James Andrew Miller is the co-author, with Tom Shales, of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, as well as Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, which spent 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was chosen by Fortune magazine as one of the top 75 books of all time to deal with workplace issues. Miller began his writing career at The Washington Post.
--The last book you wrote with Tom Shales was Live From New York, an oral history of Saturday Night Live. What made Those Guys Have All the Fun the right follow up project?
Well I think there were some similarities that were intriguing. Like Saturday Night Live, ESPN is a multi-decade success story, it has compelling personalities, it has great behind-the-scenes activity, we get to tell the story of how it became famous and why it has survived the way it has. So I think a lot of the great stuff that exists within Saturday Night Live exists within ESPN as well.
--Why do you feel in the end ESPN decided to cooperate?
Well it took them a year, and I think that during that year we spent a lot of time interviewing people while they were not cooperating, people outside the company, and I think that was something they could not ignore. And the second part was that they became convinced that the book was going to go forward with or without their cooperation.
--Was there anyone who declined to be interviewed for the book?
Yes, Tom Rinaldi. I called him after he interviewed Tiger Woods and he refused to talk to me. Which I think is a little strange given the fact that this guy makes his living to sit down with him and answer questions, and he didn't want to answer questions.
--You say in the book that there were approximately 50 cases of sexual misconduct filed as ESPN in the early 90s, with much of it, such as Mike Tirico's behavior, swept under the carpet. These days, the conduct of ESPN employees, such as Harold Reynolds, Sean Salisbury, Steve Phillips and more recently Howard Bryant and Matthew Barnaby, is made much more public and often reprimanded. What was the catalyst in this changing attitude?
In fairness to them I think they made some attempts in the 1980s. It's an evolving process, and they have been committed to make the place, the culture at least, one that is in concert with their goals, which is to make it a place that is not a frat house. So I think that there have been times in their history where they've been more successful than others. But I think one of the things that happened with the Steve Phillips episode is that when they fired two high ranking executives that were having an affair, I think that that sent an unbelievable message to the rank and file that no matter who you were, they weren't going to play any favorites.
--How integral do you feel the location of Bristol, CT was in ESPN's success?
I think Bristol was a key success factor, and was incredibly important in the creation of ESPN. First of all, it was a non-union operation, so particularly in the early years when they didn't have a lot of money, they could work people nonstop without any of the union covering them. And that allowed them to get a lot more product on the air for less cost. The second thing was they were operating from Bristol and Bristol is a place with few distractions. The bars were closed, there were no movie theaters, one restaurant. I probably had a dozen people say to me that they stayed at work because there was nothing else to do. The third thing is that it was really hard once people become really good at what they did, for competitors to steal them away. It's not like they worked in Manhattan where you can go across the street from one network to the other. Because people had roots in Bristol with their families and houses, when they were approached by other networks they felt they didn't want to take the risk of uprooting their family. The fourth is that throughout its history, ESPN has always had corporate owners. And corporate owners rarely get to Bristol. They were people like Getty Oil and Hearst and KKR and RJR, these people just didn't want to go to Bristol. So what you got was an ability to have a stronger sense of autonomy than if you had a headquarters in New York. Senior management would have been all over the place.
--As the 800-pound gorilla, ESPN often dictated what stories would receive attention, and in the past have been criticized for not reporting on some stories, such as Ben Roethlisberger's rape allegations. Though ESPN remains the 800-pound gorilla, websites like Deadspin have seemingly forced ESPN's hand in regards to legal and personal issues, as in their breaking of Brett Favre's alleged misconduct, Josh Hamilton's relapse and Rex Ryan's fetish videos. How has ESPN reacted to the emergence of these websites, and how has their coverage changed?
I'm not sure whether these blogs have an effect on how they cover stories. I don't think they're sitting in news meetings in the morning talking about the variety of options they have in front of them and where to deploy resources based on what Deadspin might be writing about them later on. What's interesting is that these blogs give them a sense of what it's like to be covered and this is a company that spends a lot of time covering others. The way ESPN covers the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys or the Boston Bruins or the Lakers, they're immersed in those teams' worlds, the players' worlds, the coaches' worlds, and these blogs have decided they're going to do the same thing to ESPN. Now they might have different journalistic covenants that they operate by, but the point is that just like ESPN wakes up in the mornings determined to cover these teams, these sports, these blogs are waking up in the morning determined to cover ESPN.
--Arguably two of the most influential ESPN personalities have been Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons, and they are arguably the two who are seemingly the most difficult to handle. How would you compare Olbermann and Simmons -- and why do you think Simmons has stayed with the company?
Keith is sui generis. There is only one Keith. So I think you're climbing Everest on a cold day in your shorts if you think Keith can be compared to anyone. Throughout his career he's shown a propensity to take on management and that's brought on some pretty rough times for him at places, and I think that Simmons is certainly not afraid to stand up to management. It's strange because basically they both take up a lot of oxygen in the sense that they are both bigger blips on the radar than virtually anyone else working at the company. Bill is in a very small group of people in terms of his fame and his following and the impact he has on ESPN. Keith was like that in the 90s. So both of them are quite prominent. I think that the difference though is that ESPN today is better prepared to work with lots of different people of different personalities, different sensibilities, different agendas. Back then Keith was working at ESPN in the early 90s when ESPN has been, in terms of talent, a very manageable place and when he started doing things differently that was, for management, that was the first time somebody had really operated outside of the 40-yard line. By the time Bill came around I think their management is more equal to the challenges of different types of employees. And that's not to say Simmons is a 'bad boy.' You know he got into trouble for tweeting something once, but I would caution people against creating a mythology that Simmons is a bad boy who is really disrupting things for ESPN. He was part of the team that gave birth to "30 for 30," he's starting Grantland.com, this is a guy who spends a lot of hours working for the company, so I don't know if it's fair to say he's a capital 'T' troublemaker.
--It seems as though social networking, specifically Twitter, has changed the role of sports reporters, with athletes being able to remove the middle man and communicate directly with fans, as well as creating controversy (such as Rashard Mendenhall's tweets on Osama bin Laden). How has social media changed the role of ESPN, and sports reporting in general?
I think, first of all, virtually a lot of the major players and anchors at ESPN are tweeting and they're on Facebook and they're active in social media. Not somebody like Chris Berman, but mostly everybody is. It's part of the job. And what that means is that there's more work to be done, but for the reporters there's a sense of competition with reporters at other outlets to break stories. I mean, Adam Schefter, I don't know when the guy sleeps, but he's one of the most amazing people on Twitter I've ever followed. He's tireless. And he's obviously competing with very talented people at other networks. So I think that when you get into that Twitter game as a reporter, you've got to be on all the time.
--Through many of the anecdotes in the book, it seems a schism exists between some of the television personalities at ESPN, such as Chris Berman and Mike Tirico, and those with a writing background, such as Jason Whitlock, Tony Kornheiser and Bill Simmons. Do you feel such a schism exists, and if so, why?
I think that you may be on to something. There is a schism, but it's not as pronounced as one might think. ESPN does a pretty good job of integrating people and also they have a system whereby it's designed to make sure that people are either coordinating efforts or not duplicating efforts.
--Reports say that ESPN is nervous, perhaps understandably so, at the release of this book. How do you feel the book will be received at ESPN?
I think it's going to be like a Rorschach test. I think if you want to criticize the book, it's obviously 770 pages, but there are things that aren't covered. I've already heard from people at ESPN who've gotten their hands on excerpts or in one case the whole book, and they were pleased, because they said it was an honest account, warts and all. But they believe the good outweighs the bad, and that you can't bat 1.000, but the first person who talked to me said it was painful to relive some of those tough memories, but at the end of the day, we learned from it and we move on.
Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), as well as the ebook exclusive thriller FAKING LIFE, which have nearly 1.5 million copies in print in over a dozen languages. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in November 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.