Post’s Farhi Scores Clean Tackle - on a Teammate

A Style writer takes on a celebrated sports columnist with a bone-crunching review.

For most players, the best part of preseason football games is the opportunity to stop hitting your teammates and, for the first time since the start of training camp, take a crack at somebody in an opposing uniform.

But on Monday night, when the Minnesota Vikings took on the Oakland Raiders in a preseason snoozer, the best hit of the game took place between two teammates — specifically, Washington Post Style writer Paul Farhi’s pancaking of the Post’s Tony Kornheiser.

To wit: On Monday night, Kornheiser, sports columnist for the Post, made his debut as the would-be funny guy on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The following morning, Farhi delivered a bone-crunching review.

“Tony Kornheiser played it safe in his Monday Night Football announcing debut last night, making few missteps but offering little for the highlight reel,” wrote Farhi. “It wasn’t exactly clear at times why he was there at all.”

“It’s still early, as the coaches like to say,” added Farhi. “But on the basis of his first preseason game, Kornheiser, the Post sports columnist and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, wasn’t many of the things that ESPN hired him for. He wasn’t especially witty, provocative or insightful …”

“Kind of reminded you of Dennis Miller,” concluded Farhi. “In a bad way.”

All in all, it was a clean hit — the prose equivalent of a form tackle. And the editors of the Post deserve praise for refusing to coddle one of their star players. (Readers rewarded the paper’s editors for not pulling any punches by making Farhi’s article one of the most viewed Arts & Living stories on the Post’s Web site.)

Reached by phone yesterday, Farhi said that when originally discussing the assignment with his editors, they encouraged him to give an honest critique of Kornheiser’s performance, even if his assessment was unflattering.

Farhi says he was pleased by his editor’s desire for an independent-minded review. Still, no matter how you look at it, assessing your colleague’s work is a tricky task, says Farhi. If on the one hand you write something laudatory, you’re liable to be criticized for playing favorite to a colleague. Then again, it’s easy to become overly critical in the pursuit of the appearance of fair-mindedness — which isn’t exactly fair, either.

“I know it’s kind of cliché,” says Farhi, “but you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

Of course, the other potential downside to criticizing a colleague’s work is their proximity to your cubicle. As of yesterday afternoon, however, Farhi said he hadn’t spoken to Kornheiser.

In the past, Kornheiser hasn’t exactly taken kindly to colleagues’ criticism. In January of 2005, for instance, Stephen Rodrick wrote a piece for Slate analyzing how the allure of television punditry was gradually sapping the strength and productivity of America’s top sports columnists. Along the way, he noted that Kornheiser hadn’t quoted an “actual person” in his column for months.

Afterward, Kornheiser was livid.

“Kornheiser bitterly attacked the Slate article, by Stephen Rodrick, claiming he goes out of his way to make sure his Post columns are fresh and not repetitive,” reported the Washingtonian. “Kornheiser called on Slate to fire Rodrick, noting that the online publication has been sold by Microsoft to the Washington Post Company. … Kornheiser’s overheated reaction suggests he doth protest too much.”

This morning in the pages of the Post, Kornheiser returned fire at Farhi. “In critiquing my performance, I think what makes me happiest was that I didn’t throw up,” he wrote. “(Though if I had, I would have aimed at that putz in Style.)”

In the meantime, Farhi doesn’t seem overly concerned about protecting Kornheiser’s feelings.

“A couple of my colleagues have said, ‘Ooh, look out for Kornheiser, he’s going to be mad at you,’” says Farhi. “He’s a big boy. He can take it.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.