Covering John Tortorella Was Not A Nightmare For Everyone

Unofficially considered the toughest interview in hockey, it is unsurprising how the media, constrained by a professional relationship for five years, lined up to give their personal opinions on John Tortorella once he was let go by the New York Rangers after a subpar season. Larry Brooks, a beat writer for the New York Post and Tortorella's archnemesis, if you will, claimed that any media outlet that would hire the fallen coach "should be ashamed." Dave Lozo, formally of and who often covered the Rangers, wrote a lengthy memoir of sorts, discussing his disdain for Torts. Unsurprisingly, the general consensus amongst media members was that this was, at least from a journalistic perspective, the best possible thing that could have happened.

Then there is Jesse Spector. Spector covered the Rangers for the New  York Daily News during the 2011-2012 season before moving to Sporting News, where he works as a national writer. But still, only a subway ride away from MSG, he spent plenty of time in the pressbox at Rangers game this past season. I spoke to Spector on March 29th on a variety of topics for a journalism class. And what could be a more appropo topic of discussion than how difficult it must be for him to deal with John Tortorella? I led Spector to that direction, only for him to blurt out a surprising response:

"I love covering John Tortorella."

That's not to say that Tortorella and Spector had a great relationship by any means. Spector said that Tortorella is "generally unpleasant" to the media and admitted he can be "frustrating" to work with at times. He recalled a time Tortorella unleashed on him soon after he started covering the Rangers. 

"To his credit, though, he asked the cameramen not to film it. He was going to yell at me and he knew he was going to yell at me," Spector said.

If you get to know Spector, he takes his job very seriously. But paradoxically, he does not take it seriously at all. He aims to be professional, dilligent, and objective in his coverage. At the same time, though, he understands that getting paid to write about hockey is, although fulfilling and enjoyable, a trivial task in the grand scheme of the universe. Spector said something Tortorella didn't like and Tortorella yelled at him. It's not the end of the world, and Spector moved on. 

Spector admitted he is in the minority and that he got along with Tortorella better than most, but he attributed this to having a "better understanding" of him than other reporters. Lozo cited "Tortorella's rules" and makes it out to be a labrynth of mystery and uncertainty. For Spector, it was pretty clear-cut.

"You learn the questions he is not going to answer and you don't ask them. He's not going to suddenly change one day and answer them. So you take that and you adjust," Spector said.

The adjusting part might be what tripped up so many reporters. Spector covered Tortorella for two years; only one of which was as a beat reporter. So why did he find it so easy to figure out what works and doesn't work while others, who covered Tortorella since he came to the Rangers in 2009, were still finding it impossible to work with him? Part of the problem might have been a conflict of professional interest. Lozo wrote that Tortorella "never understood that reporters have a job to do, and one of them is to ask about injuries, even if you've said in the past that you're not answering them." 

This may be true to some extent. Part of being a journalist is asking the tough questions that might not necessarily make the interviewee happy. But another part of being a journalist is to understand with whom you are speaking and how to get the most out of that person. No matter what field you're writing in – sports, politics, technoligical, enterntainment, local, national, international – you're dealing with all sorts of different people. Some are going to be overly accomodating to your needs; Spector was this way for me. Others are going to be difficult to deal with. Especially when dealing with the head coach of a hockey team it's important to understand the context of his job. Yes, reporters have a job to do, but so does a hockey coach. And that job is very different, if not contradicting, from the job of a journalist.

"John Tortorella's job (was) to win hockey games. Being nice to the media does not help him win hockey games," Spector said. 

One could point out that it was part of Tortorella's contract and job description; he was required to do certain press conferences and speak to the media at certain times. But that doesn't mean part of his job was to give media the information they wantedOr to interact with them in the way they wanted.

Which brings us back to the concept of adjusting. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Maybe Tortorella is completely clueless and ignorant to the job the media has to do. Maybe he is stubborn, inconsiderate, irrational, condescending, and every other negative word you want to throw out there. But again; part of being a journalist is understanding with whom you are interracting and how to get the most of of him or her. At what point does, "Torts is a moron for brashly shooting down a question about an opposing player," become, "that journalist should know better than to ask Tortorella a question about an opposing player"? How many times can a man stick his hand in a fire before we stop blaming the fire and start blaming the man who doesn't learn from past experiences with that fire? 

This is not to say that Jesse Spector is right and the best journalist ever whereas Dave Lozo wrong and the worst journalist ever. If you read both of their articles and follow both on Twitter you'll quickly discover that both are very intelligent writers, know the game of hockey well, and are pretty light-hearted. Both are excellent at their jobs. The main purpose here is to highlight the fact that the anti-Tortorella hivemind is not at all unanimous and not at all an objective reality.  We live in an era – largely thanks to cable news as well as the reality show and circus ESPN has become – where everything needs to have to polarizing sides and something is either "right" or "wrong" with no in-between. And we need to introduce a Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann or Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith to beat it into the ground and irreversibly defend the two extremes. But reality is much more abstract. Dave Lozo has his account of how things went with Tortorella. Jesse Spector has a different one. Neither is intrinsically the "correct" interpretation of Tortorella and how he interracted with the media. And take both accounts – or any personal account from any journalist regarding any topic – as nothing more than what they are. 

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