Tony Kornheiser is the most talented member of the sports media working today.
You can argue otherwise, but you’ll be wrong.
That’s because when you combine writing, television, radio, wit and intelligence, Kornheiser has no peers in the world of sports media.
He’s a five tool media playmaker. Hell, if he had hair, he’d probably be a senator.
Frankly, I love the guy.
And I’ve loved Kornheiser since 1997 when I showed up in Washington, D.C. as a freshman at George Washington University.
I didn’t have a computer or an email address or any understanding of the Internet whatsoever when I arrived in D.C. for freshman orientation.
But I loved to read.
And I rapidly discovered the Washington Post was only a quarter.
A quarter, in 1997!
Growing up in Nashville I always had a sneaking suspicion that my local Nashville newspaper, the Tennessean, was worthless, but one day in Washington confirmed that fact.
Every day the Washington Post was truly amazing. In fact, I honestly think that newspaper was the best thing about going to college in D.C. I’m convinced I learned much more reading it every day than I did going to college.
It took me a day to discover Tony Kornheiser.
As the weeks unfurled I learned that Kornheiser didn’t just write outstandingly entertaining sports columns, he also had a weekly column in the Style section that allowed him more room to run, gave him the opportunity to leave behind sports, and let his cantankerous nature flourish. Plus, he had a truly spectacular daily radio show.
I’d leave it on in my dorm room during the middle of the day. Eventually this radio show would go national, but for then it was a local treasure, a perfect complement to Kornheiser’s columns.
What impressed me even then about Kornheiser was his ability to be a consistently good deadline writer. It’s comparatively easy to crank out a good article every now and then, but being good on a daily basis for a large and intelligent audience is incredibly tough. Hardly anyone can do it. (That’s why I’ve called Aaron Sorkin the most talented writer in America today.) Kornheiser did it for decades. All while putting on an entertaining radio show and eventually while putting on the best sports television show in America.
Toss in Monday Night Football and Kornheiser was the hardest working man in sports media.
And he was good at all of them.
But back to 1997. A couple of months in to my freshman year at D.C., Tony released a new book, “Bald As I Want to Be,” a collection of past columns to go alongside “Pumping Irony,” his previous collection of columns. So I went and bought copies of both books at the Georgetown Barnes and Noble. Both books were outstanding, catching me up on past years of outstanding columns. You can check them out here.
I’ve read a ton of sports writing since then and I can say without a shred of doubt that Kornheiser was the most entertaining sports writer in the country in his generation and there wasn’t a close second.
But outside of the region no one really knew Tony Kornheiser in 1997.
That’s because 1997 was an interesting time, the jumping off point of a new era in media. An 18 year old kid like me could arrive in Washington without an email address and leave four years later in disbelief that I’d ever not had an email address or a computer.
In 1997 sports was still a regional universe, and the best writers hadn’t yet migrated online or to television.
There were isolated pockets of brilliance spread across the country, but unless you lived in one of those intelligent islands you weren’t treated to much quality sportswriting. So Tony Kornheiser owned the Washington, D.C. market with his columns and radio show, but without the Internet he wasn’t very well known outside of his region. No one in the rest of the country knew that Kornheiser was the best sports columnist working.
Then “Pardon the Interruption” debuted in 2001 and Kornheiser rapidly went national.
A decade later one line stands out for me, near the end of the first show, an apoplectic Kornheiser shouts: “Oh, please, Johnny Depp is fabulous.”
From here Kornheiser went national in TV and radio without most people understanding how really damn good he was as a column writer. Kornheiser is outstanding on PTI — so is Michael Wilbon who is also among the most talented sports media personalities of his era — and I think he was as entertaining as the setting allowed him to be on Monday Night Football, but that all came after Tony had been consistently brilliant as a columnist.
Which is a shame.
Because if Tony Kornheiser was twenty years younger and had made the leap to writing online — as he definitely would have — he’d be the most read sportswriter on the Internet today.
Twitter would have been an amazing platform for Kornheiser’s unique blend of irascible independence. Yes, ESPN would have probably suspended him more, but each of those suspensions would have been further evidence of Kornheiser’s verisimilitude, the realest of the real in an artificial age. A man who somehow manages to make cogent points without taking himself too seriously.
Everyone knows him now thanks to his television career, but I don’t think Kornheiser gets anywhere near the credit he deserves for his writing. Ultimately, television and radio were quicker to adapt to Kornheiser’s talents than the writing world was. That’s a shame because Kornheiser is the best column writer of his generation, an Internet writer before there was an Internet.
In a larger sense Kornheiser is a transitional figure, the perfect example of a regional sports media personality moving national in a rapidly globalizing sports media universe. In fact, I wanted to write a story for OKTC using his career as an illustration of larger media trends. But, predictably, Kornheiser turned me down when I asked him to let me write a profile of his career. He sent along word there was a reason no one had ever done a profile of him, it wasn’t interesting enough.
Not surprisingly, I disagree.
Occasionally I get asked who I look to in the world of media as any sort of role model. The answer is one name long: Tony Kornheiser.
Because, quite simply, he’s the most talented member of the sports media today, someone who is truly outstanding at everything in all aspects of media, a five tool sports media player.
And everything he achieved came through writing, the discipline he mastered like nobody else.
Even if most don’t know it.
That’s why this recent shout out at the end of PTI meant a lot to me.
The world needs more penguin dancing.
And if Kornheiser won’t let anyone write a profile of his career then he needs to tell the story himself.
Because that would be one hell of a read.
Worth at least a quarter.