November 30, 2015

Money and exposure both reportedly figured into a heavy-handed pitch to lure National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates away from The Atlantic to join The Undefeated, ESPN’s so-called “Black Grantland” that began under the leadership of sportswriter Jason Whitlock.

That’s according to Coates, who last week recounted Whitlock’s attempt to woo him away from the monthly magazine of politics and culture in an interview with Evan Ratliff of the Longform Podcast.

Coates said he talked with Whitlock on the phone about the possibility of joining ESPN before Whitlock was ousted from The Undefeated. During the conversation, Whitlock offered to triple Coates’ salary at The Atlantic and put him in front of the camera, Coates said:

We were talking on the phone, and it was like if you were in the hood and some big-time drug dealer rolled up on you and said, ‘I want you to work this package for me.’ That was what his approach was like. It was like, ‘Son, I could put you on TV. You could have stuff with ABC. You could do this, you could do that.’ He asked me what my salary was — I had no problem telling him what my salary was. He said, ‘Oh, that’s a joke. That’s a joke. I could triple your salary. I could triple your salary.’ And the whole time, I kept saying, ‘I’m good. I’m OK. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m good. I’m good. And then he says, ‘OK, well you might be good. But what does your wife think about this?’ And I said, ‘You don’t want to ask my wife that question. I said, ‘I think she’s good. She’ll be alright.’ He wrote me a few more times trying to get me to reconsider, and I just said no.

Whitlock responded to Coates’ characterization of the exchange Monday, calling his description “laughable.”

This isn’t the first time word of Whitlock’s overtures to Coates have surfaced. Earlier this year, New York magazine reported that the former Undefeated editor in chief offered Coates a significant salary bump in order to bring him aboard.

The Undefeated foundered during and after Whitlock’s tenure, but the site has begun publishing stories. It also has a new Editor-in-Chief in Kevin Merida, who was previously a managing editor at The Washington Post.

During the interview with Ratliff, Coates said he had no plans to leave The Atlantic. He cited the magazine’s editorial standards, his confidence in The Atlantic’s top editors and their early support of his work as justification for staying with the magazine.

“I’d be crazy to leave at this point,” Coates said.

Here’s the interview:

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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