A Cocked Pistol

Miami Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard goes Cosmo and cements his reputation as the paper's gender-relations expert

The piece prompted everything from accusations of ethnic and racial prejudice to on-the-spot subscription cancellations.

As the most recent Le Batard imbroglio engulfed the news operation this past Thursday, executive editor Doug Clifton agreed to hold an open forum for his staff. "There was definitely an undercurrent that this was the third big negative splash that this guy has made," comments one staff reporter who attended the meeting and requested anonymity. "A lot of people are wondering at what point is one time too many."

At 5:30 p.m. more than 50 people crammed into a small conference room for the meeting; the Broward bureau was connected by speakerphone. The mood was tense. Clifton, flanked by managing editor Larry Olmstead, opened the forum by saying he personally was "not enthralled" by the column but that he was there to listen to people's concerns. During the next half-hour, about a dozen people spoke up, some criticizing the article as disparaging and misogynistic, others reiterating support for Le Batard's constitutional right to free speech.

Le Batard wasn't present at the forum. But on Monday he posted his own missive on the Herald's computer bulletin board. "The Cosmo piece was supposed to be an indictment of men, not women,"he wrote. "...But that's not the point. The point is that I keep trampling on people's feelings, keep hurting this paper's credibility, an offense at a time, and I don't have the words to tell you how badly that makes me feel.... But my intention is never to savage for the sake of savaging. I'm not trying to draw attention to myself."

Never known for his brevity, Le Batard went on:"...I've been reckless these last few months, offending accidentally. I've been searching in my writing lately, taking risks, trying to find different gears ... and I fear now that I have done some serious damage to my credibility as a columnist.

"Sometimes painfully, sometimes publicly, I grow at this newspaper. The fact that some of the people Irespect most -- my colleagues -- think I've brought shame upon it hurts me more than you know."

Clifton acknowledges that the piece (which he characterizes as "bad -- sort of stupid") might have some negative impact on the paper. "To the extent that people who are well-known and well-identified with the Herald generate an opinion, negative or positive, based on what they do outside the the Herald, that's an issue, there's no getting away from it," comments the editor, adding that the ruckus will probably prompt a clarification of newspaper policy pertaining to staffers' outside activities. "It won't be chapter and verse," he says, and points out that Le Batard didn't violate any rules at the paper by taking the freelance assignment. "It will be more in the nature of guidance, especially for people in high-visibility positions in the Herald."

Le Batard's misstep, Clifton recalls telling those who attended the forum, is "part of the maturation process of a superb columnist." Adds the editor: "Nobody ever leads an error-free life. The problem comes if you don't learn anything from your mistakes."

As his detractors pointed out in their intraoffice condemnation, Le Batard has always enjoyed the stalwart support of his superiors. Doubtless, if Tananarive Due and Ana Veciana-Suarez had as staunch a backer as Le Batard has in Doug Clifton, they'd be best sellers. Amid the hue and cry regarding the ill-fated Knicks column, Clifton penned a public apology in the Herald and the New York Daily News, conceding that although the column "stepped over the ill-defined line of decorum a newspaper should never transgress," he shouldered all the blame. After the earlier Johnny Rockets brouhaha, Clifton had written a Herald column explaining that not only did he feel that Le Batard's alleged offense wasn't sufficiently newsworthy to merit Herald coverage, but that he also personally believed Le Batard's claim of innocence. "Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard is the kind of nice young man you'd like to see your daughter come home with someday," the editor effused.

Would he still recommend Le Batard as the kind of guy parents would be pleased to see dating their daughter?

Clifton chuckles uncomfortably at the question. "No."

Staff writer Jim DeFede contributed to this story.

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