By John Feinstein

Today we bring to you a story of incompetence, pettiness, foolishness and–sadly–journalists forgetting what it means to be a journalist.

To begin at the beginning: There’s an old saying that goes, ‘that guy is so dumb he could screw up a one-car funeral.’ Here’s a new one for you: Washington’s NFL football team is such a mess it can screw up the launching of a radio show.

Dan Snyder, perhaps the worst owner in the history of sports if you combine his team’s performance the last 15 years; the way he treats people; the revolving door he operates for coaches, front office personnel and almost anyone else who has the misfortune to work for him and his extraordinary arrogance, also owns a small string of local radio stations.

One of them is located in Washington–WTEM or, as it likes to be called, ‘Sportstalk 980.’ The station is–surprise–the flagship for the team’s radio network and, for the most part, employs apologists for the team. The station also has an affiliation with ESPN Radio, which means it has carried, ‘Mike-and-Mike,’ in morning drive for many years now.

As the police like to say, this is where the trouble starts. You see, ‘Mike-and-Mike,’ were getting killed in the ratings by the morning show at the other sports station in town–WJFK, which prefers to be called, “106-7, The Fan.” (Upfront disclaimer: WJFK is a CBS affiliate and I am paid to appear on the station twice-a-week, including on the aforementioned morning show, ‘The Junkies.’) And so, WTEM station-management decided it needed to put forth real local competition in morning drive to ‘The Junkies.’

They decided they needed a VERY male-oriented show (as opposed to most sportstalk, which is just male-oriented) and also decided that, on a station filled with white hosts, that a show with two African-American hosts, was a good idea. Chris Paul (not the basketball player) a veteran radio guy was hired and so was Jason Reid–a somewhat out-of-the-box hire because Reid has been a newspaper guy his whole life. When WTEM launched in 1992, it hired Tony Kornheiser, who had been a newspaper guy, to host its mid-morning show. To this day, Kornheiser’s show is by far the most successful daypart on the station.

Like Kornheiser did back in 1992, Reid worked at The Washington Post as a columnist. He hadn’t had the job for very long and was just beginning to find his voice, making the transition from reporter to columnist, when the call from WTEM. Reid had been critical of the football team this past fall–gee, why would anyone criticize a 4-12 team?–especially team president and general manager Bruce Allen, who was an alumni director posing as a GM.

Kornheiser is a longtime friend of mine and one of his defenses of the indefensible Snyder has always been that he doesn’t interfere with the radio station and doesn’t fire people for being critical of him or the team. Given that almost no one–including Tony–every SERIOUSLY criticizes Snyder or the team, I don’t really buy this. In fact, when I used to appear regularly on Tony’s show, he insisted that I agree NOT to bring up Snyder unless he did. Knowing my feelings about Snyder he never—surprise–brought Snyder up.

I was surprised and disappointed by Reid’s hiring. I was surprised because he had been critical of the team and disappointed because I thought he had great potential as a columnist. Then again, I assumed a lot of money was involved and you can’t criticize anyone for pursuing a better life for his family.

The show was supposed to launch March 16th. The Post threw a big going away party for Reid on March 11th. Then, before it launched, the show got cancelled. Word was that Snyder and Allen had stepped in and said no to Reid’s hiring at the last minute–even though he had a signed contract.

Rumors were everywhere, including a conspiracy theory in which Snyder and Allen waited until Reid quit The Post and then pulled the rug on him. I didn’t buy that, not because I don’t think Snyder and Allen are capable of such smarminess, but because I don’t think they’re SMART enough to do something like that.

Here’s where I start to get disappointed. According to every story I’ve read–and there have been plenty of them–Jason Reid has not returned phone calls, texts or e-mails from his former colleagues or from friends in the news business. Clearly, some kind of negotiation was going on and I can understand him saying to people, ‘it’s an ongoing negotiation right now, I can’t talk about it publicly.’

But you return the phone call–or text or e-mail. Why? Because if you’re a journalist your lifeblood is people returning calls or sitting down and talk to you. Sometimes they call back to let you know they can’t talk or to give you background you can’t quote them on. There are circumstances–like this one–where that’s totally legitimate. Reid knows that. I almost sent him a note to tell him that but figured it was a waste of time if he wasn’t even returning calls from close friends.

Reading all this reminded me of another disappointing situation that came up recently. Duke’s student newspaper, ‘The Chronicle,’ published a story that, for all intents and purposes, accused Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski of covering up the fact that former player Rasheed Sulaimon had been accused of sexual assault. The story itself was shaky: the paper’s sources weren’t the two women who had allegedly been attacked, but friends of the two women–who did not go on the record. The women had never filed charges against Sulaimon either on campus or with the local police. I’m not sure you can go with that story. The Chronicle–which is more my alma mater than Duke is because that’s where I learned my craft–went with the story.

At the very least, you can debate whether they should or should not have published the story. There’s an argument on both sides of the issue. Here’s what you CAN’T debate: You publish the story, you stand behind it. The two reporters who wrote it have refused to answer questions from the media and the editor of The Chronicle sent an e-mail in response to a request for comment simply saying she was ‘proud,’ of the job the two reporters did. Since she had to be the one who made the final decision to go with the story, she should have answered questions too.

Years ago, when I was working for The Chronicle, I was in charge one night of putting out the paper. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, I got a phone call from someone telling me that Terry Sanford, then Duke’s president, was going to name Clark Cahow as the new director of admissions. This was–for us–a big story because Cahow was NOT one of the five names the search committee had sent to Sanford. We had an hour to get the story in the paper. Since I was in charge, I had to call Sanford at home at that outrageous hour.

He answered the phone on the first ring. I apologized for the hour and asked him why Cahow was his choice. He told me. As I was about to hang up, I again said I was sorry to have called so late. “No problem at all John,” Sanford said. “I was just sitting here waiting for y’all to call.”

Terry Sanford was a great man–for a lot of reasons. He understood part of his job was to take phone calls from the media–even the pesky student newspaper. Those of us who are journalists should understand that better than anyone.

Anyway, “The Man Cave,” as the Reid/Paul show is being called, will now debut next Monday. Apparently some kind of deal has been worked out. My guess is you won’t here a whole lot of REAL criticism directed at Snyder or Allen from Reid. Scot McLoughan’s hiring as general manager will be hailed as genius. And no one will say this: “What in the world are Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen doing worrying about a morning drive show on local radio given the state of their football team?”


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