A friend said, "Dave, it's a minor crime."
My friend: "It's not like he's Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass."
And: "It was stupid and careless, but come on."
If I were wrong on Albom – I'm not – it would not be the first two-hop ground ball that I've kicked. Today, then, let's consider this truth: Every columnist at one time or another has committed stupidity. It's practically the job description, as once defined by Mike Royko: "Any public controversy, take a side. Worry later if you're right or wrong." Though the kindly mists of protective amnesia have shrouded many of the most painful details, I do remember certain columns that might have been, could have been, y'know, sort of were, er, boneheaded.
There was the Redskins column. Jack Kent Cooke had moved to town to run the team he owned. He had changed coaches, hiring a no-name assistant from the San Diego Chargers. That kid, Joe Gibbs, lost the first five games of his rookie season and wound up 8-8. His second season, the Redskins went 0-4 in exhibitions. "Unless a miracle happens," I wrote, "they are five years away from a Super Bowl."
That year, of course, they won the thing.
There was the North Carolina State column.
I was then a college basketball savant. For nearly 20 years, I had made it my business to know everything about the game, its coaches, players, recruits, its agents, its angels and its demons. Anything I didn't know wasn't worth knowing.
So after watching the semifinals of the 1983 NCAA basketball tournament, my expert column in advance of the championship game allowed no room for a smidgen, mite, mote, or even iota of argument. I wrote: "Trees will tap dance, elephants will drive at Indy and Orson Welles will skip lunch before North Carolina State finds a way to beat Houston . . ." Look, Houston had Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. N.C. State had Dereck Whittenburg and Lorenzo Charles.
The next morning's column began, "Trees tap danced, an elephant will drive for A.J. Foyt at Indy and Orson Welles skipped breakfast, lunch and dinner . . ."
In July of 1971, I did a column predicting that Jimmy Ellis – yes, Jimmy Ellis – would beat Muhammad Ali – yes, Muhammad Ali. I can not find the clipping (praise God for his tender mercies), but my operative theory was that Ellis, a long-time sparring partner for Ali who'd been in the ring with the great one from their teenage years on, knew Ali's moves better than any other fighter ever and so could take advantage of the champ's several weaknesses as a craftsman. I actually wrote it that way and with conviction. I believe this kind of thinking is referred to in courtrooms as temporary insanity.
Ali by TKO in the 12th.
At The Washington Post, every December, seated at the typing machine in sack cloth and ashes, I did a column accounting for the mistakes of the year. It was about as much fun as driving hatpins into my eyeballs. But I now count those columns as my everlasting contribution to Post journalism – because the "Dean" of Washington pundits, David Broder, came to me and said, "I'm stealing your idea. I, too, will lash myself once a year." Which is why Broder does a year-end column acknowledging his more egregious analyses, predictions, and tea-leaf readings.
It was Broder, by the way, who once explained our business in a way that should be printed above the masthead of every newspaper in America. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. In an acceptance speech, he said:
"Instead of promising All the News That's Fit to Print, I would like to see us say – over and over, until the point has been made – that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, and inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past twenty-four hours – distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: But it's the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected and updated version."
Speaking of corrections and updates, let's deal with my Magic Johnson column as cited in the reader comments appended to last week's effort on Albom. Late in 1992, a year after Johnson's announcement that he had HIV and would become "a spokesman about HIV," he planned a comeback to professional basketball. I chose that time to say he should tell the full story of how he acquired the virus. I did that in the last three or four paragraphs of a column about his comeback.
He consistently had said he became infected through heterosexual sex. I said statistics suggested that was unlikely. As it happened, Isiah Thomas soon denied he was the source of long-running basketball-circle rumors that Johnson was bisexual; and then Johnson did, in fact, tell a fuller story. On ABC's "Prime Time Live" magazine show, he talked about a heterosexual promiscuity so extreme it left interviewer Chris Wallace (to cite Bob Ryan's description in the Boston Globe) "stupified."
(A digression: I do not remember the source of my information that a male was unlikely to acquire HIV through heterosexual activity. But a Google search now turns up a 1991 Journal of the American Medical Association report on a study of 379 HIV-infected people; researchers found one example of female-to-male transmission, and in that case, the couple raised the risk by having intercourse during several instances of vaginal or penile bleeding. A link to that study here. Many other studies have reported similar results. Google's full of ‘em.)
If I could take back anything I've ever written, it would be those three or four paragraphs at the end of the Johnson-comeback column. Not that they were a lie. Not that they were fiction. Not that they were incorrect in their use of the day's data. Not that I didn't believe what I wrote. But they had no place in a basketball column. More important, they were insensitive to Johnson's circumstances. They also offended colleagues I respected, among them some who had friends dead of AIDS.
Now I will return to the more enjoyable practice of driving hatpins into my eyeballs.
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