Friday, February 15, 2013

On Michael Jordan and the value of access

Wright Thompson's ESPN The Magazine article on Michael Jordan at 50 is getting plenty of praise, and deservedly so. Thompson paints an excellent, nuanced portrait of Jordan, highlighting both how he's changed and how he hasn't since he quit playing. In order to do this, Thompson gains plenty of access to Jordan's life and his inner circle, and he uses it well: there's plenty of insight in his piece into what drives Jordan, and it's a worthy read. However, while reading it, I couldn't help but think back to an earlier magazine piece on Jordan, Brett Popplewell's December profile in Sportsnet Magazine. Both pieces are well worth your time, and they highlight different aspects of Jordan, so it's not like we have to unequivocally declare that one is better. However, if I had to choose just one piece I'd recommend to someone curious about Jordan's post-playing career, I'd go with Popplewell's. That might surprise many, as unlike Thompson's, it doesn't contain a single quote Jordan gave Popplewell.

Access has often been seen as one of the holy grails of journalism, and for good reason. It can be extremely useful to hear what players and coaches are thinking, to hear their rationale on why they made the decisions they did and to try and understand them as people. Moreover, access of the sort Thompson had can be the most valuable; spending more time with a subject than a quick interview in a locker room can be extremely useful, as can seeing how they behave at home and how they interact with friends. Some of my favourite sports books have followed these lines, spending a season around a team and portraying how they behave on and off the court; a few examples include Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds Or Less, David Halberstam's The Breaks Of The Game and one I'm currently reading, Roy Blount Jr.'s Three Bricks Shy Of A Load. In all of those cases, the authors used their access effectively to portray the teams and characters they covered in a deep way, and the books are better for it.

However, there's often a lot of value to pieces written with little or no access to their subject as well, and that's what stands out about Popplewell's piece. It's an extremely well-researched, well-written look at Jordan after his playing career, and it gets there without a single quote from the man himself. In many ways, it's better for not having Jordan speak (technically, there's one quote from him, but it's an old one from a 1992 interview). Instead, we hear about him not primarily from the friends and associates Thompson quotes, but from the Bobcats' fans who watch Jordan's team, from the buskers in his city and from Popplewell's own writing. Both articles arguably have Jordan the crazily-intense competitor at their centre, but the accounts of Jordan's behaviour in Thompson's piece are tempered by comments from his inner circle about how critics misunderstand him (particularly, his Hall of Fame speech) and by humanizing, compassionate moments from Jordan himself. Given that this is Jordan we're talking about, it leads me to wonder how much of that's real and how much of that is him applying his legendary competitiveness to "winning the profile". Thompson's piece is no hagiography, and he does a good job of revealing and illuminating Jordan's flaws as well as his strengths, but Popplewell's seems to me to give a more accurate picture of the man.

Is that a call to throw out the old pillar of access, to move all journalism to the Deadspin tagline of "Sports news without access, favor or discretion"? No, it isn't. As mentioned above, there's significant value to access, and significant value to pieces' like Thompson's. I see the takeaway here more as that you can still produce some pretty remarkable journalism with little (while Popplewell didn't interview Jordan, he did interview some people) or no access. There's a long tradition of that in journalism too, as seen in articles such as Gay Talese's famous "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" piece in Esquire and many of the works of another Thompson, Dr. Hunter S. (whose "Fear And Loathing At The Super Bowl" in particular might be my favourite thing ever written about a sports event, despite it including very few quotes from anyone involved). In my mind, that's an inspiring message as well, one to encourage people to get writing and keep writing regardless of if they're working for Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine or just their own independent blog. Not everyone can hang out in Michael Jordan's penthouse, but that doesn't have to stop you from writing something great about him.


  1. Great post! This access-subject led me to remember David Halberstam's 'Summer of 49.' and the masterful way that work was able to tell me about an era that was generations before my time. Joe DiMaggio --the man and the memory of what he represented to fans, fellow Italos, and even post-war America-- has an aura and presence that transcends the decades, despite the fact that he was always guarded and grew increasingly distant as he aged. Yet, even without access to Joe D., Halberstam's writing about the man sort of demystified the legend and gave him a very human side; considerably different than the way the papers of the day and their beat-reporters told the tales that made up legend. As long as the non-access reporting in honest in the storytelling, that type of coverage doesn't 'take away' from the figure being considered. Quite the opposite, the lack of access allows for a truer portrait to be sculpted. Just as you mentioned, the relative freedom to comprise a broad composite of the figure is actually enhanced when the writer doesn't have to maintain loyalty, for the access that is graciously given. In a non-sporting sense, Edmund Morris's biography of Ronald Reagan, 'Dutch,' was probably the most perfect combination of access --initially he was to be the authorized biographer of the former life guard, actor, governer, and ultimate Cold Warrior, before going rouge and losing the authorized tag-- and freedom to critically assess his subject. Great article man, it made me think.

  2. Hey, thanks a lot! I haven't read Summer of 49 or Dutch; will have to check those out. I'm a big fan of Halberstam. Yeah, honesty is absolutely crucial, and that's a great point; one of the perils of the non-access approach is it's sometimes tougher to make sure it's a fair and accurate representation of the person. Even if you don't talk to them, their side has to at least be considered. When done well, though, I think there's a lot of value to this approach. And the nice thing is it doesn't have the entry barrier of the access-intensive profiles. Anyone can write about Jordan, but not everyone can hang out in his penthouse.

  3. Solid article, Andrew. As you said, lack of firsthand access often forces authors to critically assess the subject, develop an appropriate narrative, and then find supporting resources to deliver the story. For some reason, sports journalism seems to be more noticeable when it comes to "inside access" because of the prevalence in anonymous sources, most specifically. Of course, the reality of the situation is that sources without a name is not the exclusive domain of sports, nor is it absolutely essential in presenting factually correct sharing of information.

    I always find David Halberstam usage of "inside access" to be slightly off-putting because he regards it as the only legitimate form of informing. Crucial and illuminating, yes, but restrictive in any case. Somewhat related, Halberstam's regard for sports as a venue for only the hardcore and unhinged masses seemed to confirm his opinion on writing for me.

  4. Hey, thanks, Brian! Yeah, would certainly agree that inside access isn't everything. Anonymity's an interesting related debate, too; there are times in my mind when there are good reasons to keep sources anonymous (and they can add to a story), but there are also plenty of times when there's no good rationale for an anonymous comment to be included. My general stance is to take things case-by-case; sometimes the inside access is awesome, sometimes the anonymous quotes are great, but there are plenty of other times where you can get excellent stuff without relying on either.

  5. Something that just came to mind, too: a lot of the really inside access pieces try to give you a "fly on the wall" version of something, but a journalist is never really a fly on the wall. The act of observing changes things (and not just in quantum physics!). Especially with Jordan and his inner circle (who have every reason to make him look good), you have to wonder how close their behaviour with Thompson around is to how they'd act if he wasn't there. (Doesn't make Thompson's piece bad or deceptive or anything, but I just don't think it's possible to ever really get a completely true portrait of how people act without being observed.)

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