TIME gets it right. NYT doesn’t.
Call me crazy, call me quixotic, but I always assumed that my investigative feature would help change the narrative about Tough Mudder. I figured that other national journalists on this beat would read my piece and perhaps reconsider writing (yet) another breathless puff piece about the company.
So I was rather incensed when I read this feature in the NYT Sunday Styles, and found my reporting reduced to an awkward and inaccurate non sequitur.
I was irritated enough to air my grievances on Facebook:
And annoyed enough to fire off a ‘Letter to the Editor’:
Having spent a year researching Tough Mudder for my November cover story in Outside, I was disappointed to read your piece about the company. While writer Joshua David Stein referenced my feature, I don’t get the sense he actually read it. If he did, he would realize Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean didn’t just “borrow heavily” from Tough Guy. He exploited his standing as a Harvard Business School student to gain the trust of founder Billy Wilson and access to the company’s inner workings. Then, after signing a non-disclosure agreement stating he would not use trade secrets “to any commercial end whatsoever,” he quietly created a copycat race series in the U.S., using photos and videos of Tough Guy to promote his first event. Furthermore, contrary to Mr. Stein’s take on things, the Harvard investigation didn’t “clear him of wrongdoing.” It established that he repeatedly lied and misled Wilson, acknowledged the negative impact Dean’s actions could have on the ability for future MBA students to conduct field studies, and placed him on alumni probation for five years.
While the Times didn’t publish it and I never heard from Stein, my reactions provided some measure of catharsis. That said, I much prefer when a writer gets it right. Like Sean Gregory in the new issue of TIME.
Gregory’s piece follows his own experiences doing a Tough Mudder. It’s largely positive of the event, which makes perfect sense as Tough Mudder is great fun. But he didn’t ignore or gloss over the cutthroat nature of the company. In fact, he gave my reporting considerable play. (Thanks Sean!)
(NOTE: While Gregory wasn’t entirely accurate – Harvard did not clear Dean of wrongdoing – he did mention the $725,000 settlement which speaks volumes.)
So maybe the narrative is changing after all. Maybe my story will follow the brand like a dark shadow, an annoying asterisk. And maybe, just maybe, Tough Guy will finally receive the attention it deserves.
This is the promise of investigative journalism, yes?