Friday night, Michael Wilbon (Medill ‘80), co-host of ESPN’s popular show Pardon the Interruption (PTI for short), returned to Evanston to speak to students. At the event, Wilbon abandoned the lecture format for a question-and-answer discussion with the audience. North by Northwestern caught up with Wilbon before the event to talk about his time at Northwestern, the changing face of journalism and what it’s like writing about losing teams.
How has being on PTI and ESPN changed your life, as a journalist and in general?
It took me from being anonymous to the point where Northwestern would have me back to speak. It takes you out of anonymity. I’m a sports writer, that’s how I think of myself. I learned in the building around the corner, in Fisk [Hall], that you’re not supposed to be part of a story. Once you put yourself on television everyday, you’re a celebrity, whether you want to be or not. So it changes everything; it changes all the rules, it changes the culture of what you do. You can’t just go to an event and observe it anymore, you’re more than an observer; you’re part of it, whether you want to be or not.
Do you think that that’s detrimental as a journalist and the “be a fly on the wall” aspect of journalism?
Yeah, it’s detrimental to the strict term of the word journalist. It’s not necessarily detrimental to you getting a story or detrimental to getting to develop sources or detrimental to you being able to come by certain information. It is detrimental to you being able to observe because there are distractions because you’re the focus of somebody’s attention and you didn’t used to be and that changes the dynamic of it.
On PTI, you’re very up front about favoritism for Chicago teams and for Northwestern, whereas some journalists may try to be very neutral on the air. Why did you make the decision to be really upfront with your favorite teams?
PTI’s not about journalism. PTI is not a journalist show. It’s a personality show, where Tony and I have our favorites and we have our things that aren’t our favorites and we’re very open about those things. That was not the case when I was reporter at the Washington Post for X number of years before I became a columnist. When you become a columnist -– and that’s what we are -– you are paid to bring your biases, you’re paid to bring personal things, you’re paid to bring point of view, which you’re not when you’re a reporter [...] There are elements of journalism in PTI, but we don’t make the pretense of being Meet the Press. It’s a much more personality-drive show.
What’s the most exciting sporting event you’ve ever covered?
There’s no way I could ever figure that out, which is a good thing. You can figure that out when you’ve done three to five years of sports coverage. You can’t figure it out when you’ve done almost 30, and that’s a great thing. I’m thankful that’s the case.
How has going to Northwestern helped your journalism career the most?
It’s the best training ground for journalism in the country, plain and simple. There’s some great training grounds [...] but Medill is like a boot camp and all the things you hate when you’re there, you come to appreciate the first time you step in a newsroom. It doesn’t take very long. There’s a tried and true way of doing it, very old school. That way has now had to evolve because the business is changing.
How do you feel about the changing course of journalism?
It scares me. I’m old. I didn’t think that I would see the business go in this direction or newspapers almost go away. Newspapers need to be on the protected list because they’re going away. We’ve seen newspapers go away since Jan. 1 and more are going to go away by next Jan. 1. I never thought I’d see that in my career. That said, every industry evolves. It’s uncomfortable for me now because I was in it before it started evolving — that’s not true either, it was already evolving, but the nice comfortable period that I was able to start my career in and develop my career and have it flourish, that’s over. So I’m terrified about it.
Do you prefer having done both broadcast and print and why?
Sure. The reason now is that newspaper is going away, so I’m glad I have a broadcast career. I say it’s going away, but print is not going away, newspapers seem to be disappearing. Print is not going to disappear because there is going to be online consumption of the printed word. So it’s not going to go away, it’s going to go away in the packaging that I’m most accustomed to. I’m glad that I sort of made that transition before it became absolutely necessary. I didn’t do it at a time when it was desperate to do so, I was ahead of the posse, if you will.
How many years do you predict it will be before Northwestern makes an NCAA tournament appearance?
God, I hope one more. One more would be good. I mean we were two victories away probably from getting in this year. So you know, I hope one. I hope next year they’re gonna get in. It’s been a long time.
What was it like for you as a sports fan on a campus where the teams didn’t necessarily go to bowl games or tournaments?
It was good because you had to learn how to write and get people interested in stories and not just rely on somebody being good. You know, you didn’t rely on the interest being there because the team was good; you had to be good. [...] If you got somebody to read those stories you got them to read the stories because you made them interesting. So I think it was good. I think it’s a crutch on too many campuses where they think the interest is supposed to be in the team and not what they’re doing.
As a student, what did you love the most and hate the most about life at Northwestern?
(laughs) I hated the wind off the lake the most, that’s easy. [...] What did I love the most? Probably hanging out on the lake when it was warm in spring. My freshman year Spring Quarter, it was 90-degree or warmer [for] 16 straight days, which never happens. I’m sure it’s never happened since. [...] There was a lot of stuff. Some of it [...] I’m gonna tell what it is and you’ll look at me with a blank look like, “Is he insane?”
There was a guy who came around, he was called the sandwich man. You would only know about this if your parents went here and the guy had a cart and he was blind, legally blind and he had a huge dog, huge like shepherd, huge. He would walk around to the dorms and he had this huge cart, huge, and he would have sandwiches and ice cream and all this stuff at night and you would run downstairs and everybody would buy food. People would run out of their dorms. He would whistle and you would run. You think I’m making this up, but I’m not making this up. He was called the sandwich man; that was his name. So every night at like 11, he would get to Sargent — my freshman and sophomore year I lived in Sargent — and he would whistle. You would hear this whistle when you were studying in your room, you would fly down the stairs, and there would just like kids hanging out by this guy’s cart, and you would buy sandwiches for like $1.10 or something like that. [...] And this is what you did at night after dinner, because dinner was hideous [...] So it’s stuff like that. It’s stuff that every generation doesn’t have.