Press Box

Pious Lies and Obits

The Washington Post soft-soaps the life of broadcaster George Michael.

The Washington Post observes the Dec. 24 death of longtime Washington, D.C., sportscaster George Michael with a blizzard of pieces. In today’s print edition there’s a Page One obituary as well as columns in the sports section by Michael Wilbon and Mike Wise. On the Web are entries by Marc Fisher, Leonard Shapiro, and a Michael-heavy online chat with Tom Boswell.

Bowing to the I.F. Stone maxim that “funerals are always occasions for pious lying,” the Post portrays Michael as he would have liked to be remembered: a broadcasting innovator who helped launch the TV careers of Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser; an egotist, hard worker, and perfectionist whose temper had a tendency to go off; a reporter who might have gotten too close to the sports figures he covered but who was a really great guy. The only piece in the Post package without any syrup is a Michael profile written by Gary Pomerantz in 1984, which Dan Steinberg recycles in his blog. Although the Pomerantz article contains a few embarrassing details, it too is largely flattering.

That the Post recycled Pomerantz and not the deliciously critical Michael profile by Stephanie Mansfield published in the paper’s Style section two years later (Oct. 24, 1986) demonstrates Stone’s maxim in action. Mansfield presents the midcareer Michael as a liar, a self-aggrandizer, a name-dropper, and a showboat who always put entertainment before news.

Mansfield catches Michael lying about his age. She catches him bragging to everybody about having played for the St. Louis University soccer team when he didn’t. Michael tells Pomerantz his mother died from emphysema when he was 18, which would be in 1957. He tells Mansfield she had Lou Gerhig’s disease and died in the 1960s, but that he can’t remember precisely when. He tells Pomerantz where all of his siblings (except one) live and what they do. In the Mansfield piece, he doesn’t know where his three sisters are.

Other exaggerations reported by Mansfield: Michael claims he had nothing to do with entering the sports Emmy competition he won. The president of the organization says he only dealt with Michael in the application process. One time, several Redskin players tossed Michael fully clothed into a whirlpool during a live broadcast. He called it a spontaneous dunking, but Mansfield writes that the sportscaster removed his wallet and shoes before the players grabbed him. Michael claims that a rival broadcaster ratted out a weekend anchor from Michael’s station in a press-credential dispute that put the weekend anchor in jail. The anchor says he was rightly ejected from the event but says he did not go to jail.

I suspect that thorough fact-checking would turn up more embellishments and lies on Michael’s part. For instance, he tells Mansfield that while working as a disc jockey he smoked marijuana with Mick Jagger. In Marc Fisher’s rendition, the drug is hash, and the smoking is done with the Rolling Stones. Two different incidents, or another example of Michael stretching the truth?

What sort of journalistic colleague was Michael? Mansfield writes:

Michael does not have the thickest of skins.A rather benign mention in a news story will be described as the time he was “burned” in print. A flattering look at the success of “The Sports Machine” [Michael’s famous sports highlights show] in a local magazine will be seen as a “hatchet job.” He says another newspaper once prepared a profile of him, including his background. He boasts of having that story killed.

Readers don’t expect newspapers to trawl the public record for nasty items with which to pillory the dead. But neither do they expect newspapers to soften the truth about the dead, especially when publishing thousands of words over a half-dozen pieces, as the Post does in its Michael coverage today.

The most damning thing about the Post’s coverage isn’t that it fawns over Michael but that it ignores Mansfield’s 23-year-old feature except to cherry-pick it—without citing it—for cute anecdotes about Michael, such as his love of Gucci belts, diamond pinkie rings, Jaguars, and his burros. The unsettling message of the Post’s coverage is this: The dead deserve deference that the living don’t.

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The Post can make amends by posting the Mansfield piece from its archives. What’s your favorite Mansfield piece? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. I tell no lies on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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