September 26, 2005

ESPN's Schaap Gives Advice On Working in News Business

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For many sports fans sitting inside a full Kaufmann Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, ESPN national correspondent Jeremy Schaap’s ’91 lecture, sponsored by The Sun, gave audience members a chance to experience a perspective from an individual who has done countless nationally recognized pieces and won five Emmy awards for his work in sports journalism.

Schaap, a former Sun sports editor who came on campus to help commemorate The Sun’s 125th anniversary, and the son of award-winning journalist Dick Schaap ’55, focused his lecture on issues concerning the interviewing process in journalism. Schaap said that the ability to interview sources in a proper manner is undoubtedly one of the most important skills that a journalist should have, noting, for example, that ESPN specifically has an employee who gives seminars and training on this topic.

“I think the most important lesson, if you are a journalist, you have to elicit information, and of course you do that sometimes through documents and research, but more often than not, 99.9 percent of the time, the information you’re getting out of people is through the interview process,” Schaap said.

Schaap particularly addressed the current state of sports journalism, where he noted that most people do not ask the tough, or the right questions. He said that in many cases, this is due to the fact that journalists try to establish friendly relationships with athletes, thus cheating the reader and the viewer of the real story.

“At the end of the day, you have to respect the people you’re talking to,” Schaap said. “You have to give them a chance, and while there are going to be difficult moments and times you don’t want to ask certain questions, you have to do it.”

In raising ethical and other issues concerning the interview process, Schaap showed a 13-minute clip he made on ESPN in March about former chess phenomenon Bobby Fischer. The story, which revolved around Fischer’s life and culminates in a emotional, if not strange, confrontation at a press conference in Iceland, had personal importance for Schaap. Schaap’s father took Fischer under his wing when the chess master was 12 years old. But later in Fischer’s career, he became a recluse and now is suspected to be mentally ill.

In the clip, Schaap confronts Fischer in Iceland, where the chess master, who had been granted asylum, was holding a press conference. Schaap asked questions, while Fischer, who has spouted radical anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic statements in the past, at one point attacked the reporter’s father, calling him a “Jewish snake.”

“It required delicate handling. There were strange moments in the press conference with him,” Schaap said. “I think there are fair questions to be asked about doing a story about a guy who is mentally ill [and] giving him a forum to say these things.”

For most of the time, Schaap responded to the audience’s questions on a wide range of topics, ranging from the Fischer story to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and ESPN television analyst Stephen A. Smith. One issue Schaap addressed was the similarities between the Fischer story and a live interview he did with former Indiana men’s basketball head coach Bob Knight who personally criticized the reporter on air.

Schaap thought that many journalists would have stayed composed like he did when Knight attacked him during the interview.

“He insulted me and people afterwards said, you should’ve told him this, you should’ve told him off,” he said. “I think that would’ve been exactly the wrong thing to do.”

As a constant theme throughout his discussion, Schaap said that sports journalism now seems to have too much boosterism and camaraderie among the media and players and coaches. However, he acknowledged that set-in-stone ethical standards concerning the relationships between reporters and interviewees is a gray area, as Schaap noted in his response to a question about Smith, who is perceived to be cozy with some athletes.

“It’s a fine line to walk, and what I wouldn’t respect is if I saw Stephen not asking Allen Iverson or Donovan McNabb the tough questions when it became necessary,” Schaap said.

Schaap said that he respects colleagues such as ESPN anchor Bob Ley, who “don’t make it about themselves,” and noted a dichotomy at ESPN now between the “entertainers” and the “journalists.”

Many members of the audience enjoyed Schaap’s forwardness in answering questions and raising issues in sports journalism today. Michah Rothbart ’09 said that he found it interesting to see Schaap’s insider’s perspective on the industry and his take on both the Bobby Fischer and Bob Knight stories.

“I thought he was very knowledgeable, and he’s a pretty honest guy,” Jordan Fabian ’09 said. “It’s good at ESPN that they have a few people that actually are conventional journalists like [Schaap].”

After he answered his final question, to the request and delight of many who have seen his work over the years, Schaap closed his lecture in typical fashion by saying: “In Ithaca. Jeremy Schaap. ESPN.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assitant Sports Editor