Still, anytime sports journalists talk about ethics is a good time. I was reminded of that last week during a class at the University of Missouri. The professor was Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer winner in her previous life at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She asked how I decided what information to use and what to leave out in a book about Muhammad Ali’s life.
My bad answer that day: Hmmm, good question.
My better answer now: I heard Jack Murphy whispering in my ear.
I wanted to tell Ali’s story fairly, accurately, and vividly while remaining inside the boundary described by Murphy, the late San Diego Union-Tribune columnist. He said all writing should be done "with the restraint born of good taste." So there were limits. But those limits never kept me from showing Ali’s life as I understood it; they just made sure I favored the informative over the salacious.
To give examples of those limits, I’d have to tell stories that I chose not to tell in the book. Best I can do here is this: I often dealt with a friend of Ali who had proven trustworthy. He provided intimate details of Ali’s life through the 1980s. With many of those details, I showed that Ali, in physical and mental decline, had been abandoned by his third wife, left to drift alone in a Los Angeles mansion while she chased after Hollywood glamor. That was enough. The rest, the lurid and tawdry, the National Enquirer could have – or, more to the point in today’s SportsWorld, I would leave the messy stuff to Deadspin.
That last sentence could be read as the roaring of an ink-stained dinosaur frightened by the new-media meteor headed his way. It’s not. I welcome Deadspin to the fray. I just don’t confuse its frat-house reporting with real journalism. (Neither would Ali, who once told a reporter inquiring about his pre-fight sexual habits, "Only the nose knows where the nose goes when the door close.") I’m a hopeless romantic who believes journalism practiced in pursuit of news rather than sensation is a craft worthy of respect.
It was my early good fortune to work at the Louisville Courier-Journal. The owners, the Binghams, considered the paper a public trust; as such, they expected their staffers to be fair, accurate, honest, and beholden to no interest and no person. This could be taken to silly lengths. (I once submitted an expense account that included, "Brownie at halftime, 35 cents.") But it taught me how a responsible journalist does important work. In 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists drew up a code of ethics. That code contained little new for anyone at the Courier-Journal. A sampling:
"Test the accuracy of information from all sources . . .Seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing. . . Identify sources whenever feasible. . . .Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises. . . .Never plagiarize. . . .Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so. . . .Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status. . . .Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid. . .
"Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance. . . . Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. . . .Refuse gifts, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity. . . .Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. . . .Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage. . . .Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news. . . Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media. . . .Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others."
One of Jacqui Banasyznski’s students asked another good question:."Is all journalism the same or is sports writing a different world with a different set of rules?" Instead of mayors and murderers, I write about coaches and quarterbacks – but the rules are the same.
More often these days, evidence suggests that those rules are considered archaic if not obsolete. Restraint? Good taste? Not at Deadspin. Rushing to be first with the Favre story, it published a conversation even while acknowledging that the subject insisted it be off the record; it also paid an informant for Favre dirt. To Deadspin’s credit, it doesn’t claim to practice journalism. Yet the lines between real news and frat-house entertainment are so blurred today that such websites have a degrading effect on journalism.
That brings up one more good question: How long before real news sites wallow in the same muck?
The answer, alas: Sooner than later. In these revolutionary times, no one is thinking clearly. They may not be thinking at all. Dorothy Parker, the legendary wicked wit, knew how that goes. She once was asked to use "horticulture" in a sentence. "You can lead a whore to culture," she said, "but you can’t make her think."
Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.