Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Journalists have to ask, not badger

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW YORK — Jim Gray was out of line. He was so far out of line that a lot of people want him out of work.

        Gray had some tough questions for Pete Rose Sunday night, and he wasn't satisfied with the answers. So NBC's World Series reporter/prosecutor began to badger the witness.

        He was argumentative. He was condescending. He was smug. He was smarmy. He was Geraldo Rivera on a bad hair day. He was Richard Fish without the subtlety.

        “Are you willing to show contrition, admit that you bet on baseball and make some kind of apology to that effect,” Gray asked.

        Gray was trying to wring a confession from Rose, the long-awaited admission that he bet on baseball, the white whale of sports journalism. He asked the same question about six different ways — standard reporting technique — but Rose didn't budge. He's stuck to the same story for 10 years now, and he's not the type to recant on cue.

        “I'm surprised you're bombarding me like this,” Rose told Gray. "I'm doing the interview with you on a great night, a great occasion ... Everybody seems to be in a good mood, and you're bringing up something that happened 10 years ago.”

        Gray's first question was valid. So, too, was his follow up. With national polls favoring Rose's reinstatement and baseball obliged to honor him as part of its All-Century team, it was Gray's job to seek new light on shifting circumstances. His mistake was in refusing to let it go when Rose refused to oblige him, for telling Rose he was “his own worst enemy,” for playing the bad cop in a job that calls for objectivity.

Live TV
        Journalism is sometimes compared to sausage-making. It's best to judge the product rather than the process. The trouble with live television, though, is the process is the product.

        We're all for tough questions on TV. We see them too seldom. We're weary of the cloying interviews of Ahmad Rashad and the Kleenex of Barbara Walters. We prize reporters who strive for the essence and eschew the euphemism. We applaud Gray's resistance to softball schtick.

        Yet we fail to understand his hubris. Did Gray really believe that he could pry a confession out of Pete Rose after 10 years of stern denials? Did he think his line of questioning hadn't been pursued a hundred times before? Did he think Rose would walk off the stage at Sunday's All-Century team ceremony and feel the sudden urge to unburden his soul?

        “All of these questions are questions Rose has heard for 10 years,” Gray said. “It was an opportunity for Rose to make his case. It's a shame that's the direction it went.”

        It was worth a try. Strategi cally, Rose would have been well-advised to capitalize on his appearance with an act of contrition. Lord knows, it's his only real shot at reinstatement.

        But if Rose won't bite, you don't keep shoving the microphone down his throat as if he were an elected official caught filching public funds. You don't interrogate private citizens as if they were prisoners of war.

        “I thought it was embarrassing,” said Yankees catcher Joe Giradi. “It's a special night for Pete Rose. I think Jim was out of line. I think he's a little too invasive most of the time.”

        “You saw Pete on stage,” said Jim Leyritz, the Cincinnati-raised Yankee. “He was crying. There were tears in his eyes. To take that kind of night away from him all of a sudden by doing that, it's not human.”

        Ballplayers can be counted on to band together against what they consider excessive probing. (Which, in the case of Yankee pitcher Orlando Hernandez, could be any question that involves either fact or opinion). This time, though, the general public was as outraged as any prickly prima donna.

        NBC affiliates and newspaper sports departments throughout the country were flooded with protests about Gray's heavy-handed histrionics. Richard Sandomir, writing in the New York Times, said Gray had “trampled the line of civility.”

        Pete Rose needs to be put on the spot now and then for his own good. His story should be challenged because it's not credible and it gives baseball no reason to rehabilitate him.

        That said, just because he makes a good target is no justification for an ambush.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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