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RCS Interviews Tony Kornheiser

RCS: Before we get into the Super Bowl, which is only a few days away, we want to start with a question exclusively about you. A few weeks ago, we did an interview with [PTI executive producer and creator] Erik Rydholm, during which he said, "Tony is crusty... but under that rough exterior, he's a softie."

So softie, why the rough exterior?

Kornheiser: I’m just old. I mean, I’m just old. I’m sixty years old. It just sort of comes with the territory, you know? Most people that get older and older, they complain more and more and the crazier they are on a regular basis. They get even crazier as they get older and I just think that pretty much happens to everybody.

I don’t think of myself as crusty. I’m not like Krusty the Clown. I don’t think of myself as a softie either. But if Rydholm says it…

Rydholm’s a genius. He created everything you see on the screen that’s being borrowed, and I use the word borrowed kindly -- that’s being lifted and stolen by every single network in the world. Erik Rydholm invented that. PTI is a great TV show. And I know Mike [Wilbon] feels the same way I do. We are so fortunate to do it. It is so perfect. And so wonderful and it’s a privilege and an honor to do. And that’s Rydholm.

Now every network does it in every show they have. All the sports shows do it. The news shows do it. Everybody: MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS. They put people on clocks. They try and do games with people. They run a crawl. They run stuff on the screen. It’s too bad he didn’t patent it. It’s too bad he didn’t get paid for it, because he’d be a zillionaire.

RCS: So obviously, the big story of this week is the Super Bowl. And in his column [Michael] Wilbon lamented that "Players aren't actually the biggest stars of media day very often anymore… [T]he truth is media day has become a bit, well, contrived."

Is there anything the NFL can do to change this perception?

Kornheiser: I don’t think the NFL cares about that. The NFL is a business, and the NFL likes to say, “we undersell and we over deliver.” They bring thousands of people to this giant carnival tent and they put the players out there for one hour each. That’s all, just one hour. Even though all the players complain about how difficult it is to answer media questions all day. One bloody hour of their lives, six days before the game goes off. And the NFL reaps fascinating publicity from this. Sort of non-stop publicity.

It’s unimaginable how smart the NFL is and how they’ve manipulated this and how it’s successful. I don’t think they care a hoot that columnists lament that it isn’t the way it used to be. If it was the way it used to be there would be 40 people there. Now they have thousands there, and they’re a global entity.

And you know what? That lament is easy. That’s just so easy. Anybody can write that column. I’ve written that column myself. The fact of the matter is that media day is great fun for making fun of the media, making fun of the players, and making fun of the entire week and how overblown it is. I mean people write their best columns on media day. I used to love media day. Great fun.

RCS: Art Spander wrote a column for RealClearSports titled "33 Years of Super Bowl Memories." You haven't been around for quite as long, but you've covered an awful lot of Super Bowls yourself. What's one of your favorite Super Bowl memories?

Kornheiser: Well my first one was, I did one for the New York Times -- whatever one that was. So I go back as long as Art. Yea, I’m old.

I’m not that kind of guy where I give people memories, but you know what they used to say about Art? They used to say K-ART broadcasting 24 hours a day. That Artie just talked and talked and talked and talked. And there was probably nobody in the history of sports writing who went to as many events as Art Spander, wrote as many words as Art Spander, and talked as much as Art Spander. He was like everybody’s go to guy in the Bay area.

RCS: Staying on the history of sports writing, which sportswriters have you been most influenced by?

Kornheiser: The greatest influences in my life are people that nobody knows anymore. Stan Isaacs at Newsday, Larry Merchant, at that point, at the New York Post, Steve Jacobsen at Newsday, Dave Anderson at the N.Y. Times, Red Smith at the N.Y. Times, Jim Murray at the Los Angeles Times, Frank Deford, Curry Kirkpatrick, Dan Jenkins at Sports Illustrated.

RCS: Which sportswriters do you read on a daily basis now?

Kornheiser: Well, on daily basis it’s hard to say, because I’m not writing anymore and it’s just sort of different. But I still read Bob Ryan, Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom. Guys who were my contemporaries. John Feinstein when he writes. And, of course, Wilbon is delivered to my door.

RCS: You were a 1997 Pulitzer Prize finalist, which means we can compare you to great writers such as George Will, William Safire, Thomas Friedman, David Broder and Dave Berry. You've since become a face of Monday Night Football and co-host the most popular sports commentary show on television. But you haven't written a column since 2006. How much do you miss writing?

Kornheiser: I miss writing enough that I wouldn’t do it anymore. I can’t cause I’m no good anymore. I do all the major media mediums. I do radio. I do TV. I do newspapers. I respect print more than anything else. I’ve stopped being able to sit down. When I was kid I was pretty good at doing takeouts -- you know, stories of length. Stories that required much reporting, much interviewing, much time to sit down and do it. Stories that would run 3000 to 3500 words. That would hopefully set the person, if not in stone, certainly something close to stone for that moment in time.

As I’ve mentioned before -- Frank Deford, Curry Kirkpatrick, and Dan Jenkins -- those were the meat and potatoes stories that those guys did. Great writers of the N.Y. Times did those long profiles and then found magazine work doing those long profiles. A guy at Esquire over a 20-year period, Tom Junod. Fabulous. Gary Smith, SI. Fabulous doing those.

I would never attempt to do that anymore -- cause I can’t. I realized I wasn’t capable of doing that anymore. Then I became a columnist. And I was pretty good at that, and I moved away from doing longer columns because I began to do radio and television. I tried to write shorter columns and gave it the term "columnettes." And they were short, rapid bursts, and you could see in them the influence of TV and the influence of radio.

But more so television 'cause radio is a longer forum and you could write a column. I used to do this on radio. I would write the column I wrote for the newspaper. It wouldn’t be as nuanced and it wouldn’t have words that I could ponder and that I could decide which word would be perfect for this sentence 'cause it’s more free form. But when you write for TV, as I do for PTI, when you write these lead-ins for these things, it’s a burst; it’s a machine gun; sort of just like a rat tat tat tat tat. That’s not what extended writing is, that’s not what column writing is. Column writing is more thoughtful, extended writing.

Takeout writing is innocently more thoughtful. It has to be more elegant and nuanced. There’s not a real great market for elegance and nuance on television. It’s just sort of sounds. When you write for television like I do, you want to sound smart, but you don’t want to sound pretentious. You don’t want to sound overly flowery. A lot of the things you do in takeouts when you’re trying to write a killer paragraph -- I mean an absolute killer, knock-‘em-dead-in-the-streets, makes-you-wanna-holler, throw-up-both-your-hands paragraph -- you can’t do that for television. It’s falling on a different set of ears. It’s on ears and not eyes. I can’t write in the way I used to write, and if I can’t do that then what’s the point of writing? I’m just not good enough to do it anymore.

I love newspapers and I’m watching them die. All I ever wanted to be was a newspaper writer. I didn’t necessarily want to be a newspaper columnist. I got to that point after 15 years in the business. I just wanted to write for newspapers and I did that a long time ago and I was perfectly happy.

RCS: After you took your buyout with the Washington Post, you said on your radio show, "It feels odd and it feels bad. It doesn't feel sad, there's no sadness to it. It just feels wrong." Why the seemingly confused emotions?

Kornheiser: I got into circumstances where people in my own department came to me and said it’d be better for everyone concerned if I took the buyout. So I felt unwanted to some degree, and I understood why. I wasn’t contributing the way I used to, for the reasons I said before. And I understood why they wanted to get rid of me. It felt rotten though, and it made me angry. I took it though, because it was a pretty good deal. And I thought maybe I could work for them again, maybe I could write again. I still hold that hope that I can write again, but it’s got to be a completely different kind of mindset for me to write again because I’m in television and radio now.

I respect the writing most of all. I get the paper every day and I admire what I think is good, and I don’t admire what I think is bad. It feels like I ought to still be there, but I’m not.

Sadness I think would imply self-pity, and I don’t have any of that. I’m not a self-pity guy. I’m an anger guy.

RCS: You also wrote for the New York Times, which is possibly on the brink of financial bankruptcy. What will it mean for journalism if it collapses?

Kornheiser: If the Times collapses? You make it sound like the Berlin Wall. You make it sound like the fall of the Soviet empire. It’s not going to collapse as much as I suspect it’s going to mutate.

We’re not going to have a world without the Times. We may have a world without the Times in print. We may have a world without the Washington Post in print. We may have a world without the LA Times in print. My guess is the last one to hold out will be the Wall Street Journal because the WSJ has a niche in business. It’s not trying to be what the Times and the Washington Post are trying to be.

What’s going to happen to journalism? It’s going to change.

You have so many people out there now who rely on others to do journalism for them. And they sit back on a high chair and they comment on the news -- and without knocking them 'cause God knows that’s what I do now. When there’s no news, what are they going to comment on? The absence of journalism in great numbers is a bad idea.

My kids like news but they don’t read newspapers. Reading newspapers on your phone is a new world to me. Someone said this to me the other day, and I’m stealing it: The difference between my children, who are 26 and 22, and me is so much greater than the difference between me and my parents. It’s unbelievable. I mean, we had a generational divide between things like music, behavior. Not technology -- there were still cars, there was nothing new. The internet changed all of that. The way news is delivered, the way your life is delivered, the instantaneous ability to communicate around the world. I didn’t have that, my parents didn’t have that. My kids have that, they’ve left me in the dust. I don’t what the hell they’re talking about.

RCS: You've have had an amazing successfully career, but you famously cannot text message. Do you think younger journalists, even supremely talented ones, can afford to ignore technology like you have?

Kornheiser: No. No. No. I was allowed in my life as a writer to become idiosyncratic. I tried to do it. I wanted to do it. I believe I was successful in doing it. Newspapers allowed me to do it because they felt that whatever was being delivered to them was worth that. At some point you become this person. It’s not like when Tony’s not on TV or radio he’s this very different person. He sits very quietly and reads vast poetry. No, I don’t. I’m this person. It’s pretty much who I am. Maybe I didn’t start out to be this person but this person took hold of me and I willingly and eagerly went along for the ride.

Don’t follow me. If you’re young and trying to get in this business, you’ve got to avail yourself to all the technology and all the time. I’m not saying the world was better when I was younger. I’m not that guy. That’s for someone else. I don’t bemoan that stuff. There’s a new world and I’m not that in it. I don’t even have a toe in it, because I’ve been allowed not to be.

But sometime I’m gonna have to jump in, right?

RCS: The day after Howard Cosell died, April 24, 1995, you wrote a column titled "He Told It Like It Was, Like Only He Could," in which you recognized the influence Cosell had on sports, Americans and yourself. You wrote, "It was Cosell, through Monday Night Football, who took sports from lazy weekend afternoons into the white light of primetime, and in doing so fastened sports on the cultural map forever." You also described Cosell as a "Brooklyn Gothic puss" with an "unsinkable ego" who was often considered "the most liked and disliked sportscaster," -- all things that could easily describe you.

Kornheiser: Oh, no, no, no… I would never be the most liked.

RCS: Given the work you're doing for Monday Night Football and PTI, although it's hard to compare yourself to a legend, do you ever think about the parallels between your life and Cosell's?

Kornheiser: I knew him pretty well and I liked him very much. And I was one of the few sportswriters who he liked, ‘cause he always had such enmity for sportswriters because he felt that they put him down in the early years, and he never got past that. He never really did, and I think that was a failing on his part.

He was a guy I admired enormously. His talent was overwhelming. His literacy, his articulation, his intellect were overwhelming. And to be fair, he knew it. And he acted on it.

Were I to be compared with him: I’m not as smart as him, I’m not as gifted as him, I don’t have the drive that he did, I don’t see the world with the incredible peripheral vision that he did. I may be as egotistical as him, but I’m not as talented. But if someone were to compare me even unfavorably with Cosell I would be tremendously flattered. And it’s such an irony that I’m on TV because Howard said this of me himself, he said “I can’t believe he’s on TV. Doesn’t he realize he’s unsightly?”

I always loved that coming from Howard.

And you know those comparisons, even if they’re unfavorable, are incredibly flattering to me. And if there's one thing that, down the road, would please me about my tenure on MNF, it's that I would hopefully be replaced by someone who’s not a former coach or player. But someone who is in what we widely refer to as the fourth estate. I don’t see why there’s a constitutional guarantee that some jock gets in the booth. In a three-man booth, there shouldn’t be two jocks.

RCS: You gave USA Today a quote that seems to perfectly encapsulate your chemistry with Wilbon and why PTI works so well. You said, "Wilbon and I have been doing this for 20 years in a hallway. I love Wilbon. I mean, who wouldn't love Wilbon? He's Mayor McCheese. You have to really love the other person — and at that point you can yell at the other person. ... He'll call me a New York idiot and I'll call him a fat dope and it's OK."

One day in the future one of you will be speaking at the other's funeral. If you're speaking, what will you say about him? And if he's speaking, what do you think he'll say about you?

Kornheiser: I love him. I do. People talk about the chemistry, and I’m sure I will say that its sort of like the grass courts at Wimbledon when someone goes over for the first time and sees how green they are. They say, "Well, gee, how did you get the grass this green?" And the answer is you start with 5000 years of rain.

Wilbon and I didn’t get on TV in an hour and half. We worked together since 1980. That’s an awfully long time, we had adjoining offices across the hallway. And the people at the Washington Post, when PTI is on the air, if they’re listening, they think we’re in our offices yelling at each other.

I love him. He has the skin as thick as a rhinoceros. I envy it so much. He is not bothered when people say bad things. If you write about me and say 50 nice things and then say one not so nice thing, I will dwell and obsess on that thing, which is why I am one of the people who really doesn’t really read about himself. In the words of my good friend Mitch Albom “You don’t want to do it Tony, because you don’t want to hate people who you used to like.”

Wilbon’s got the skin of a rhinoceros. He’s as loyal as the day is long, he’s as gracious a person as you could ever meet. He’s just lovely; he’s just lovely on all levels. I started making fun of him in print, and I didn’t know how he would take it. And he took it great. I would make fun of everything about him, and he takes it so well.

He looks for the best in people, differently than me. He encourages people and I’m not a hand holder or an encourager in the way he is. He seems to have moments, the moments that I envy so much, the moments of genuine happiness that washes over him and makes him smile. I have those very, very rarely, and I envy his.

But I’m much older than he, so he’ll probably be speaking at mine.

RCS: Still, what do you think he'd say about you?

Kornheiser: He'd probably say something like, "If Tony were here right now, he'd want all you people to sit the f*** down and shut the f*** up."

RCS: Alright, last question. You're always bragging about being an English major. So what's your favorite book?

Kornheiser: I have some works that I’ve read that were absolutely mind boggling for me that I envy beyond comprehension. There’s a list. There wouldn’t just be one. It would have to be Ulysses by James Joyce; it would certainly be Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; some of the new journalism of Tom Wolfe and up to The Right Stuff, which is a fabulous book; it would be the rolling, cascading, incredible sentences of E.L. Doctorow; it would be Shakespeare because I've read just about every play there is.

I will tell you this though, when I started to write -- and I liked to write very much, even though I didn’t think I was very good or anything -- I was influenced by other writers. But you can’t really write until you get the other writers out of your system. At the beginning, you’re always aping someone until suddenly your own voice comes out and you don’t even know when it happens. It takes a while, it’s a process and if you look for it, you’re never really going to get it. You just have to trust that this voice that is you will eventually come out.

Truman Capote's first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, I can’t tell you how many times I started that book, maybe 40-50 times, and couldn’t get past the first page. I would pick the book up in my hands and say out loud, "I can’t do this, this guy is so great, what am I doing in this business?"

Everybody wants to write novels, everyone wants to write plays. I wanted to be a newspaper writer cause I’m not as good as them. I wanted to write newspaper stories that could bring you laughter and bring you to tears. I wanted to be able to do that.

When I read Capote, it was unbelievably humbling, seeing genius in front of you thinking, “Check! Check! Get me into a cab!” As an English major, you’re almost constantly humbled. You take Shakespeare for granted. Everything the guy wrote was great, and he wrote it in the 1500’s. He’s being studied in the 2000’s. You think anybody is gonna pick up anything I ever wrote in 2100? What are you, crazy? Being an English major prepares you for how great others are, and teaches you a certain amount of humility.

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