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One-on-One: Bob Costas talks Michael Phelps, Beijing, blogs

Fourth-Place Medal

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Bob Costas probably had a busier year than you did. He was the lead anchor for NBC's Olympic coverage, and he hosted several specials for HBO. I had the opportunity to speak with him in New York City a few weeks ago after the "Costas Now" year in review show. During our brief conversation we touched on a number of topics, including Michael Phelps' place in history and Costas' feelings towards blogs.

Fourth-Place Medal: Does it ever surprise you that you are able to pull off events like these?

Bob Costas: Well, I think it's a combination of HBO, the prestige of HBO, the format -- 90 minutes, and then when you start booking people, you've got Michael Phelps, you've got Tiger Woods, you pick up the phone and you say, "We got Michael, we got Tiger," things start to fall into place and then I guess this show has started to pick up a reputation, so that helps.

FPM: But you're one of the only people in journalism who could pull off something like this.

Costas: I've had some forums through the years, the combination of things I've done on NBC and HBO that have given me a lot of visibility, and I've been around a while, and I hope I have a reputation for being interesting, and getting to what is newsworthy, but at the same time, being fair. So people know that they're not going to get ambushed, or something snarky, or inappropriate is going to happen.

FPM: You've been around sports for a long time, where would you rate Michael Phelps compared to the other great athletes in the last century?

Costas: He's definitely on the list. Like I alluded to in the Internet portion [of the "Costas Now" special] it's a little bit of an apples and oranges [comparison]. How the hell do you compare Jesse Owens to Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax? You just can't do it. How do you compare Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz to Muhammad Ali? (Smiles) It's very difficult to do, but I don't think you could leave [Phelps] off if you said you're going to name the dozen top athletes of the century, not meaning the 21st century, but the past hundred years, I don't think you could leave him off.

FPM: So you think he's right there with the Michael Jordan's of the world ...

Costas: He's in the discussion. I would always prefer to make some of these things simpler by [comparing] first half of the 20th century, second half of the 20th century. [Compare] individual sports/team sports. Men/Women. Then you at least get a fighting chance to be fair.

FPM: You could probably be the person to set something like that up.

Costas: (Smiles) Maybe. Although, many of the candidates aren't with us anymore, so even I can't book 'em ... I've been trying [to book] Babe Ruth forever.

FPM: Is there anything in your career that you haven't done that you still want to do?

Costas: We really wanted to do a show about race and sports, we did a segment in a show this past spring, devote an entire show to race and sports and give it the treatment it deserves. I'd like to do that at some point. The only real event that I haven't done that I would like to do, and I have no right to want to do it, because I have no particular expertise at it, and CBS does it great, and Jim Nantz is the best at it. But, I think every sports broadcaster would like to say he was involved in a Masters. So even if it was just to do a one-minute report and say you were part of this ... I think Jim is just the best modern host of it, and he's just fantastic at it, and he has the kind of depth of knowledge of its history, that I might have for baseball let's say, and I don't have that in golf, so I have no claim for the assignment, (laughs) I'd just like to say I did it one time ... not do Jim's part, just do a part.

FPM: Just do something.

Costas: Yeah. But, you can't cherry pick assignments and go from network to network.

FPM: Everybody's been reliving their favorite sports memories from the past year, what is yours?

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Costas: It has to be an Olympic one. It might be, given all the implications of it, it might be the Opening Ceremony at the Bird's Nest. It was a combination of incredible artistry and craftsmanship, and also some undertones that might have made people feel uneasy, not unlike the whole China Olympics. A tremendous achievement that deserves admiration and respect against a backdrop that is not 100 percent positive.

You were part of a big controversy in the blogosphere this year. Is there any part of you that thought about starting the Bob Costas Blog?

Costas: No ... If I ever did it, if I had the time, the reason why I would do it would be to set the record straight. I would use it to set the record straight on various things where no matter how clearly you speak you are misrepresented, distorted, taken out of context; I think it happens to all public figures. So you could have a website where you simply say, "Look, so and so said this about my feeling about Barry Bonds ... Well this is what I really said, this is what I really think ... I'm happy to stand by it, if you disagree with this, fine, but don't go disagreeing with something I didn't say or I don't think."

Same thing with the blog situation, from the jump my position was completely misrepresented, and even after I very clearly clarified, in prominent places, FanHouse, Deadspin, [Aaron] Barnhart, who does one of the better blogs out of the Kansas City Star, a mainstream guy who went over.

When people don't want the clarification because the clarification turns the heat down, and the clarification was not a backtrack, I wasn't backtracking, I was saying this is what I really said to begin with, and interestingly to me, not one person that I'm aware of called Barry Jackson who was the reporter at the Miami Herald, who had the original post, to say, "What do you think Bob Costas meant by this?" The story would have been shut down, because what I meant by it was simply this, that there is an element out there in the blog world, it's not confined to sports, it's the entire blogosphere, there's an element of stupidity, abuse, irresponsibility, mean-spiritedness, no fidelity to facts or fairness, and while it comes out sometimes in the blogs themselves, what I was also saying was, "Why would the mainstream media want to cater to that element by opening up comments sections at the end of columns by respected reporters and columnists, and let anybody just anything they want?"

My point is, look, if the mainstream media is responding to new media, let them do it by putting better content out there. Let them do it by competing, don't acquiesce to the worst instincts that are out there and just bow to it and surrender to it, that's foolish. I would never think, who would possibly think that there isn't a massive amount of good material on the web, of course there is, some of it is just, you know, fun, and anyone has to their opinion about the Indians trade with the Tigers, and some of it is actually much better than the thing that's in the mainstream. Some of it acts as a corrective to the mistakes or the omissions of the mainstream, some of it pushes the ball forward. A lot of the best baseball stuff is on the web.

FPM: There's no question.

Costas: But all I'm saying is make a distinction, I don't understand what's so hard to understand about this. If you said that a lot of talk radio sucks, does that mean that you're saying that you wish Marconi had never invented the radio? It's not an attack on the technology, it's not an attack on every practitioner, it's a critique of the worst of them. If you say that much of television stinks, does that mean that Meet the Press isn't good, or Nightline isn't good? Or 60 Minutes?

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FPM: Some programs/blogs are still good ...

Costas: Yeah, of course. [The blog controversy] is the most illogical step imaginable, and it got to the point where it was clear to me that anyone who wanted to be fair knew what I was saying, and those who just wanted to make hay with it were going to do it anyway no matter what I said.

FPM: We'll wrap it up on this. You're at the top of the journalism field, and as everybody knows, the field hasn't had a great year, what do you think is going to happen to all of these kids who are graduating from journalism schools all over the country in the near future?

Costas: You know, I think there are so many different avenues. The blogosphere and the web is one of them. The issue is not what the avenue is, it's how well do you walk that avenue? How good is it? How good is it? That's all that matters, how good is it? And there's lots of ways to be good, you don't have to be good in the same way that I hope I'm good, you can be different. This issue is not whether someone is different, or whether their approach is the same as the established approach, a new, fresh, approach is appreciated, but simply being new doesn't make it new. It's gotta be good.

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