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Miscellany

An Interview with ESPN.com's Mike Fish

Investigative sports writers are on the wane for a variety of reasons, but ESPN.com has one of the best in the business: Mike Fish. His recent piece on Lenny Dykstra generated a lot of news, but he also has done tremendous work on the Patriots Spygate story, as well as perhaps his most famous piece, Pat Tillman, an Un-American Tragedy, which made national headlines. After the jump, he talks in depth about his investigative work. 

Q: You’ve had a pretty distinguished newspaper career, working at plenty of big papers and then SI.com and ESPN.com. What was it like climbing the proverbial journalism ladder? And if your original goal was newspapers, at some point did that change to writing for the internet?

Well, I can’t say it’s always been quite as grand as you make it out. I made my newspaper debut in Albany, N.Y., as an obituary writer and also penned a twice-weekly senior citizens column. So folks weren’t thrilled hearing from me back then, either. I was later a police reporter and covered local government before moving into sports. I made stops in Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, St. Petersburg and Atlanta. Eventually, I covered every major sports beat and event before settling in as an investigative reporter in Atlanta during the early 1990s.

The move to the internet came in 2000, and I can’t claim any stroke of genius on my part. No one I spoke with knew exactly where internet sites were headed. What I did hear a lot was that newspapers were the conservative, safe bet. Now, less than a decade later, newspapers are either closing shop or frantically trying to figure out the internet thing. The bad news for me is SI.com had its own money crunch – thanks to the debacle that was the AOL-Time Warner merger. And unlike ESPN and now Yahoo, the folks running the website failed to see the value in breaking news or investigative reporting.

Q: With newspapers scaling back staff and trimming space, how dying of a genre is investigative reporting in the print media? And do you think that because there are fewer watchdogs – it’s really only ESPN and Yahoo doing the heavy investigative lifting – that more athletes/organizations are bending the rules? College football and basketball seem to be the most likely beneficiaries, right?

What’s happening with newspapers is painful to watch. A lot of friends and good people are either losing their jobs or left to survive in less than ideal work environments. I grabbed the scaled down version of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from my driveway last week and mistook it for the neighborhood newsletter. It was that thin. Like a lot of papers, the AJC is scrambling to cover games and live events, let alone find the space, resources and experienced staff to do solid enterprise or investigative reporting. So there is a serious void that didn’t exist 5-10 years ago.

There are still a few sports sections that haven’t completely abandoned serious journalism. The New York Daly News I-Team has religiously pursued the steroids in baseball angle, if little else. Michael Schmidt of the New York Times does some great stuff. You’ve also seen a fair number of experienced and talented reporters leave the newspaper business for sports internet sites or TV. Yahoo.com has been out front on a number of major stories. I’ll refrain from waving the Disney flag, but ESPN – perhaps because I’m familiar with the names – has certainly benefitted as a landing spot for top reporters and editors.

But there definitely are far fewer official watchdogs because of the weakened newspaper industry. The off shoot is the internet has deputized another bred, from passionate folks on message boards to a never-ending array of bloggers. The challenge is filtering through what is real and can be substantiated vs. the wild musings of a scruffy character holed up in the back bedroom of their mother’s house.

You’re also right in suggesting college basketball and football benefit from the decreased scrutiny. I don’t see pro sports escaping the spotlight quite as easily. Another telling point is the NCAA, whose enforcement staff polices college athletics, is reactionary in that investigations are often triggered as a result of allegations first reported in the media. It’s a misconception to think the enforcement staff roams from campus to campus searching out wrongdoing. Far from it. So instead of high-profile cases, NCAA gumshoes these days are hot in pursuit of nickel-and-dime stuff like coaches abusing the number of permissible phone calls and text messages to a recruit.

Q: Can you talk us through the process of how you find a story? Do they mostly come from anonymous tips? Existing stories – like Lenny Dykstra – that you research and find perhaps some deeper, uncovered problems? Are some folks looking for vendettas and ratting out friends?

Story ideas come from a variety of places, but it’s rare that anonymous sources are a factor. I’m not typically getting calls or email from folks with an ax to grind. But my email address appears at the bottom of stories and it can lead to some decent follow up. Obviously, in the course of reporting a story I’ll track down everyone and anything associated with the subject – family, friends, co-workers, lawsuits, real estate tax and property records, bankruptcy filings, criminal records.

I talk almost every day with my editor, Michael Knisley. We discuss what’s in the news and kick around ideas. Because of his familiarity with the story and my reporting, he’s also invaluable during the writing and editing phases. Another great in-house resource is Sandy Padwe. And there are certainly other folks in Bristol who pass ideas through the various channels. I’m also on the phone a lot with a network of valuable sources cultivated over the years, often people I’ve built relationships with through reporting previous stories, picking their brain about what’s happening in their corner of the world. This might be a former NCAA investigator, a labor attorney, a major-league coach or a handful of folks with ties to the steroid industry. A lot of it is looking beyond the headlines for stories that cry out for more digging. That’s the easy part. The challenge is in identifying the ideas that are most worth the investment of time and resources.

The Dykstra story was initially pushed hard by Sandy Padwe, an ESPN consultant and longtime Sports Illustrated and the New York Times investigative editor. Lenny had this grandiose buildup in the media over the past year, particularly with the HBO Real Sports piece and articles in Fortune and The New Yorker. It all sounded so hard to believe. Writers and editors who dealt with his Players Club magazine also started talking about his shaky business practices. Then, lawsuits began showing up in the news. It didn’t take more than a few calls and a couple days searching public records to see the story’s potential.

Q: You were all over the Patriots and Spygate. Would you say this was the most challenging story you’ve worked on? The Patriots are a notoriously unfriendly media organization, and we imagine that most of your reporting was met with roadblocks. What kind of obstacles did you have to hurdle on a story that was discussed on Capitol Hill?

I spent three near-perfect January days in Maui tracking down Matt Walsh, a former Patriots video assistant and key figure in the story, so I can’t sell it as too tough a gig. But it definitely proved challenging for a lot of other reasons, though I can’t rank it No. 1 (I’ll explain in a bit). The name Matt Walsh had circulated in media circles as someone who had information that could possibly blow the lid on the Patriots’ sketchy practice of taping future opponents. The rumor was he had taped the St. Louis Cardinals final practice before the 2002 Super Bowl, which proved not to be true. After some time, I found Walsh in Hawaii, where he was a golf pro, and developed a decent relationship through a number of phone conversations. I ended up flying to Maui. The catch is he wouldn’t take time from his job to meet with me. So I showed up at the Ka’anapoli Golf Resort and booked the young golf pro for lessons, even though I didn’t bring any clubs and hadn’t played in 10 years. The first afternoon we chatted driving around the course in a golf cart. The next lesson took place at a table in a clubhouse lounge overlooking the course.

Dealing with the NFL spin machine proved an exercise in futility. There was always a sense that the Patriots and owner Bob Kraft had enormous say over the league’s position. The team initially balked at fully indemnifying Walsh, which any lawyer would require as a condition for his cooperation. From where I stood, the story never would have dragged on as long as it did had the franchise admitted to mistakes up front and not invested so much energy trying to discredit Walsh. The other interesting character here was Sen. Arlen Specter, who just recently announced his switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Specter, 79 and up for re-election next fall, envisioned hearings similar to what had been held on baseball’s steroid issue, but the committee’s Democratic leadership left him to whistle in the wind.

I first met Specter while in Washington to cover House committee hearings into the death of Pat Tillman. By this time, the Spygate story had already run on ESPN.com and his staff asked if I would come by to discuss what I knew about Walsh and the Patriots’ taping practices. Spygate had created a huge buzz breaking days before the 2008 Super Bowl (the timing of which, Pats fans may never believe, wasn’t planned), but as far as importance, shear effort and challenges, it wasn’t in the same league as the Tillman story.

Instead of trying to crack the NFL’s secrecy and the scheming of Bill Belichick, this story focused on the friendly fire death of Tillman, who left the NFL and later trained as an Army Ranger, and the government’s efforts to cover up what happened on the battlefield in Afghanistan. It was an extraordinary challenge because the story implicated top brass in the military and Bush Administration for their part in the handling of events. Fellow Rangers who were still in the Army risked court martial if they spoke about the fire fight. The availability of public records was limited because of the on-going investigation.

The Tillman family, as might be expected, was emotionally torn. His mother shared documents she had received from the Army with several media outlets, but from the start voiced skepticism about dealing with ESPN. True, her son had been a football player, but his wasn’t a sports story. Early in the process, I spoke to Pat’s brother, Kevin, who very colorfully informed me that the story was well beyond my grasp as a chronicler of athletic endeavors. Then, before I could make my pitch, he hung up.

Even though his words were a slap in the face, I would have thought and said the same if I were him. I took it as a personal challenge to prove him wrong. We ended up reporting the heck out of the story, both with a three-part web series – “An Un-American Tragedy” – and follow up shows on Outside The Lines. This was a team effort back in Bristol. Our work measured up very well against what other major media outlets did on the story. The truest indication was the apology and appreciative words later uttered by Kevin Tillman.

Q: With a couple of serious – for lack of a better word – “takedowns” under your belt in the last couple of years (Patriots, steroids, Dykstra, gambling) a few media observers have mentioned to us that you’ve earned the label of hatchet man (not in a bad way), which is sort of what Don Yeager used to be for SI. Have you run into any of that lately? If you show up around a team, they instantly know who you are, and the story you’re working on likely will result in somebody being exposed? Have you detected a quiet, nervous demeanor around any of your subjects?

That’s not what I am about. Maybe some folks in the business get off counting notches on the belt or “takedowns,” as you describe. None of the people I respect have an agenda like that, certainly not the real solid investigative reporters/producers I’ve worked with at ESPN – people like Willie Weinbaum, Lester Munson, Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn. You innocently threw it out there, so I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down on you. That phrase, to me, just sounds mean-spirited and terribly egotistical.

But by the sheer nature of the job description we’re certainly stumbling upon or being assigned stories that delve into wrongdoing and the dark side of sports. That can be great stuff. I personally have a passion for solving the mystery or setting the record straight with these stories. I’m not a brilliant wordsmith or storyteller in the mold of Wright Thompson, Wayne Drehs and Liz Merrill. Instead, I’m a grinder who builds relationships with sources and searches endlessly for public records to support the story. I’m probably a pain-in-the-butt if you’re the subject or if you screwed up. In some ways, I’m just the reader or viewer asking the questions that often failed to get adequately addressed in the frantic 24/7 news cycle. I’m determined to know if Lenny Dykstra is a true financial genius. I’m curious to know what’s up with the Pittsburgh Steelers doctor who used his credit card to buy $150,000 worth of human growth hormone and testosterone from an online pharmacy. I need to find out what really happened with Pat Tillman.

The reaction or treatment I receive isn’t as bad as one might imagine, and it’s never been an issue. A few NFL team PR guys haven’t always been warm and fuzzy. At the same time, NFL media boss Greg Aiello was professional in my dealings during the drawn out Spygate ordeal. We had a few testy phone exchanges, but that’s healthy and to be expected. I find you can keep the hard feelings to a minimum if you’re fair and straightforward with people. That means carefully laying out the specific accusations and offering folks the opportunity to address the allegations up front. That helps diffuse the potential for criticism after the story runs. Best of all, you can sleep restfully.

Q: Sports fans can be a passionate and occasionally crazy bunch. Have you ever had any death threats from your reporting? Or people crossing any boundaries to the point that it made you uneasy?

I understand and appreciate the passion. The two groups that really get into it, as far as feedback to pieces I write, are followers of college sports and the NFL. Anything related to college football stirs up the faithful, particularly in SEC country. Fans of the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t been huge fans after stories that put their teams in a bad light, though they’ve been reasonably civil in expressing their displeasure. I do have a long-time friend/former neighbor and Pats diehard whom I haven’t heard from in more than a year. The threats were related to stories that triggered NCAA investigations more than a decade ago at Alabama (football) and Missouri (basketball). A lot of the responses these days come either from folks venting on a team’s fan website or bloggers supportive of a particular school or franchise.

QUICK HITTERS

Q: What’s your favorite story that you’ve written? Pat Tillman: An Un-American Tragedy

Q: Who or what is your ultimate investigative topic? I’d love to take a look deeper at Barry Bonds and his life now. And I can’t believe how much of the steroid hysteria has focused on baseball and not the NFL.

Q: What was the last great restaurant you went to? Stroud’s in Kansas City. Unassuming place and great meal of pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and string beans. What’s not to like about a place with the tagline, “We choke our own chickens.”

Q: Did you ever collect anything growing up? Demerits. I attended a Junior ROTC high school where demerits were in order if, say, your shoes and belt buckle weren’t polished to perfection. I’m still scared from having had to march off demerits in the dead of winter in upstate New York.

Q: You’ve just won any car in the world. What’s your pick? Definitely not Lenny Dykstra’s Rolls Phantom. Something that motors under the radar, like a new version of my old ’91 Volvo 240.

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