John Krull: When the story is the story

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Krull

Gregg Doyel made national news the other day.

And not in a good way.

Not the way a sports columnist for a metro newspaper wants—by writing a kick-butt column that gets everyone talking.

No, The Indianapolis Star scribe acted like a jerk at the press conference in which the Indiana Fever introduced the team’s top draft pick Caitlin Clark to the WNBA, local and national media and the sports world.

When it was Doyel’s turn to ask a question, he used his hands to make a heart sign, which is what Clark does when she wants to send a signal to her family.

“You like that?” Clark asked.

“I like that you’re here. I like that you’re here,” Doyel said.

“I do that at my family after every game, so.” Clark said, perhaps sending a kind of warning to the columnist that he was trespassing into an intimate space.

If so, Doyel ignored the blinking light.

“Start doing it to me and we’ll get along just fine,” he said.

The reaction that followed was swift and uniformly unfavorable.

A few critics accused Doyel, a man in his 50s, of sexually harassing the 22-year-old Clark. Others said he tried to extort her by implying he would give her better coverage if she treated him well.

Still others were less specific but equally condemnatory, calling the exchange “creepy,” “cringey” or just plain wrong.

His column apologizing for the incident, which itself was an exercise in self-explanation and self-justification, did not quell the controversy.

There were people who called for the Fever and the Star to make sure he never covered Clark’s games. There were even people who demanded he be fired.

I don’t know Gregg Doyel. I’ve met him, but our exchange never went beyond a handshake and hurried pleasantries.

So, I can’t possibly know what went through his head when he decided to introduce himself to Clark that way.

In his apology column, he wrote that he has a well-deserved reputation for social awkwardness. His friends and colleagues confirm as much.

Maybe that was it. Perhaps it was just an ill-thought-out act by a clueless guy who wanted to ingratiate himself with the person who now is the biggest celebrity in sports.

I hope so.

But I also can’t help but think that it was a sign of something wrong with our profession.

I’ve been a columnist in one form or another for much of the past 40 years. Writing a column is a weird gig.

For a column to work, it must become a kind of ongoing conversation with the audience. That means the columnist at times must reveal something of herself or himself to the people reading. At other times, the columnist must rely on the first person to move readers from scene to scene or to establish credibility—or to reveal the limits of one’s knowledge, as I did a few sentences ago.

The danger in all this should be evident to every thinking person.

The temptation can be strong to make the story about the storyteller rather than the story itself. There have been times when Doyel has succumbed to that temptation—times when the audience has learned more about the columnist than about the purported subject of the column.

The problem isn’t simply one of self-absorption.

Doyel carries a heavy load. It’s his job to draw eyeballs by the thousands to the Star at a time when newspapers everywhere struggle to attract audiences.

In key ways, he has been the brand for the Star, its subscription ad campaigns often featuring photos of him coupled with personal appeals from the columnist to please, please, please take the paper.

That’s a lot of responsibility—and a lot of attention—for one person, particularly one who acknowledges that he’s not always socially astute.

It might lead him to believe at times that he IS the story.

It also might encourage him to believe that inserting himself into a relationship between a young woman, her mother, her father and her siblings might be all right.

Might even be clever.

It wasn’t, of course.

It was an intrusion into a family matter, one that merited an unqualified apology for an invasion of privacy.

But it also was a reminder that, even for a columnist, more often than not, it’s the story that is the story.

Not the storyteller.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.