When Journalists Behave Like the Mafia

By Jack Limpert

Sports columnist Sally Jenkins does a pretty harsh hit job on Redskin quarterback Robert Griffin III in today’s Washington Post. She wastes no time, opening with, “Robert Griffin III used to be his team’s most uplifting player, but he is becoming a weight, maybe even a burden. Where is that fresh kid with the unbeatable combination of modesty and limitlessness? In his place is a player who’s coming off as an unteachable know-it-all.”

There’s lots more: He’s got the owner on speed dial, he’s making operatic personal demands, he doesn’t understand how much he has left to learn, he’s not been as open to learning as he should have been, he’s beginning to chafe on his elders.

Quite a surprise for Post readers who have been getting a steady diet of stories and columns that held up Griffin as the second coming among NFL quarterbacks.

Why did Jenkins, based in New York for the Post, do the column? Hey, a journalist might say, we learned that from the Mafia—if you’re going to whack someone powerful, bring in an outsider. Then the soldiers in the family can deny everything. It wasn’t us.

It’s a lesson I learned in my first newspaper job. After leaving UPI, I was editing a weekly in Warren, a fast-growing Detroit suburb, and also covering Bill Shaw, the mayor of Warren. I was going after him pretty hard and before long hardly anyone at City Hall would talk to me.

Working with me at the paper was John McManus, an old pro who had retired from the Detroit News. When I talked with him about my City Hall problem, he said, “Bring in someone from one of our other papers and let him do the really tough piece on Shaw. Then at City Hall you can claim to be just as unhappy as they about an outsider coming in to do such a mean piece.”

In Mafia terms, if you want to do a hit on someone important in Washington, bring in someone from New York.

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