Unsportsmanlike Conduct

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Style reporter Paul Farhi gave a pretty tough review of Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser's first appearance on "Monday Night Football." Not surprising. Going from newspapers, radio and a studio TV show to the broadcast booth for a live game is a big leap.

But Kornheiser wasn't sporting about it; he took a shot at Farhi in his column and blasted him on a sports talk show. Readers noticed. One wrote, "Really, that is incredibly unprofessional . . . and childish. If Kornheiser can't take criticism, he shouldn't be on television."

It may all look like internecine warfare, but there's a serious journalism principle involved. That's where the ombudsman gets into the act.

First, let's roll the tape. Farhi started off his story Tuesday this way: "Tony Kornheiser played it safe in his 'Monday Night Football' announcing debut last night, making few missteps but offering little for the highlight reel. It wasn't exactly clear at times why he was there at all.

"It's still early, as the coaches like to say. But on the basis of his first preseason game, Kornheiser, the Post sports columnist and co-host of ESPN's 'Pardon the Interruption,' wasn't many of the things that ESPN hired him for. He wasn't especially witty, provocative or insightful in calling the Raiders' 16-13 win over the Vikings from the Metrodome in Minneapolis," Farhi wrote.

Kornheiser didn't give himself a great review in his column Wednesday , but he clearly wasn't happy about Farhi's story: "In critiquing my performance, I think what makes me happiest was that I didn't throw up. (Though if I had, I would have aimed at that putz in Style.)" "Putz" is a Yiddish word for the male sex organ. Matthew Vita, deputy assistant managing editor for sports, said he doesn't think Kornheiser meant "that word in an offensive way, but I can see how some people would take it that way." Vita pointed out that the word can also refer to a foolish person and that it has been used in the paper before.

Still, the word should not have gotten in the paper. But it did, and if Kornheiser had stopped there, you could have said he was just thin-skinned and petulant. That could apply to a lot of journalists who can dish it out but can't take it.

But Kornheiser also said on ESPN Radio's "Dan Patrick Show," according to the transcript, "I apparently got ripped in my own newspaper, The Washington Post, you know, by a two-bit weasel slug named Paul Farhi, who I would gladly run over with a Mack Truck given the opportunity. I understand I'm a public figure and I'm subject to review."

If he had stopped there, he still would have looked foolish, but no principles would have been involved. But then he said, "I thought my own newspaper would be kinder and I wouldn't be back-stabbed by this guy."

That's where Kornheiser crossed the line.

The Post has had a good relationship with Kornheiser over the years and has encouraged his work on "Pardon the Interruption," which co-stars Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon, as well as his "Monday Night Football" gig. It would also be correct to say that Kornheiser has brought a lot to The Post and is a genuine star columnist, although his columns don't appear as often as in the past.

But that doesn't mean that The Post should ever go soft on him -- or anyone associated with the paper -- in a review of a book or a radio or TV show. Or, for that matter, in its reporting on anything newsworthy that happens to Post owners, executives or employees. If Post reporters can't cover the news or do reviews without fear or favor, then the paper will be known as pulling punches -- and its credibility will take a hit.

The Post had to review Kornheiser's first appearance on "Monday Night Football" -- or it would have been ducking the question of whether Kornheiser was any good at it. A longtime, well-known staffer can't just start appearing on an important national show and not be written about. Kornheiser knew that. The review could have been done in Sports, but it made more sense to have it done by Style.

Kornheiser wears a lot of hats. He's Tony Kornheiser Inc., Post columnist, book author, public speaker, radio commentator, television personality. But the truth is that he's not really under anyone's control but his own.

Kornheiser said he knows he needs a thicker skin, "like Wilbon's. I feel terrible about the whole thing. A lot of people said I was good. This was by far the worst and it hurt most of all because it was in the paper I've worked at for 27 years. If it had been somewhere else, I would have been mad. But it happened in my own newspaper and I was hurt." He said he "never for a second" questioned that Farhi had the right to critique his debut. Kornheiser said that his radio remarks were "meant to be deliberately over the top to be entertaining. In print it looks a lot worse than it sounded on radio because you don't hear the inflection."

Farhi was "amused" by Kornheiser's comments and said he is not offended: "Bashing people has been Tony's stock in trade for 30 years. So he gets a taste of his own medicine and he explodes. It's ironic." Executive Editor Len Downie said, "Just as Paul Farhi had the prerogative to review Tony's performance, Tony has the freedom as an opinion columnist and a television personality and commentator to express his own views."

Farhi's advice to Kornheiser was perfect: "Tony, grow up."

And if he can't, he needs to go stand in the corner and calm himself.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company