Do you pay attention to a negative story when it becomes a public shaming?
What if you repped a big shot, and a reporter effectively debunked a defining story said big shot loves to tell? You might clam up, if the client insisted. Or you might clarify.
Good journalists call bull what it is, after all. They dig. They uncover. And, at their best, they show what is really there. As appropriate, PR folks respond.
But what about when the reporter gets, well, personally involved in the story? What if they write what you can assume is a public shaming due to a subtle headline that reads, in part, “shame on you for refusing to help”?
A story and a later column, both for Sports Illustrated, are at issue, and in both cases the target of the stories – Michael Jordan –apparently has kept quiet.
Earlier this year, a talented writer named Thomas Lake delivered a compelling read in the pages of Sports Illustrated about a myth Michael Jordan has presented as fact – that Pop Herring, a basketball coach at Jordan’s high school, had cut him.
Lake’s story chronicled how Herring’s life eventually fell apart under the weight of mental illness. Of course, Jordan’s star blasted off, and the myth about Herring’s actual role with Jordan gained traction under Jordan’s retelling.
At the end of Lake’s story, which you really should read, there is a perfect moment that sums up Lake’s themes. Lake relays how someone asks Herring whether he was “the one who cut Jordan?” Herring says no, adds: “It’s a lie that you continue to tell.”
Last week, Lake returned to the story with a “letter” to Jordan, an opinion column. This time, the journalist was not just the guide seeking truths, but a character with great agency within the story – an activist for Herring, a counterpoint to Jordan’s inaction, a moral center.
Here’s how he calls Jordan out:
“Did you help him? Not in the past 18 years. He and his friends say the last time you saw him was 1994, and no one from your camp has come forward to dispute this. That was at a celebration of you in Chicago, and you introduced him to your fans as ‘the first guy to ever cut me,’ and they booed.”
Lake also discussed Herring’s legal issues. And that’s where, in this telling, the reporter who expertly had put the “show rather than tell” form of journalism to good use now becomes an actor in the story rather than the reader’s tour guide. Lake posts $100 bail for Herring, not something reporters or columnists normally do for their subjects. Lake wrote:
“My own money – not from a Sports Illustrated expense account. It felt wonderful. Like you, Mike, I had profited from Pop’s story, and I figured this was the least I could do to pay him back. I slid five twenties under the glass at the magistrate window and the guy gave me a receipt and told me to bring it to the deputy at another window.”
In his final three paragraphs, Lake suggests a few of the things Jordan can do with his money to help Herring lead a better life.
Overall, my thoughts generally are consistent to what Dan Spears wrote at The (Wilmington, N.C.) StarNews Online.
“This time, Lake’s investment [in his subject] got the better of him.”
As someone who appreciates Lake’s writing, the column Lake wrote this time out shows the weakness of telling, especially given the masterful work he did showing in the initial story. In the column, the final three graf run of suggestions probably felt good to write. I’m not sure of its logic. Lake’s column effectively hinges on what should be, to a journalist, a troubling comparison of himself to Jordan.
Simply noting that Jordan hasn’t contacted his former coach despite the wide coverage of the earlier story? It makes the same point as the three grafs of suggestions.
The act of bailing out a source is problematic, and not just because Lake is a reporter. From what I read in Lake’s work, I’m not entirely sure bailing Herring out was in his best interest. I’m left with the suspicion that more pertinent questions are in order about the responsibilities of local social services officials than there are for Jordan.
From the PR end, a few questions:
What would you do – if anything – if your client was the subject of the first story?
Is it different or the same than how you might respond to the column that came out this week?
In Jordan’s case, it appears that he or his people are ignoring the story. Jordan made headlines after Lake’s column ran, but not about his former coach. Jordan talked about the Dream Team compared to this year’s Olymics Team USA.
A former U.S. Navy, Virginian-Pilot and Times Herald-Record journalist, John is a member of our Vox Optima Norfolk team. He is a prolific social media writer, so you can always find him on Twitter, on Facebook, his personal blog, or by shooting him an email.
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