Michael Wilbon, longtime Washington Post sports columnist and co-host of ESPN’s popular daily sports talk show “Pardon the Interruption,” will be honored with the National Association of Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement Award on Aug. 8 at the organization’s annual convention in Tampa, Fla.
Wilbon recently spoke with NewsPro correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the upcoming NABJ gathering, his prestigious honor and the current climate for a reporter and TV personality in the ever-changing, economically strained broadcast and media environment.
NewsPro: What’s your reaction to receiving the NABJ Lifetime Achievement Award?
Michael Wilbon: Damn, I’m old! Seriously, I’m very pleased and humbled by it. I’m not normally introspective or reflective, but [something like] this makes you think about things, and I’m very grateful to NABJ that they think I’m worthy of this award. It never crossed my mind that I would receive it, particularly since I’m only 50 years old.
NewsPro: I was surprised to read that you are one of only 20 African-American sports columnists working now.
Wilbon: I remember when I was one of only three! I became a columnist in 1990, and I know that number had swelled at one point, but then a lot of people have gotten out. The numbers are down, but I think even at the height, it wasn’t more than 30. In terms of black columnists, we’ve always been underrepresented. As the people who set the agenda and are discussion leaders, those numbers have never been what they should have been.
NewsPro: Did the fact that ESPN hired so many black journalists, like you and John Saunders and Stuart Scott and Stephen A. Smith, change the atmosphere and have a positive impact?
Wilbon: Yes, yes. David Aldredge was another one. Newspapers opted for diversity reluctantly. They didn’t take seriously the responsibility. I was fortunate to work for an editor at the Washington Post who always hired an incredibly diverse staff long before other people were doing it. ESPN, for whatever reason, had David doing basketball and Ralph Wiley on Page Two of the dot-com and me. It was really good to see on the TV side. Newspapers were slow to recognize that point of view. And remember, at that time, there were hundreds of daily newspapers.
NewsPro: Do you think that blogging and the Internet might be opening doors for black journalists because is it color-blind?
Wilbon: I don’t know much about it because I’m not big on blogging. Whatever you call a blog, it’s really a column. But I don’t want to read the ranting of somebody that I know doesn’t have access to people to talk to them and do reporting. I don’t want to read that stuff.
NewsPro: But what about the many journalists who are now required to blog in addition to reporting in the newspaper or publication?
Wilbon: I don’t consider those blogs. I know they’re entitled blogs, but I don’t consider what the Orlando Sentinel beat writer is doing online to be blogging. I read good writing by good reporters who are doing whatever you want to call it whether it’s online or in print. There are some things that are labeled blogs that are just damn good reporting. I get them and I read them.
NewsPro: On “Pardon the Interruption” you and Tony Kornheiser have cultivated this Siskel & Ebert rapport. Are you surprised that this has worked?
Wilbon: I was. We both were shocked. We knew that we knew content. I’m not going to be falsely modest about that. We’re good at what we do because we know how to present our case because we’ve had to present it in print. We had a good idea of how to do that. Of course, it didn’t mean people would care.
NewsPro: You seem to still have a passion for sports, am I right?
Wilbon: I love the games. Reality TV tries to re-create the drama of sports, but sports is the only thing that has it. It’s the human drama of athletic competition. You can’t vote on the outcome. It’s real. All that other stuff is phony.
NewsPro: What are you looking forward to at the NABJ conference this year?
Wilbon: In the first 15 years that I attended the NABJ conference I would try to go to all the stuff. Now, it’s more of a social thing for me. I’m not looking for a job. When you’re young, you go to impress editors or producers who might look at your work and you are trying to set up the next thing. Now I go to see my friends and have a good time.
NewsPro: Do you think the convention will be affected by the tough economic times for journalists, in general?
Wilbon: That’s a very real possibility. I may not see as many people as I usually do. [Conversely,] more people may now be coming to look for a job. The convention may be packed because people need work. They need to set up employment even if they are currently employed because we don’t know how long what we’re doing will last. The NABJ could be more important now than ever.
NewsPro: You’ve been involved in the NABJ mentoring program; what kind of advice do you give your mentees?
Wilbon: I always talk about storytelling in whatever form it might take. Reporting has to be about the art of storytelling because it really can’t be about the specific medium. I don’t know how to shoot my own video for a story. I’m not going to learn how to do that, but today’s reporters have to. They have to be trained and educated and their education is very different from ours. So I tell them, you have to do whatever’s necessary to facilitate the art of storytelling to your audience, for your generation, for your readers and the times we’re in, and that’s changing. The craft of storytelling is not going to go away even if newspapers seem to be going away.