by | Jan 13, 1991 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

“A man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest . . . ”
— Paul Simon

This will be the last column I will write about the Ernie Harwell situation. It has gotten out of hand. People have been hurt. As Ernie himself says: “It’s time to move on.” But not before I clear up a few things.

I believe this about Harwell: He should keep his job, for as long as he wants. He is a treasure, a part of our baseball landscape.

But I also believe this: You don’t slander people just because you’re mad. You don’t ignore facts in order to stay angry. Some people in Detroit — including several writers and broadcasters — want to believe that the dismissal of an announcer is a conspiracy the size of Watergate.

It’s not. It never was.

And it’s time to stop acting foolish.

As Harwell himself told me, “What difference does it make who fired me? The result is the same.” He’s right. We have all spent too much time digging in this hole. Was it the Tigers first, WJR second? Who cares? They both agreed in the end. You want to get angry, get angry at both parties.

But do not use anger as a license to ignore facts, or to rip a reporter or broadcaster because you don’t like what he or she reports. People have lost perspective on this thing. They have become enraged because a nice man was fired. But they let that rage justify other mistakes. I hear people say “I love Ernie. They should kill the bastards who let him go.”

The “bastards” are human beings, too. The truth isn’t always pleasant

Example. I got a call last week, at home, from a woman who wouldn’t identify herself. She wanted to know why everyone was picking on Jim Long, the WJR executive who wanted Ernie out. “He’s a good man,” she pleaded, almost crying, “you don’t know him. Why are you ruining his life this way?” All she wanted, she said, was a little fairness.

I got another call last week, from Frank Beckmann, the WJR announcer. He couldn’t understand why people were accusing him of back-stabbing Harwell, a man he had always liked and respected. “I never jockeyed for his job,” he said, his voice weary with frustration. All he wanted was a little fairness.

Last Sunday, I visited Bo Schembechler’s house. It was like a morgue. His wife, Millie, was visibly shaken by the hate mail they had received. His son, Matt, was visibly disturbed that people had turned on his father — a man who always stood for the same things as Harwell. “Why are people doing this?” Matt asked. “Don’t they know he’s not like that?”

All they wanted was a little fairness.

Ask yourself: Have we all been fair? Or have we simply been enraged? In journalism, you are taught that the truth is more important than showing how angry you can get. So you keep digging. Sometimes you don’t like what you see. Sometimes, you may have to contradict your earlier reports.

It’s part of the job.

Sadly, some people have forgotten that. Rage won’t bring Ernie back

So when a Detroit News writer wrote the story as he saw it, and he defended the Tigers, he was ripped because his son works for a radio station owned by Tom Monaghan — which is unfair, because his son got the job on his own.

And when Jim Long finally admitted “it was my idea” to fire Ernie, people refused to believe him; they said he was a puppet. Unfair, because he was telling the truth.

I personally spoke with Harwell, Long, Schembechler, Jeff Odenwald and Gary Spicer. I asked them questions, face to face. I came, I believe, to a reasonable account of what happened.

But when I wrote it down, I was told I was wrong — and biased — by people who didn’t talk to anyone but Ernie, and who base an entire conspiracy theory on this: remarks made on a golf course five months ago.

Sorry. Where I went to school, that’s not journalism.

What happened here, plain and simple, is a team and a radio station decided to part with a well-loved announcer. It hurt us. But now, it’s time to wise up. I would love if the Tigers and WJR said “Sorry, we made a mistake” and gave Harwell a few more years.

But blind rage and conspiracy theories won’t make that happen. “I never wanted this,” an embarrassed Harwell said last week.

I know. I tell myself it’s just sports. But then I look at the Persian Gulf crisis, and I hear George Bush say “I don’t want war.” And five minutes later, a TV analyst says “Yes, he does.” And you have to decide whether the president of our country is a liar.

So this is America. We hear what we want to hear, we disregard the rest. It is a sad state of affairs. It really is. Even sadder than the fact that Ernie Harwell won’t be calling baseball games much longer.


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