Commentary: Big Eddie was oh-so-talented, and equally complicated
This is complicated, because Ed Schultz was complicated.
How does one eulogize such a man honestly, knowing that for every ounce of talent, there was an ounce of darkness to match?
How does one tell the story with at least a semblance of balance, recognizing that for all the successes of the small-market sportscaster gone big time, there are innumerable tales of woe from many of those who dealt with him?
Schultz died Thursday, July 5, leaving a legacy of broadcasting greatness. But there was more.
There is the story of the football player from a modest background in Virginia who came to the prairie to play quarterback for Moorhead State, became an All-American and got a shot at pro ball before becoming a sportscasting dynamo at Fargo television stations.
Then came political radio and gonzo statewide ratings, followed by a national radio show, a national television program and, finally, an international television job working, unfortunately, for the Russian government.
Then there are the stories of the workplace blowups, the petty vindictiveness, a huge slice of narcissism and the win-at-any-cost, scorched-earth mentality that defined Ed from the day he set foot in the Red River Valley.
Schultz once went into the stands at a high school basketball tournament because a kid yelled, "Ed Schultz sucks!" He started a couple of scraps at media gatherings. He once chewed out a young TV photographer ("You're a mole!") because the kid, on his first day on the job, talked to a reporter from a competing station.
Those types of stories are endless. Schultz was a giant talent while also being a giant pain.
A fair question might be: Could he have accomplished all he did without being exactly what he was?
Like we said, complicated.
Schultz was at once the laudable epitome of the American Dream, the hard-working blue-collar kid who became wealthy off work ethic and talent, while also having a nasty streak. He seemingly lacked loyalty to much of anything other than himself, his family, ratings and the biggest paycheck he could find.
"Never a dull day being around Ed," said WDAY-TV news anchor Dana Mogck, who worked with Schultz at two stations.
Schultz was WDAY before he was KFGO. He was a Bison before he was a Sioux. He was a hardcore Republican before he was a hardcore Democrat. He was harsh on Vladimir Putin before he was soft on Vladimir Putin.
This led to strong opinions from those who consumed whatever Schultz was dishing out.
"You either loved him or you hated him," said radio newsman Don Haney, who got along with Schultz as well as anybody after working with him for many years at both KFGO-AM and 970 WDAY. "I respected him and liked working with him, but then I never got yelled at. And I know many people did."
Jack Zaleski, retired editorial page editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead who feuded viciously with Schultz for years, was less complimentary.
"I certainly respected his ability as a broadcaster. His sports calls made games exciting even for non-fans," Zaleski said. "But I found his political flip-flops opportunistic at best and hypocritical at worst. And they weren't very convincing."
Indeed, there are stories to be told about Schultz's miraculous conversion from right-winger who grumbled "get a job" at protesters to someone who said he saw the liberal light while visiting a soup kitchen in Fargo with his wife. But maybe those who criticize Schultz's chameleon-like ways are missing the point.
Maybe Schultz was just playing with us all along, like an actor on a stage.
Joel Heitkamp, a talk show host at KFGO who worked with Schultz and knew him well, saw somebody who was a master of their craft — regardless of flaws.
"What many people maybe don't know is that so much of Ed was doing things to provoke a response. He would say something outrageous or take a controversial position and then sit back and watch the phone lines light up," Heitkamp said. "Some might call it an act, some might call it a performance, some might say he was doing it for fun. He was the best at it I'll ever see."
Whatever it was, it worked. Schultz had statewide name recognition in North Dakota and made millions upon millions of dollars from his big-time television gigs. That is to be celebrated.
But there was a cost with that success. All that mattered professionally to Ed was ratings and money — winning — and who he trampled in pursuit of those goals didn't. That must be mentioned, even on this day, because that's who he was.