On Tuesday, MDS posted a blurb regarding the back-and-forth between ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser and Colts owner Jim Irsay. MDS mentioned that, in the same radio show in which Kornheiser threw verbal grenades at Irsay, Kornheiser also took aim at a column from Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post regarding NFL owners, calling the item “shrew-like” and “hysterical.”
MDS raised with me the question of whether Kornheiser’s comments could be regarded as sexist. Reluctant to make it an issue without thinking it through, I did some research and obtained some opinions from male and female members of the media. This morning, I posted a follow-up pointing out the possibility that Kornheiser could be facing a backlash, given the strong possibility that folks within ESPN could regard the comments as sexist.
The blurb was short, and relatively tame. We didn’t take a position on whether Kornheiser should be in trouble. Primarily, I was fascinated by the fact that a guy who in 2010 found himself suspended by ESPN for two weeks for riffing on radio about Hannah Storm’s wardrobe choices would stray while speaking extemporaneously into territory that could get him into water of a similar temperature.
Along the way, I included a quote from an unnamed male media member. The first two sentences helped me come to the conclusion that the issue was worth flagging. “I think the test is would Tony say that about you or me,” the source said. “Probably not.”
The source added, “I’m guessing Sally feels the exact same way.” I left that last line in the story, and I didn’t consider the possibility of confirming whether Sally actually was offended. Put simply, I didn’t think her own subjective reaction to the use of the terms “shrew-like” and “hysterical” by Kornheiser regarding a female sportswriter in an inherently public medium was relevant to the question of whether the use of the terms could objectively be regarded as offensive.
This morning, after we posted the story, Sally expressed via Twitter her belief that I should have called her. (That’s putting it as mildly as possible.) I wasn’t able to focus on the issue at the time she raised it, given both the preparations for PFT Live and, eventually, the latest 70-minute edition of the 30-minute show. After the show, I contacted Sally by e-mail. We had a (mostly) cordial exchange, and the end result is that we have each other’s phone numbers and we understand each other’s positions.
In hindsight, I would have omitted the “I’m guessing Sally feels the exact same way” line from the story. At a minimum, I would have contacted her to see if she feels that way.
Since we can’t unring the bell, here’s what Sally told me at one point via e-mail regarding her reaction to the comments. It’s a quote she has expressly asked me to use: “Kornheiser and I have been friends for 30 years. We talk to and about each other like this all time. It falls under the category of ‘Jane you ignorant slut.’ Which anyone could have discovered by calling me and asking my reaction before sticking my name in print and ginning up a controversy I didn’t ask for, based [on] my presumed reaction purely because I’m a chick. I’m on vacation. I didn’t need my blackberry blowing up over this NONSENSE.”
That said, I still think her reaction to the comments is irrelevant to the question of whether the use of “shrew-like” and “hysterical” by Kornheiser in reference to a female sportswriter will or could get Kornheiser into trouble. Though the following example was much more extreme and clearly inappropriate, ABC surely didn’t consult with Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett before concluding that Howard Cosell had to go based on his extemporaneous — and notorious — on-air remark about Garrett.
Actually, Garrett wasn’t offended, either. “I liked Howard Cosell,” Garrett said in the 1990s. “I didn’t feel that it was a demeaning statement.”
It didn’t matter then, and as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t matter now. Though Jane Curtain never complained about being called an “ignorant slut,” it was always obvious that Dan Aykroyd was joking. In Kornheiser’s case, it was an inside joke, at best. And if it was a joke, well, we’re still searching for the punchline.