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SBD/February 24, 2011/People and Pop Culture
Thinking Back, Looking Ahead With Longtime Washington Post Writer Len Shapiro
Published February 24, 2011
journalism class in Madison
Q: How did you get started in the business?
Shapiro: I had just recently been married and needed to get a full-time job. I went over to the Washington Post and applied for a part-time job taking high school scores over the telephone. Once I got my college degree, I was hired in February of that year, 1970.
Q: It must have been fun covering some of those colorful Redskins teams from the early 1970s.
Shapiro: [Redskins coach] GEORGE ALLEN always made people better reporters because he never gave you any information. If he traded somebody, you had to make six phone calls just to find out who the players and the draft choices were. The owner of the Redskins back then was a wonderful attorney named EDWARD BENNETT WILLIAMS. He was also the Washington Post's lawyer. BEN BRADLEE, who was the executive editor of the paper, sat in Williams' box at Redskins games and was one of the big fans of the team. That being said, Bradlee always had my back, like the times when George Allen threatened to throw me out of the practice facility.
Q: Give me some examples.
Shapiro: George Allen never released cuts or anything. One of my early stories, I wrote something about a couple of guys on the waiver list. George Allen got very upset and threatened to call Bradlee. I said, "If that's what you want to do, call Bradlee. Here's the dime." I'm sure he called them. And I was still on the beat the next day and the next seven years.
Q: How has journalism changed since you started?
Shapiro: I worry about the writing. I worry about people not appreciating great sportswriting the way my generation did. For example, I have a class of 30 juniors and seniors. On the first day of class this semester, I read a couple of paragraphs of a speech that BILL PLASCHKE of the L.A. Times had given at the Red Smith Sportswriter's Hall of Fame at Indiana Univ. After I read these couple of paragraphs, I asked the class, "How many of you know who RED SMITH is?" It was zero for 30. In my day, we idolized those guys.
Q: Do you tweet?
Shapiro: No, I do not.
Q: Why not?
Shapiro: I don't tweet because my old editors will tell you I can't say anything less than 6,000 words; 140 characters might kill me. I have a problem with it. A lot of stuff goes out on these tweets that has no business being used in newspapers. JAY CUTLER, a couple of weeks ago with the Bears, experienced death by tweeting. His reputation literally was ruined for the rest of his life because of football players sitting at home or in a bar, watching on a big-screen TV. That was just plain unfair. The fact that many mainstream journalists were using those tweets in their stories out of the stadium that day, to me, is also shameful. How dare they? Why would they quote guys who they never would have quoted under normal circumstances?
Q: How has the culture of the newsroom changed?
Shapiro: When I was editing in the 1980s, KORNHEISER and WILBON were doing "Pardon The Interruption" in the Post sports department. Tony would pop his head out, Wilbon would pop his head out, four people would react, I would react. You don't see that as much anymore. Hardly anyone ever goes to the office anymore. You don't have to. The people who are doing the reporting and the writing aren't in the office. It's changed the whole atmosphere. Everybody knew each other. Everybody would throw stuff at each other. You'd bounce ideas off of everybody else. You might have up to 14 writers in the room at the same time. I don't think that's the case anymore.
Q: What were the most memorable events that you covered?
Shapiro: The first was the 1976 Olympics, which was my first Winter Olympics. It was the first Olympics after Munich, so the place was sort of an armed camp: Austrian soldiers with machine guns and German shepherds. But when FRANZ KLAMMER came across the finish line to win the Gold Medal, all those soldiers dropped their rifles, picked him up on their shoulders, ran around, got kissed by a hundred beautiful fräuleins that day. No. 2 would have been the 1980 Olympic hockey team. It was thrilling when DAVID ISRAEL, who was then the Washington Star columnist, stood up in the press box and said, "We're going to suspend the rules tonight, everybody. There will be cheering in the press box." That was during the U.S.-Soviet hockey game.
Q: Those are two from the Olympics. How about some from the other sports you covered?
Shapiro: When TIGER WOODS won his first major championship at The Masters in 1997, I stood next to LEE ELDER, who was the first African-American golfer to play in a Masters 20 years earlier. He showed up at the first tee and had tears in his eyes as Tiger walked from the practice green over to the first tee. At Augusta National, the clubhouse overlooks the first tee. As Tiger walked to the first tee, the second floor was populated with mostly African-American men and women, who were the waiters, bartenders, janitorial staff and the people who shined shoes. They were all up there in their white coats and work uniforms, watching history being made. It was a very emotional, goose-bump kind of moment that you never forget.
Q: What's the state of sports media?
Shapiro: ESPN has swallowed the world. It sucks the air out of the room. And they seem to set the table for everybody else. I'm reading my students' stories, and I'm seeing all the catchphrases, like "En fuego." It's killing the writing, but it's a great American phenomenon.
Q: What would you like to see changed in sports media?
Shapiro: It drives me crazy that guys who show up as "journalists" on television, doing "SportsCenter" and manning anchor desks at various places, are doing commercials. How do you do that? Do you see BRIAN WILLIAMS doing commercials for Lite Beer from Miller? Yet CHRIS BERMAN is doing commercials. I single out Berman a lot, but there are a lot of guys who are doing it. That's wrong. The journalism standards have deteriorated dramatically. It's crazy to me that any network can objectively cover a team that is essentially its partner in business, as the NFL is with all its television partners -- even though they do some reporting and are tough on them.
There are unbelievable conflicts of interest. There's a guy for Fox, JAY GLAZER, who is the network's information man. He's an old New York Post reporter -- and a damn good reporter who breaks a lot of stories. But Glazer is now doing commercials for Subway and also has a side business where he is training mixed martial arts fighters, many of whom are NFL players he's supposed to be covering. Do you think he's going to pull a punch if one of the guys who's paying him money gets arrested for drunk driving? It's a real ethical breach, and yet Fox allows him to do it.