Writing

Readers Balk When Sports Writers Turn to Politics. Journalists Don’t. – Washington City Paper

“And I guess the stereotype here is that if you’ve ever written about sports you are a blinkered nitwit and incapable of writing about intellectual matters, like—what?—Donald Trump?”

Stephanie Rudig

No one needs to explain the rules of baseball to Chelsea Janes. She played the sport growing up in Massachusetts, and competed for the softball team at Yale University. 

But shortly after being named the Washington Nationals beat reporter for the Washington Post, Janes would occasionally receive emails from concerned readers. They doubted she was qualified for the job. It made her feel like she had something to prove, Janes says, especially as a young, female sports reporter on a male-dominated beat.

She recently thought about those emails.

After four years on the Nats beat, Janes joined the newspaper’s national politics staff in early January to cover the 2020 presidential campaign. By deciding to switch the focus of her coverage, Janes became the latest prolific sports journalist to transition into political reporting, a move that critics view with skepticism.

“I understand it on one level,” she says. “I have not proven that I know how to write about policy or that I can understand an election or understand voters. I haven’t proven any of that. I think I was confused by someone assuming that I wouldn’t be able to … You just have to give everyone a chance before you decide what they can and can’t do.”

(Full disclosure: I worked with Janes during my five years in the Post’s sports department.)

The urge to try something else had been on her mind for a while. She wanted to grow as a journalist, and that meant jumping into unfamiliar situations. 

But the perception that sports is somehow beneath other beats still exists. Journalists have derisively referred to the section as the “toy department” of newsrooms for decades. And some sports fans assert that sports and politics should never mix.

“I do think anyone who makes this jump has something to prove,” Janes says. “It’s like doubting a female sports reporter in general. I think it’s sort of similar to me, like, ‘What do you know?’ It doesn’t offend me in any way. It exists and that’s fine, but certainly I want to dispel the notion that sports reporters can’t make that jump and not contribute to it.”

***

Historian Bruce Bartlett tweeted out a link to Janes’ job announcement in early January to his 60,000-plus followers to criticize the paper’s decision to assign a sports reporter to cover the presidential campaign. The responses to the tweet came swiftly and with varying degrees of exasperation and eye rolls. “Hilariously naive,” one person called Bartlett’s tweet. “Embarrassingly simplistic,” said another. Others used profanity.

Bartlett later clarified that his tweet “had absolutely nothing” to do with Janes or her skills as a reporter, but rather the “widely-critiqued problem of horse race-style reporting” that is too focused on the results and getting a particular piece of information first.

But Bartlett wasn’t the only one who doubted the wisdom of Janes’ move. “Stick to sports” is a common refrain sports journalists hear from readers. It implies that the sacred world of sports should exist separately from the rest of society and reinforces the misconception that sports reporting is just fun and games.

“The problem is people associate sports with leisure and as a result, people who cover just the quote unquote game, that they don’t have the skill set to cover other things,” says longtime sports reporter and broadcast journalist Jemele Hill, who now writes about the intersection of sports, race, politics, and culture for The Atlantic. “I love sports, but the reason that I’m in this profession is because I love journalism. People unfortunately don’t conflate the two.”

Adds Megan Greenwell, Deadspin’s first female editor-in-chief: “People want to think of sports as their escape where they don’t have to think of the real world, want to think that sports reporters are only trained to keep score in baseball games, and not think critically about the world. It’s insulting but is certainly something that is out there.”

Sports reporters are still journalists, much to the dismay of armchair critics. You don’t have to look very far to find other high-profile examples of reporters who have made similar moves. Just within the Post, White House reporter David Nakamura, national news staff writer Eli Saslow, and Rome bureau chief Chico Harlan worked for years in the sports department. Longtime sports writers like Sally Jenkins and Kent Babb have occasionally been tapped to cover politics, as well.

And then there’s David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. He started his career in sports, too. He covered anything, and everything, for the Post’s sports department under George Solomon: the NBA, boxing, the Super Bowl, baseball playoff games, and the United States Football League.

“I wasn’t planning to be a sportswriter, but after a couple of internships at the Post, hanging on by my fingernails, the editors offered me the job and I grabbed it,” Remnick writes in an email. “‘Do you know anything about sports?’ What could I say but ‘yes’?”

“Writing is writing,” he continues. “There is the good stuff and there is the other stuff … Why should you have to write about only one thing? Why can’t someone interested in sports read Jane Austen or Ralph Ellison or Tolstoi? Why traffic in dopey stereotypes? And I guess the stereotype here is that if you’ve ever written about sports you are a blinkered nitwit and incapable of writing about intellectual matters, like—what?—Donald Trump? Tell it to William Hazlitt.”

***

Nakamura never thought he’d leave the sports department. He remembers getting kicked out of a photography class at James Madison High School in Vienna because he would spend time in the dark room reading the sports pages. 

But after covering college sports at the Post for a few years, Nakamura felt an itch to see different parts of the world and wanted to be a foreign correspondent. At the time, the newsroom was expanding its local bureaus, so he applied there. The editors, he says, made him take a writing test.

“Which I was sort of offended by,” Nakamura says. “There was a chip on my shoulder for many years … My sense was that they were trying to discourage me, honestly, from making that jump because they didn’t know technically why I wanted to go and maybe I wasn’t as clear as to what my interests were.” 

His Metro colleagues would remark on his speed. “Oh you can write fast,” Nakamura remembers them saying. It’s something that sports journalists are used to hearing.

“The deadline, that’s something people recognize, that you can do it fast,” Nakamura says. “But it’s far from the only thing.”

If anything, having a sports background only helps a potential applicant, according to Tim Marchman, the special projects editor at Gizmodo Media Group and former editor-in-chief of Deadspin. It gives him a vote of confidence. Sports reporters, he says, “deal with the nuts and bolts of reporting.”

“Police reports, public records, taking care of all that, having a really fast turnaround, and more generally, looking at sports, dealing with things that impinge on everything in broader coverage, technology, gender issues, the use of public money, any kind of big picture issue you can name ramifies in sports,” Marchman says. “There’s a broad spectrum of issues there and having the grasp of working mechanics of how to report it, I think is really directly applicable to anything you want to do.”

Michael S. Schmidt, a two-time Pulitzer winner, started at the New York Times as a news clerk on the foreign and sports desks in 2005. Two years later, he joined the sports staff as a reporter covering performance-enhancing drugs and legal issues in sports. He says his time on the beat has been invaluable to his current role covering national security and federal investigations.

“In many ways the Trump story is a story of federal investigations,” Schmidt says. “Instead of baseball, it’s the president. But I learned a lot. I had a very up-and-down and contentious relationship with the commissioner’s office and the players’ union and that sort of gave me an enormous amount of experience. I had some incredible throwdowns, especially with the commissioner’s office … I often remember those fights that I had. And well, if I can get through that, then I can get through this.”

But the transition, as Janes learned recently, is not without challenges and potential for missteps. Political reporting is competitive, and while covering the 162-game baseball season is considered one of the toughest grinds in journalism, understanding the different players in politics can be just as, if not more, complex. 

Access to the candidates is also often limited, and every issue can be divisive. 

While covering a book event for presidential candidate Kamala Harris, Janes tweeted that members of Harris’ sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, “screeched” when Harris mentioned her time at Howard University. They were actually doing AKA’s traditional “skee wee” call.

The tweet, which Janes eventually deleted, earned plenty of criticism and a call for more diversity among the journalists covering the 2020 campaign. (Janes is white.)

“I was stupid. I didn’t understand that was what was going on and tweeted something I thought conveyed enthusiasm but instead conveyed my ignorance and I felt awful about it,” she tells City Paper. “There’s no way to talk around it. I felt terrible but at the same time, it’s a reminder that I have to remember my blind spots. There are cultural things I should be aware of and I’m not. In baseball it’s a pretty limited world of people and knowledge, and when you get out there, there are things you are expected to know.”

***

The move from sports to politics has been “really natural” for Hill, who worked for ESPN and wrote about sports for several publications, including The Undefeated, ESPN’s sports, race, and culture website. “A lot of things we discuss in politics are discussed in sports as well,” she says. “It’s so intertwined.”

At ESPN, Hill gained both ardent fans and notoriety for her criticism of Trump. The company suspended Hill for two weeks after she violated its social media policy and the White House insisted Hill be fired after she called Trump a “white supremacist.” 

But now, Hill isn’t worried about wading into political waters. The Atlantic encourages it. She laughs at the irony.

“For the first time in a couple years,” Hill says, “I’m being told not to stick to sports.”

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