Columnist T.J. Simers goes to the doghouse
Maureen Gamble of Wichita wrote, "I appreciate when the news media give me the facts and even a little 'color' about an event. I do expect, however, that the writer has taken the time to do some background research on the topic and reports fairly on the events. This leads me to my questions. Why would you assign a writer that clearly knows nothing about dogs in general or dog shows specifically to write 1,000 words about the most prestigious dog event in this country? Assigning a person who apparently doesn't even care about dogs is like asking a principled Vegan to cover a bullfight!"
Gamble is writing about recent pieces by Sports columnist T.J. Simers. Her e-mail continued: "There must have been some reason the writer was sent to cover the event. Did the scheduled reporter become ill and couldn't travel? You couldn't find a stringer in the NYC area that actually might approach the assignment in a professional manner? I mean, what were you thinking?"
There was the Wednesday column that referred to "four ugly critters chosen Monday night to be included in Best in Show." There was the Tuesday column that called one contender "a nasty little grunt known as a Brussels griffon." Finally, no doubt to the relief of many Times-reading dog lovers, Thursday was the last day Simers was at the show, as a video attests.
E-mail complaints about treatment of the dog show have come in by the dozens, spurred in part by suggestions on various websites to write to The Times.
The truth is, the L.A. Times doesn't usually send a staffer to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. That it got staff coverage at all this year is because the Sports columnist chose to take his show on the road and landed in New York City.
In years past, coverage of the annual event held in New York has consisted of short wire stories. This year, The Times is carrying most of its reports online, including which pooch took honors, who won and some background on that Best in Show dog, at the L.A. Unleashed blog. Those posts are written by Times staffer Lindsay Barnett but are based on wire reports. As Sports Editor Randy Harvey said, "The New York Times is the only publication I know of that covers it seriously," meaning, a staff writer is assigned to cover it as a news story in that paper's Sports section.
The fact that Simers chose to cover the 133rd show has a lot of dog lovers meeting, for the very first time, a columnist whom many readers love to hate.
Behind the odd pairing of the contrarian Sports writer and the beloved dog show is the fact that the columnist periodically travels, with a videographer, to write a column that's even more offbeat than his usual. Last year he traveled to Nebraska; this year he chose to cover Westminster. That means that ultimately, it's a Simers column, not a Westminster news report. As Harvey says, lots of Simers fans know that's his contrarian tone is his act, but apparently many Westminster fans find the tone shocking. (Last year, lots of Nebraskans felt the same way.)
Garnett Persinger of Conneautville, Pa., expressed a sentiment in writing, "I wanted to read about Westminster Dog Show, not his personal rambling about an assignment he did not apparently want." Others called the columns "offensive, insulting, arrogant and downright mean."
Those who read Simers regularly reacted differently. Of the Feb. 11 column, which brought more annoyed notes than the others, Ron Herron of Hermosa Beach wrote: "One of your very best columns. It is the funniest thing you have done in a long time. You might have missed your calling. And I’m a big time dog lover."
As Deputy Sports Editor Mike James puts it: "The point here is that he wasn’t sent to provide coverage of the dog show, which readers sometimes fail to understand. He’s a humor columnist, and that involves poking fun at every aspect of sports. That’s what he did here. Unfortunately, some people don’t appreciate TJ’s humor; that’s always been the case."
What to make of the complaints? Harvey said OK when Simers suggested taking his column on the road to Madison Square Garden: "We took an outsider's view of it, and who is more of an outsider than T.J.?"
Photo: The shot that ran with the Feb. 11 Simers column shows Walker getting washed during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times