Columnists star in roller coaster Palmeiro coverage

August 14, 2005|By Paul Moore

SINCE MAJOR League Baseball suspended Rafael Palmeiro Aug. 1 until he unceremoniously returned to the Orioles Thursday night, no story has had more presence in The Sun.

It was spotlighted on several front pages - much to the chagrin of some readers - and has been the most written-about subject in The Sun's sports sections. Coverage of Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli's firing, which occurred three days after Palmeiro was suspended for testing positive for steroids, seemed almost muted in comparison.

The Palmeiro story began in March, when the veteran Orioles slugger testified before a congressional committee examining the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Photos of Palmeiro shaking his finger as he denied ever taking steroids were seen worldwide. The Sun gave the story major front-page play.

Then, on Saturday, July 16, after Palmeiro achieved his 3,000th career hit, The Sun gave his milestone "Man walks on moon"-size Page 1 coverage. That day's sports section also was filled with articles about Palmeiro. The next day's Sunday edition included a lengthy, Page 1 feature about Palmeiro's family life, work ethic and dedication to baseball.

Like many metropolitan areas, Baltimore is made up of disparate socioeconomic and ethnic groups that get much of their shared sense of community from their love of the local professional sports teams.

The Sun's increasing emphasis on prominent coverage of the Orioles and the Ravens follows a national trend for newspapers. It's a good business decision and it reflects the interests of many readers.

Still, there are risks in such dominant coverage.

In my view, the size of The Sun's front-page play for Palmeiro's 3,000th hit bordered on cheerleading. The Sunday profile, though informative, bordered on the obsequious.

To its credit, The Sun recognized the significance of the Palmeiro suspension and reported and edited that negative story aggressively, although some readers complained that President Bush's appointment of John Bolton to the United Nations and the death of 14 Marines in Iraq were underplayed because of the Palmeiro coverage.

The best reporting and commentary on the Palmeiro scandal have been in the sports section - especially the work of columnists Peter Schmuck and John Eisenberg.

This story is perfect for a columnist. It has accusations, denials, information leaks and speculation. It's about fallen heroes, lying, cheating and betrayal.

In his Aug. 2 column, Schmuck repeatedly said, "I want to believe him." On the eve of Palmeiro's return on Aug. 11, Schmuck's frustration at Palmeiro's decision not to address the issue publicly was apparent.

Schmuck wrote: "If there is some untold story that would cast him in a more positive light then it is fair to ask why he has passed up two opportunities to tell it. The legitimacy of his entire career is hanging in the balance, and Palmeiro sends his agent to say he can't say anything in his own defense."

Eisenberg's Aug. 2 column, published the day after Palmerio was suspended, was an exercise in controlled anger.

"He juiced. And got caught," Eisenberg wrote. "That can't be spun, interpreted, denied, avoided or ignored. That's just fact."

Eisenberg's Aug. 4 column was written after Palmeiro's initial denial was challenged by confirmed reports that he had tested positive for stanozolol, a powerful steroid that experts say is almost certainly taken intentionally.

Eisenberg called for the Orioles to cancel a scheduled day honoring Palmeiro - which the club later did - and urged the team to tell him "to just clean out his locker."

Strong stuff. Too strong for some readers.

Nate Greene said: "Sports fans are being invited to a tea party in Wonderland, sponsored by countless sportswriters who are competing to see who among them can most eloquently savage Rafael Palmeiro. And now John Eisenberg has abandoned the good ship detachment and joined the feckless crew that has gone overboard with its condemnations."

But Tom Bednarczyk called Eisenberg's columns outstanding. "He said exactly what many (I would surmise the majority) including myself are thinking."

That Eisenberg's columns may represent the views of many readers is not in itself justification for taking such a strong position on Palmeiro's suspension. A good columnist has to have his own voice. A good column must be supported by experience and credibility. It must challenge, must engage and must entertain.

Eisenberg's columns make assumptions about Palmeiro and his actions that cannot be supported by first-hand knowledge of facts. No one knows what all the facts are at this point.

Could Eisenberg be proved wrong? Absolutely. Do his columns straddle the line of whether it is appropriate to express opinions about facts he cannot prove himself? Yes.

But for a columnist, not to express a strong opinion about something in your area of expertise may cause a fate worse than criticism - not being read at all.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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