Don Van Natta has covered the Clinton White House and terrorism in Europe for the New York Times. At ESPN, he’s reported deeply on the NFL and the foibles of the men who run America’s favorite sport. Now the 55-year-old investigative reporter has a new project: a TV show.
“Backstory” premieres Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern on ABC with the first of five episodes, the premise being to revisit some of the biggest stories in sports history — and try to reveal something new about them. Think of it as a cross between ESPN’s documentary series “30 for 30” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. (The show will be available on ESPN+ after it airs on ABC.)
The premiere episode reexamines Serena Williams’s confrontation with chair umpire Carlos Ramos during last year’s U.S. Open final. Future episodes will look at the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ban from baseball. Van Natta talked to The Post this week about “Backstory,” his career, investigative journalism at ESPN and Twitter.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
The Washington Post: You started with a lot of room to focus, literally any big sports story ever. How did you pick the five topics?
Don Van Natta: We started with a very long list, we wanted to find stories where there were unanswered questions. Is there something we can find out? Is there a lingering history? All five of our first-season topics meet that standard, maybe some more than others. All five have unanswered questions and enough room to run to do reporting and new interviews to bring new content.
The Post: Can you share any that didn’t make the cut?
Van Natta: If we’re lucky, we’re going to get a second season so I’d rather not say too much. But one we keep discussing a lot is the Malice at the Palace. I’m also curious about the juiced baseballs.
The Post: Are there any themes that emerged from reporting on historical stories? Is part of the idea to do some media criticism and look at what reporters got wrong in the moment?
Van Natta: We’re not viewing the series as I’m an ombudsman who’s going to do media criticism of what media missed. But any investigative project at its beginning answers fundamental questions. Jeffrey Epstein is an example of groundbreaking work. The Miami Herald said, ‘How did the victims feel?’ And that led to a run of groundbreaking reporting … we’re looking at areas that the media might not have done enough digging or areas we think we can bring fresh reporting to. Investigative reporting is getting more expensive and rarely done by news organizations today and we’re getting an opportunity to delve deeply into some things that might have fallen through the cracks.
The Post: As you’ve re-reported some of these stories, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve found so far?
Van Natta: I’ll start with Serena. I think one of the things we wanted to find out is why did this match that was seen as a coronation for her tying Margaret Court’s [Grand Slam] record, how did it become the worst finish in grand slam history? Who was most responsible — Serena, the chair umpire or other forces? One of the conclusions is that Serena, [Carlos] Ramos and the rules of tennis, which are arcane and confusing in their language, all played a part in what happened. We looked hard at the coaching code violation that was given to her and went over the match like the Zapruder films and I think viewers will be surprised by what we found. There’s a lot of fresh information.
... I’ve also been asked a lot about the Te’o episode, and it’s the same thing. There were a lot of folks who got the Te’o story wrong, including ESPN. Why? And also did Te’o know more than he let on? I think people will be surprised again.
The Post: Before the podcast you, along with Seth Wickersham, carved out a really important beat of reporting on the business of the NFL. Have you moved on from that with this series?
Van Natta: No, and I’ll give a hint as to why: One of the subjects we haven’t announced yet is on the NFL, but I can’t say what yet. Also, I am still getting tips and hearing things constantly about the NFL. I can’t devote too much time, but I’ve pursued some leads and tips while I’ve been doing “Backstory.” I’ll continue to do longform investigative stuff. So, no, I haven’t stopped my NFL investigative reporting
The Post: You spent a number of years doing investigative reporting at the New York Times before ESPN. It’s often asked — in The Post and elsewhere — how ESPN handles reporting on its business partners, so is there a difference between doing this kind of reporting at the two places?
Van Natta: Look there really isn’t. I was at the Times for 16 years … doing deep dives that took time and resources and it’s hard and painstaking and you need supportive editors. I did work I was really proud of and I would say the same thing about ESPN. From Jerry Sandusky and Penn State … and then a lot of work on the NFL from Spygate to Deflategate to the anthem controversy in 2017. I’ve said this before in my years at ESPN: I’ve done some very tough stories on our business partners and never once has an executive or a boss ever said, “Back off” or “We don’t like what you’re doing.” I’ve only seen green lights from the moment I’ve been hired … and that includes [under new president Jimmy] Pitaro.
The Post: Are there similarities between covering the White House and the highest levels of the NFL? Is one more difficult to cover than the other?
Van Natta: I did a profile of Roger Goodell [in 2013] and started looking into owners and the league office, executives and how they all conducted business and I would always tell my colleagues that I had a very good education in what I was doing by covering the White House and the Pentagon and counter terrorism in Europe. That was prep for one of the most secretive organizations, which is the NFL. It was a good way to prepare me for that. I think covering the NFL that way is extremely hard ... and what I did, along with Seth Wickersham, in making enough sources to find out what’s happening, it’s not easy. The harder you come at them in your reporting — they see it as hard and aggressive even if it’s fair — and then it becomes harder to get information. You’ll hear people say, “Don’t talk to Don, don’t talk to Wickersham.”
The Post: Are you disappointed that there won’t be a print edition of ESPN the Magazine?
Van Natta: I’m sad and I’m disappointed. I love the magazine. I’m proud to be an alumnus of the magazine and I’m going to miss it. One of the appeals of coming to ESPN was writing for the magazine and we won the national magazine award 18 months ago. It’s an unbelievably great team of writers and editors, and I will miss being part of it.
The Post: You’ve been an investigative reporter in politics and sports and an author, but more recently you’ve started a newsletter and a podcast and now you’ve got a TV show. Is evolving like that the only way to have a 30-year career in journalism today?
Van Natta: I think that the only way to have a 10-year or 15-year career, forget 30, is to reinvent yourself constantly and … be a jack of all trades. Specialization is a good way to be a journalist. Adam Schefter and [Adrian Wojnarowski] have the markets cornered on the insider reporting of their leagues. But for a generalist like me, an investigative reporter, you’ve got to find other platforms. One of the big appeals of “Backstory” was to try and go into a new lane, TV. I think any young reporter, you just have to try and do as many things in the journalism field as possible. It’s a multiplatform business.
The Post: You’re a big Twitter guy and very active on the platform. Is it an overrated or underrated tool for journalists?
Van Natta: First, I don’t want anyone to think, “Van Natta, he was a big Twitter guy.” No one wants to be known for being a big Twitter person. What was your question again? I’m so offended you called me a big Twitter guy.
The Post: Is Twitter overrated or underrated as an important tool for journalists?
Van Natta: Overrated. There’s a branding aspect to Twitter that’s important for journalists, for younger journalists, especially. But I have probably wasted too much time on Twitter. I know a lot of other journalists who feel the same way. Journalists without an editor as a firewall is a dangerous thing. I try to remind myself often, especially on Friday or Saturday nights with bourbon in my hand. But I don’t want to be remembered for a good tweet. I want to be remembered for a good story. You see so many journalists competing to be the funniest. Who is going to get a job writing for John Oliver? But you can let your bias show so easily if you’re a down the middle political reporter. Journalists, including me, should be more careful on Twitter. Readers are watching and judging.