Roger Ebert is a gracious man. If you haven't already read "Roger Ebert: The Essential Man" by Chris Jones at Esquire, do so now. Then marvel at this story by Deadspin alum Will Leitch, who as a newspaper editor at the University of Illinois got to know Ebert personally:
Meanwhile, the Web was beginning to emerge, and we young turks, swept in during the dot-com boom, all thought we were punk rock gods, ready to kill our idols. Ebert began to feel like the old guard: In the wake of Siskel's death, he had become a ubiquitous presence on television, at the expense of his writing, I felt. In 2000, when I'd moved to New York and, like everybody else, was being paid far too much just to be told I was part of the next "MTV Generation" of Internet stars, I thought I knew everything. You had to burn down the past. These were the days of We Live in Public, of Pets.com, of bringing your dog in the office, of Webvan, of espnet.sportszone.com. We all thought we were hot shit.
And I was ready to make my own name. My editor at Ironminds, the old Web magazine I moved out to New York for, had heard me drunkenly bitching about Ebert at a bar the night before and suggested I write about him. "Put him in his place," he said. "Yeah: It's our time now," I said. We were all so, so stupid.
So I did. The next morning, Ironminds ran a piece called "I Am Sick Of Roger Ebert's Fat F—-ing Face." The piece — which, mercifully, is no longer online — wasn't as virulent as that headline would imply, but I did use that exact line in the piece, and I did make a few cheap shots about his weight. The thesis of the piece was that Ebert's work was suffering because he was on television all the time, but that's not really what it was about: It was me lashing out at Daddy, trying to make my own name, trying to feed off his. That's not what I thought I was doing at the time. But that's absolutely what it was.
Jim Romenesko's MediaNews, which is popular now but was downright Drudge-esque at the time, picked up the piece. The email came almost immediately. I stared at my inbox for five minutes before I worked up the nerve to open it.Will —
I have always tried to help you, and you know that. I am not sure what you were trying to do with your piece — if you object to me being on television, there is a dial to the right that will take care of that problem for you — what issues you might be dealing with, but I am certain you will grow to regret writing it someday. If you were trying to make a point, I fear you are not in control of your instrument. I wonder if you feel shitty this morning, now that that piece is out there. I know that I do.
Wow. Roger Ebert is a bigger man than I, and I'm not referring to his former rotundity. Most people would have frozen Leitch out or blasted him back, but Ebert's response demonstrated the touch of someone very much in control of their instrument, even under duress. Indeed, he pulled off the rarest of feats, taking the high road while still using profanity. I must make it a point to read Ebert's blog more regularly.