Monday, August 23, 2010

Don't miss the real meat in Jason Whitlock's bizarre Shakespearean Sandwich -- the money quote, to be or not to be... a reporter or a celebrity

While most focus on the sauce, the meat of Jason Whitlock’s Big Sandwich, if you can find it, is probably a lot more nutritious.

Strip all the intriguing… salacious… details away. Why did Mr. Whitlock quit writing for the Kansas City Star on May 26?

According to Mr. Whitlock, he quit because his editor told him he could not credit another news source in his column. Bare bones, he made his stand on only this point. I’ve made stands on points just as seemingly mundane, and, of course, that’s where all the other saucy stuff comes in. If he hadn’t slathered on the sad history of his entire career in journalism, seasoned by a few references to childhood and college, the explanation would have lasted a good hundred eighty seconds instead of a hundred eighty minutes.

His editor said you can’t reference in your story. Mr. Whitlock drew a line in the sand.

Now, you can look at this at least two ways. The first is the way Mr. Whitlock chose. The “awards culture” of the Kansas City Star -- fueled by the evil characters in his tragic narrative -- thought the piece he had written might bring the newspaper another plaque for the wall at 17th and Grand. The judges would not look kindly on a reference to someone else’s reporting for a major portion of the story.

It is not uncommon to think this way if you are thinking about awards. If you want to submit a wonderful design in the design category, you can’t use a background of roses you downloaded from the Web. You need to go out and shoot some roses for yourself and build the design from your own work.

The other way to look at this pivotal incident is this. Mr. Whitlock’s editor may have been demanding he develop the part of the story himself, quoting his own sources and, hopefully, adding his own detail. If this was the case, you can’t fault her, or her superiors. Most editors would make the same demand. And, they should make the same demand.

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But I do find a lot of columnists today are little more than amalgamators, stitching together “reports” into stories then pouring on their own special sauce of opinion. The special sauce is their claim to fame. In essence, it is their celebrity. They think in terms of their brand, of using their brand to drive traffic to themselves – and, incidentally, to their publication.

Not a bad strategy for Rosedale Bar-B-Que. Let your sauce do the talking. Of course, the meat ain't bad at Rosedale either.

Amalgamating is essentially what most bloggers do. It is easier than the care and feeding of good sources, working the phones, attending the games or the city council meetings, and sitting down for the long interview it might take to get the one money quote.

The other way is to gather “reports” and let the money quote come from you.

You become the money quote.

More often than not, Mr. Whitlock has been his own money quote. He said as much Friday.

It’s possible Mr. Whitlock’s line in the sand has to do with both perspectives, the “awards culture” of a newspaper and the “celebrity culture” of columnists today.

--Lofflin … and, yes, I’m writing this in the back of the kitchen with a cup of strong coffee and one eye on the hummingbirds outside. No original reporting here. But, whoa!, I needed to leave for work six paragraphs ago. And, I don’t expect to win an award for this little ditty nor do I expect to get paid. Therein likes the big flaw in the notion of citizen journalism.


  1. The reason newspapers don't want to credit other news sources is because it announces Loud and Clear that We Missed The Story. Whitlock's role is not to report (as in generate original reporting) but to provide commentary on the hot news of the day. Therefore it was no reflection on his journalistic bona fides to cite Yahoo, but I'm sure it was a big deal to the editors and reporters who would be blamed by their bosses for missing a story. That being said, refusing to give credit where credit is due is incredibly small-minded; most readers don't care. It's only in the insular world of journalism and sports journalism that this would be an issue.
    Anyway, The Star has a long history of being reluctant to provide credit to stories that appear first elsewhere (Ask Steve Rose, or the ghost of Tom Leathers). It wasn't a policy per se, and some times, pubs like the Joco Sun and the Olathe Daily News (before the Star bought it) were given specific credit in print, but more often timid editors would excise a direct citation as Holly L. did. The thinking is it's better to appear small-minded than to risk raising the ire of one of your bosses who might not like seeing a competitor being given credit.

  2. Anon- I'm not trying to defend the Star by any means, but I will say in this specific incident I don't believe it's that the Star didn't want to give credit to Yahoo when credit was due; the newspaper questioned whether the citation was necessary in an instance when any number of news sources could have been cited. I disagree with your premise that newspapers shy away from citing sources because they don't want to admit to missing a story. Indeed, I think newspapers overall do a pretty good job of citing sources, much better than other media sources. Besides, I don't think the Star sees Yahoo Sports as "competition," or vice versa.