The Yang Slinger: Vol. XVII
Sometimes a story should be written. Sometimes a story shouldn't. How does a journalist know? Also, five questions with Dana Hall McCain and props to Brian Flores. Now let's cover him correctly.
As I write this I am sitting in my hotel room in a far-off metropolis, working on a story I’m not entirely certain I should be working on.
This isn’t a feeling I experienced often as a young writer. Actually, this isn’t a feeling I experienced ever as a young writer. Back in the day, I’d take any and all assignments, morals/emotions/conflicts be damned. Were a Tennessean editor to ask me to go undercover as a crack-addicted hooker, I’d strengthen my grip. Were a Sports Illustrated head to order me to leap out of a plane sans parachute, I’d wear my baggiest outfit and toss down some pillows. Why, in 2004 the power brokers at Newsday thought it’d be funny to chronicle a New York January from hell by sending an idiot scribe (me) to the coldest spot in North America.
That’s how I—a man who absolutely abhors snow and ice—wound up in Yellowknife, Canada, freezing my ass off and slurping up my own snot to maintain warmth.
Anything for the story.
With age and experience, however, came … well, a few things. First, a little more more selectivity. Second, probably a tiny bit bigger ego. And lastly (and most important in regard to this entry), a whole lot more morality. I’m simply not as willing in 2022 as I was in 2002 to ignore the emotions of a situation; to place a subject’s fragility aside and go hard-core after the saga. Or, put a bit differently: I’m no longer comfortable being a heartless douche
Were I to place a precise date on this conversion, it’d probably be Oct. 4, 2011, when “Sweetness,” my Walter Payton biography, hit shelves. Of my 9 1/2 (half being my soon-to-be-dropped Bo Jackson bio) books, “Sweetness” is the one I’m most proud of. First, because I left no stone unturned. Second, because I loved the subject as much as one can love a subject. Third, because it remains the only birth-to-death project I’ve worked on, and that carries genuine significance.
But, positives be damned, I included something within the 400-or-so pages that continues to bring me legitimate shame.
Namely, this …
At the time, I convinced myself that Walter Payton having herpes was worthy of print. I’m sure I was proud of tracking down the medical report, proud of knowing something others didn’t, proud of a juicy tidbit that would draw attention. But, in hindsight, it was a genuinely disgusting and immature inclusion. Walter Payton was dead, and his family had to exist with the charred details. There were plenty of unflattering items that needed to be included in order to present a full and accurate picture. But herpes? Herpes added nothing but humiliation for folks who didn’t deserve it. It contributed nada to the narrative.
I live with that embarrassment. It still eats me up.
I digress …
I’m here, in a far-off metropolis. Working on a touchy story that concerns a person who’s a 0 on the 0-to-100 celebrity scale. I won’t mention specifics. I won’t tell you his name. But there are people who aren’t particularly thrilled by my presence. And that’s a thing. I mean, it’s one point if the unhappy folks are, oh, team owners. Greedy dickwads. Criminals. Bad seeds who did bad things in the name of consumption. But in this case, they’re not. These people have spun through hell’s carwash, and (some, not all) don’t want to discuss the darkness they’ve already experienced. They are legitimately tortured souls who crave eight hours of sleep and want said torture to disappear.
Here’s a snippet of DM I received:
So … yeah.
And the question is: What to do?
What do you do when the benefits of an assignment are murky? What do you do if the benefits of an assignment are solely clicks and re-Tweets? What do you do if a piece of juicy information is only worthwhile because it’s juicy? What do you do if what you’re writing is going to hurt innocent folks?
Your editor is demanding the story.
Your heart is demanding you not do the story.
One of my favorite people in media is Iliana Limón Romero, the Los Angeles Times’ deputy sports editor and a gloriously wise cookie.
While thinking up this volume of Substackian non-brilliance, as well as gargling my own inner-debate, I asked Iliana whether she had some insights into the Do v. Don’t of story pursuit. Here is the brilliance that emerged from her DM …
So the question I always ask is: Does this serve the reader? That's your first concern, true allegiance, guiding light. Could what you have to write shed light on an underserved community, an under-the-radar issue, a group or problem being ignored? Will it clarify the true depth of a situation or help put a tragedy into context? Will it help a community better understand what was lost and help serve as a final word for a victim who wouldn't normally rate an obit? With no knowledge of your reporting, I'm going to assume the answer to at least one of those questions is yes. Next, will you be unable to tell a complete story without more time or do harm by poorly capturing the situation for readers? Assuming—no, knowing—your drive you report stories well. Finally, will this do harm to those directly involved. It might, but do we honestly believe your reporting will make life worse for them? The pain over a loss of life and a life derailed is going to exist regardless of whether you write. I believe you will approach it with care and compassion, which means it'll wreck you a bit, but they're already living that hell. I just don't know enough detail to say whether it will do major harm. One last note ... Your mental health is important. If you don't feel like this a story you can sleep at night after publishing, don't do it. It's fine. No one needs you to suffer. Just make sure you won't hate yourself equally for not doing it and are being honest about how much negative impact you might be having
Jesus, that’s strong. And smart. I do believe, far too often, we get so deep into the pursuit that we fail to consider what, exactly, we’re pursuing. I can’t help but think back to my first year as a journalist in 1994, when The Tennessean had a pair of reporters live a month undercover (as a married couple) in an impoverished part of town to see what, exactly, low-income living was like.
The idea, I believe, was to generate understanding and, perhaps, compassion for the city’s downtrodden. But when the denizens learned that their wed neighbors had been deceitful Tennessean journalists—
Eh. It did not go well.
Why? Because the folks who thought up the story failed to properly consider the human shrapnel. It’s one thing to be poor. It’s another thing to be poor, exposed and taken advantage of. In my (nearly) three decades of journalism, it remains (along with this Sports Illustrated piece) the least-compassionate enterprise I’ve witnessed. I know, for a fact, Tennessean editors were gunning for the major journalism awards, and viewed this misguided dung missile as the deliverance. Even had they captured the Pulitzer (lord knows they didn’t), the cruelty wouldn’t have been worth the gold. Hell, it wouldn’t have been worth five Pulitzers.
It was, at its core, mean.
One of the most naturally gifted writers I’ve worked with was a kid named Matt Konkle.
Back in the early-1990s, Matt and I were on the staff of The Review, the University of Delaware’s student newspaper. And Matt was the full package. His writing was crisp. His sports knowledge was encyclopedic. He turned around stories fast and with few-to-no typos. Yeah, he wore a USA Basketball jersey in his mugshot …
… but no one’s perfect.
Anyhow, after graduating from UD, Matt was hired by the Coatesville (Pa). Record, a small daily located between West Chester and Lancaster. One day, an editor assigned the rookie reporter to an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally that would be held in downtown Coatesville.
Matt, all of age 23, refused.
“While I saw the news value of covering the rally,” he said, “I couldn’t do it. I just totally abhorred that mindset.”
The Record’s editor respected Matt’s decision and put someone else on the march. But looking back, it was a pretty bush-league move by a young scribe. And before I dive a bit deeper into the larger Cover v. Don’t Cover debate, I want to explain why. As journalists, our primary responsibility is to chronicle. Really, it’s that simple. We are a community’s eyes and ears. We place stuff on paper/computer screens so others can be informed and educated. Again—it’s that simple. So let’s say you hate the KKK. Hell, let’s say you hate the Girl Scouts. Or Black Lives Matter. Or the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Or Jewish Journalists with Substacks. Those emotions are irrelevant. You (we) are paid to set aside personal leanings and write what we see. Or, put different: If you’re a young news writer, and the KKK comes to town, you damn well better tackle that assignment. A. Because it’s a fabulous test; B. Because it’s a fucking killer experience (and life is all about the experiences); C. If you can maintain your cool covering the KKK, you can maintain your cool under under circumstance.
Matt, for his part, doesn’t disagree. “Looking back, it certainly wasn't a professional response and I should have followed through like any other assignment and kept my personal/moral feelings aside,” he said. “Maybe we all feel some sense of morality in the dawn of our careers, but in the years after as I moved back into the sports realm, I covered a prep school coach accused of inappropriate relations with an athlete, the suicide of a popular football player and other things that didn't align with my moral sense. So I think I definitely grew into a professional understanding.”
Now, let’s expand this one a bit. Just for kicks. Let’s say the KKK is coming to town. Let’s say you’ve been assigned to cover the march. Let’s say you take the assignment. Let’s say you’re on the street, interviewing Klansmen. Let’s say one of the Klansmen screams some utterly vile things about Jews and blacks and gays. Let’s say his name is Kent Smith—K-E-N-T S-M-I-T-H. You get his age (29), his hometown (Brewster, N.Y.), his profession (lawn care).
You use the material, right?
But what if you find out Kent Smith, 29-year-old lawn care professional from Brewster, N.Y., is severely autistic? What if his mother—not a member of the Klan—begs you not to use his name? What if, as she’s begging you, Kent is calling you a worthless piece of Mexican Jewish shit?
“Hey, you fucking Mexican Jew …”
“Go fuck yourself, Mexican Jew …”
“You piece of …”
What do you do?
These are the complications of the gig, and the answers aren’t always clear. I know reporters who would protect Kent Smith. I also know reporters who would use his identity and (understandably) sneer, “The guy’s an adult Klansman.”
Back in 2007, Amber Healy was working as a reporter for Connection Newspapers, a group of 17 weeklies in Virginia and Maryland. There was a woman named Cathy Belter who served on the Fairfax County School Board, and Healy began to hear whispers that something was up with her e-mails. “Like either the person who was writing them was half asleep or someone wasn't familiar with things they should've known,” Healy recalled. “It was hard to pin down but something was off.” The accusations mounted—that Belter’s husband was writing her e-mails; that Belter’s mind was fading away. People started telling Healy that there was some genre of a coverup going down. That she needed to investigate this mounting scandal.
Healy was 24 at the time. Young and maybe a bit out of her depth (as we all are at that age). She debated what route to pursue—dig into Belter’s brain or let it go? Dig or let it go? Dig or …
“It was a very hard call—to dutifully report the suggestion was to accuse this woman of slipping, mentally, while also saying there was a coverup in process with her husband, who had no public role in anything,” Healy said. “I couldn't bring myself to make that accusation because we had no proof.”
She never touched the subject.
She was, I believe, correct.
Maybe, if Healy is 40 and seasoned, it’s a story worth pursuing. You interview a bunch of Belter’s fellow board members, who note all the problems she’s been having. You sit down and research the signs of dementia. You learn everything there is to learn about the life and times of Cathy Belter. Finally, when comfortable, you call Belter and request a one-on-one. You tell her what people are saying. You see what she thinks. You put on your understanding hat.
But it takes a ton of dexterity.
And even more compassion.
That’s the word, isn’t it?
In 2014 Bob Herzog was rolling along as one of Newsday’s top-shelf sports writers. He wound up writing a piece on Tom Cutinella, a 16-year-old football player at Shoreham-Wading River High School who died of a head injury. It’s an absolutely beautiful story, headlined TEARS FOR TOM and opening with this …
While working on the article, Bob made two important decisions:
He told the photographer not to file any pictures of Cutinella lying on the field.
He did not identify the John Glenn High player who made—in Bob’s words—”the inadvertent-but-careless helmet-to-helmet hit.”
Looking back, those weren’t actually hard calls. We’re not here to ruin people—especially kids. Whoever tackled Tom Cutinella certainly didn’t aspire to kill him. No matter what, that moment trails him forever. So what would have been the point of naming him? Of calling him out?
A few extra clicks?
I’ve worked with certain editors and reporters who would have demanded I track down the John Glenn High player the following day and write a piece on his place in the world. I would have likely knocked on the family’s door, only to (rightly) have it slammed in my face. I would have then tried reaching out to friends, and more friends, and more friends, until some level of story would be cobbled together.
Why? Because … eh … I actually don’t know why. How would that type of story helped anyone? How would if it have served society? “The best journalism brings change,” J.A. Adande, the veteran journalist and director of sports journalism at Medill, told me. “Even if it only changes the way we think about something or someone.”
Someone I know (who requested anonymity) covers a minor league hockey team. Before a recent game the star goalie skated warmups, then (poof!) vanished. “Turned out he had a mental breakdown right as they were taking the ice,” the reporter said. “Like shaking, tearing clothes off, destroying things, had to be physically restrained by teammates.” Shortly thereafter the player was released, and my journalism peer nailed down the entire story through anonymous sources.
He never wrote it.
“I decided reporting it would just hurt this young rookie starting his career, probably make his mental health worse,” the reporter said. “I was just like, ‘What am I going to gain by this? Some state-wide writing award?’ Wasn't worth it to me. So I just wrote it up as undisclosed injury/illness. Most people took it to mean COVID protocols, probably.”
Which leads me back to the story I’m working on.
The one that’s haunting me.
A few hours ago, between writing the first part of this Substack and the sentence you’re reading, I interviewed a man who said to me, “I’m so damn happy you’re taking on this subject.”
He sees it all differently than the person who told me to fuck off. He thinks there’s something to be gained. A lesson that might stick with readers. He actually caused me to reconsider my approach, and ask myself if, perhaps, I was looking at this assignment through a warped perspective.
I am meeting him tomorrow morning. We’ll have coffee and muffins. We’ll chat.
I remain uncertain whether this is the right way to go. Maybe the story will come to pass, maybe I’ll decide it’s best left unwritten.
Whatever the case, I didn’t become a journalist because it’s easy.
I became a journalist because it’s not.
The Quaz Five with … Dana Hall McCain
Dana Hall McCain is a graduate of Auburn University and a columnist for Alabama Media Group. Her commentary on faith, culture and politics regularly appears on the digital platform AL.com, The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and The Mobile Press-Register. You can follow her on Twitter here.
1. So Dana — you've become one of my favorite conservative voices because you're not a Trump fan, you're very honest and raw in your assessments of politics (right and left) and you seem guided by genuine concern for America. So I ask—do you feel increasingly alone and isolated?: A few years ago it did feel pretty lonely to actually speak truth all the time—even when it was upsetting to my own tribe. But I've found in doing that consistently that a certain percentage of people who appreciate the integrity are drawn to you. And there are more reasonable, honest people out there than social media leads us to believe. The extremes of our political spectrum tend to be loud and often dominate the discourse, while really wonderful people with a balanced point of view are too busy working and living their lives to sit online all day feeding the outrage machine. Things are a mess, but there are still good people worth having a dialogue with all around us.
2. What happened to us? I really mean that. I remember growing up—I didn't know who my neighbors voted for. Didn't care. Wasn't a thing. Now it's gross and ugly and ... everything. What happened?: Well, 24-hour cable news and social media happened to us. We were not designed to marinate in political commentary around the clock. When I was a child in the 1970s and ‘80s, my parents caught a little bit of local news in the morning, and maybe an hour of local and national news in the evening. In the interim, they were living their lives: going to work, changing the oil in the car, cooking dinner, cutting the grass. Now a huge number of Americans spend eight-to-10 hours per day consuming digital media either in the form of cable news or online content. It distorts our perception. Add to that the fact that so much content is entertainment masquerading as news, and the problem multiplies. How do you entertain? By provoking. So to keep viewers or get clicks, providers are feeding fear or confirming biases. Division is inevitable when media is financially incentivized to divide us.
3. You live in Alabama. Blue America often laughs at Alabama. What are they (um, we?) missing?: I am, in fact, Alabama born and raised. I think there's a great deal of misunderstanding about "flyover country." Likewise, I think that people around me are often too quick to dismiss East or West Coast people out of hand. But I can tell you that on the main streets and on the farms of Alabama, there are some very fine, hardworking, smart people. We are largely conservative, and that puts us at odds with rapid cultural change oftentimes. But Alabama is far more culturally and intellectually diverse than you might suspect. And the people here are incredibly generous, when you look at what we earn, and how much of it we give away to help our neighbors.
4. You're a conservative Christian. You're clearly a woman of great faith. How, when so much is dark and so many things seem to be crumbling, do you maintain it?: One of the foundations of the Christian faith is the belief that this life is "but a vapor," and that eternity stretches before us. That's a tremendous comfort to me when conditions in the world look dim. It's that eternal perspective, and faith in a loving God that helps me to keep looking forward, and to resist despairing about the brokenness around us. We know that all things will be set right in God's timing. We have just to be faithful in the here and now. Just do the next right thing. Love people well.
5. Rank in order (favorite to least): Bruce Pearl, Cam Newton, Sharpies, Kool & the Gang, Bear Bryant, Nestle Crunch Bar, Santonio Holmes, the metric system, Pope John Paul II, Mo Brooks, cucumbers: Bruce Pearl - he's keeping us from despair while Auburn's football program melts like an ice cream cone; Sharpies - the fine-point pen ones are heaven; Pope John Paul II - I'm not catholic, but he held the line on many key doctrines. Also the PopeMobile was awesome; Cam Newton - he's a little crazy, but he's ours. 2010 Forever; Nestle Crunch Bar; Kool & the Gang - soundtrack of my middle school days. Let's backward skate; Bear Bryant - he was Darth Vader to an Auburn kid, but I respected him; Cucumbers - Nice crunch but need a lot of ranch to really perform; Santonio Holmes - this is Alabama and we don't cut our teeth on the NFL. I honestly had to Google this guy; The metric system - ridiculous. hate it; Mo Brooks - no comment.
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Kiara Cronin, University of Delaware senior and senior news reporter for The Review.
Just being honest—I’d been waiting for someone from the ol’ alma mater to leap off the page. And, at last, here’s Cronin, a Blue Hen and author of this burn-a-hole-through-the-page takedown of Dennis Assanis1, the university president, for his repeated inactions.
The money line of “Where Is Dennis” …
One can follow Cronin on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
During my junior year of college I became increasingly infamous around the University of Delaware campus as a writer who bashed fraternities and sororities for the sake of bashing fraternities and sororities.
I’d dispute that point—”No, I’m fair in my takes.” But, truth be told, I wasn’t even slightly fair or open-minded. I’m sure it all came down to being a semi-geek in high school, then arriving on a large college campus and finding myself armed with a large pen. So with regular indifference, I’d shit on Delta Delta Delta and Pike simply because I could. In hindsight, it’s utterly preposterous. I knew very little about the intricacies of the Greek system, save most of the parties were ones to which I never received an invitation.
Long story short, the newspaper had a magazine, and for its debut issue I wrote a piece bragging about all the Greek hate mail I received. It was pathetic, look-at-me stuff, and one of the illustrators actually sketched me sitting atop a basketball hoop.
As you can see above, I look like a butt-chinned Frankenstein.
Which was spot on.
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: This is more social than journalistic, but bravo (times 1,000) for Brian Flores and his willingness to step up and speak out against the NFL’s bullshit non-record of hiring African-American head coaches. Now it’s up to us, the sports media, to keep on this issue. The NFL relied on bright lights and enormous stadiums and snazzy halftime shows to distract us post-Kaepernick. They’ll try again.
Musing 2: I have mixed feelings on some of Adam Schefter’s approach to football coverage, but he took a ton of shit for reporting Tom Brady’s retirement—and it turns out he was 100-percent correct. A few days before officially announcing he was done on Tuesday morning, Brady said, “We're in such an era of information and people want to be in front of the news often. I totally understand that. I understand that's the environment we're in. I think for me, it's just literally day to day with me.” And it’s true. But reporters report. And Adam reported correctly. Bravo.
Musing 3: An absolutely depressing piece from DW on Hong Kong’s crackdown of not just journalists, but journalism professors. "I think the challenge is going to be how to uphold the principles of journalism without falling foul of the law and worrying about the red lines," Yuen Chan, a journalism lecturer at City University of London, noted. How awful is the situation? Media outlets used to refer to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as "Taiwanese President." Now it must be "Taiwan leader." Must.
Musing 4: Something about this is absolutely heartbreaking …
Musing 5: I can’t possible do this justice with words. But here—in a world of insanely cool things—is the coolest thing ever. Enter … the Uncensored Library! [Trust me]
Musing 6: A writer worth keeping an eye on is Jonah Dylan of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The kid’s just 24, a year and change out of Northwestern, covering hard news in a city that’s filled with the stuff. Having cut my teeth on a late-night police scanner, I appreciate the goods when I see it.
Musing 7: I found some real value in this Outlook profile of the actor Simon Pegg, who discusses the need to avoid the pressures of always having to be funny. I believe we journalists also deal with unspoken weight—to report better than ever before, to write with a new crispness, to hit deadlines never before met, to break bigger news. And, truly, it’s OK to just be good and do your absolute best. Like Pegg alludes to, pressure is oftentimes more damaging than helpful.
Musing 8: I generally don’t give a shit about this stuff. Really, I never give a shit about this stuff. But with the Brady bombshell, Stephen A. Smith decided to offer his Top 5 all-time quarterback rankings: 1. Brady; 2. Joe Montana; 3. Peyton Manning; 4. Patrick Mahomes; 5. Aaron Rodgers. And obviously it’s all just a show, and lists don’t matter and … blah, blah. But, really? No one who played the position when receivers and backs could be pummeled as soon as they crossed the line of scrimmage? No one who absorbed real hits? No one unprotected by nonexistent rules? No Johnny U? No Roger Staubach? No Jerry Golsteyn? Sigh.
Musing 9: A touching piece from Michael J. Lewis on taking his son, Nate, to his first New York Rangers game. Sometimes it’s OK to write simply for the sake of love and joy. Here’s Exhibit A.
Musing 10: The new Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist and author of the outstanding Kobe book, "The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality." Listen here.
Quote Cartoon of the week …
That is not a typo. Ass. Anis. Yes.