When the best journalists put their work in book form, they invest exhaustive effort to portray the subject as completely and truthfully as possible. Often, they nail it.
Sometimes, in hindsight, they miss.
Sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, a New York Times bestselling author whose work includes books on Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Cowboys, believes he missed with his 2016 book “Gunslinger: The remarkable, improbable, iconic life of Brett Favre .”
Remarkably and improbably, Pearlman went on Twitter on Sept. 13 and told his followers not to buy or read Gunslinger. He did so in the immediate wake of news reports that Favre, the retired Green Bay Packers and Southern Mississippi quarterback, knowingly participated in steering $5 million in government money intended for impoverished Mississippi families to build at new volleyball stadium at Southern Miss, where his daughter played on the team.
Pearlman posted: “I wrote a biography of the man that was largely glowing. Football heroics, overcoming obstacles, practical joker, etc. Yes, it included his grossness, addictions, treatment of women. But it was fairly positive. … And, looking at it now, if I’m being brutally honest, I’d advise people not to read it. He’s a bad guy. He doesn’t deserve the icon treatment.”
Keep in mind that Favre’s depraved scheme occurred after Pearlman published the book. And nothing the author wrote was factually wrong. But that didn’t matter to Pearlman, who feels a strong commitment to ethics. (I say this based on reading his online posts and listening to him during a Zoom appearance with some UA journalism students.)
My department colleague, Lars Anderson, knows Pearlman from 15 years of working together at Sports Illustrated magazine and wasn’t surprised by Pearlman’s post.
Anderson has written a dozen sports books of his own, including ones on Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and the Mannings. He says the key to portraying truth is “reporting, reporting, reporting.” Reflecting on his books, “I feel good about full portraits I’ve painted.”
Pearlman knows the value of deep reporting, too. For his latest book coming out in October – “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson” – he interviewed more than 700 people.
Of course, an author has to want to show reality. With authorized biographies in which the main subject cooperates, there is a danger that the portrayal gets whitewashed or at least softened. The most prominent example I can think of: The paid ghostwriter of “The Art of the Deal,” the 1987 bestseller about Donald Trump, has spent years disavowing the book and trashing Trump.
“I’ve found that it’s almost liberating when the subject doesn’t participate,” Anderson says. “It’s the job of the biographer, in my view, to reveal truths about your subject that your subject cannot see.”
In the case of Gunslinger, Favre did not participate. And Pearlman doesn’t do whitewashes (see the books on Bonds and Clemens and his famous 1999 Sports Illustrated article on Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker).
Sure, it’s easier for a successful author to swear off a book. But in the world of publishing, it’s an unnatural act. And worthy of applause.
It also serves as a reminder and a warning for journalists. Whether writing a book or a feature article, you may think you know a person. But in some cases, you really don’t.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
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