News & Politics

The Mystery of Tom Shales

The veteran critic isn’t done with the Washington Post just yet

Is Tom Shales the Washington Post’s television critic? Or not?

Rumors have been circulating through the Post newsroom that Shales would be done on December 31. After reviewing television for most of the last 39 years, he’d be writing for the Post no more.

Fall of an icon! End of an era! A review by Tom Shales could make or break a TV series. His prose could draw blood or bestow a bouquet. The Post tosses another legendary columnist!

What a story—if true.

I phoned Shales.

“It wasn’t my choice,” Shales said from his Virginia home. “I can hardly be enthused about it. It’ll be a new year for me, in many, many ways. I’ll be a free agent, more or less.”

Three years ago, Shales took a buyout and went off staff. He was making in the neighborhood of $400,000 a year; he’s been writing reviews and features under a contract that pays much less. That contract expired in September. Shales says he asked to extend it until December 31, just to finish out the year.

“It would have been fun to make it an even 40 years,” Shales told me. “It wasn’t handled well. But it’s never perfect for the person who has the most to lose.”

To check the facts, I called the handlers, starting with Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli.

“News to me,” he said. “My understanding is his contract has been renewed through next year.”

Brauchli referred me to Kevin Sullivan, who’s in charge of the Post’s feature sections.

“As far as we’re concerned, we have a deal for Tom to write for us through 2011,” he said. “We hope to have a long relationship with him after that. He continues to be one of the most widely read critics. He’s an institution.”

But the institution is under renovation. Readers used to look forward to a Shales review of every new show. That chore now falls most often to Hank Stuever, a veteran feature writer who has slowly taken over for Shales. Lisa de Moraes writes a regular TV column and blog on the business and ratings side.

“Our coverage is evolving a bit,” Sullivan says.

What’s going on? Will we read Shales past the end of the year or not?

I went back to my reporting.

Shales is feeling a bit old and beat up. When he shows up in the Post newsroom, he rarely recognizes anyone.

“The place has changed a great deal,” he told me. “I don’t want to be seen as the old geezer.”

All of which leaves Shales feeling ambivalent about writing columns for the Washington Post. He’s working on a book about ESPN with Jim Miller, with whom he wrote a bestseller about Saturday Night Live. He worries that he’ll be writing the same column he wrote last year. He worries, period.

The facts are that the Post has offered Shales a new contract but he would be writing “trend pieces” rather than reviews and for less money.

“The contract is still sitting in my computer,” Shales says.

Will he sign it? It looks that way.

“It’s safe to say I could be writing for the Post in some form,” he says.

So much for rumors.