By Christopher B. Daly
Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy had a remarkable column on the front page of the paper today. It was remarkable for several reasons.
First, it was on page 1, which suggests to me that it was a newsroom decision to put this on the front page. I wonder why? That means, for one thing, that the Globe’s editors wanted this message to reach readers beyond those who read the sports pages.
Second, it makes a point about the methodology of writing columns, which is more “meta” than Dan usually gets. So, I wonder if this column was prompted by something specific. (Maybe the new Ted Williams biography by Dan’s former colleague, Ben Bradlee Jr., which reminds us of the feud Williams had with Boston sports columnists who were not sufficiently admiring.)
Perhaps it has to do with the Globe’s new owner, John Henry, who also happens to be the major owner of the Boston Red Sox. Was Dan declaring his independence from both the team and the new owner? Was the newsroom supporting him in this? Were they trying to tell Henry (who is new to the role of newspaper-owner) that he should not expect Shaughnessy — and, by extension, the whole Globe staff — to use their words and images to support the boss’s causes and interests? Does that extend to Henry’s business interests? To his politics?
Dan (full disclosure: he’s a friend, and our boys are friends) is making a case that should be self-evident. Years ago, the principle was established among the guild of sports writers that they attended sporting events not to root for the teams they were covering. This attitude was expressed quite well in the classic formulation: “No cheering in the pressbox.”
That goes for the hometown team, too. I believe the job of a sportswriter is to call them as he/she sees them. If my team stinks, I want to know why. I don’t want to be told that they don’t stink when they do.
Dan’s column got a lot of comments, many of which were the kind of harsh put-down that fills sports radio, the internet, and many a comments section. Turns out, a lot of guys want a columnist like Dan to agree with them. That, too, is not his job. As I understand the calling of columnist, the job is to be interesting, plain and simple. A columnist should write about things that are true in an interesting way and write about things that are interesting in a true way.
It’s not the same job as being a reporter or a beat writer. That is a more factual task, trying to answer the basic question: what happened? The columnist is trying to answer a different question: of the things that just happened, which ones are not obvious but would amuse, inform, challenge, provoke, or beguile my readers?
This has been true since the early days of column writing in the early 20th century and can be seen in the work of
the great Red Smith or in the tremendous columns churned out by the likes of Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Langston Hughes, and Ernie Pyle (see Covering America).
Keep ’em coming, Dan. And don’t pull any punches.