New York sports talk show host Mike Francesa has slipped into a full defensive crouch mode these days as he endures mounting criticism of his friendship with former New York Jets head coach Bill Parcells and his reporting--or nonreporting--on recent events involving a team in turmoil since Parcells announced earlier this month that he wasn't coming back to coach.
Essentially, Francesa has been trying to defend the indefensible. While he said in an interview this week "personally, I do consider myself a journalist," his apparent inability to separate his personal and professional life in a profession that always has demanded it would seem to indicate otherwise.
Parcells has been in the news over the last 10 days, and Francesa may be the only so-called journalist with regular access to the rather reclusive head coach. They are old pals, going back to the days when Parcells first began coaching the New York Giants in the early 1980s. They have shared meals, agents, interests in thoroughbred horses and countless conversations over the years.
But on the air, in his prime afternoon time slot on WFAN radio over the most listened to sports show in New York, Francesa consistently has declined to share his knowledge with his vast audience of listeners. He will tease them along, intimate that he knows but just can't say, and often, after the news breaks, boast that he knew all about that days ago, but was obligated not to reveal it.
But just who is Francesa or any other journalist obligated to? I always thought it was the public we served. Long ago, reporting and editing professors constantly preached about not getting too friendly with sources, the better never to be compromised in obtaining vital information for readers, listeners or viewers of the newspapers and radio and television stations we would be working for in the future.
Any editor worth the insert button on his computer will push for more information, more reporting, more sources, more on-the-record comments, the better to provide the reader with the most complete story. Francesa's superiors at WFAN apparently have not followed that philosophy.
Of course, it does not always work this way. Conflicts of interest abound across the board in the media landscape of the early 21st century, and also existed for many years before. Some might even say inside-the-Beltway Washington is the center of the universe when it comes to intertwining personal relationships with the gathering of news.
That may well be, but it also doesn't make these unholy alliances right.
Still, Francesa, for one, believes there's nothing wrong with his relationship with Parcells, that he's not about to sell out a friend in order to break a story.
"I have no problem with the way I've handled this," he said. "I've dealt with it as honestly as I could. . . . I'm a target. I don't mind that. If people want to knock me, that's fine, too. I've got the biggest forum in this town, but I've never gone back and knocked anyone who came after me.
"I think it's a conflict only if you don't disclose the relationship. I think everyone understands our relationship. If you don't hide it, what's the conflict? The public understands where I'm coming from. I've never hidden it. This criticism is also about competition. People knocking me are my competitors. It's about newspapers not liking the idea of me beating them. When I do, it's a conflict of interest because of my relationship. If I don't, I'm protecting my relationship. I'm damned if I do, and damned if I don't."
At this point, the listening public's interest would almost certainly be best served if Francesa simply recused himself on all matters concerning Parcells, or any other newsmaker "friend" he's close to on a personal basis. Let his longtime broadcast partner, Chris Russo, take over the microphone when those subjects come up for discussion. At the very least, don't tell us you know but you can't say.
"I think the people at WFAN would be upset if I kept saying no comment," he said. "I think if you think there's a guy in this town that doesn't have relationships with coaches and players and doesn't say what they know, you're being very naive.
"It's not the listener's business to know everything I know. You'd never have a source if you told them everything you know about the subject. . . . If my partner says to me 'did it surprise you that he [Parcells] quit and I say no, what's wrong with that? I don't owe it to you to tell you everything I know when I know it. I owe the audience to give them an honest day's work, to inform them and to entertain them. But I'm never going to tell them everything I know."