By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 2, 2007
"Never speak ill of the dead." This maxim does not exist in the news business.
That was shown in the aftermath of the fatal shooting last week of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor. It was huge news and brought huge howls from hundreds of Redskins fans upset by the initial Post online commentary. Hearing criticism of Taylor as he was fighting for his life and immediately after he died struck readers as insensitive.
Some readers were horrified that two longtime and respected sportswriters and columnists, Leonard Shapiro and Michael Wilbon, quickly brought up problematic parts of Taylor's life -- Wilbon in an online chat Monday after Taylor was shot and Shapiro in an online column a few hours after Taylor died Tuesday morning.
Javier Solares of Fairfax wrote: "Along with Michael Wilbon, Shapiro took a very sad day and made it stunningly sadder. There was no place for an article like that on the day that Sean Taylor lost his life. It was an affront to Mr. Taylor, his family, the Washington Redskins and the thousands of fans who mourned his loss."
David Black of Vienna criticized two statements in Shapiro's column. One was, "Still, could anyone honestly say they never saw this coming? You'd have to be blind not to considering Taylor's checkered past." The other came from Wilbon's chat, which Shapiro quoted: "Taylor grew up in a violent world, embraced it, claimed it, loved to run in it and refused to divorce himself from it. He ain't the first and won't be the last. We have no idea what happened, or if what we know now will be revised later. It's sad, yes, but hardly surprising."
Black echoed many readers: "A 24-year-old young man has died, he is not yet buried, and already Mr. Shapiro is saying we should have seen it coming . . . Public figure or not, these are not appropriate comments about any person on the day that he died."
Taylor's death had all the elements of tragedy. A young All-Pro safety who some say was the Redskins' best player was shot in his own home with his fianc¿e and daughter nearby. Taylor was known not just for his ability on the football field but also for trouble with the law, his team and the NFL. Several Redskins players and officials said he had turned around his life after the birth of his daughter 18 months ago.
No one complained about stories published Tuesday that mentioned Taylor's problems. But his death -- after deadline Tuesday -- changed how some readers felt. Washingtonpost.com sports editor Jon DeNunzio wanted quick commentary and asked veteran NFL reporter Shapiro for a column; it was posted at 12:28 p.m. Tuesday.
"It's an emotional subject," Shapiro said. "In retrospect, I would have worded it a bit differently, softened it a little bit. I'm not a callous or uncaring person. Maybe I didn't say it very elegantly. I feel very badly if people interpreted" the column as an attack. "It was a terrible tragedy."
Wilbon wanted to write an online column right away, but Cindy Boren, deputy sports editor, talked him out of it. "She made me wait a day. She was probably right on that." Wilbon is known for his in-your-face online chats. "I don't give PR or corporate answers," he said. He believes sports fans want to "deify athletes, but that's not what I do." His Wednesday column-- his lead warned readers it would criticize Taylor -- drew almost no complaints.
The issue was timing. As unfeeling as it sounds, it is just not in the nature of the news business for critical comment to be withheld until the body is in the ground. But in this case, it would not have hurt good journalism to have backed off on harsh commentary until the next day. That would have let the news sink in for readers.
Shapiro, who is white, was criticized more than Wilbon, who is black. Did race have anything to do with that? Wilbon thinks so; he said African American readers "don't want a white person to lead that discussion in Washington." Wilbon defended Shapiro, who mentored him as a young reporter: "There's no better, compassionate man."
"There were plenty of places in The Post where he was praised as a good father, good son, good ballplayer," Wilbon said of Taylor. Indeed, Post coverage was full of Redskins players, coaches and management praising Taylor. There was a raft of excellent pieces Wednesday: Wilbon and Thomas Boswell at their best. Mike Wise's look at Taylor's life was illuminating. Particularly touching was Jason LaCanfora's piece on the relationship between Taylor and Gregg Williams, assistant head coach for defense. Gene Robinson wrapped it up beautifully in his Friday op-ed column.
Several readers, including some in the newsroom, thought the coverage was overdone. Sheila Johnston of Arlington wrote: "The Post's unlimited coverage of the death of Sean Taylor is unseemly and over the top. He was a young man murdered in his prime, yes; but how often does that happen every day in Iraq -- whether to an American or an Iraqi? Or in D.C.? Or all over the U.S.? Where are your priorities?"
Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for sports, and Jim Brady, washingtonpost.com executive editor, don't agree. "Based on the [Web site] traffic they get, we can't overplay the Redskins," Brady said. "If you look at the audience this story attracted, we could have done even more."
Another reason that readers were attracted to the coverage was, as Garcia-Ruiz said, "Nobody really knew Taylor. He didn't give interviews to the press. He was an enigma."
Post coverage of his death made him better known to readers than he ever was in life.
Next week: The Obama story that's burning up the Internet.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.