Monday, December 7, 2009

Boxing myself in

I enjoy watching almost any movie or TV show that involves reporters. Sometimes I can even relate it to my own experiences as a sports writer, as was the case last night after I watched “Resurrecting the Champ.”

The movie, based on a magazine piece by J.R. Moehringer, starred Josh Hartnett and Samuel L. Jackson. Hartnett played the Moehringer character, though many liberties were taken. I imagine Moehringer wasn’t flattered by being portrayed as a journalist more interested in the story he wanted to tell rather than the truth.

The story centers on a reporter who discovers a homeless man claiming to be a former heavyweight title contender. The boxer is played by Jackson, whose performance alone is worth watching the film. Along the way, the reporter learns something isn’t right about the boxer’s claims.

In the movie, he discovers that after the story is published, and even then he debates about whether to come forward with the truth. As I watched I grew increasingly annoyed that nobody asked the reporter to verify his facts. It seemed there was no fact-checking process at all. At least one other journalist was annoyed by that, too.

The general public may perceive journalism that way, but in the vast majority of cases that’s not the reality. The old journalism adage is if your mother says she loves you, check it out. In other words, don’t take anybody’s word as sole proof of anything. Publishing a cover story without anybody double-checking the facts is preposterous.

In Moehringer’s original, he uncovered the lies during his reporting process. And he was able to incorporate them into a story that was included in the Best American Sports Writing of the Century.

The article is an important lesson for journalists about corroborating everything. Also, you should be willing to let the story take you in a different direction than you originally planned. You never know, it could end up becoming something better, such as was the case for Moehringer. Tom Junod did a similar thing with this story in Esquire, which I mentioned in an earlier post.

I just wish I had done the same thing two years ago. I was writing a freelance article about the Mooseheart football team. I was still working at the Sun, so the reporting for this story was done on my own time. I felt I needed to come up with a structure first and then plug in the details as I uncovered them. I settled on breaking it into four sections, one for each quarter of the team’s homecoming game, and within each part I focused on a different player.

I think it turned out all right. You can judge for yourself by reading it here.

But it could have been better if only I’d stepped back and listened to the nagging voice inside me. One of the players I met was Floyd Mays, a senior who wore the same jersey number his older brother had when he played for the Red Ramblers. It was also the same number worn by Floyd’s coach, Gary Urwiler, when he was a star at the school in the 1980s.

Late in the reporting process I met an old timer who often returned to Mooseheart despite living in Milwaukee. He was a former football player who had come to Mooseheart as an infant. And he had worn the same jersey number as Floyd, Floyd’s brother and Urwiler (I believe it was No. 21 or No. 22).

Right there I had a thread connecting the Mooseheart tradition through multiple generations of football players. It just wasn’t the story I had in mind. To switch that late in the process would have been too time-consuming.

So I forced it into the box I’d already created. The story I turned in was truthful. I didn’t make anything up. I double-checked details with the kids’ families and friends. No, my sin was ignoring the whispers coming from the real story.

It still pisses me off now because I know it could have been a great story. At least I was able to salvage something from it – a lesson.

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