Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol. LVI
Sometimes we make little mistakes. Sometimes we make medium mistakes. Sometimes we make enormous mistakes. This week, I made an enormous journalism mistake—and I'm horrified.
I had a plan for this week’s substack.
I was going to devote the space to all things freelance. How to go about it. What to look for. What approaches to pursue.
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But then something awful happened earlier today, and—at the risk of being a hair self-indulgent—I want to discuss it and break it down and self-evaluate.1
In short: I fucked up in an enormous way.
As most readers know, I’m throwing everything I have into my latest project, a biography of the late Tupac Shakur. The entire enterprise has become my life, and if you don’t believe me, here’s the bookshelf alongside my desk …
And here are the folders containing the (printed out) 362 interviews I’ve conducted thus far …
And here is the out-of-print Death Row-related book written by a British author. True story: It is unavailable anywhere in the United States. Grr. It is also unavailable (almost) anywhere in England. Grr. I reached out to the author via Instagram, and she refused to help. Grr. I was able to track a single copy to a library in London. The grandson of my wife’s late step-father is 20 and lives 1 1/2 hours outside of the city. I paid him $500 (and a Victor Wembanyama Spurs’ jersey) to take the train to the library, take pictures of all 450 pages, then text them to me.
It cost me another $80 to print out at the local Staples.
In short, I want to make this fucking great and I’m doing everything within my (limited) powers to live up to any (probably nonexistent) expectations.
So what happened today—well, it gutted me.
And I’m not entirely sure how to digest it.
Now, before I get to the meat of it all, a quick confession: My 30-year journalism career is littered with potholes. As the Nashville Scene once (correctly) noted, “If there’s one cow-pie in the field, Jeff Pearlman will manage to step in it.” I’ve written extensively about my habitual fuckups as a cub reporter in Nashville—and they’re even worse than you’re probably thinking. But those were primarily due to the cockiness and inexperience of a dickhead kid who wasn’t mentally or professionally prepared to work for a real newspaper. So, for the sake of this substack, I’m talking about the blunders that happened in the Sports Illustrated years and beyond.
For example—while working on my Walter Payton biography, “Sweetness,” in 2010, I called Rick Kane, the former Detroit Lions halfback, to get his perspective on his ol’ rival. When Rick’s wife answered, I gleefully explained who I was and said, “Can I speak to Rick?”
“Well,” the spouse told me, “he died two months ago. And I don’t understand how you can be a real reporter and not know that.”
Another time, in the initial printing of “Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Anti-Hero,” I had Bonds taking BP as Pirates manager Jim Leyland and one of his coaches looked on. Only (argh) the coach could not have possibly been there. He’d left the organization a year earlier.
In piecing together “The Rocket That Fell to Earth,” my biography of Roger Clemens, I quoted a former Yankees pitcher who said Brian Cashman, the team’s general manager, verbally acknowledged that first baseman Jason Giambi had used steroids. Only it turns out the pitcher didn’t hear Cashman say something—he heard through a former teammate that Cashman had said something. It was an enormous blunder, the Yankees and Cashman (rightly) threatened to sue me and I had to issue an apology. You can read some of the details here. It was bruuuuuuutal.
But, still, today’s felt like the worst of the bunch.
With each book project, I keep a list of everyone I want to contact. Really, it’s a bunch of Word files in a big, fat (in this case Tupac) folder. I literally create a doc for every single individual, and they’r grouped by categories. For example, this is a snippet of the folder from my Brett Favre biography, “Gunslinger” …
As you can see, different notations rest alongside the names. Once I speak to a person, then print out the transcript (I print everything out2), I label it PRINT. If I e-mail someone and never hear back, I’ll mark it with SENT E-MAIL and the date. An asterisk means I have the subject’s contact information, and no asterisk means I don’t. It’s a fairly simple system that I’ve used since my first book back two decades ago.
Anyhow, every once in a while (and it’s super rare), something/someone falls through the cracks. It could be that I simply forget to label a file with an asterisk or PRINT. It could be that I got lazy or distracted.
In this case, there is a very famous hip-hop-related journalist/creator. He is one of the best in the business, and has been for decades. I’ve known his work for decades, I’ve admired his work for decades—and about a year ago (when I was just starting this project) a mutual acquaintance gave me his number.
Around that time, I reached out and we spoke. It was—I’m pretty sure—a discussion between two journalists. Not an interview, but a chat between an outsider entering a v-e-r-y complicated universe (as I’ve learned, Tupac and hip-hop ain’t Bo Jackson and Brett Favre) and a gracious and kind pro offering his insights.
And here’s what happened.
Yesterday afternoon, I texted the journalist, introduced myself—and completely forgot we’d ever talked.
He replied: YOU DON’T RECALL SPEAKING TO ME EARLIER?
To which I wrote:
A. AM I LOSING MY MIND?
B. UGH. FUCKING FUCK.
C. I APOLOGIZE.
Beyond the words, my heart sunk. That’s usually a cliche—but here, it’s true. Sunk. I immediately dashed to my laptop, looked up the man’s name, opened his file and … nothing. No markings, no etchings, no notations. Nothing. We actually spoke briefly, and the man was kind but also rightly … conflicted/irritated/dumbfounded.
I started sorting through the different conversations I’ve had over the past year. This artist, that artist. This journalist, that journalist. A whirlwind of names and dates and jobs. As I later told my wife, sports are like a second language to me. I know the athletes, the commentators, the colleges. You can say, oh, “Delaware State football” and I’ll immediately hit you with “John Taylor.” You can mention the Hogs and I’ll run off Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby, Mark May …
What makes this Tupac project so hard (and so fulfilling) is that, while I’m an enormous fan of Shakur and the genre, it’s also unfamiliar turf. It feels dizzying. Good dizzying—like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl. But also disorientingly dizzying—like getting off the Tilt-A-Wirl and searching for your jacket.
Where’s my jacket?
When I was a young journalist, I hid from my mistakes.
Or, to be more precise, I hid my mistakes.
I remember, as a Tennessean cub, taking a few phone calls from readers about a mangled name or fact in one of my articles—and never supplying the information for a next-day correction.
Why? Because I was terrified. Of being humiliated. Of being fired. Of being exposed.
When I reached Sports Illustrated, and began as a fact-checker, all mistakes that made print were deemed reporter mistakes. So, as a group, we largely ran from them. You’d do everything within your power to: A. Make sure there were no errors; B. Make sure—if there was an error—it wasn’t attached to you.
Through the decades, however, I like to think I’ve grown and matured. And one thing I believe in is owning your fuckups. It does not feel good. It often does not end well. The odds this man sits down for an interview with me are probably pretty slim—and that’s reasonable. If someone had interviewed me about, oh, Walter Payton or the ‘86 Mets, then called a year later and never remembered the conversation, I doubt I’d feel particularly graceful.
So … what are the lessons?
Keep your notes on point.
And if you screw up—own it, digest the vomit and move forward.
It happens to all of us.
The Quaz Five with … Kevin Damask
Kevin Damask is the author of "COLD: The murders of seven young women shock a college town and remain unsolved for decades." You can follow him on Twitter here.
1. You're the author of "COLD: The murders of seven young women shock a college town and remain unsolved for decades." It concerns a series of murders over a string of years in Madison, Wisconsin—and an undertaking that deep, depressing, mysterious would intimidate the fuck out of me as a writer. So why do it?: I’ve always been fascinated by true crime and cold cases. I loved watching the classic “Unsolved Mysteries” series as a kid and, quite frankly, it creeped me out a little. Fast forward to my career as a journalist, and I found myself working on a longform feature story on local cold case mysteries for Capital Newspapers. The article was well received and won a Wisconsin Newspaper Association award, which got me thinking, “Hey, maybe I can turn something similar to this into a book.” Originally, I was going to do a “Wisconsin’s Most Notorious Cold Cases” themed book, but I realized the amount of research for something like that would take forever, and I really didn’t want to do a “list type” book. I wanted to focus on a few cases and really dive into them. So, when I started researching unsolved murders around Madison, I stumbled upon the cases of these seven young women, and they really intrigued me. The fact that not one of these seven have been solved is crazy in itself, but the possibility a serial killer could have been stalking quaint, relatively serene Madison is even more mind-blowing. I also really wanted to focus on who these women were as people. I feel like that gets overlooked when the media covers homicides. They were sisters, friends, daughters, nieces … and their lives ended in brutal, senseless violence. And, worse yet, their families have had no closure for decades. Oh, there were times while I was working on the book when I felt so down. Emotionally drained. There is nothing pretty about murder. I would have visions of the victims in my sleep. Not nightmares, per se, but when you’re engulfed in something for a long period, it’s bound to seep into your subconscious. But if this book can help people better understand these cases, get to know these young women and maybe … maybe lead to a break in one of the cases, I would be very satisfied.
2. With the rise of investigative podcasts, as well as books like yours, I often wonder whether law enforcement agencies are actually equipped to solve crimes. Maybe that sounds dumb—but it does seem like an increased number of cases are figured out via journalists. What's going on?: I think there are a few factors at play. For one, a lot of people are truly fascinated by true crime stories. I mentioned “Unsolved Mysteries,” so that’s nothing new. But with the boom of podcasts over the past several years, true crime stories are easier to consume. My wife and I got into “Crime Junkie” a few years ago. They do an awesome job. So, there are more opportunities for journalists to dig into unsolved crimes, which is great. I also think a lot of law enforcement agencies aren’t equipped to solve cold cases. It’s different in huge cities like L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia – places that actually have dedicated cold case units. True, the University of Wisconsin is a large college campus, but its police department is not. They don’t even have that many detectives, let alone a cold case unit. The City of Madison police used a grant to re-open the Julia Speerschneider case about eight years ago. And even then detectives had to work within limited resources. Another aspect is that smaller departments won’t crack open old case files unless a credible lead comes through. They need something to work with and the prospect that a case could be solved. Unfortunately, in a few of the cases I cover in “COLD,” police threw out evidence in a big purge in the late ‘80s. Granted, they didn’t know DNA evidence testing was less than a decade away, but the fact they tossed any evidence in open cases is totally irresponsible. I thought it was important to shed light on that.
3. You started/ran/run a substack that delves into the NFL via the 1980s and 1990s. Why? Do you feel like the league was better back then, or are you merely nostalgic?: Yes, 80s/90s NFL Rewind! I admit I’ve been neglecting the Substack recently to focus on finishing/promoting the book, but hopefully I can get it percolating again. Honestly, a lot of it is nostalgia. I fell in love with football as a kid in the late ‘80s. I have found memories of Don Majkowski and the Cardiac Pack. That ’89 Packers team didn’t even make the playoffs, but they’ll always own a piece of my pigskin loving heart. As I get older, I find myself longing for the past. Simpler times. So many great memories watching football with my brother and my uncle on Sunday afternoons. I wanted to celebrate that through the site. I also had some great “leftover” material from interviews I had with former players when I freelanced for a Packers magazine. I wanted a place for that. These guys have been retired for 20, 30 years or more – they LOVE to talk about the old days. My interview with Ken Ruettgers is eye-opening. I had an amazing conversation with Jerry Kramer last winter. While he was long since retired by the ‘80s, I still put up our interview on the site. I had to. This dude is 87 and his mind is sharp as a tack. He’s one of the last conduits to the Lombardi glory days. These stories need to be told before they’re gone forever. In some ways, the game was better back then. Defenses were more dominant. With the rule changes in recent years to benefit offenses, we’ll likely never see a defense like the ’85 Bears. But I do think the game needed to change to become somewhat safer for players. Some of the hits players doled out 30 years ago were insane. I was awed by them as a kid. I cringe looking at them now with all we know about CTE and brain damage. Also, the league is so money driven now it makes you queasy.
4. You self-published "COLD." And I wonder what that process was like. Fun? Frustrating? Both? Neither?: 1. In short, all of those feelings. Originally, I was planning to pitch the manuscript to publishers, but I got to the point where I had been working on it for almost three years. I just wanted to get it completed. Plus, I had taken a break for a few months after our son was born. 2. I chose to publish it through Barnes & Noble Press. No particular reason, it just seemed like an easy platform to use. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, haha. But, in the end, I have a book, which still blows me away. I remember when the first copy came. It sat on our kitchen table for a few days. I would walk by it and just stare in awe for a few seconds. Not because it’s some fantastic literary masterpiece, but because … hey, I wrote a damn book! A dream I had for years finally came true. 3. Sales for the book spiked in the first few weeks and I got some good reviews, but they’ve dipped since then. I actually hit a low point last week. I got depressed because you work so hard on a book for a couple of years and you just want it to do well. If every friend on social media who said “Congratulations” when I first promoted the book would buy a copy, I’d be ecstatic, haha. However, I’m SO appreciative of those who have and have read it and really enjoyed it. 4. I’ve started working with a local author/publicist to do a “relaunch” of the book. It’s going to be redesigned and published on more platforms. I’m super pumped for that! Stay tuned. After that, I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing for the past two months – promote my ass off.
5. In the heart of the pandemic you were a blogging machine and an exercise machine. Posts about boxing, your wife's Peloton, the fitbit. I actually sold my Peloton toward the end of Covid's strongest run, and have gotten back to being a hair lazy. How did Covid/post-covid impact you in that world?: I feel like I got more serious about fitness a year before Covid hit. I hopped on the scale, made an audible gasp, and decided to do something about it. My wife really loved her spin class, but when Covid hit, of course that shut down too. So, we decided to transform our basement into a home gym. Peloton, a heavy bag for boxing, free weights and a bench. I also got my Fitbit in the midst of the pandemic, and it’s been a game changer. I pay way more attention to my workouts, sleep, calorie burn, than I ever did before. And I really don’t miss public gyms. I go for walks around the neighborhood and shoot hoops at a nearby park. Sure, I miss playing pickup games and running my ass off with a bunch of guys, but I don’t have to deal with some guy hawking the ball or jacking up ill-advised shots or acting like its Game 7 of the Finals. I can get my Caitlin Clark on pounding the rock on a cracked, uneven asphalt court and that’s fine with me. I’m also a big believer in using exercise to reduce stress. How many of us needed to blow off steam during the pandemic? The day after we had to put our dog down, I found out I was going to be a father. Talk about a wave of mixed emotions. But I was so upset about losing our beloved Boxer that I couldn’t even enjoy the fact we were expecting our first child. Not yet anyway. Plus, my wife and I had been trying to get pregnant for over two years without success. Why would this time be different? Throw in all the anxieties over Covid and the world seemed like a cold, unfair place. So, the next morning I went downstairs and beat the living shit out of a heavy bag for 45 minutes. I got it out of my system and felt better. More people need to discover that release.
Bonus (rank in order favorite to least) Phil McConkey, Lou Reed, Tim Horton's, CNN.com, Tulsi Gabbard, spicy tuna rolls, the new USFL, 60-cent postage stamps, your wife's Peloton, the sounds of Pickleball, Luis Arráez: 1. My wife’s Peloton. There would be trouble in the Damask household if I didn’t put that at No. 1. Plus, it’s a killer workout. 2. Luis Arraez. I grew up watching pure hitters: Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor … so it’s a breath of fresh air to see a guy flirt with .400 this late in the season, especially in this era when much of the game has turned into purely strikeouts and home runs. 3. Tim Horton’s. Never been to one, but I love coffee so I’m sure I’d dig it. 4. Spicy tuna roll. 5. Phil McConkey. Love those old Giant unis. Big Blue! 6. Lou Reed. I’m more of a heavy rock guy, but he was a legend, no doubt. 7. The new USFL. Watched a little bit, but just can’t get into spring football. Not when the NFL is all around us, 24/7. I’d rather watch grainy YouTube clips of the original USFL. 8. CNN.com. 9. Tulsi Gabbard. Respect her as a veteran but our politics probably wouldn’t see eye-to-eye. 10. The sounds of pickleball. 11. 60-cent postage stamps. I’m starting to sound like my parents, “Hell, I remember when you could buy a stamp for 29 cents!”
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 Marco: I’m just starting at a pretty small newspaper, and my editor insists you can never start a sentence with ‘But’ or ‘And.’ Is that dumb?: That’s so dumb. So, so, so dumb. There are certain rules in journalism that make perfect sense. For example: Don’t accuse someone of sleeping with a hooker if he never did. Don’t misquote someone. Don’t make up names. On and on. But the whole But/And thing isn’t merely wrongheaded, it’s infuriating. And it doesn’t even make sense. But is a word. And and is a word. But some editors don’t see it that way. And they tend to be very dogmatic about it.
But they’re wrong.
And you’re right.
A random old article worth revisiting …
Mike Lupica spent much of his career in New York walking the press boxes with the cocky strut of a rooster and the irksome cackle of Will Clark. He was brash and cocky and super annoying. But, man, he was a fantastic columnist—as this June 5, 1982 piece illustrates …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Eriana Meadows, outgoing senior at Gardner-Webb University.
So because it’s summer, and Meadows just graduated, she’s no longer technically a college student. But she did spend last year as editor in chief of GWU-Today, and she wrote a story that brought me pure joy.
Beneath the headline, KENDAL VEST DOUBLE TITLED IN MISS GARDNER-WEBB PAGEANT, earnestly explained the plight of a first-time pageant entrant who just wanted to make some friends and play the piano.
Wrote Meadows: “Allie Cooke, Miss Gardner-Webb ‘22, enjoyed getting to know Kendal Vest and shared kind words toward her achievement. ‘The new Miss Gardner-Webb is a very genuine woman with a heart for the Lord. Kendal will be an excellent representation of this school and I am happy to pass this honorable title to her,’ said Cooke. Kendal expressed her own gratitude for this life-changing moment. ‘I am looking forward to the opportunity to share about my incredible experience at GWU so far and brag on God for allowing me to be here. I hope to be as much of a servant on campus,’ Vest said.
One can follow Meadows on Twitter here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: So I try very hard not to slam other writers here, because I know how challenging this gig can be. But with Outkick the Coverage, I’m inclined to make exceptions. A few days ago, Outkick’s David Hookstead wrote a piece headlined, ‘ENTOURAGE’ CREATOR TEASES POSSIBLE RETURN: ‘NEVER LET ANYONE REWRITE HISTORY.’ And while the story, technically, concerned Doug Ellin suggesting his classic HBO show could, potentially, make a return down the line, Hookstead used the space to go on a bewildering rant, noting, “The woke mob has tried to paint ‘Entourage’ as a terrible show enjoyed by terrible people. Fans definitely shouldn’t allow history to be rewritten. The revisionist history around ‘Entourage’ is truly nothing short of embarrassing. Somehow, the wokes have tarred and feathered the show as sexist, inappropriate and a sign of everything that is wrong with dudes. Incorrect. 100% incorrect. Are there some edgy jokes? Sure. Is the dialogue a bit out there at times? Without a doubt. You know my thoughts on that? Good.” His examples of folks slamming “Entourage”? Um, well, ah—nothing. Literally not one citation, not one notation. Nada. Just an angry dude writing for pay and failing to realize you don’t begin sentences with numbers.
Musing 2: Bob Kravitz is one of the truly excellent sports journalists of the past three decades, and his recent laying off via The Athletic blows. Bob breaks it down in a new Substack post—and it’s an even worse saga than you’d think.
Musing 3: So Barack Obama released his latest reading list, and one of the included books is Jonathan Eig’s “King: A Life.” And, yeah, Jon is a great friend and colleague. But the book is so fucking rich and smart and informed. I can’t love it more than I do. So … hard work pays off.
Musing 4: Right around the same time the New York Times announces it’s blowing up the sports section, Tyler Kepner delivers one of the masterful pieces of the year—this glorious visit with Carl Erskine, 96-year-old former Major League pitcher and the last living member of the 1955 world champion Brooklyn Dodgers. Come for the prose, stay Erskine’s harmonica solo.
Musing 5: The new Two Writers Slinging Yang features the amazing Tova Friedman, Auschwitz survivor and author.
Quote of the week …
I’ll get to freelancing next week.
Sorry, trees. But I do recycle it all.