Tony Does TV, Tony Does Radio, But Writing?

Why does the Washington Post publish the verbal droppings of Tony Kornheiser’s bus tour through Tennessee on his way to cover another football game?

By: Harry Jaffe

Because the Post wants Tony’s name in the paper, no matter how diminished his work may be. The Post developed him as a sports columnist, and now that he’s a radio and TV celebrity, the paper sees value in his star power.

“Tony’s a great sports columnist when he’s actually writing a sports column,” says Brian Kelly, a former Post editor who’s now executive editor of U.S. News. “This is the celebrification of journalism at the Post. ”

What readers get now is Kornheiser’s “columnette”—his term—on page two of the sports section. He occasionally writes a decent little essay about Tiger Woods or Ben Roethlisberger, but the columnette is often stream of consciousness that sounds like a radio riff: Tony eats bad food. Tony sweats in Memphis. Tony says he’s not ready for prime time.

In 13 columns in August and early September, he used “I” 232 times. The record was August 16, with “I” 32 times—and “me” five times.

Kornheiser’s worst case of heartburn struck when Post Style writer Paul Farhi panned Tony’s debut on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. “He wasn’t especially witty, provocative or insightful,” Farhi wrote. Kornheiser then called Farhi a “putz” in his Post column and “a two-bit weasel slug” on a radio show.

Book critic Jonathan Yardley called Kornheiser’s attack “mean and self-serving” and said he would watch Monday-night games “with the sound off.”

Sports columnist Mike Wilbon, Kornheiser’s partner on the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, used his Web chat to say Farhi’s critique was “mean and agenda-driven.” Wilbon on Style writers: “They wouldn’t know how to write on deadline if their lives depended on it.”

Style writer Michael Powell shot back: “Mikey W. almost sounds like an athlete, conflating bling and dough with brains. Almost.”

On the Post’s internal message board, veteran foreign correspondent Neely Tucker asked,“. . . can we send wilbon and kornheiser into iraq, afghanistan, gaza, sudan, et al, for a week so they can have a sense of what difficult reporting really is?”

Now Wilbon still does real reporting and gives readers a good column twice a week even as he talks more and more on TV, but what happened to Kornheiser the columnist?

Says Brian Kelly, “I miss the real Tony. He’s picking Len Downie’s pocket every column. It’s a classic case of indulgence. It demeans the paper.”