Singing the News: Lost Objectivity in Detroit Sports Reporting

My introduction to print journalism in this town was short, and not especially sweet.

I was a feckless youth of 20 back in the fall of 1967, and a copy boy at the Detroit Free Press (a job the equivalent of an intern on today’s job market, only minus any perks or considerations at all). Our city was still reeling from the worst civil disturbance in

Neal Shine started at the Detroit Free Press as a copy boy in 1950 and by 1995 had carried the titles of reporter, city editor, managing editor, senior managing editor, columnist and publisher.

American history just a few months before, and my efforts helping the Free Press cover the ‘67 Riot had apparently earned me a ’battlefield promotion.’

The Free Press back then — in my subjective estimate and that of others wiser and much more experienced than I — was among the finest newspapers in America, if not the very best of all. In fact, the Pulitzer Committee shared that belief, awarding the staff of the Free Press the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of that uprising in the spring of 1968.

So it was that I was tremendously honored, and scared as a sumbitch, when legendary Free Press City Editor Neal Shine summoned me to his desk one Friday evening in October before the end of my shift at 6 p.m. to inform me of my new status at the paper. As a copyboy of nine months experience, I had originally flinched when summoned by our city room boss; he could have been ordering me to go for coffee for the whole staff, or to fetch his dry cleaning somewhere near Grayling, or to run out and put a nickel in the meter of a staffer’s car that was parked way over on the other side of Cobo Hall.

Nope, this time I had been called up to the big leagues of newspapering; I was being made a city desk reporter. The news was completely unexpected. I was in shock, panic actually, and had trouble concentrating on what the boss was telling me, due to a sudden disorientation and loud ringing in my ears.

But this much I clearly recall: Shine briefly informed me of the move, and the scheduling aspects of my new job. Then he held out the palm of his hand.

“You see my hand?” I managed to stammer that yes, I did. “Your ass is now in the palm of my hand. As a reporter for the Free Press you will never do anything to disgrace this paper. And you will never insert your opinions or biases or personal views in any story that you cover. Unless an editor orders you to do so, you will never insert yourself in any story that you cover.

“Now … should you ever insert your opinions or your beliefs or yourself into any story that you cover for this paper … and if I catch you doing it …. I will” — and he suddenly snapped his open hand into a hard fist — “CRUSH your ass. Is that understood?”

Yes. It was. I think of that brief but memorable encounter often these days, especially when I read the current newspapers in our city, and particularly when I watch the alleged journalists on the TV news. Shine’s warning came back vividly a few weeks ago when I was viewing one of those Sunday night sports summary shows on a channel that will remain unnamed, but I will hint that it is numbered somewhere between 1 and 8.

I about came out of my chair that evening when I first beheld the “tease” to the half-hour show, in which a sports anchor — new to our city — told us that one of the highlights of that evening’s broadcast would be a videotape of HIM … singing our National Anthem before a Pistons game the previous week. Oh boy. Just what I tuned in to see.

After forcing my mouth shut, I sat there in a state of semi-shock and watched the guy repeatedly tease his upcoming singing debut. Then, sure enough, to close that week’s show, the excitement building to a fever pitch … there, in all his glory, was this broadcast blowhard warbling away at center court at the Palace … a broad satisfied smile on his face as he managed to stay close to being on key throughout. At the end, there were close-ups of him taking grand bows amid the lukewarm applause of a clearly under-whelmed and likely confused Pistons crowd.

He apparently enjoyed it more than they … or I … did.

I couldn’t quite believe what I’d seen. The Pistons are a local sports concern, and a big business, that this guy is expected to cover and, if necessary, criticize in his duties as an area broadcast reporter. The current team is struggling amid controversy this current season. The concept of keeping a reporter out of the influence or pay or even favor of an entity that he is supposed to objectively report about or comment upon seems such a hard and fast line … a line succinctly illustrated to me by Neal Shine … that I was amazed to see it so blithely crossed and ignored. Was I watching local news, or one of those idiotic amateur singing shows? Is there a difference anymore?

I was left to wonder if they have editors, or news producers, at the local stations. If so, do they insist on any standards at all for their reporters? I mean, beyond having nice hair? I’m sure this smiling buffoon of a sports anchor would dismiss this as just a fun sidelight to his job, a harmless foray into our all-consuming entertainment world. And maybe his bosses, if they exist, might agree.

But don’t tell that to me. And how I wish this grinning clown had been given a lecture, and the threat of a dramatically closed fist, by the long gone but forever remembered Mr. Shine.