`PTI' hardly letter-perfect, but show is appealing to average sports fan


July 27, 2005|By Jason Whitlock

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - So last week I spent six days seated in the cockpit of the engine that is driving sports journalism. I filled in for Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on the hit TV show Pardon The Interruption.

It wasn't the first time I'd done the show, but it was my longest engagement and first in about three years. The show hasn't changed much, but its impact on my profession has certainly increased. I learned a lot and came to some realizations that might be enlightening.

ESPN, the network that created and carries PTI, is obviously the worldwide leader in sports, and PTI has quickly developed into the new face of sports journalism. Kornheiser and Wilbon, longtime colleagues at The Washington Post, brought sterling newspaper reputations with them to PTI, and their rapid, sometimes-humorous, sometimes-serious analysis of the sports world is driving the industry in which I toil.

Old-timers can bemoan this fact, but they can't deny that this is what the public wants. And they probably can't deny that this is what the sports world deserves. Sports are nothing more than entertainment. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf and whatever else probably shouldn't be taken any more seriously than rap, rock, country, jazz, movies, TV shows and the theater.

That's not to say we can't take issues in the sports world seriously. We can and should. We just need to acknowledge there's room for the serious and not-so serious, especially in the minds of sports fans.

Last Friday night a bellman checked my luggage in at Millennium Hotel in Times Square. He'd checked my bags a dozen other times at the Millennium, the hotel I stay at whenever I appear on the ESPN Sunday morning program The Sports Reporters. This time the bellman was different.

"You were on PTI this week!" he told me excitedly. "I told my boy I knew you."

I looked at him strangely. He'd seen me on The Sports Reporters plenty of times, and he never thought it was a big deal. But a week on PTI, and now I'm someone worth knowing.

To be honest, I've always thought of The Sports Reporters as the more important show. When I was in college, I dreamed of debating sports with Mike Lupica and Bill Conlin and Bob Ryan. Those guys were my idols. I thought of the show as the Meet The Press of sports. I still do.

But the average sports fan loves the fast pace, high energy and snarkiness of PTI. Sports fans, whether they acknowledge it or not, want their sports news laced with opinion. PTI does better in the ratings than the 6 p.m. SportsCenter.

I bring this up because my week on PTI helped me realize that America's thirst for "opinenews" places more and more emphasis on the credibility of the people delivering news laced with opinion.

Newspapers have long had a tradition of reporters and columnists. Reporters keep their opinions out of their stories. Now, particularly in the sports world, we have a hybrid reporter who offers his opinions in stories, on radio and on TV.

I spent my whole week on PTI campaigning to talk about Larry Brown every day because I believed the former Pistons basketball coach was being treated unfairly by the media. Reporters/columnists in New York, at Sports Illustrated and Detroit had been fed negative stories about Brown by anonymous sources within the Pistons' organization. Brown was portrayed as someone who had hatched an elaborate scheme to get out of Detroit and take a job in Cleveland's front office or as the coach of the New York Knicks.

I believed that many reporters were unwilling to examine Brown's side of the story because they were afraid that they would be cut off from information by their "anonymous" sources within the Pistons' organization. So when reporters delivered the news, the opinions they laced it with always favored the forces aligned against Brown.

So for a week on PTI, I made it a point to deliver Brown's side of the story. It was great fun. The show is a hoot. The producers do a great job of preparing the hosts for the wide range of topics. The foundation of the show is the hard-core journalism that is done in newspapers across the country.

I arrived at the show around 1 p.m. every day. We'd spend about two hours prepping, and then it would take anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours to tape the 30-minute show.

My biggest disappointments? The shout-out I gave to Gates BBQ during my interview with Ty Law got cut out. And I don't think my comment about Tech N9ne being a better rapper than Twista made it on the air either.

Maybe next time.

Jason Whitlock is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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