It was supposed to be a lighthearted, playful joke in a sports-loving city.
The week before the Super Bowl, Michael Telek wanted to have a little fun on a sports story at his CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. The story was about how the New England Patriots were on their way to a record-tying Super Bowl, on the edge of matching the Steelers’ record for most Super Bowl wins.
When an image of Tom Brady came up, he set up the reporter package to identify him as a “known cheater.”
Telek lost his job the next day.
“I had been there seven months. I’m from Pittsburgh, I wanted to work in Pittsburgh,” he said. He spent time in Ohio and other markets in order to work his way back to his hometown. The KDKA station was a great place, filled with people who made him a better journalist, he said.
“I thought it would be fun at the end” of a newscast geared toward more national news, not one that featured more local stories. “Sports are meant to be fun and playful. Everyone hates the Patriots.”
He had considered a different graphic, identifying Brady as “Giselle’s husband,” flipping on its head a sports trope in which successful women are identified by their relationship with an athlete.
“I thought ‘known cheater’ would be funnier, especially with the deflate gate situation and the NFL suspending him,” Telek said. “I thought I could save face. My bosses talked to me after the broadcast and asked what were you thinking, this is PR nightmare, it’s all over social media already.”
Disliking Brady, after all, has become an easy punchline in cities well beyond Pittsburgh. People don’t have to know or be interested in sports or football to know who he is and know details of his life – in fact, one of Telek’s friends who doesn’t follow sports thought the “known cheater” was in reference to Brady leaving his then-pregnant girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan, for his now-wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen.
By the next morning, it was on every sports news outlet in the country, including Sports Illustrated, and other sites, like Breitbart.
If the package had aired in the sports portion of the broadcast, Telek thinks it might have been easier to shrug off, to play off as a joke. He acknowledges that even though sports stories can be lighthearted, one that airs during a news portion has to stay within the non-biased, impartial lines of ethical journalism.
Michael Telek joins producer Michael O’Connell to discuss a sports joke gone wrong and the need to play things straight even when the target of a joke is one of the most unpopular and talented athletes in history.