Throwing the Game: Conflicts of interest prevent tough coverage of sports issues

By Neil deMause

IN THE 1930s, legendary hockey owner Conn Smythe was displeased by newspaper coverage of his Toronto Maple Leafs. Smythe’s solution: He approached Toronto Star publisher Joe Atkinson with a promise to take out $20,000 in advertising annually. In exchange, Atkinson would raise his hockey writers’ salaries by $20,000 – as a reward for more “honest” reporting.

If owners of pro sports teams no longer engage in outright bribery, it’s only because they no longer need to. No single topic – not even presidential campaigns or wars – receives the kind of day-in, day-out coverage that is devoted to sports by every daily media outlet in the nation. And the tone of all this coverage is, to put it mildly, uncritical. Sportswriters tend to assume that their readers and the local teams share the same goal: winning games.

Even when the news moves off the field – when a team is considering a move to another city, demanding a new stadium, or signing a new cable TV deal –  the media tends to see boosterism, not criticism, as its role. “Sports,” as Minneapolis Star-Tribune sportswriter Jay Weiner says, “is sometimes viewed as the toy department.”

There’s supposed to be “no cheering in the press box,” as the old saying goes, but there’s plenty of cheering when it comes time to write news stories. When Connecticut Gov. John Rowland announced last November that he would lure the New England Patriots to town with a $350 million football stadium, the Hartford Courant responded with a one-word banner headline: “Touchdown!”

Teams’ off-field successes are routinely portrayed as “wins” for the team and its fans – even when the “success” comes in the form of a public stadium subsidy or increased profit margins. In the midst of a tight stadium-funding battle for the San Diego Padres last fall, Jacor Broadcasting’s KOGO-AM news reporter Whitney Southwick called the vote “the next battle, after winning – what? First the playoffs, and then the Big One, huh?” (See sidebar below for more on Jacor’s radio sports empire.)

Sports reporters are even quicker to accept the assertions of the teams they cover, especially on off-the-field matters, than city hall reporters are to swallow the press releases of leading politicians. When cable TV giant Cablevision revealed that it was considering buying the New York Mets, Newsday baseball writer Marty Noble (6/26/99) wrote that “the influx of Cablevision money would better equip the Mets to compete for the best available players and help them in their pursuit of a new ballpark” –  without once mentioning the likely impact on cable rates of one company owning three area sports franchises.

Film critics don’t usually blame audiences as “unsupportive” if they don’t go to see bad movies, but in sports it’s common for columnists and beat reporters to write entire articles expressing concern over low attendance figures, or write that local citizens “had better start showing their pride and interest in the home team.” (Tampa Tribune, 5/23/99)

Root for the owned team

One problem behind media bias in sports coverage is that more and more often, when a reporter sets out to interview an athlete or a team executive, their checks are being signed by the same corporate entity.

The first major media mogul to buy into the fraternity of sports owners was Ted Turner, who parlayed his bargain-basement purchase of the near-bankrupt Atlanta Braves into the cornerstone of a global media empire. The Braves helped turn WTBS from an unknown local UHF station, Channel 17, into a national cable superstation – though Turner did fail in his attempts to have his ace pitcher Andy Messersmith, who wore number 17, wear the word “CHANNEL” on his uniform instead of his name.

Since then, the Chicago Tribune/WGN (Chicago Cubs), Fox (Los Angeles Dodgers and shares of the L.A. Kings, L.A. Lakers, New York Knicks and New York Rangers) and Turner himself (Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Predators) have all gobbled up pro sports franchises at an increasing clip. (Disney/ABC recently put its Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks up for sale, in part because of its inability to leverage the teams’ broadcast rights into a local cable sports network.)

The most recent trend has been to involve local media outlets in ownership consortiums, kicking in perhaps 5 or 10 per cent of a team’s purchase price in exchange for preferred status as a team contractor. (This usually means free ad space at the ballpark.) The Arizona Diamondbacks’ roster of owners includes Phoenix Newspapers (publishers of the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Business Gazette), KTAR-AM (“voice of the Phoenix Suns”) and local CBS affiliate KPHO-TV.

Clearly, this incestuous boardroom relationship has the potential to skew news coverage. In 1996, Diamondbacks president Richard Dozer wrote to Republic publisher John Oppedahl to complain about a front-page story detailing how the Phoenix Suns’ lease on the America West Arena allowed the basketball team to defer payments until years in the future, by which time the team might well have moved out. (As for why Dozer cares: The Diamondbacks and the Suns have the same principal owner, Jerry Colangelo.)

Dozer demanded that the newspaper run a “rebuttal,” that Republic columnist E.J. Montini be “headed off” from writing a column about the story, and that no letters to the editor be printed criticizing the arena deal. He also suggested that “there might be a time for an editorial written by one of your writers about the solid benefits of the Arena and how great of a deal it turned out to be.”

The story of the arena lease promptly disappeared from the Republic’s pages  – save for an op-ed a week later (12/22/96) by city attorney Paul Meyer, who wrote that the original article “significantly distorted a transaction that should be engendering rare praise for the courage of the City Council in taking the risks of approving such a complex, controversial proposal. The bottom line of this transaction was succinctly stated by Phoenix Suns President Jerry Colangelo: “The arena is a ‘win-win’ for the city and the Phoenix Suns.”

Publishers as partners

But even at news outlets with no corporate connections to the teams they cover, sports reporting – and news reporting of sports issues – is usually skewed toward the interests of local teams. Editorial boards almost invariably come out in favor of the demands of sports teams, and that sentiment can trickle down to the newsroom, though some editors are more heavy-handed about it than others.

John Sugg, now an editor at the alternative Weekly Planet in Tampa, used to work for the Tampa Tribune when the paper was covering the Buccaneers football team’s demands for a new stadium – preferably one the team wouldn’t have to pay for. One day his managing editor called a group of staffers into his office. “He looks at us and he says, ‘Our coverage of the stadium will be limited to finding solutions for it to be built,’” Sugg recalls. “I looked around at my colleagues who were sitting there, and they were looking at their feet, they were looking at the ceiling.”

One reason is that newspaper companies are usually major local corporations with other investments in the region – including in real estate. In 1982, the staff of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune took out an ad in their paper criticizing their publisher, John Cowles, for taking a leading role in getting a new domed stadium built for the local baseball and football teams – in exchange for the right to develop 200 acres of land surrounding the site.

Once Cowles sold the paper, there was less pressure on stadium demands – but it was another story when it came to the U.S. Olympic Festival, a local amateur sports event in the early ‘90s that was chaired by the new publisher. “That was a pain in the ass, because it was a little event, and he was concerned about its coverage,” says Star-Tribune sports business reporter Jay Weiner. “It was a clear conflict of interest – I had to go and interview him about the finances of this event that was using public money. He was like the general manager of the team, but he was also the publisher of the newspaper. That was not comfortable.”

There are other ways that newspapers see themselves as sports teams’ business partners, first and foremost being that sports sells papers. John Stebbins, a former Tampa Tribune sportswriter who is now with Bloomberg News, observes, “I don’t think it was any secret in the Tampa Tribune newsroom that if we lose the Bucs, there’s going to be a good chunk of advertising revenue out the window.”

“When the Timberwolves first came here, we were the official newspaper of the Timberwolves,” says the Star-Tribune’s Weiner. “What does that mean? Does it mean we have to do better coverage?… When the world figure skating championships were here and the newspaper was a sponsor, do we have to give it special coverage? And sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re having a special section because we want to sell more advertisements [or] because we’re the official sponsors. Those are always a little icky.”

Adds Sugg, “This is an especially insidious thing, where newspapers become involved in these marketing deals, and they don’t disclose it – even though you might guess if you go to the arena, and you see the Tampa Tribune’s name underneath the ice, that there’s something going on. You’re not going to write about your marketing partners in the same way you’re going to write about other people.”

Access and other favours

Even more important than corporate censorship of sports reporting, though, is self-censorship. No matter who owns your newspaper or radio station, the business of sportswriting is inextricably linked with the business of pro sports.

In an effort to keep the media on their good side, teams routinely supply journalists with everything from free buffets in the press room to holiday gifts. (The Maple Leaf’s Conn Smythe used to brag that he could get “any story I wanted in the paper for $50 or less,” because “sportswriters were very low paid and always had their hands out.”) Sugg recalls that when he worked at the Miami Herald, “the Herald had this very strict ethics policy, but nobody ever questioned the fact that on Christmas, you’d see [sports editor] Eddie Pope’s desk piled up to the ceiling with bottles of booze and presents and stuff. For him, the ethics policy did not apply.”

The practice isn’t limited to beat reporters. Last October, as the New York Yankees pushed toward both a World Series championship and a city decision on whether to spend a billion dollars on a new stadium, owner George Steinbrenner invited the top editors at each of the four city dailies to attend the playoffs in his private box. “They said they paid for the tickets, but the thing is that they had access to them – most people would pay for them if they had access,” says Phil Mushnick, who reported the invitations in his New York Post column (10/16/98). “It was a big favor, is what it was.” More recently, the Houston Chronicle reported on how Astros owner Drayton McLane was hosting local political leaders in his Astrodome box – but omitted that he had also treated Chronicle execs to freebies. (Houston Press, 8/2/99)

And when the carrot fails, there’s always the stick. In a profile of Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo (3/26/98), the Phoenix New Times noted, “Until the interviews granted for this story, New Times has not had access to Colangelo or the Suns organization since June of ‘94, when former New Times reporter Darrin Hostetler broke the sex-party story based on a police report of what was described by a victim as a ‘rape’ by [Suns player] Oliver Miller.” Stories of reporters who were cut off from the locker room quotes and inside stories that are a staple of the sports reporting biz have created “a big fear factor” in the press rooms, according to one big-city sports reporter – who was afraid to be identified.

Perhaps more than any other industry, sports leagues control the access to players, and therefore the ability to write the game-day stories that are sports journalism’s bread and butter, with a sophisticated PR machine. The NFL, says Daily News sportswriter Luke Cyphers, “basically keeps a lot of writers happy because it’s so solid, and isn’t as chaotic as other sports like baseball. You’re less likely to get beaten in competition, but it also makes it an incentive not to work as hard.”

And unlike in say, political reporting, in the sports world there are no political opponents to feed stories when the teams’ PR teams decide to shut them down. “There’s no organized opposition to sports teams – the media are it,” says Cyphers. “And I think sportswriters sometimes get a disproportionate amount of hatred from the people they cover, because you can’t blame it on that senator or that Ralph Nader guy.”

Occasionally, reporters who cover sports will grow tired of their role as whipping boys and PR conduits. The Daily News’ Mike McAlary once grew so tired of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner calling him night and day to plant stories that he attributed a Steinbrenner quote to “an anonymous Yankee owner.”

After that, as McAlary would later write (10/16/96), “I lost him as a source.”

Extra! November/December 1999

This article was funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Reporting.

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Sidebar:  Murdoch: World domination through sports

Last winter, Rupert Murdoch stunned the sports world by announcing his intention to buy Manchester United, the most popular soccer team in the world. Murdoch, who reportedly had never seen a major-league baseball game before his purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers last spring, had already built his Australian media empire on the backs of sports, at times buying up or forming entire leagues to ensure himself a broadcast monopoly. With Manchester United in his stable, Murdoch hoped to be able to control broadcast rights to England’s Premier League, or possibly to form a new European super league to carry on his cable networks.

The move horrified Britain’s soccer-crazed public, but Murdoch was only following the successful formula he had worked in his native Australia to take control of that country’s rugby leagues. Unable to secure the broadcast rights to the existing leagues, Murdoch promptly invented a new sport: Super Rugby League, with some minor rules changes from existing rugby. By luring away the best players from the existing league, and monopolizing international competition, Murdoch was ultimately able to exact a compromise, in which he would fold his league into the existing one – in exchange for broadcast rights.

As for Manchester United, though the British government later blocked Murdoch’s purchase, it was a startling example of the power of sports-media conglomerates. As the Vancouver Sun (5/22/99) summed up Murdoch’s strategy: “He who controls the fun gets to rule the world.”

– N.deM.

Sidebar: Athletic Supporters: Jacor Broadcasting

When activists from Denver’s Citizens Opposing the Stadium Tax (COST) began their media campaign against public financing for a new Denver Broncos stadium in 1998, they knew they were going to have to deal with Jacor Broadcasting. One of the largest radio networks in the country, Jacor owns eight Denver-area radio stations, the maximum allowable under FCC rules –  one of which, KOA, is the flagship station for Broncos radio broadcasts. (Jacor’s other team broadcast-rights holdings include the St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Colorado Rockies, L.A. Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.)

Last July, COST filed an FCC complaint charging Jacor with refusing to allow anti-stadium voices on the air, and requiring that its employees support the stadium. Jacor talkshow hosts often argued that the Broncos would move if the stadium was not approved – despite a lease running into the year 2018, and owner Pat Bowlen’s insistence that he was not threatening to leave – a fear that was later cited in media reports as “one of the most popular ëvote-yes’ rationales.” (Denver Post, 10/25/98)

“Overwhelmingly our hosts are pro-stadium, but that’s not because of orders from us,” replied Jacor general manager Lee Larsen. KRFX sports director Rich Goins, who had made a habit of bringing a sound truck to personally disrupt anti-stadium rallies around Denver, insisted that “there is no mandate from Jacor management.”

Yet the general managers of both Jacor’s AM and FM stations did send memos to employees asking them to pick up information packets supplied by CFANS, the pro-stadium group bankrolled by Bowlen. “The Broncos and KOA have been good partners for nearly 30 years, and we believe they deserve a new stadium,” the memos read. “Anything you can do to help would be appreciated.”

“We’ve had a 30-year partnership with the Broncos, so we’re not impartial,” admitted Robin Bertolucci, manager of Jacor’s two AM stations in Denver (Denver Post, 8/2/98). “We’re supporters and cheerleaders, and it’s something we’re very proud of, actually. We don’t hide the fact that we have a close association with the team and we support the stadium. We love the Broncos.”

Jacor management insisted that its love for the team – and the stadium – had nothing to do with its broadcast contract. But two years earlier, in Cincinnati, Jacor had abandoned its backing of a new sales tax=backed football stadium when it lost its team affiliation. Shortly after the Cincinnati Bengals pulled broadcast rights from Jacor’s WLW-AM in 1996, awarding them to another local station, the company’s five area radio stations launched an on-air campaign attacking the team’s plans to help finance a new stadium by selling personal seat licenses. In public service announcements and through station talk-show hosts, the Jacor stations demanded that team owner Paul Brown pay his “fair share.”

Jacor CEO Randy Michaels insisted that Jacor’s broadcasting rights had been pulled for their refusal to agree not to criticize team management – or the seat license plans – on the air. Bengals owner Brown, meanwhile, said that offering to back the stadium plans in exchange for a renewed broadcast contract was Jacor’s idea: “Suddenly they’re claiming that this was our demand and that we are threatening to leave town, which is totally a fiction of their imagination.”

Last fall, Jacor took another step closer to the sports establishment when it was purchased by Clear Channel Communications for $3 billion in stock, forming the world’s second-largest radio network. Clear Channel’s founder and co-owner: Red McCombs, who also owns the Minnesota Vikings football team.

– N.deM

Sidebar: The Victory of P.R.: The Boston Globe

The Boston Red Sox’ plans to replace historic Fenway Park with a modern stadium were not going well. Local preservationists had formed a Save Fenway Park! group to promote renovating the old park at a fraction of the cost of a new one; business owners in the surrounding Kenmore Square neighborhood had vowed to fight their eviction to make way for a new ballpark by any means necessary. The mayor, Thomas Menino, was a preservationist who had spoken out against demolishing Fenway. And polls showed that fans still liked the old ballpark, which despite its cramped seating and spartan concessions stands is the top tourist attraction in the entire state.

And so, in early 1999, the team went out and hired John Sasso, former ad exec and chief of staff to Gov. Michael Dukakis. His mission: to stage a series of “informational meetings” with local business, political, and media leaders around the stadium proposal.

To support his task, Sasso assembled “a small army of consultants, architects and image-buffers,” as Boston Globe business columnist Joan Vennocchi wrote (5/18/99). One of their primary targets was the editorial boardroom of Vennocchi’s employer.

The payoff came on May 15, 1999, when the team released its long-awaited plans for a half-billion-dollar replacement across the street from Fenway. In the next day’s Boston Globe, the lead headline on the paper’s special “Fenway: A New Pitch” section was “Proposed $545m ballpark to retain cherished details.” The plans for the new park, enthused reporters Gregg Krupa and Meg Villaincourt, “mimics so many characteristic details of the beloved current stadium that the team even plans to dig up some of the old turf and play on it in the new facility.”

In an accompanying story, staff reporters Lynnley Browning and Steven Wilmsen described neighborhood response to the new ballpark proposal as “quiet admiration for the proposal’s aesthetic dimension,” despite some “fresh questions over how ordinary life in the area would be affected.” (Those who argued in favor of keeping the old ballpark, as is often the case in such stories, were dismissed as expressing “nostalgic melancholy that a legendary institution would be irreparably altered.”) The headline, meanwhile, accentuated the positive: “Park’s design impresses many.”

Baseball columnist Dan Shaughnessy – co-author of a new “biography” of Fenway Park – wrote, “Leaving Fenway isn’t going to be easy for a lot of us, but if the Sox can do what they say they’ll do, it’ll be their best move since they brought Babe Ruth to the old ballpark when the old ballpark was the new ballpark in 1914.” Veteran sportswriter Bob Ryan chimed in that “there is nothing contradictory about loving Fenway and pining for something new and efficient. Put me down with the progressives. I’m looking forward to sitting in Son of Fenway, and sooner, rather than later.” So sure was the Globe of the certainty of a new ballpark that they ran a special “Thanks for the memories” section (5/16/99) featuring staffers’ reminiscences of Fenway.

While the Globe’s op-ed page later featured several articles questioning the haste with which the new ballpark plan was being embraced – “Call me tight, but I’d turn over the price tag first,” wrote Steve Bailey (5/21/99), noting that the team had yet to present any kind of financing plan for the stadium – but they were the exception. More typical was Vaillancourt’s front-page story (5/17/99) citing baseball-loving pundit (and San Diego Padres board member) George Will on “the triumph of Camden Yards,” the Baltimore ballpark that kicked off the public-stadium boom when it opened in 1991 – never mentioning that Camden Yards gives the state of Maryland a net loss of $11 million a year, according to one study.

“That first week was remarkable, really, in its favorable press coverage,” says Vennocchi. “It was a very coordinated effort, in the newspapers, television – they got a great sendoff. Then they came in here immediately afterward to answer questions and make us feel that we were part of the process.”

One impetus behind the team’s push for a new stadium is that the team is for sale, and a new ballpark can boost the value of a team by as much as 50 percent. One of the suitors rumored to be interested in buying the Sox once they’ve acquired new digs: the Boston Globe.

– N.deM.

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