Don Van Natta, an investigative reporter who left the New York Times for ESPN in 2012, is perhaps the WWL’s most decorated writer: in 16 years at the Times, he was part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams. We swapped emails with him this week about a variety of topics.
Q: Let’s start here: What prompts a Pulitzer Prize winner to leave the New York Times for ESPN? Is that a decision you had to grapple with for awhile? Were your friends and colleagues surprised?
Don Van Natta, Jr.: Ever since I can remember, I have loved sports and yearned to write about them. For a while at the Times, I was satisfied to scratch that itch by writing books: “First Off the Tee” (about Presidential golf) and “Wonder Girl” (a biography of all-sport phenom Babe Didrikson Zaharias). My other sports release valve was Twitter, where I’ve commiserated (too often) with other forever-suffering Vikings fans. When The Wall Street Journal approached me in early 2008 about writing a sports column, I thought: Hey, maybe I could do this for a living. But I stayed put. After ESPN offered me the chance to write long-form investigative pieces, I couldn’t resist. ESPN gave me the opportunity to dig deeply into subjects I love but have never covered. And I’m trying other new things, including my first full-length television piece, which will air soon.
Q: Did you have any fear that ESPN’s many business partners – the NBA, the NFL, College Football, etc – would be a hindrance to what you could and couldn’t investigate? There are a lot of sports fans who think ESPN won’t go after/look into certain sports/teams because of their business relationships, and we’ve written plenty about the Longhorn Network, and broken news of how ESPN let the NBA have final decision on the hiring of Stan Van Gundy.
DVN: Of course it was a concern. When I first visited Bristol in the autumn of 2011, any concern was chased away during discussions with the network’s top editors and producers. They all want to break stories and publish and broadcast muscular work on the most important subjects in sports, with no boundaries set by the network’s partnerships. And since joining ESPN, the bosses have let me do my thing. I have already taken on a number of possibly conflicted subjects and not once has someone advised, “Back off,” or “That’s off-limits,” or “Let’s not go there.” And the same goes for my colleagues in the enterprise unit. Just one recent example of ESPN’s commitment to investigative journalism is the ground-breaking work on the NFL’s player safety crisis by my colleagues Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.
Q: What word or phrase would you use to characterize the media completely whiffing on the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax story? He talked about the girlfriend, everyone lapped it up, but nobody actually bothered to look into whether or not she existed. One of your colleagues said he asked Te’o questions after the fake girl’s death, but was rebuffed. Putting yourself in the shoes of anyone who wrote at the time about her, how big of a brick was it by everyone? Or was it understandable that they didn’t probe further because, well, who makes that kind of thing up?
DVN: I can’t really get into the issue because I’m not directly involved in it. I will say it’s a black-eye for everyone who didn’t check further into it.
Q: You went to Don Bosco Prep in North Jersey, and then attended Boston University. By all accounts, you’ve always wanted to be doing journalism. Any writers in your family? Did you grow up wanting to write? If not, what was the trigger?
DVN: I always wanted to be a writer. In the third and fourth grades, I produced a monthly sports magazine with the pithy name “The Sports Magazine” for my father and his friends (it was awful but no one burst my bubble). Beginning to write for an audience so young helped me get the kind of head-start that is essential in this hyper-competitive business.
Q: You’ve been at ESPN for one year, and a lot of time was spent reporting on the Penn State scandal. Would you say you were able to cover it in sort of the same way you did international stories for the New York Times? Did you attack the investigative work on Penn State in a similar manner?
DVN: During my ESPN orientation week in early January 2012, I was assigned the Penn State story. The editors said: Try to find out what happened in the years leading up to Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and in the chaotic days and weeks following it. I was given free reign, and plenty of time to roam around State College and Harrisburg – great privileges in this era of instant-journalism and live-tweeting of news. I pursued the PSU story exactly the way I’ve pursued every other story: aggressively but carefully. I wrote a magazine story examining the Pennsylvania governor’s role in the Sandusky criminal inquiry and the firing of Joe Paterno. And I wrote a series of stories at ESPN.com raising questions about the leadership of Penn State’s Board of Trustees before and after the NCAA slapped its football program with unprecedented sanctions. No matter the subject, my goal is always the same: try to write smart and balanced pieces that will help readers better understand the stories behind the headlines.
Q: Was your most difficult task ever at the Times writing about Judith Miller?
DVN: I tackled many difficult subjects during my 16 years at the Times, including the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath and, most recently, the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal in London. The Judith Miller story was a particular challenge because I had to raise questions about the judgments of publisher Arthur Sulzberger and top editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson. I’m proud of the Miller story, which I wrote with several colleagues, because it accurately described a painful chapter in the Times’ recent history, warts and all.
Q: You’ve written multiple books, and your name has been on the New York Times bestseller list. An incident with a former ESPN reporter, Bruce Feldman, changed the way ESPN permits its writers to author books. Are you currently working on any books? If not, would you be permitted to if you wanted?
DVN: When I was hired, I was assured I could write books while working here. But I was already under contract with two publishers to write two more books, which I’m doing whenever there’s time. The first is a narrative of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, which I’m writing with Times London correspondent Sarah Lyall. The second is a biography of NFL and AFL head coaching legend Sid Gillman.
Q: As a resident of South Florida, you wrote a hilarious takedown of Miami Heat fans in 2011. Have you attended any games since? Did you hear from the team afterward? With this being Year 3 of LeBron in South Beach, would you say you’ve seen a change in the attitude of fans?
DVN: I heard no feedback from the team, perhaps mercifully. I go to Heat games pretty often. Not much has changed, unfortunately. Even after lifting another championship banner, some Heat fans still roll in late, hang out in the arena’s club and bars and get out early to beat the traffic. The Heat may never live down its infamous Fan Up! incentive program that tried to bribe fans to take their seats for the opening tip.
Q: Are you surprised with the way websites such as ours, and others, cover ESPN? Whether it is reporting on ratings or hires or firings or pundits … ESPN often seems to be the news. Or having spent time at the New York Times, is this nothing new to you?
DVN: I never understood the blogs that dissect the inner workings of newspapers because it feels like so much inside baseball, even to the newspaper journalists being written about. But the endless fascination with sports media including ESPN is something different, and it’s also an easy way to drum up traffic and money to your blog or startup business. It’s completely understandable that fans want to know everything about sports media because it’s the delivery system for the games and teams that they love.
Q: Michael Wolff once called you “a Times enforcer” and said you were an “insider, loyalist and gun.” When you read that, what was your reaction? Have you spoken with Wolff about that? Would you character those words as accurate?
DVN: It’s silly criticism by a man who has never bothered to pick up a phone to talk with me. Anyone who reads the Judith Miller story would disagree with Wolff’s view that it was a whitewash job done by a newspaper “loyalist.”
Q: I don’t expect you to divulge what exactly you’d like to investigate in sports, so instead of specifics, what sports most intrigue you as interview subjects?
DVN: I am especially interested in football and soccer, but the opportunities for great work are everywhere. Almost every day, at least one riveting sports story is published in America by one of my ESPN colleagues or elsewhere. On some days, there isn’t enough time to read them all. This is the golden age of narrative sports journalism. Despite the raucous competition for stories and the demands of readers clamoring for more, there’s no limit to the fantastic sports stories waiting to be discovered, reported and shared.