RealClearSports recently interviewed Jason Whitlock, sports columnist for both the Kansas City Star and FOXSports.com. One of the most “provocative, thought-provoking” columnists in the country, Whitlock has won the National Journalism Award for Commentary and in 2007, was named as “one of 40 people who will change the world.”
RCS: A few weeks ago, we started an interview with CBS’s Gregg Doyel by congratulating him for being the second-most-clicked-on writer featured on RealClearSports. Your pieces are the most clicked on. What do you attribute your popularity to?
Whitlock: Good headlines. Editors who allow me to be very different. Media outlets that let me take difficult stances. A column approach that demands trying to write on Monday what everyone else will think to write on Tuesday. A willingness to address sensitive issues in an honest, raw fashion. Good instincts. Consistency. Unafraid to publicly admit when I'm wrong. I work hard to maintain credibility with readers.
RCS: Your willingness to admit when you’re wrong is something we want to ask about. You certainly have an inclination to call a spade a spade, which is probably part of your appeal. In other words, you’ve never shied away from controversy: Lupica. Mariotti. Playboy, Scoop Jackson, etc. But recently you did something that sports column readers have rarely seen: you used your column space to apologize to Yahoo! columnist Dan Wetzel for what you wrote about his and Adrian Wojnarowski’s investigative piece on the UConn basketball violations.
Under those particular circumstances, why did you find an on-the-record, print apology necessary?
Whitlock: I've written plenty of public apologies in the Kansas City Star. That was just the first one I wrote for Foxsports.com. I was dead wrong. Wetzel wrote me a great e-mail pointing out why I was wrong. I made the mistake in print, why not admit it in print? When you write strong opinions, admitting your mistakes enhances your credibility. I'm not talking about a prediction of a game. I wrote a critical column about Josh Freeman when he was a sophomore quarterback at Kansas State. The harshness of the column was accentuated when a filing snafu chopped off the first two paragraphs, destroying the context of the criticism. Anyway, I wrote an apology/clarifying column three days later. No one asked. The column just didn't sit right with me. Josh Freeman's dad called me and thanked me. Another time I wrote a series of columns demanding that Kansas State retain its basketball coach Jim Woolridge for one more season. The school kept him and Woolridge's last year was a disaster. I acknowledged my stupidity in print. That's two examples I can think of off the top of my head. I always react to new information, new insight. I hate it when people refuse to admit when they're wrong. We bash coaches and executives for their unwillingness to admit a mistake. I don't want to be a hypocrite.
RCS: In that apology to Wetzel, you also wrote something interesting about your entire body of work. “[O]ne of the flaws of my column-writing style is that it's impossible to just parachute into one column and come close to understanding my total perspective. Occasional (and unsophisticated) readers of my column reach many inaccurate conclusions. It amazes me the seemingly equal number of readers who are convinced that an unchecked anti-white or anti-black bias drives the content of my column.”
For a novice Whitlock reader, who wants to understand your perspective comprehensively, how should such a reader begin to approach your work?
Whitlock: A novice would have to withhold judgment for six months to a year. Just read, enjoy and don't jump to any major conclusions about an agenda he/she might suspect I have. I don't have an agenda. I'm on a journey, following the little pieces of truth I discover wherever they lead. You parachute into a column, read a line bashing Sarah Palin and you think I'm a hardcore Democrat. You parachute into a column, read a line criticizing something Barack Obama said, and you think I'm a Republican. You read for a year and you figure out I hate politics and politicians.
RCS: In our interview with Doyel, we asked him if there was a place for subtlety in sports writing. To which he responded, “There's definitely a place in this business for subtlety, but only if the writer is talented enough to pull it off. And the bar is awfully high on that. Joe Posnanski clears that bar. Me, I trip over the thing. It hits me in the groin. I don't have that sort of literary talent, but what I do have is the guts to write what I'm thinking, and to write it in the most direct way possible.” In describing your own writing, you’ve said, “I come at things from a totally different perspective from most columnists. I throw heat, and I throw a knuckleball.”
On your journey -- by sometimes throwing heat, sometimes knuckleballs -- would you say that you’ve tried to achieve both subtlety and directness in your body of work, or perhaps something else entirely?
Whitlock: There are many different ways to be direct. You can be direct with humor and sarcasm. You can be direct by doing a shitload of reporting and writing a 5,000-word opinion piece damning America's incarceration rate. You can be direct by asking the right questions at the right time. I prefer directness. It matches my personality. Every pitch I throw I'm trying to get it over the plate so that people can understand exactly what I'm saying. I throw different pitches in hopes that my column remains compelling.
RCS: About those 5,000 words. On the cover of Playboy Magazine's June 2008 issue, the second most provocative item -- aside from the bikini-clad cover girl -- was a teaser titled "The Black KKK by Jason Whitlock." Most journalists and writers, attracted by more than three million subscribers -- about the same as Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and TV Guide -- jump at the opportunity just to have their work published in Playboy. But you were livid. The 5,000 words you wrote for Playboy were about prison politics and policy, not “The Black KKK.” In fact, the words “Black KKK” never even appeared in the piece.
Since then, we’ve seen many print publication models collapse as well as with a few publications themselves. If even a magazine as naturally provocative as Playboy has to find new, less-than-honest ways to sell magazines, would it have been, upon reflection, more effective to get your message across through an online outlet?
Whitlock: Great, great question. Problem is I liked the Playboy platform because guys in the joint read Playboy and generally don't have access to the Internet. I wanted the piece to resonate with people inside those institutions. Print publications are desperate for relevancy and traction. It seems like once every other month some print magazine will put something on its cover specifically to create controversy, especially racial controversy. I wish I had chosen a different print publication. But Playboy contacted me. In retrospect, they chose me because they know I'm not afraid of racial controversy. They let me pick my topic and probably just assumed what I'd write. I gave 'em something better than what they expected, so rather than kick it back, they just went with their preconceived presentation, which included a house-written sidebar that had nothing to do with what I wrote. You live and learn.
RCS: A few months back we interviewed Jay Mariotti, during which he reflected on his decision to leave the Chicago Sun-Times, “Sadly, we're going to see numerous newspapers fold in 2009 and beyond. If a writer thinks his paper is in trouble, it probably is. And by all means, get your butt out of Dodge, because that paper certainly isn't going to care about you when it decides to pull the cord. Problem is, if several dozen writers and editors are out on the street in a few months, who's going to hire them all? At the moment, there's only a handful of quality sports Web sites -- AOL, ESPN, Yahoo, SI and Fox are a few. It's like a game of musical chairs: When the music stops, who's sitting and who's not?”
As one of only a few sports writers who works for both a major local outlet and a major national outlet, you have a unique perspective on the future of media. Is Mariotti correct that, if you’re working for a newspaper or print publication in trouble, you should find another job as quickly as possible?
Whitlock: Man, that's a tough question. I love being a newspaper columnist. But I can't answer this question honestly. I have strong opinions about this issue that are better left unstated. Newspapers are drowning on arrogance. Can we be saved? I don't see any less arrogance.
RCS: At RealClearSports, investigative reporting is something that fascinates us because its future seems so tenuous. There is a concern that as newspapers fade away so will quality investigative reporting. You, however, have powerfully criticized the work Selena Roberts, a New York Times sports columnist and investigative reporter, for what she has written about the Duke Lacrosse team as well as what she has most recently written about Alex Rodriguez’s alleged use of steroids in high school. You wrote, “Roberts’ book is a long-winded blog. Why it’s being treated as an unimpeachable piece of journalism can only be explained by the cushy position she’s been handed by The New York Times, ESPN and Sports Illustrated and the unchallenged institutional bias found within the elite sports media institutions.”
It seems ironic, but serious online outlets like Yahoo! Sports are producing quality investigative reporting; and a New York Times journalist, from your perspective, is producing -- to put it mildly -- less than the quality investigative reporting. If this continues, do you think investigative sports reporting will to have be sustained by new “elite sports media institutions”?
Whitlock: I'm very excited by what Yahoo! Sports is doing with college sports. It appears those guys want to be the Bible on college sports and aggressively challenge the NCAA. That's a good brand for them. I'll be interested in seeing what AOL/Fanhouse does as it continues to evolve. Investigative journalism is dying. It's like good policing. Cases go from red (crime) to green (overtime pay) to black (solved cased). Good journalism is expensive. Newspapers aren't paying anymore. Most sports web sites are tied to a television network and most television networks are in business with a sports league and that stands in the way of objective journalism. Also let me clarify my position on Selena Roberts' book. It's a celebrity-gossip book. These sorts of books get written about Hollywood celebs all the time. The problem with Roberts' book is the way ESPN and all the other mainstream, allegedly serious media outlets have treated it like a great piece of journalism. CBS and Katie Couric, for example, don't lead the evening news with the allegations in the latest Britney Spears unauthorized biography. Bob Costas sat down with Roberts and treated her like she was Woodward and Bernstein. She didn't even write the second coming of Game of Shadows. She wrote the Game of Innuendo. Skip Bayless should've interviewed her on Third and 10.
RCS: In your Leftover Truths column, you said that you were “still waiting for sports blogs to police themselves,” citing the fact that “no one in the blog world or in the print media world attempted to level a penalty against [Deadspin editors] Will Leitch or AJ Daulerio for the crime [of] posting the man-laws-breaking gossip in the first place, [Stu Scott’s text messaging].” Except for you.
Then recently, you suggested that as America's first Racial Apology Czar, Stu Scott may be “allowed to whip Leitch and Daulerio's asses on national television.”
As we said before, you’re currently the single most popular professional sports columnist. By choosing to react to Deadspin instead of, for example, another sports columnist, are you elevating sports bloggers?
Whitlock: I don't have a problem with sports bloggers. I don't mind elevating them. I don't mind reacting to them. I'm glad they're out there. Occasionally they do really good stuff. It would be silly to ignore them. They influence the sports conversation. If someone writes something interesting on a sports blog I read, I'll post a response under my name. I'm a sports fan. No different from most of the bloggers. What Leitch and AJ did was an extreme act of cowardice. It bothered me that no one called them out on it. My read is/was that most of the media grew afraid of Deadspin out of fear of being ridiculed, fear that Leitch or AJ might look through their garbage in hopes of uncovering some dirt. I say expose 'em. I wish that Buzz Bissinger had asked me a few questions before going on Costas Now. He fired the wrong ammo. Leitch is an assclown. It's not a coincidence that traffic on the site has gone through the roof once he and promotion of his piss-poor book were de-emphasized. The guy pulled off one of the greatest scams in the history of journalism, parlaying pictures of drunk athletes into a Sports Illustrated profile and a gig at the New York Magazine. Only in America.
RCS: We’re in the midst of a massive media realignment, during which it has been difficult to determine which sports columnists have the most influence. Excluding yourself, which sports writers do you think have the most influence, and how do you determine that?
Whitlock: Good question. When I was at the Final Four this year you could really sense the dramatic shift in power from newspaper columnists to Internet columnists. Guys like Wetzel, Mark Kriegel, Pat Forde, Gregg Doyel and Mike Freeman are the new power players. Bill Simmons is my favorite columnist. He stays in his lane. I love him at this time of the year, NBA playoffs. He shamed Doc Rivers into sitting down Tony Allen in Game 7. Simmons predicted early on that the Bulls-Celtics would be an all-time classic. Bill Simmons knows the NBA as well as anybody in the country. And that knowledge shows up in his writing in an extremely entertaining way. Wetzel knows college basketball better than anybody. Kriegal has boxing on lock and a biographer's eye for putting events in context. Forde is the truth on college football and basketball. In this age, you better have a niche, an area of expertise, a sport or an issue you write better than everyone else. For different reasons, Jay Glazer (news) and Peter King (insight) own the NFL. The era of general columnist is dead. The Internet killed the general sports columnist. People want specific things and they expect to get it.
RCS: During the election, you dove into the political fray with a column about how Sarah Palin attracted you to politics and how she lost your respect. In fact, you wrote, “I spend hours every day reading realclearpolitics.com.”
Do you still read political columns? And if so, who are the columnists you most admire?
Whitlock: I honestly only read political stuff that relates to Palin now. I went cold turkey on all the political blogs. Huffington Post, RedState and RealClearPolitics don't get clicks from me these days. I visit your site, TheBigLead, Deadspin and SportsJournalists.com. I don't like politics or politicians. Sarah Palin captured my imagination. She is, as best I can remember, the only attractive woman I've ever passionately disliked.
RCS: You talked earlier about your inclination as a writer to be direct. Well, in the most clicked-on column of last week, you were very direct. You opined that Herm Edwards was the biggest loser of the NFL Draft. “Herm Edwards, the rookie ESPN analyst and fondly regarded as the Human Sound Bite as an NFL head coach, turned in a disastrous and distracting performance during the two-day NFL draft. Edwards was so bad that my sources in Dallas reported that Emmitt Smith could be heard shouting: ‘I would’ve have did a better job!’”
If not Herm Edwards, who would you have liked to see give Draft Day analysis?
Whitlock: Emmitt Smiff would be at the top of my list. Seriously, all I need is Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, Tom Jackson and Chris Berman. That's my draft dream team. Berman and Jackson have awesome football chemistry. Kiper and McShay are terrific. Former coaches who still want to coach are extremely reluctant to say anything. If you need a Day II team, I'm good with Kiper, McShay, Jaws and Trey Wingo/Suzie Kolber. Jaws loves football, and I know he does his homework. Wingo is a good host. Kolber is my favorite anchor, a beautiful woman who actually knows the game.
RCS: We can’t end this interview without talking about the renewed vibe in Kansas City. With the Royals currently leading the A.L. Central after five straight sub-.500 seasons (and a losing record in 13 of the past 14 years), and a completely rebuilt Chiefs franchise (new GM Scott Pioli, new head coach Todd Haley and new QB Matt Cassel), is Kansas City slowly stepping down from the ledge, and actually becoming optimistic about its sports teams?
Whitlock: I just watched the Royals move to 15-11 as I responded to your questions. Zack Greinke made 20,000-plus fans show up at Kauffman Stadium on a Monday night. He did not disappoint, going nine innings for a complete-game shutout victory. I can't remember the last time I watched an entire Royals game on TV from start to finish without ever flipping channels once. Zack the Ripper is must-see TV. I have no clue what's going to happen with the Chiefs. They have a lot of work to do. But I am starting to believe the Royals are going to make me an intense baseball fan for the first time since I was like 15. I've already attended five Royals games this season. I probably went to five in two years before this season. I just had a feeling this team would be interesting. JoPo writes the hell out of baseball. I'm going to stay out of his way and still get my piece of this action. Baseball is so every day that it's a real relief to have the Royals take a stab at relevancy. It will make the summer fly by.
RCS: Alright, last question. A few months ago, Tony Kornheiser announced on PTI that he was pregnant. PTI creator Erik Rydholm guessed you were the father. Were you disappointed -- or perhaps jealous -- to discover that it was Tim Kurkjian's baby?
Whitlock: Man, this is the first I've heard of this. That's funny. Yes, I'm pissed. Tony better not be cheating on me. Tim Kurkijan isn't even Tony's type!!!! Those guys are great. Tony, Mike, Erik, Matthew Kelliher, Tony Reali, Dan Dan Le Batard and that whole group have gone out of their way to show me support even though I'm thought to be at odds with ESPN. There aren't that many people within the industry who get me. The PTI gang does, and when they don't, they're not afraid to ask me to explain myself. They have real confidence, which comes from having real talent.