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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Asking the Tough Questions   

Debate over a controversial interview with Pete Rose puts the spotlight on sports journalism.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

Local TV sportscasters should take away at least one lesson from last fall's controversy involving NBC reporter Jim Gray and former baseball star Pete Rose at the World Series: Journalism in sports is still important.

Gray touched off the proverbial firestorm with his aggressive questioning of Rose about his lifetime ban from baseball for gambling. It was the type of interview rarely seen in TV sports. It's especially unusual during local newscasts.

Some critics thought Gray's rapid-fire questioning of Rose before the second World Series game was designed to provoke a confrontation and was inappropriate for the occasion. Rose was appearing at his first official major league function since being banned in 1989 and had just been honored as a member of baseball's All-Century Team.

Phil Mushnick of the New York Post called the interview a "mugging."

Thousands of viewers complained to NBC and its affiliate stations; most were angered that Gray had spoiled the event by seeming to badger Rose.

But Murray Chass of the New York Times said "it was the best TV interview I've ever seen."

And some local TV managers and news directors say they thought it was appropriate that Gray asked the tough questions--even if he did go on a bit long.

"Jim Gray had the right to address the issue, and I think the audience even expected that to happen," says Lucy Himstedt, general manager of 14 WFIE in Evansville, Indiana, an NBC affiliate. "But once it was asked, I don't think it was the appropriate venue for him to go on and on." She says her station received several hundred phone calls and e-mails over several days, most of them critical of Gray.

"I don't have that much criticism toward Jim Gray, but I wondered why the producer let it go on so long," says Ted Canova, news director of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. "I fear the fallout perpetuates the worst of our industry. We've kind of shown the viewers we can be downright crass or downright excellent, and the viewers can tell the difference."

Al Jaffe, ESPN's vice president in charge of production, recruitment and talent, says Gray did his job without being nasty. "Could he have ended his line of questioning after two questions?" Jaffe asks. "Sure. But the bottom line is if he didn't ask those questions at all, the same people who criticized him would have been all over him for being soft on Pete Rose."

Two days later, under pressure from his superiors, Gray apologized for the length of the interview but not for his questions. "If the interview went on too long and took out some of the joy of the occasion," Gray said, "then I want to say to baseball fans everywhere that I'm very sorry about this."

Even though the episode transpired during a sporting event on a national network, it focused attention on all sports journalism, including deficiencies in local TV news.

"It's a fairly depressing sight, from where I sit," says Steven Herz, a talent manager in New York who has moved many of his clients from local sports to ESPN, Fox Sports, CNN and other networks. Herz says many people who do the sports hiring at stations don't seem to want journalists. "So, you see a lot of people succeed in this business without that skill."

Himstedt, who has hired many sports anchors and reporters, disagrees with such blanket criticism of the hiring process. "Stations that don't want sportscasters who are journalists probably don't want anchors who are journalists either," she says.

Jaffe, a former local news director, has viewed hundreds of audition tapes from local sportscasters. "For the most part, the questions to athletes and coaches from local sportscasters are pretty generic," he says. "I sit up and take notice when I do see a local sports reporter ask a thoughtful, to-the-point, well-phrased question... I'm talking about a question about a sensitive but important issue, a question that elicits new information, advances the story or gives the audience new insight."

Both Himstedt and Canova say a major problem is that sports journalists may get too chummy with the players and teams they cover. Himstedt says her solution is to turn the controversial sports stories over to the news department.

"Often the sports guys don't mind, because they can tell the coach or sports figure, 'It was those news folks,' " she says.

To gain access to athletes and coaches, sports reporters "tend not to be as aggressive as we want the standard to be for news journalists," Canova says. But, in general, "sports journalists may have a tougher road to walk."