Most of you are familiar with Bob McGinn, the widely read Packers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS). Whether you agree or disagree with his opinions and conclusions, he’s known locally and nationally for excellent coverage of the team.
Due to his skill, he’s highly compensated. A few years ago, Milwaukee Magazine ran a blurb about some dissension in the MJS newsroom over a supposed salary that broke the “six-figure” mark, and had many other reporters at the paper somewhat envious. He earns his money though, as he’s a dogged reporter who loves his assignment, and is always setting the agenda for coverage of the team.
We thought of McGinn as we read Charles Gardner’s recent interview with John Hammond. We’ve talked at length about the lack of critical coverage of the Milwaukee Bucks, and some of the reasons for it. We’re going to use Gardner’s recent interview as guidebook for how he, and other journalists, might be able to cover the Bucks in a manner that would be more productive and interesting for the reader, ala how McGinn covers the Packers. With that as a backdrop, let’s discuss the interview with Hammond, and how it might have been improved upon.
Do not be afraid of asking tough questions
We aren’t suggesting that Gardner approach the interview with torch and pitchfork in hand, as the posters over at RealGM might prefer (their reactions to the Hammond interview here); nor are we suggesting that Gardner attempt to make Hammond cry, as Martin Short’s journalist character Brock Linehan might do. That said, Gardner is interviewing the long-tenured general manager of a team that currently has the worst record in the NBA, and there should be a number of angles to pursue, rather than a diet of softballs. The easy treatment of Hammond is in contrast to Bob McGinn, who just penned a very tough assessment of Ted Thompson, a general manager who arguably should be getting easier treatment based on his long track record of success.
There are ways to ask critical questions, in a non-confrontational way, that might or might not result in some news being made. Here is an example of a question we’d like to have seen asked of John Hammond:
“John, from 2001-2008, you and Joe Dumars formed a front office with the Pistons, that many considered to be the best in the business. Since you parted ways in April of 2008, the Pistons and Bucks combined, have had only one winning season (Bucks in 2009-10). What was it that made that partnership so successful. Were there some skills that you brought to the table that helped Joe Dumars, and vice-versa?”
Politicians and general managers of professional sports teams are trained to toe the company line, and rarely say anything newsworthy in interviews. Thus we wouldn’t guarantee the question above would be productive. However, by appealing to Hammond’s presumably good memories of his time in Detroit with Dumars, that question at least has a chance to elicit an interesting response. Hammond’s potential reply might allow the reader a chance to assess what “Joe Dumars” component is lacking in the Bucks front office, and provide some clues as to why neither man has succeeded since they parted ways six-years ago.
Here is another example of a question that could have been asked:
“John, you’ve been with the Bucks since April of 2008. You are the tenth longest tenured general manager in the league (Riley, Ainge, Kupchak, Buford, Presti, Morey, Wallace, Dumars, Grunfeld), with most of the other long-time GM’s having had significant success with their teams Unfortunately the record shows that of the GM’s listed above, you, along with Ernie Grunfeld of the Wizards, have had the least success. Is it a fair question for Bucks fans to be skeptical of your ability to lead these recently announced rebuilding efforts?”
The question above is tough, but fair, since it has a factual context to it relating to the tenure of other GM’s. Great interviews are the result of prior research by the journalist, as McGinn frequently exhibits in his pieces. The tenure question itself also serves the reader well, as most Bucks fans would welcome the discussion as to whether or not John Hammond is the right person to lead a rebuilding effort, given his track record to date. Hammond has been in his position for six-years now, with only one winning season to show for it. In most other markets, this fact would be a major discussion topic with the local journalists.
The question also might ignite Hammond’s competitive spirit, and elicit a defensive answer that could shed light for the reader on any dysfunction in the front office. What if Hammond replied with the following?
“You know Charles, one of the things our team has lacked during my tenure here is a fundamentally sound point guard. In January of 2009, I negotiated a deal with Memphis that would have brought us Mike Conley, Jr., in exchange for Joe Alexander and Ramon Sessions. That deal was vetoed by Senator Kohl, as were a few others I’ve wanted to make over the years. I understand my position within the organization, but our fortunes might have been different if we had made that deal.” (DISCLAIMER-HYPOTHETICAL RESPONSE, JOHN HAMMOND DID NOT ACTUALLY SAY THIS)
Now granted it is a long-shot that Hammond would have answered that way, but MJS readers might have been treated to an interesting reply. Further, Gardner could have used the five-year anniversary of the vetoed Mike Conley trade, as the foundation to question Hammond about whether or not he’s had full autonomy as general manager. Over the years, many supporters of Hammond have maintained that others in the front office and Senator Kohl himself, have blocked moves he’s tried to make. That certainly would be a productive line of inquiry to pursue with Hammond, in the context of examining his overall track record.
What Gardner lacks is passion about covering the Bucks, passion that would allow him to insert references to things like the vetoed Conley trade into his reporting. In contrast, when interviewing Ted Thompson, Bob McGinn has no problem recalling each and every personnel move made in the past decade.
The Art of the Follow-Up
The late Tim Russert was a master of the follow-up question. In his years as host of NBC’s Meet The Press, he’d typically lead off with a softball question, thus allowing his political guests to recite their canned talking point answer. Then once the subject was at ease, Russert would lob in a tough follow-up question to catch them off-guard. This is where the newsworthy moments were created during his interviews.
There were two instances in the Gardner interview that begged for a “Russert-Style” follow-up.
From the interview:
Gardner: Do you think Carlos Delfino will play again and fulfill the second year on his contract after undergoing another surgery on his foot in Argentina?
Hammond: Right now we understand the surgery did go well. I think Carlos feels good about it. I know he has a desire to play again, and I think that’s probably the most important thing. We’re looking forward to having him on the roster next season.
While fans are interested to know the health of Delfino, their more likely question is why the Bucks invested $22 million in guaranteed contracts to sign Delfino and ZaZa Pachulia last summer, when neither player was able to finish last season due to serious foot injuries. Pachulia missed the final 30 games of the 2012-13 season with an achilles injury, and Delfino went down in the playoffs with a fractured foot. In Gardner’s very first question of the interview, Hammond essentially replied that the current season was lost due to the injuries. Gardner could have logically followed up the Delfino question with this one:
“John, the team in past years has struggled due to injuries to Andrew Bogut, Bobby Simmons, and Michael Redd among others. Did the front office misread the severity of the Delfino and Pachulia injuries last summer? Did the organization bring some of the injury problems on itself by signing so many of these older veteran players?”
There are many other potential follow-up questions along those lines, but you get our point. Most Bucks readers at this stage of the season are far more concerned with the front office decision making process that led the team to sign a “Delfino”, than with his actual injury status. Gardner may have thought he was asking a tough question by bringing up Delfino in the first place, but the initial question should have simply set the stage for the tougher follow-up.
Another missed opportunity for a good follow-up, was contained in Hammond’s reply to Gardner’s question about how quickly the team could be competitive again:
Hammond: “You can look around the league and see how teams have done it, teams that have done it through the draft. It usually doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes you have to be very patient, and that’s not always easy to do. If you’re a larger market team and you have the ability to go out and sign the marquee free agent, you can call the rebuilding process the reloading process. The direction we’re heading in right now is we are going to try to build through the draft. This would be the first step in doing so, this season. You hope it happens as quickly as possible but also you don’t want to rush the process. Rushing the process is when mistakes can occur. If you draft wisely and continue to have a sound financial structure and some flexibility within that, the process can happen. It may take some time to do it right, to build a team that can win long-term.”
For those who are part of the SaveOurBucks.com movement, Hammond’s answer above is music to our ears. However, an intellectually curious reporter would have immediately followed up with this question:
“John, your remark that the Bucks are going to enter a long-term rebuild, contradicts the long-held position of Senator Kohl, that the Bucks could not afford to rebuild, nor has the Senator wanted that approach. Do you have the full backing of Senator Kohl for a long-term rebuilding of this team?”
Again, we do not know how Hammond might have responded to the question, but the failure to ask that follow-up, was a significant missed opportunity. We understand the Bucks beat is not the most glamorous assignment for journalists. Nonetheless, the beat writers can help contribute to holding the organization accountable, by asking the tough questions that the readers would like asked. The question of whether the Bucks are now truly engaged in a long-term rebuild, and who exactly should captain that rebuild, are arguably the two most important issues on the table, and neither were addressed well in this interview.
Good Reporting Won’t Solve Everything – But It Is A Start
We aren’t going to pretend that McGinn caliber reporting would prompt the Bucks to accountability and action, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. More importantly, readers today have so many different options, that it behooves the MJS to examine their Bucks coverage, and ask the question as to where things could be improved. We do not mean to single out Charles Gardner, as he’s simply another in a long-line of MJS Bucks beat writers, who in contrast to McGinn, do not possess great intellectual curiosity for covering the team. In years past, we could just have easily written this column about Michael Hunt, Tom Enlund or Rick Braun among others.
MJS is still the local paper of record and the most powerful voice in the world of Bucks coverage. We think they are missing an opportunity to distinguish themselves, and in the process make the paper more successful. The Hammond interview was a lost opportunity for Bucks fans to better understand what is going on in the front office and what the future holds for the team.
Beautifully said. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Charles Gardner was pulled from his coverage of local soccer (predominantly) to cover the Bucks some years back. From his early days covering the Bucks, it was clear he didn’t understand the game of basketball – let alone the NBA game. I firmly believe, his lack of interest stems from the fact he doesn’t know the ins-and-outs of basketball. I propose he is incapable of asking the hard questions because he lacks the qualifications and, as you all beautifully point out, the passion. And, as far as the Bucks are concerned I’m sure they love Charles’ lack of qualifications.