Miscellany

Q&A with Michael Schmidt of the New York Times

Only 26, Michael Schmidt is covering perhaps the most important sports story of our time for the “newspaper of record.” In advance of the baseball season, allegations that players are using performance enhancing substances have once again surfaced and Schmidt has been out in front all along. If you’ve never heard of Schmidt, you’ve certainly heard the news that originally bears his by-line (he also broke news that David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa were on the infamous 2003 PED list last summer.) And it wasn’t even his full-time beat this winter. He’s also been covering the NYPD since the fall. Schmidt talked via email about his job at the Times, covering the PED beat, whether the “Steroid Era” is over … and Naomi Campbell.

Q: According to your current Times Topics page, your time appears split between steroid investigations stories and city crime stories. How does that work? About how much time per week are you still able to spend working PED-related leads?

Schmidt: It depends. I am covering these two beats because the Times wants its younger reporters to get experiences outside their designated departments. So at the end of October, I was moved downtown and given the opportunity to work under our police bureau chief. The plan was for me to only cover the NYPD and to forget about the world of performance-enhancing drugs for a while. A few weeks after I started, some stuff quietly bubbled up on the PED front and the Metro and Sports editors moved me back to work on my old beat. On Dec. 15, we popped the story on how Anthony Galea, the Canadian doctor who had treated all these high-profile athletes, was under federal investigation for distributing H.G.H. and since then I have sort of saddled both beats.

I spend my days toiling between grisly murders and H.G.H. blood testing. If I am writing both a Metro and Sports story, I’ll file the Metro story first because they have earlier deadlines. A few weeks back, I spanned the width of the by-line spectrum when on the same day I had a story in the paper about Naomi Campbell allegedly hitting her driver and another about how A-Rod said he had been contacted by the feds investigating the Canadian doctor. Typically, I spend about four to five days a week (often Sunday thru Thursday) working from our small office on the second floor of 1 Police Plaza near City Hall.
In a few weeks, I’ll move back to just sports. I wouldn’t want to do double duty for too long but it’s fun and exciting and sometimes you can’t ask for more than that.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between covering the NYPD beat and covering steroids? What’s it like to cover a story about, say, a murder-suicide involving an entire family versus breaking news that a baseball players was caught using steroids. Has it changed your attitude towards sports journalism?

Of course. At times on my steroids beat, I believe I fell into the trap that many journalists do and believed that everything that occurred on my beat was really important. Not surprisingly, my perspective changed when I came downtown and wrote stories about murders, the deaths of children and hit-and-runs. As awful as it’s been to write those stories, it has given me a much better sense of the big picture and how to evaluate a story’s significance.

Unlike pro sports, the NYPD is a government institution and is compelled to give out a lot of information. I’ll never forget how shocked I was when I did one of my first big crime stories. While working in our little Times office at Police Plaza an old yellow phone next to my desk rang. It was a “hotline” call. As soon as I picked it up, I could hear the reporters from other papers getting on the line. “Daily News!” “Post!” “AP!” They were all checking in so I shouted out “Times!” Then the police official at the other end briefed us over a crackly line on the gruesome crime that had just occurred. It was an awful crime but an eye opening experience. I was thinking that maybe this was what it was like to be a reporter in the “old days.” Calls like that never happen in the sports world. I still get really excited whenever the “hotline” phone rings.

Q: There aren’t that many success stories for young professionals in the print journalism industry these days. What was your career path in getting to where you are now? Got any tips for aspiring journalists?

I started working at the Times in the Summer of 2005, a few months after I graduated from Lafayette College. I had spent the fall semester of my senior year working for The Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times. The folks at the Globe sent a letter to the Times saying that if they needed someone to answer the phones, I had hands. So the Times hired me as a clerk on the Foreign desk and up until that point I didn’t think I wanted to be a reporter. (I dreamed of writing for Saturday Night Live.) But right after I got the job, the woman who hired me warned me that the Times would never hire me to be a full-time staff reporter. As soon as I heard that, my ears perked. I caught a lucky break in the fall of 2005 when I was asked late on a Friday afternoon to go to Yankee Stadium to stand outside and try and get some quotes from George Steinbrenner as he left after that night’s game. (Up until a few years ago, every paper in New York had a reporter who stood outside Yankee Stadium in a largely futile effort to get quotes from Steinbrenner after every game he attended.) For the next year, I clerked and freelanced for the Times, covering murders in the outer boroughs for the Metro section and stalking Steinbrenner for sports. In the fall of 2006, the Sports editors said that I should become a full-time freelancer, concentrating on performance-enhancing drugs and legal issues in sports. So, I dug in on that beat and was then hired as a full-time reporter in Dec. 2007. Two weeks later the Mitchell Report was released, Roger Clemens launched his campaign to refute the accusations he had used steroids and I was off and running.

There will always be a need for content. What form will the content come in? Who knows. But media companies will always need people to produce stories and as long as that’s happening there will be a need for reporters. I didn’t go to journalism school and I believe if you want to be a reporter, you have to want to be a grinder. Find an area few people are writing about, try and learn it the best you can and work harder than the guy next to you. If you want it badly, you can make it happen. I truly believe it all comes down to how badly you want it.

Q: What’s it like to deal with anonymous sources for steroid stories and how do you and your editors handle each individual scoop? Were the Sosa/Manny/Ortiz leaks treated differently from one another in any way?

The challenge I confront on a daily basis is trying to get anonymous sources to talk. In general, sources don’t like talking on the record, they especially don’t like talking about steroids on the record and the really don’t want to talk about anything connected to federal investigations either on or off the record.

All stories, no matter how big or small have to meet the same fairly simple criteria. Is the information accurate? Have we been fair to both sides? And is it written clearly and concisely? The only thing that was a little different about the Sosa/Manny/Ortiz stories is that that information was under a court seal and we had to consider what the consequences – like a grand jury subpoena – could arise from publishing such information.

I have a small quibble – and I think other reporters who write stories based on anonymous sources would too – with your use of the word “leaks.” I believe “leaks” has a connotation that information is just given to us, like a source called me and said “Hey Kid, let me give you a scoop.” For whatever reason, very few stories are handed out to reporters like that.

Q: Is the Steroid Era over? How serious is H.G.H. and do you believe a significant amount of baseball players use it?

The question of whether the “Steroid Era” had come to an end emerged last month when Commissioner Bud Selig said that indeed it had ended. Selig’s statements came in response to Mark McGwire’s admission that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. On one hand I can see Selig’s point that the era of the late 90’s and early part of the 2000s when the use of steroids was rampant and the home run numbers were through the roof are over. On the other hand, I think Selig engaged in a little wishful thinking. Baseball, like football, still doesn’t have as strong a testing program as the Olympics. In particular, their out of season testing – when athletes are believed to benefit the most from using steroids – is fairly weak and they still don’t test for human growth hormone, although that may change shortly. (Selig wants to test for H.G.H. in the minor leagues, where he can act without the players union, as soon as possible. And Selig wants to test all major league players as soon as possible but the players union, led by Michael Weiner, perhaps for good reason, has not enthusiastically embraced H.G.H. testing). I think that whenever you don’t test for a substance like H.G.H. that athletes are known to use, it brings the integrity of the program into question. Who knows how many players are using H.G.H. but I’m sure the lack of testing for it ensures its significant.

Q: What will be the legacy of the players in the Steroid Era? How should the great ones, like McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, A-Rod, Clemens be handled as it relates to the Hall of Fame?

I’m not sure how they should be handled – I can’t vote for the Hall of Fame because of the Times ethics policy. The only thought about McGwire, Bonds and even Rafael Palmeiro that I have is that because they were the first high profile players tied to PEDs they appear to have paid a greater price in the eyes of the fans for their apparent indiscretions compared to players who were tied to them in the past year. When they were tied to the substances, it sent the message that drugs were pervasive in the game and shattered the thoughts of fans who up until that point have blissfully followed baseball thinking that everyone is clean. When a high profile player is tied to PEDs now – like A-Rod or Manny Ramirez – it is old news to the fans in the sense that we know that players have and perhaps will continue to use drugs.

Q: Why is no attention paid to the NBA’s testing? Is it because they don’t have a history of steroid use?

You’ve hit on the other side of a question I get a lot from sources, readers and friends: Why does Major League Baseball get all of the attention when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs?

The N.B.A., unlike baseball, doesn’t have a history of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among the game’s stars. And, unlike baseball, basketball executives and union officials did not have a long protracted public debate about whether players should be tested. No names of NBA players have come up in the court cases involving performance-enhancing drugs – like Balco – that fans are familiar with. All of the above applies to the NHL, too.

I do believe that performance-enhancing drugs help athletes no matter the sport – even in golf. You hear whispers about basketball, hockey and golf but nothing ever seems to come to the surface.

In baseball, the use of performance-enhancing drugs appears to have had a direct correlation to the surge in power and the redefining of the game’s statistics that many fans apparently cherish.

To the media, it appeared like baseball had to be dragged kicking and screaming to begin testing and it came about a decade and a half after the N.F.L. had implemented its own program. After baseball began testing, dozens of the game’s top players were tied to the substances, either through a positive drug test, a court case or the Mitchell report.  Those disclosures made the delay in testing look worse because it confirmed the fears that it was pervasive in the game and gave the impression that baseball was trying to hide something by delaying testing.

The N.F.L. gets some attention on the issue, but not nearly as much as baseball. Fans have a more intimate relationship with baseball stars and they are less anonymous than football players. Baseball players don’t wear face masks (except for catchers), they play nearly every day (except for pitchers) and they are more accessible to the media (except for Manny Ramirez).  And like I said, the records are, or were, more sacred to fans.

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