By Jon Weisman
When Dodger pitcher Brandon McCarthy and writer Molly Knight struck up a spontaneous — and particularly interesting — conversation about clubhouse journalism late Monday on Twitter (captured here by Lana Berry on Storify), it struck a nerve within me because of all the mental wrestling I’ve done on the subject. I was lucky I was able to fall asleep last night.
There wasn’t really a place for me to jump into their exchange, but given 36 hours between their chat and my own departure for Spring Training, here is a semi-coherent window into my mindset and experience.
It begins with loitering. It’s the worst. Little pains me more than awkwardly standing inside the locker room, waiting to talk to someone, like I’m back at the school dances or the bar scene I so gladly left behind years ago.
That several other reporters are standing around as well, nice people with whom you can strike up a nice conversation while you’re waiting, only softens the discomfort a smidge. We just look so dumb.
The clubhouse standabout showcases the primarily one-way relationship between players and writers. We need something from them, they need nothing from us. That’s not a healthy foundation. Even among those who are expert and efficient and care-free at making interviews happen, the power relationship remains fundamentally uneven.
It’s telling how rarely a player has come up to engage me in small talk, even once they’ve come to know who I am. I don’t blame them. For one thing, I’m not great at small talk myself. But overall, I think it’s just habit. I ask, they answer. Because of the need relationship, I have always felt I start at a disadvantage.
Over time, players and reporters can bond thanks to frequency of contact or shared interests, and maybe as time goes by, a genuine friendship or willingness to have a confidant forms. Whether that’s journalistically healthy is debatable, though I do believe it’s navigable.
It helps to have a name and a good reputation (or, in the case of former Times columnist T.J. Simers — a shameless zest for punishing those who wouldn’t cooperate). I don’t have a name or reputation, not in the clubhouse world. My best work, such as it is, has never seemed to reach or resonate with players. Eleven years of Dodger Thoughts meant pretty much zero the first time I went downstairs at Dodger Stadium as a fellow employee; one year of Dodger Insider probably means little more. A.J. Ellis is probably the only player who had any idea who I was before he met me in person, but it’s not like I could trade on that for exclusives. There’s no glory in talking to Jon Weisman, much as I’d like there to be.
Add to that my own deferential nature, where I don’t really want to intrude on a player’s time if I’m not confident he’s game to talk, and you end up with me standing in the room, in the space but not quite in his space. More like in space.
The thing is, I haven’t really pushed the limit. I’ve gotten some unceremonious turndowns, but I haven’t been yelled at, and not being yelled at is probably a sure sign of not being bold enough. Going back to the school dance, different people like to be approached in different ways. Only time, and some failed if well-intentioned efforts, will teach you how it’s done.
It’s quite different in the entertainment world, where this entire ballet is usually taken care of in advance, behind the scenes and usually (though not entirely) through publicists. Other than trying to talk to someone at a post-premiere party, one-on-ones are usually arranged beforehand, so that when the interview time comes, everyone’s ready to go.
On top of that, because there is always a project or career to promote, the subjects are motivated to put their best selves across. In the thousands of interviews I’ve done in entertainment, I could literally count on one hand the number that went badly. Only two really stand out for me at all. (I won’t spill here.) For the other 99-plus percent, the subject was genuinely engaged and willing to go beyond the superficial … or smart enough to come across that way.
It’s different for athletes, who might see dealing with the media only as an obligation and might not see what they have to gain for themselves. Their success, individually or as part of a team, does not depend on good press. Given that, it might be surprising how well many interviews into that clubhouse go — especially brief ones. But you have to get the interview first.
One of the chicken-egg conundrums is wanting to have the time to want to get into a deeper, more meaningful conversation with a player — to do a Sunday Conversation or Marc Maron-style interview — but depending on what agenda you have, that can be harder to make happen.
If I were to ask a player for 45 minutes, that’s a huge deal. Ask in the clubhouse, and that’s pretty much a guaranteed “no.” Ask in advance through PR, and it’s a guaranteed “Really?” It’s a big chunk of a player’s time, and it’s also a level of commitment — even if he has the time — that might scare him off. “Where is this going?” If you are looking for something open-ended, if you are dreaming of going just where the conversation leads you, a player might not welcome that uncertainty, however worthwhile it might be for everyone at the end.
A longer conversation can be a wonderful for a host of reasons, only one of them being that it can help reduce the stigma of a dumb question or the pain of a wasted one. I’ve probably never conducted a perfect interview, but hey, Clayton Kershaw still hasn’t thrown a perfect game. There’s still time for both of us. If you don’t run into dead ends on an interview, it’s very likely you haven’t gone exploring enough. But there’s a critical difference between a failed question in a two-minute interview vs. a 45-minute conversation.
One subtle way a question can go wrong is by including “or” in it. I’ve tried to wean myself off the habit, but I’m still good for this mistake pretty often. I’ll ask a good question — or even better, a good and provocative question. But by the time I get to the end of it, I won’t have the courage of my own curiosity. Here are two ways this can go wrong:
- “Have you ever felt that REALLY INTERESTING THING is true … or, um, do you think mundane alternative is more the case?”
- “Do you think Reasonable Option That I’m Not Quite Confident Is Correct is happening … or is it Different Reasonable Option That’s More the Conventional Wisdom?”
Either way, you’ve undermined yourself.
In part, that’s why I think the “Talk About …” approach has gotten a bad rap at times. You’ll see some reporters and players alike slam beginning a question that way, because it is a sign that you don’t have a specific idea on hand — you’re making the interviewee provide both question and answer. If I were to say “Talk about life as a Dodger,” that’s weak — me just asking you to fill time. That, even I would never do.
However, if I were to provide specifics in the “Talk about” that underscore something thoughtful, that’s a way to get to a topic without prejudicing the outcome. I really don’t want my beliefs to influence how my subject responds. Obviously, the best way to go is to ask a well-thought, articulate, direct, specific but open-ended question from the outset. But on the fly, the main thing is draw out the best response, even if the path there is clumsy. Even a batter who goes 5 for 5 might have some swings and misses along the way.
At the end of it all, I do pride myself on a few things that, if anyone’s noticing, mean something. I pride myself on fairness, integrity and telling a story right and well (though more artfully some days than others). I think that has stood me in good stead. Even if a subject doesn’t read what I write — and I assume most don’t — I’ve almost never had anyone come back to me and say I’ve done them wrong, and I feel I’ve had a good defense for the rare occasion when blowback has occurred. I walk into the clubhouse with the best intentions, and I hope that translates in some way.