Maybe, even as newspapers contract, the people who know what makes a great story will find a way to keep getting paid for their work.
Maybe, even as newspapers contract, the people who know what makes a great story will find a way to keep getting paid for their work.
So much of Bountygate boils down to evidence. This is the biggest scandal in the history of the NFL, and when the initial punishments came down—long suspensions for both players and coaches—they came with only vague notions of evidence. There were documents, the league said, that proved coaches up and down the ladder knew about serious rules violations and did nothing to stop them. There was talk of pre-game statements and a pool of dirty money and allegations of $10,000 bounties. The penalties were the most serious the league has ever handed down. There were lawsuits and overturned decisions and secret meetings.
Because the NFL is so focused on doing everything behind closed doors, on protecting the brand—”the shield”—no matter what, the public has seen little in the way of evidence. It was the reason a three-person appeals panel suspended commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspensions, saying he could only act if he finds evidence of behavior “detrimental to the league.”
Well, I was with Sean Pamphilon when he brought that very kind of evidence to NFL headquarters on a Wednesday morning in May. I was next to him as he walked into the lobby and right up to the front desk.
Thanks to our buddy Erik Hahmann (@ehahmann) for this Q and A with the lovely and talented Chris Jones.
You’ve written a number of profiles in your career, perhaps most famously Roger Ebert. Is there a specific challenge that you face with them?
For me, if there’s a problem, that problem is almost always falling in love. There are exceptions, of course. I’ve profiled people I’ve loathed, and I’ve profiled people I ended up feeling pretty ambivalent about, which is probably a bad sign when you’re writing a profile. Ambivalence isn’t a great hook.
But there are subjects for whom I felt love and still do, and I don’t use that word lightly. Roger is a good example of that. I was already a great admirer of Roger’s before we met—I pitched that story in the first place because I thought he was such a good writer and generous, which I think is the most important quality in a critic. After spending time with him, I was only more in the tank. I was totally, entirely without objectivity when I wrote that story, and I wanted readers to feel what I felt.
I’ve talked before about how I don’t believe in objectivity anyway—that it’s some impossible ideal to ask journalists not to feel human emotions about other humans, especially when you’ve spent enough time with them to write a profile. I’ve always said that truth is the more important quality. And there is nothing in my story about Roger that isn’t true. But I can also see how someone who didn’t like Roger for whatever insane reason would have come out with a different story. That’s a lot of responsibility to bear, how millions of people perceive someone.
My next story, the same thing happened. It’s about magic, and I spent a lot of time with Teller, the quieter, smaller half of Penn & Teller. And love isn’t too strong a word there, either. I just love how he thinks, how he views life and pursues his art, how much he cares and feels, his attention to detail. Teller, for me, is the person you get when you combine a big brain with a huger heart, which is an all-too-rare combination. I’m sure readers won’t confuse my feelings about him. I can see how J-school profs and more clinical journalists will not like what I’ve done, will believe I’ve committed sins, and sometimes I feel like I am a sinner. Someone who doesn’t like me very much once dismissed me as “a man of deep feeling,” and he meant it meanly, but I can hardly say that he was wrong about me.
Of course, I believe that deep feeling is important when you’re writing about someone else’s life, and I believe that there’s nothing wrong with there being more love in our stories and the world. Still, when you spend as much time inside your own head as writers do, you have to fight hard to remain doubtless.
Is there a style—long form, profiles, back page—that you feel best suits you? Why?
I think my most “natural” journalism is longer features. I think that’s less because of my writing and more because of my reporting. I think I’m pretty good with people (in person, at least) and I’m good at getting strangers to tell me things. I think people sometimes think of me as a profile writer, but my favorite stories are procedurals, those really intense stories that tell the reader how something went down, like “The Things That Carried Him” or “Animals.” I think those are the stories that I’m best at, or at least those are the stories that I like doing the most.
What’s funny—I started writing the back page at ESPN The Magazine close to a year ago now. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think I was very good at it in the beginning. I think I had a hard time with the length, which is around 770 words, give or take. That’s long enough where you need to have a real foundation for a column, but it’s not long enough to allow you to do the deep dives that I like to do. It’s a weird middle length. But now I’ve come to really enjoy it. I think my last five or six columns have been pretty damn solid because I’ve finally figured out the length. And there’s something really cool about having a single page and trying to make it as perfect as I can. I’ve come to like that sense of confinement. A 10,000-word feature, perfection isn’t really possible, and the way my brain works, that’s sometimes unsatisfying or even painful for me. The hard fact is a story like that is just too big to account for everything. But 770 words, a single page? You have a better chance of making that crystalline. It’s like the difference between building an entire house and painting a single room. You will make mistakes with the house, but it’s possible for every line to be dead straight in a single room. That’s within your reach.
In regards to sports journalism, is there anything you wish you saw more of? Less of? Anything that gets overdone?
I think you used the key word there: sports journalism. Sports sometimes get dismissed as unimportant, but they are hugely important to many people, and they have an enormous impact on our culture and our lives. This will sound preachy, but I’d like sportswriters to commit more acts of real investigative journalism. I think it’s disgusting that Jeffrey Loria has gotten away with the giant fraud that is the Miami Marlins and their new ballpark. That never should have happened, and it never should have happened because sportswriters prevented it from happening. I think because access is so tenuous these days, and deadlines are so crazy, and the competition is so intense, sportswriters sometimes struggle just to get by doing the daily stuff. But I think advocacy journalism is so valuable, it’s worth the time and effort. I’m thinking about stories like the New York Times piece about dead race horses or what finally happened at Penn State, only many years too late. Not every sports story has to be about blood and concussions, but I think it’s important that we cover these things well and thoroughly.
Overdone? I don’t need to see or hear anybody bloviating from his couch about sports ever again. I couldn’t give less of a shit. If a story or a column doesn’t have any original reporting in it, it’s probably not worth my time or anybody else’s. Why should I care what you think any more than I care about what the guy sitting next to me on the plane thinks? With my own column, the best ones are clearly the ones where I didn’t just opine. They’re the ones where I reported, and that’s something else that took me a while to figure out. I started out trying to mimic other columnists, because I thought that’s how it was supposed to be done, rather than trusting the same instincts that I use with my longer stuff. Blow the dust off your notepad and get the fuck out of your house.
I can’t think of a more clear distillation of my feelings than the difference between Dan Wetzel’s Super Bowl column and Jason Whitlock’s Super Bowl column. That’s the fight that’s going on, right there.
The current media landscape is changing seemingly every day: how we consume it, how it’s presented to us, etc. Are you happy with the direction we’re headed? What would you change?
As a reader, I’m happy. As a writer, I’m worried.
Every day, I find ten things worth reading—great journalism, beautiful stories. They are everywhere. Last night, I read a letter by a comedian named Chris Gethard to a suicidal fan. I had not heard of Chris Gethard until last night, and there, suddenly, right in front of my eyes, instantly and for free, was this beautiful important thing written with a voice that was new to me. I think that’s amazing. I’m constantly amazed by technology. That app that lets you hold your iPhone into the air and it tells you what song is playing in the bar or wherever? That is a miracle to me.
But technology has hurt our business in a lot of ways. In terms of jobs, obviously, and I fear that ultimately it will hurt the quality of our available reporting, because newspapers still do the brunt of the heavy lifting, and when they finally get to the end of their evolution, I’m worried that not as much heavy lifting will be done. I’m not sure our delightful collection of aggregators and citizen bloggers will fill that growing gap. Maybe some new form of journalism and journalist that I can’t see yet will knock me on my ass, and I hope with all my heart that’s the case. But more and more, I read and hear lies that go unchecked. Look at modern political campaigns. They’re filthy and untrue and that is a terrible thing for democracy and nobody denies that it is and yet on it goes. It’s almost as though we’ve come to accept lying as part of modern life, and there are fewer and fewer means to keep people honest, and I can’t tell you how fearful and depressed that makes me. Imagine for a moment if suddenly everyone in power had to be truthful with each other and with us; imagine if not every fact were twisted beyond recognition by opinion and sleight of hand. Holy shit, we’d be unstoppable. We’d be back on the moon.
This is a very broad question, but what makes a good writer?
There are many attributes—curiosity, determination, honesty—but the one that matters the most to me is care. I think writers have to be true believers to do their best work. They have to believe that what they’re doing is important and that it’s possible and that it matters and that it will be edited and read with the same care that they’ve put into it. A lot of people think that journalists need to be cynics, wry and narrow-eyed. I don’t believe that at all. You know that line from Friday Night Lights? Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose. That’s what I believe. Give me the biggest fucking heart in the room, every single fucking time.
Chris Jones: On or about March 15 of this year, Teller — the smaller, quieter half of the magicians Penn & Teller — says he received an e-mail from a friend in New York. In that e-mail, the friend included a link to a video on YouTube called the Rose & Her Shadow. Teller, sitting at his computer in his Las Vegas home, within eyeshot of a large black escape cross once owned by Houdini, clicked on the link. The video lasted one minute and fifty-one seconds. “I had what I can only describe as a visceral reaction to it,” Teller says today.
The video was posted by a magician who works under the stage name Gerard Bakardy; his real name is apparently Gerard Dogge. (Bakardy, a fifty-five-year-old Dutch national born in Belgium, is more than a magician; he prefers the title entertainer, because he’s a musician, too. Along with his blond partner, Nadia, he was, until recently, part of a lounge act called Los Dos de Amberes, the Two from Antwerp, booked mostly in the resort of Fuerteventura on the Canary Islands off Spain. “A lovely way to spend an evening,” they said in online advertisements that have since disappeared.) Leaning into his computer screen, Teller watched Bakardy perform some kind of trick.
Against a crimson curtain, Bakardy had erected an easel with what looked like a large pad of white paper on it. Perhaps six feet in front of the easel sat a small wood table bearing a glass Coke bottle filled with water. That bottle also contained a single rose. A spotlight, outside of the camera’s view, cast the rose’s shadow on the paper on the easel. Dressed in a dark suit, Bakardy appeared in the frame carrying a large knife in his right hand. He sliced it deep into the rose’s shadow. And when he cut into its shadow, something impossible happened: The corresponding part of the rose fell off the stem and onto the table. Petal by petal, Bakardy cut at the rose’s shadow until that Coke bottle somehow held only a decapitated stem, which he removed as though to demonstrate the absence of wires. He then lifted up the bottle itself — still no strings attached — and poured out the water. Ta-da.
The video ended with Bakardy’s e-mail address and an offer to sell the props necessary for the Rose & Her Shadow for what turned out to be 2,450 euros, or about $3,050 at the time. In bold white type across the bottom of the screen, Bakardy left a final message for his fellow magicians, including a dumbstruck Teller: EASY TO PERFORM.
Kruse: Nanci Donnellan, better known as the Fabulous Sports Babe, walked slowly one afternoon this past April to a table at a gelato shop on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg. She wore white Easy Spirit sneakers and a pink T-shirt and baggy rainbow-striped shorts. Her hands shook slightly.
“I’m the Babe,” she said.
Donnellan once was a sports-talk radio phenomenon, loud, brash, and 5-foot-2 and 300-plus pounds. She quickly became one of the top personalities on ESPN Radio when she debuted in the summer of 1994. She was the first woman ever to host a nationally syndicated sports show, and many in the industry consider her a trailblazer not just because of her gender but also because of her caustic, entertainment-first, sports-second style. She was the first person to have her sports radio show translated to TV. She signed a lucrative book deal with ReganBooks, the same publisher who turned Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern into best-selling authors. She was a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. She was written about in Newsweek.
It was a long way down. She got sick. Shows got canceled. She went mostly silent. This past January, she was in her fourth year doing a local show in a midday slot on the second-tier AM sports station in the Tampa Bay market, near her home, when she disappeared. The station said she had health problems. It was hard to know when or if she would return. She was replaced in late February.
In April, at the gelato shop, she sat at the table and took off her sunglasses.
“On January 22, I had a stroke,” she said. “You’re the first person I’ve told that to.”
But now she was better, she said, or at least getting better, and going to a speech pathologist. At times, she spoke sort of deliberately, but her diction was unmuddled. She thought she was ready to be back on the air.
The Babe wanted to work again, Nanci said. “I’d go anywhere at all.”
Rukmini Callimachi: HAWKANTAKI, Niger — Each day before the reaping, the 11-year-old girl walked between the stunted stalks of millet with a sense of mounting dread.
In a normal year, the green shoots vaulted out of the ground and rose as high as 13 feet (4 meters), a wall tall enough to conceal an adult man. This time, they only reached her waist. Even the tallest plant in her family’s plot barely grazed her shoulder.
Zali could feel the tug of the invisible thread tying her fate to that of the land. As the world closed in around her, she knew that this time the bad harvest would mean more than just hunger.
Joe Kovac Jr.: When cockroaches by the dozen started showing up at the front doors of the Fountain Temple AME Church on Sunday mornings, folks in the 35-member congregation weren’t sure what to think.
Their Pleasant Hill church dates to the middle 1800s. A decade ago it was condemned, its steeple caving in. But it was saved. They fixed the roof, put in new windows, purple carpet, purple-upholstered pews, a purple cross in the choir loft and brass chandeliers. The place was spotless, and they kept it that way.
Then last month, roaches — some skittering, some spiritless — began appearing around the welcome mat outside the sanctuary foyer. The bugs were also in the pink-bowed wreaths on the doors.
Parishioners figured maybe there was a roach nest somewhere. They’d sweep up the dead ones and turn foggers on the live ones. Then three or four days later, more roaches. It went on for weeks until the Rev. Mildred H. Denson’s husband had a hunch: Maybe someone was dumping the bugs there.
Michael Lewis: Even after his parachute opened, Tyler Stark sensed he was coming down too fast. The last thing he’d heard was the pilot saying, “Bailout! Bailout! Bail—” Before the third call was finished, there’d come the violent kick in the rear from the ejector seat, then a rush of cool air. They called it “opening shock” for a reason. He was disoriented. A minute earlier, when the plane had started to spin—it felt like a car hitting a patch of ice—his first thought had been that everything was going to be fine: My first mission, I had my first close call. He’d since changed his mind. He could see the red light of his jet’s rocket fading away and also, falling more slowly, the pilot’s parachute. He went immediately to his checklist: he untangled himself from his life raft, then checked the canopy of his chute and saw the gash. That’s why he was coming down too fast. How fast he couldn’t say, but he told himself he’d have to execute a perfect landing. It was the middle of the night. The sky was black. Below his feet he could see a few lights and houses, but mainly it was just desert.
When he was two years old, Tyler Stark had told his parents he wanted to fly, like his grandfather who had been shot down by the Germans over Austria. His parents didn’t take him too seriously until he went to college, at Colorado State University, when on the first day of school he had enrolled in the air-force R.O.T.C. program. A misdiagnosis about his eyesight killed his dreams of being a pilot and forced him into the backseat, as a navigator. At first he was crushed by the news, but then he realized that, while an air-force pilot might be assigned to fly cargo planes or even drones, the only planes with navigators in them were fighter jets. So the mix-up about his eyesight had been a blessing in disguise. The first years of his air-force career he’d spent on bases in Florida and North Carolina. In 2009 they’d shipped him to England, and to a position where he might see action. And on the night of March 21, 2011, Captain Tyler Stark took off in an F-15 from a base in Italy, with a pilot he’d only just met, on his first combat mission. He now had reasons to think it might also be his last.
Kalani Simpson: When Nicolette Maroulis first came to, she thought she was dead. They were giving her last rites. The priest hadn’t acknowledged that she had woken up, and, so, lying there on that hospital table, it hit her that maybe she hadn’t. Maybe this was it.
She calls herself a control freak, and on 9/11, the world itself was spinning so out of control she’d done the only thing she could think of to take it back. She signed up. The bio says Maroulis had enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Sept. 12, 2001. “It might have been the 14th,” she said. Whatever — that next working day.
It turned out to be the best thing she ever did. She became a bomb-sniffing dog handler; it was incredible. “Best job in the Navy,” she said.
But then something else happened. She can’t say where. It’s not really important what (“I’d rather focus on my recovery,” she said). Suffice it to say shrapnel and last rites were involved.
Once again, her life was blown off its bearings.
It took her a few years, this time, but now she’s again doing everything she can think of to take that control back.
On Sept. 11 — this Sept. 11 — she’s climbing a 14,000-foot peak.
Kruse: JANESVILLE, Wis. — The Labor Day parade here in Paul Ryan’s hometown started with a police siren. It moved slowly down Milwaukee Street, followed by clowns, a green-fatigued Vietnam vet with a rifle and a limp, a high school marching band’s pimple-faced clarinetists, members of the United Auto Workers Local 95, and its many retirees.
Sitting in a lawn chair on the curb, Lisa Hansen watched the parade move past in the direction of her former workplace — the shuttered General Motors plant on the bank of the Rock River, more than 4 million empty square feet surrounded by chain-link fence and barbed wire.
The plight of the GM plant, forgotten almost everywhere outside of Janesville, burst into the news during the Republican National Convention when Paul Ryan mentioned it in his speech. Barack Obama, the vice presidential nominee said, had pledged to work to keep the plant open. That didn’t happen.
The suggestion that Obama was at fault triggered a brief frenzy as fact-checkers and campaign officials parsed quotes for intent, dissected the time line and accused each other of distortion.
It was a debate that left Lisa Hansen largely unmoved.
“Politically, the Republicans were in office,” she said, “but I don’t know who’s to blame. Just the economy.”