnist. “On the one hand, because I’m a columnist and my commerce is opinion, it’s a wonderful sign that business is good when something I write generates a lot feedback—good or bad.
“And the thing is: I love the diversity of opinions that come back, because that’s what this is all about, right? Disagreement and debate is the fertilizer of a free society and a free press. And honestly I don’t mind when those disagreements turn heated. We expect the athletes we cover to have thick skins; well, it seems only fair and right that we have thick skins also.”
And yet …
“There are some folks who just have a way of pushing the right button, or finding just the right place under your skin, and no matter how much you laugh it off, how much you say ‘that shit doesn’t bother me’ … well, of course sometimes it bothers you. You’re human. And sometimes the stuff that gets sent me — sone of it racist or anti-Semitic, some of it personal, some that just catches me in the wrong moment — that’s when I have to catch myself. I used to be a lot more cavalier about this. I remember seeing the Ben Bradlee documentary and there was a segment about how he responded to hate mail and most of it involved finding creative ways to tell that hater to — quoting Bradlee — ‘fuck off.’ And I figured if it was good enough for Ben Bradlee …
“But two things happened. First, I realized that doesn’t give me any satisfaction whatsoever — and actually probably gives the agitator absolute satisfaction. But also: we live in different times now. You say the wrong thing and it’s captured forever — and it can come back to bite you on the ass. And I made a vow to myself that I may wind up kicked out of this business one day, but it for sure won’t be because in a weak moment I called someone a [#%*###].”
Vaccaro says he lives by two rules:
Never get personal.
“I had one regular emailer who became so personal (it happened he lived in my town, and would as an example tell me he knew where I’d eaten dinner or gone to the movies),” Mike says. “I took that one to the local police department—and in a lucky twist he was also harassing the police department, went too far, and has been in county jail the last few years.”
For me, these days the crown prince of reader engagement is Jemele Hill, the author and Atlantic contributing writer who—mainly via the artist formerly known as Twitter—doesn’t mind slugging away when the time is right. More than anyone I’ve seen, Jemele endures a seemingly endless stream of vile racism.
And I dig it. I really do.
“There are some people I refuse to acknowledge because I understand their grift depends on engagement,” Jemele says. “But there are times when I feel like I need to make an example of some folks. I don’t like that people feel entitled to say whatever they want to you and feel the comfort of knowing you won’t respond. Sometimes I’m petty and respond to let them know that shit isn’t going to fly.
“People also have to understand that when I do respond, I’m not responding to the first person that said something slick. I’m responding to the 200th person. After a while, certain shit gets on my nerves.”
The Quaz Five with … Tanner Stewart
Tanner Stewart is a reporter and anchor at WEAR TV in Pensacola, Florida. One can follow him on Twitter here.
1. You started in TV at WXXV News 25 in Gulfport, and one of your earliest assignments was covering Hurricane Nate in 2017. So what's it like covering a hurricane?: I got my start in TV in July, 2017. I applied to at least 50 stations across the country. I didn't care where I ended up, I was younger then, not married, no kids, I just wanted to be the new scoop in town. Truthfully, I didn't have a real clue as to what I was doing.
I remember when Hurricane Nate came rolling in that year in Early October. I'm from Tennessee, so I was naive to hurricanes. To me it was a cool opportunity to cover what all the other reporters before me had done. A few of us had gone out the night before, it seemed most of the others I worked with weren't too concerned. It was projected to make landfall as a low-level category-2 storm. I know now that no matter what category a hurricane is in, it's no joke. I remember my boss calling me around 5 or 6am for an emergency press conference with then-Governor Phil Bryant. The presser was at least 45 minutes away and I was already running behind. I made it in time for a live interview with the Governor of Mississippi, the first live interview of my career. Here I am less than three months into the job, I did over two dozen live shots across the Mississippi Coast over a 16-hour period that day. That's when I felt I really got my start in the business.
Just a few months later, I would go on to become one of the youngest local primetime anchors in America at the time. Having covered several hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, etc., now I would say, ‘Get em' while you're young.’ Because having vacations cancelled abruptly, being drenched in rain water for days without power or a lot of food, I understand today why there's a great debate on whether news reporters should be covering storms like this up-close. I have no regrets.
2. How did you land the gig at WEAR Channel 3?: My career at Channel 3 started on a whim. I knew my time in Mississippi was coming to a close, so I had slowly began the hunt for new opportunities at different stations. To be honest, Jeff, I was back in the same seat from three years prior: I had no idea and little expectation on where I wanted to end up.
WEAR's news director at the time, Kimberly Wyatt, reached out to me via email late one night asking if I was interested in a position as an anchor. Man, I know everyone has their Covid stories, but mine began my first day working in Pensacola, when the governor issued a state of emergency for all of Florida. You know the rest … the majority of my coverage over the next year or so would be Covid-related. Hard to believe that’s actually over with.
3. I think a lot of people see news anchors are pretty faces regurgitating producer-written words. What are we missing?: In some cases, Jeff, this may be true. Many, though, are writing their own content. The problem I see is the quick turnaround with many young reporters across the country. The blame falls on a reporter for having what you may see as a surface-level story. Truth is, in some cases reporters simply don’t have enough time in the day to turn quality stories before meeting deadline. Is this practice as old as time? Sure. But what I’ve noticed over the last decade is the demand on young reporters turning multiple quick stories a day to fill content. Therefore, they look like a “pretty face” just spatting out what may seem superficial, but they’re also juggling multiple stories in multiple newscasts in a matter of 4-to-5 hours. The challenge can be daunting for many newcomers—many of whom are starting in much higher markets than decades past. Why? I’m not sure exactly. My guess is demand and pay. I’m just not sure if there are enough people willing to get out and do this job with the way technology has taken over. To many kids, “being on TV” means some sort of social media they have access to on their phones.
4. Serious question: how much thought goes into outfits? How much does it matter?: Yes. It matters, I believe. Like anything, if you want someone to listen to you, you want to be presentable. But with that, I think it’s mostly up to you. News directors everywhere are different. Some may want you to wear a tie, others just want you to feel comfortable yet look presentable. I wear a tie most days in the field. I’m just old-school I guess. Florida has been scorching in the summer though, so I can be seen sometimes in shorts covering a story, then back in a tie on the desk by the afternoon. To be honest, the apparel part I feel is taking less and less importance over the years compared to those wanting truthful news. You see anchors nowadays in T-shirts and other non-traditional attire. I think where you live is a big factor. Out west, you may see more casual dressers. Here in the south, I try to keep it somewhat classic.
5. We print journalists always talk about tough media times, declining readership, etc. What's the local news scene? Meaning, would you advise kids to enter the field? are there opportunities?: That’s tough. Ten years ago when I was at MTSU, I still had the TV dream of making it to the top (whatever that means) and having a great career in TV. You’re naive when you’re 19 so I didn’t think so much about other opportunities then and how my life could and would change.
I would say this: the pay everywhere I’ve seen and heard from others remains extremely low. My first contract was for $22,500 in 2017. About $1,200 a month for two years. I didn’t care, but times have changed since then for so many people. That money isn’t enough to sustain a quality life. So you have a lot of smaller markets that pay grads to get their foot in their door then they find another job in a bigger market for more money. But as I mentioned, many graduates, I believe, are being encouraged to pursue jobs in all markets. And many of those bigger stations are giving them a shot because they won’t have to pay them much. But what does that do to the news product ? Well, if you have decades of experience versus little-to-no experience, that’s an obvious challenge. I would say go get while you’re young, but don’t be afraid to pursue the side hustle. Tend bar, Uber, and save what you can. Man, wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could go back 20 years?
[BONUS] rank in order (favorite to least): Tyrik Dixon, New York City pizza, Taylor Swift concerts, Honey Bunches of Oats, BB King, Eli Manning, Tupac, Graceland, the number 12: New York City pizza, Graceland, BB King, Tupac, Eli, Tyrik Dixon, No. 12, Taylor Swift concerts
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 email@example.com or just use the comments section here …
Via Jim: I'm a writer too, and I spoke to a journalism class at Kent State a couple months ago. I can't help but think about those students as everything is changing SO RAPIDLY. I've seen ChatGPT evolve from a Wikipedia wannabe to something that can freaking do anything you want if you ask the right questions in like 6 months. So, on that note, here's the question: What do you think about AI and the future of writing?: So aside from dabbling here and there, I’m hardly an AI expert. Meaning I’m not sure I’m the perfect guy to answer this one. But … what I do think is this: AI can surely write the lede to a football game. X team beat Y team. X quarterback threw for XXX yards. AI can surely do a straight profile of the star ballet dancer. X Dancer has been dancing for X years. She learned from Y. So … don’t be lame. Don’t be flat. Don’t be predictable. Don’t be replaceable. Write as only one with a heart and eyes and ears can write. Describe the blood trickling from a nose. Tell me the air smelled of popcorn and fart. Recall the breeze. Make me feel the breeze. Back when I was at Sports Illustrated there were Gary Smith stories and there were Steve Rushin stories because only those two wrote with their unique panache.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On Sept. 20, 1975, Seymour S. Smith of the Baltimore Sun wrote this ode to Dan Issel, the star forward for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. I long for the days when a newspaper in Baltimore would have a staffer profile a random player from an out-of-town team. Sigh …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Kristen Carr, Auburn University
Carr, editor in chief of the Auburn Plainsman, wrote a really lovely news piece earlier this week headlined, AUBURN OAKS READY TO ROLL.
Wrote Kristen …
I loved every word.
One can follow Kristen on Twitter here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: I am fed up with Twitter, but also always feel compelled to write because … I’m an addict. So I’ve made a bet with Mirin Fader: For the next two weeks I can Tweet once per day. If I violate that, I buy her the T-shirt of her choice.
Musing 2: Lord knows the world doesn’t need any NFL training camp stories, but Patrik Walker of the Dallas Cowboys’ website did a strong job with this profile of Neville Gallimore and his fight to impress the coaching staff.
Musing 3: So I’m an enormous fan of parks and green grass and wide swaths, so this BBC article on the importance of parks in the lives of children is my jam.
Musing 4: Jesus Christ, the opening episode of Hard Knocks with the New York Jets was boooooooorrrrrrrring. I know the Jets didn’t want to participate, but—outside of Aaron Rodgers—one might think there are no actual players on the roster. Just painfully not good.
Musing 5: I’m way late to this, but The Athletic’s Alec Lewis penned a fantastic piece headlined, BUILDING THE PERFECT NFL QB. Writes Alec: “So, how the hell did we get here? To a place where NFL quarterbacks such as Richardson, Purdy, Wolford and many others are adamant about the benefits of a new approach assembled so far from the football establishment? The answer is both absurdly complex and jarringly simple. It is a decades-long lesson on ego and evolution, technology and change. It is also a tale with vast implications that contextualizes the development of players such as Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. And if all of that sounds a bit out there, that’s because so much of this is at the moment — in football, at least.”
Musing 6: If you’re at all nostalgic for summer camp, Josephine Sittenfeld’s photo essay/column in the New York Times is absolute gold. She takes us back two decades, to her days as a counselor when pictures felt personal.
Musing 7: In a rare win for sanity, the Illinois Supreme Court found a state assault weapons ban to be constitutional. Wrote Nadine El-Bawab: “The ruling came in response to a lawsuit that claimed that the ban violated the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court reversed a lower court finding and said that the law does not violate the equal protections clause. However, the Supreme Court did not comment on claims that the law also violated the Second Amendment.”
Musing 8: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast stars the great Adam McKay.
Quote of the week …
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