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Leonard Shapiro is the only regular sports media critic in town. To go along with his NFL and PGA beats, he’s been writing a criticism column, Sports Waves, for the Washington Post for the last 12 of his 33 years at the paper.
In print, Shapiro has railed against WFAN talk-show host Mike Francesa for letting a friendship with ex-New York Jets coach Bill Parcells affect his “reporting —or nonreporting” on Parcells and the Jets. He has gone after WRC-4’s George Michael for paying athletes to appear on his news broadcasts. He’s upbraided L.A. television broadcaster Jim Hill for once attending the NFL league meetings as part of an entourage lobbying to bring pro football back to his hometown.
He’s also filled a lot of column inches criticizing peers who appear in TV commercials.
“I don’t think Chris Berman or Dan Patrick should be shilling beer,” he tells me. “When’s the last time you saw Dan Rather or Peter Jennings shilling beer?”
Stone-throwing is a big part of the job. But Shapiro’s coverage of local sports media could leave the critic a target of the same stones he’s been throwing at others for so long.
In a Sports Waves column earlier this month, Shapiro bestowed both raspberries and huzzahs to area sports reporters. He named Andy Pollin, sports director of WTEM, “Best Local Radio Broadcaster,” adding that Pollin’s “breadth of sports knowledge—particularly on the Redskins—is unparalleled in the market.”
Amid the kudos, Shapiro didn’t mention that he is a regular guest on the show Pollin hosts at the station each evening, The Sports Reporters. That’s a paying gig.
“But it barely covers gas money,” Shapiro says when asked about the apparent conflict of interest, though he declines to give the specific appearance fee he receives from WTEM. “I do Andy’s show because, well, it’s a fun show to do. It’s being done because I like Andy, he’s a friend, he asked me to be on, and, yes, everybody on the show gets paid. So I guess you could say technically there is a conflict, but it’s the same conflict of interest that others [at the Post] have faced and handled well. I’m talking about guys like [general media critic Howard] Kurtz, Tony Kornheiser, and Michael Wilbon. In retrospect, maybe I should have said he’s a friend of mine.”
There seem to have been other gaps in the reporting involving Shapiro’s friends and/or WTEM.
Praising the radio and TV work of Post colleague Kornheiser has been an evergreen for Shapiro. But Kornheiser’s two 2002 dust-ups with ESPN Radio—last January, the Rev. Jesse Jackson accused the Kornheiser show of racial insensitivity after a Dennis Green imitation, garnering an apology from the network; and in July, Kornheiser was suspended by ESPN allegedly for insulting the higher-ups—never rated a mention in Sports Waves, though each squabble was the sports talk of the town for a time. Ethical questions raised by Wilbon’s summer work as color man for the Redskins Broadcasting Network, owned by team owner Dan Snyder, didn’t garner Shapiro’s ink. WTEM dismissed baseball savant Phil Wood, just when the station had added the Orioles broadcasts to its programming, causing such a loud and prolonged outcry from local fans that station manager Bennett Zier went on-air to try to quell the criticism. Never made Sports Waves.
In the awards column, Shapiro chastised WRC-4’s Michael for being “far too close to Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his own objective good.” But Snyder has ties to others in local media, also. Pollin, for example, was a leader of Snyder’s handpicked committee to name the 70 Greatest Redskins, the centerpiece of the owner’s promotional blitz this season. If Shapiro had an objection to that, he didn’t publish it. The fact that The Sports Reporters is regularly broadcast from stores owned by the team and from special studios paid for by Snyder gives the show a vibe similar to that of car-repair programs that go live from the auto dealerships that sponsor them. But don’t look for any hint of that conflict in Sports Waves.
Post ombudsman Michael Getler says he was unfamiliar with Shapiro’s outside interests. But Getler knows that the number of journalists forming professional bonds with people or organizations they cover is growing, and he’s not real happy about it. “I think that’s a bad idea, for anybody, for a newspaper or any other news organization,” Getler says. “If editors are convinced of the professionalism of their people, they’re more inclined to give them a little extra rope. But when conflicts are apparent, they need to be called out and questioned.”
Shapiro says any hint that he’s in too tight with WTEM management is “absurd” and points to the awards column as proof of his independence. “I took shots at ‘TEM’s hockey guy [Steve Kolbe, who Shapiro wrote ‘yells far too often’] and a semishot at their basketball guy [Dave Johnson, who ‘gets bogged down in minutiae’]. And I took a big shot at the lead talk-show host [John Thompson, named ‘Worst Local Radio Broadcaster’]. So no matter what I said about Andy Pollin, you could also make the point that I came out 3-to-1 against ‘TEM.”
Shapiro heard a lot of backlash about his criticism of Thompson. He says he expected some fallout, given Thompson’s standing in the community and the fact that Shapiro had a falling-out with the Georgetown coach while writing his 1991 book about Thompson, Big Man on Campus. Shapiro admits that the lack of cooperation hurt the book, which didn’t meet his own sales expectations.
But just as Shapiro insists that his friendship with Pollin isn’t what brought the sports director the title of Best Local Radio Broadcaster, he says his lack of a friendship with Thompson had nothing to do with the coach’s taking the title as Worst Local Radio Broadcaster.
“I listen to his show, and he drives me nuts,” Shapiro says. “I don’t want to hear or need to hear a lovefest. He has a forum. He’s got access. Why not take advantage of that? I figured people would say, ‘He’s got an ax to grind because he wrote a book and Thompson didn’t cooperate.’ I’ve got no ax to grind. I once considered John a friend. Then he sabotaged some of my efforts in writing a book about him. But that book came out in the middle of the Gulf War, and that killed [the book’s sales]. So I blame the first Bush, not Thompson.”
—Dave McKenna, who in 2000 lost a $75-per-week freelance job with the sports section of the Washington Post after writing a column about Tony Kornheiser for the Washington City Paper