Monday 14 October 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'Words and truth matter to journalism's new generation'

Rick Reilly has been off the radar, but has just done a book, 'Commander in Cheat', about Trump. Photo: Getty Images
Rick Reilly has been off the radar, but has just done a book, 'Commander in Cheat', about Trump. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

"By 1998, Reilly had mostly given up the longer stories to write the back-page 'life of Reilly' column at SI, where his humour was still on display every week. He was so good that college kids plastered their bathroom stalls with his copy and so big that he starred in a Miller Lite commercial with model Rebecca Romijn.

When Reilly was poached by ESPN in 2008, it was a tectonic shift in sports media. Reilly reportedly got paid $3 million a year, a fortune for a sportswriter. (Asked to confirm the number, Reilly laughed and said, "You think I'm going to say that on the record?")"

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Ben Strauss,

The Washington Post

'You know, I've been thinking?"

"Yeah? About what?"

"A line from Conor Gallagher's opus in The Irish Times last week on the murder of Ana Kriegel."

"Wasn't that piece about 16,000 words?"

"Yeah."

"What was the line?"

"I'll read the passage, see if you can guess: We can say a lot more about Ana Kriegel . . . We can say Ana was a great singer and wanted to learn how to play guitar. We can say her Siberian strength and height made her an incredible swimmer. We can say she loved to volunteer for things and, shortly before her death, agreed to model in a fashion show organised by older classmates to raise money for charity. We can say she also loved her holidays to France, symbolised by the presence of a miniature Eiffel Tower on her coffin. And we can say Ana loved her family dearly and was loved dearly in return."

"We can say?"

"Yeah . . . just killed me."

"Why?"

"Because of the sense of loss conveyed - you can almost feel Gallagher's tears splashing onto his keyboard."

"You think?"

"Oh yeah . . . it was like listening to Damien Dempsey."

"The singer?"

"Yeah."

"What's so good about Damien Dempsey?"

"His passion. His conviction. See, Ghosts of Overdoes . . . Celtic Tiger . . . Bustin Outta Here . . . To Hell or Barbados . . . Not On Your Own Tonight . . . they're not just catchy tunes with clever lines, they hit like a punch in the gut. They make you want to cry. That's what Gallagher does in that piece; that's what great journalism is."

"You think?"

"Well, at least for me."

"Hmmm."

"Let me read you something else I've been perusing this week. Ready?

"Yeah."

"A beach. A warm, sunny beach looking out on a blue Mediterranean Sea. Wind, a cooling, glorious puff blowing in off the waves. Sand - hot golden sand, scorching the naked feet . . ."

"Wait a second."

"What?"

"Did you say 'a cooling, glorious puff?"

"Yeah."

"Scorching the naked feet?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, keep going."

"We breakfasted late most mornings - coffee with croissants on the sunny terrace of the apartment. After breakfast I would take the bike and ride for two hours along the coastline, taking advantage of my wife's absence to admire the vast assortment of pretty girls tanning their beautiful bodies. I returned for a . . ."

"Wait! A vast assortment of pretty girls?"

"Yeah."

"Tanning their beautiful bodies!"

"Yeah."

"Christ!"

"Not great, huh?"

"It's shite. Who wrote it?"

"I did."

"Whaat?"

"Yeah, we were staying at a small resort called Carnon Plage; I'd just finished the '89 Giro d'Italia and was mulling over an offer to join The Sunday Tribune."

"So, 30 years ago?"

"Yeah, this week."

"We've played this game before . . . You're taking me somewhere here?"

"Yeah."

"Go on."

"Rick Reilly."

"Go on."

"Well, back in the day, when I joined the 'Tribune', I must have stolen more of Reilly's lines than any other writer. He was an absolute genius."

"Isn't that plagiarism?"

"Sure, but what did I know? I had just climbed off a bike in the Tour de France; he was a pure writing talent, clever, funny, insightful, a master of the profile and deep read. Then he started writing columns and became enslaved to the clever line. And it killed him. Well, that and his ego."

"What do you mean?"

"This is from a piece he wrote on Lance Armstrong in 2003: The French have tried to stop him. Mon dieu, have they tried. For two years the French government dragged out a weak drug investigation into Armstrong's team. Meanwhile the US Anti-Doping Agency has made Armstrong pee in front of more people than a zoo panda."

"Okay, fair enough."

"This is from a column - 'Lance Still Worth Revering' - in 2012: Yes, the United States Anti-Doping Agency - riding roughshod on slippery rules and sketchy standards - declared Armstrong guilty of doping. Then last Friday, Armstrong stopped fighting them. 'Enough is Enough' he wrote. It might well have been a firing squad. It was that one-sided."

"He was still in denial?"

"Yeah, but he was a beaten docket as a journalist by then."

"What's he doing now?"

"He's been off the radar for a while but has just done a book, Commander in Cheat, about Trump. There was an interview with him recently in The Washington Post that made me smile: "His reedy voice cracked and rose and his eyes welled as he talked about Trump. 'Somebody's got to call him on these lies . . . If a sportswriter can stand up to Trump, why can't a Republican?' he asked."

"This is the guy who stood up to Lance?"

"Yeah. A good friend, Alan English, cautioned him about that once."

"Cautioned him?

"Yeah, he wrote a letter to Reilly and said he was letting himself down badly with Lance."

"Did Reilly reply?"

"In fairness, he did. He said Alan might be right but he still had faith in Lance and hoped he wouldn't regret it."

"Do you think he does?"

"What?"

"Do you think he regrets it?"

"No. I think Lance was just another mark for him, another stop on his line - the same as his new-found aversion to cheating and Trump."

"Yeah, I agree."

"That's the thing I admire so much about people like Conor Gallagher and these new kids on the block: the words matter. The truth matters. Ana matters. And 30 years is a long time but I thought of him last week the way I once thought of Reilly: He makes me want to be a better journalist."

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