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July 1, 2009, 8 a.m.

When the league owns the network — and pays the journalists: A new set of ethical questions arise

With no live programming in the morning, MLB Network had to scramble to assemble its crew after the bombshell broke Feb. 7: Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts and David Epstein were reporting that Alex Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids in 2003 as a member of the Texas Rangers. But within a few hours, MLB Network had rolled out its stable of talking heads to interview slews of former players and general managers about the newest scandal to rock baseball.

“By 2 p.m., decorated broadcast veteran Bob Costas was interviewing Roberts in studio,” The Washington Times’ Tim Lemke wrote a few days later, praising the network for going “a long way toward establishing itself as a credible source of news” by not dodging the A-Rod scandal.

MLB Network’s A-Rod coverage was heralded by the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith’s Sports Business Daily, which called MLB Network “no house organ” — a sentiment the pioneering sports blogger Will Leitch made where he wrote, “If the MLB Network ends up being a success, Saturday’s breaking-news coverage of A-Rod will be its Hugh Grant on Leno moment.”

But it’s worth noting that MLB Network’s coverage was being praised primarily for not choosing to ignore (or spin) the biggest baseball news of the year. Simply ignoring a story that huge would have been suicidal. As MLB Network spokesman Matt Bourne told me: “If certain things are not discussed that’s not going to pass the smell test with fans.” The question that remains unanswered is, in a world where leagues are increasingly creating their own media outlets, is it possible to imagine a story like A-Rod’s being broken by MLB Network — or, in other sports, by the NFL Network or NBA TV? If league-owned networks continue to grow in prominence, how will that impact the way sports are covered?

When reporters work for leagues

The lines between media and sports teams and leagues have never been perfectly clear. The New York Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe, also owns 17.8 percent of the Boston Red Sox, which Globe reporters obviously cover every day. The Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, also owns the Chicago Cubs. Cablevision, which owns Newsday, also owns the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. Networks like ESPN and Fox Sports cover sports while also having multibillion-dollar contracts with the leagues they cover. And at various points, the online operations of leagues and news organizations have been contractually linked. News organizations in those cases have traditionally argued they maintain a strict firewall between the sports side and the journalism side, although ESPN did cancel a fictional series about professional football when the NFL (“a longtime and valued partner”) complained.

The addition of league-owned media outlets has created a new layer of complications. At MLB Network, the in-studio team of analysts includes Tom Verducci and Jon Heyman, both of whom are senior baseball writers for Sports Illustrated — ironically, the publication whose scoop on the A-Rod steroids scandal prompted the network’s plaudits. Both Verducci and Heyman continue to write regularly for SI while also appearing on a network majority-owned by the league they cover.

There’s no evidence that their business arrangements have had even the slightest impact on their baseball coverage for SI — no obvious pro-MLB spin, no critical stories they’ve ignored. And sports reporters at magazines and newspapers have long been willing to work for TV networks on the side. But having that network owned by the subject of a reporter’s coverage adds a new complication.

“It’s situational,” Terry McDonell, editor of the Sports Illustrated Group, said about when it’s okay for SI reporters to appear on TV. “There’s a lot of call for our writers to appear on TV because of their expertise. We find, because we’re competing with massive networks, this is one of the best ways to make sure our journalism gets out. It’s a way to compete without owning [broadcast] rights.”

As to Verducci and Heyman: “With those two, I am comfortable enough with their integrity and record and performance as journalists to think they would not be corrupted” by working for MLB Network. “We monitor it closely, and if something were to come up, we’d do something about it. But I’m confident in those guys.” He rightly notes it would be hard for anyone to call SI’s coverage of MLB improperly friendly when it was the place that broke the A-Rod story in the first place.

Still, MLB Network clearly benefits from the hard-earned credibility of Verducci, Heyman, and SI. “It’s very important for us to have Tom and Jon on board from day one to establish our credibility, and we feel we got two of the best people for the job,” network president/CEO Tony Petitti said in announcing Verducci’s hire in December. Bourne emphasizes that MLB Network does not restrict what journalists such as Costas, Verducci, and Heyman can report or say.

Conflicts of interest

The biggest risks of warped coverage might not be in the high-profile spots like a national network owned by an entire league. It might be at a more local level, where individual teams now produce a lot of original content through their web sites. John McClain, who covers the Houston Texans for the Houston Chronicle, told me about a good newspaper beat writer he knew who had been hired away by the team he covered to write for its web site. Initially, the team allowed him to cover the franchise just as aggressively as he did in his newsprint days. But with a change in the team’s leadership, McClain said, his dispatches quickly became more diluted. Mainstream journalists who go to work for team sites might “nibble on the hand that feeds,” McClain said, “but you can’t bite it.”

Conflicts have also come up at news organizations where the team shares an owner with a news outlet. John Cherwa, sports coordinator for the Tribune Co. and legal affairs chair for Associated Press Sports Editors, told me a story about how, during the 1999 World Series, the Chicago Tribune learned that the Cubs were going to hire Don Baylor, making him the Cubs’ first black manager. According to MLB rules, teams can’t announce personnel moves until after the World Series. The Tribune Co. owned the Cubs. Cherwa said, as a courtesy, they asked their publisher for advice and were ultimately told to run the story. “If it was the Chicago White Sox, I don’t think the publisher would be told,” Cherwa joked. “In the end, he made the right decision.”

Cherwa wonders what would happen in a similar scenario at MLB.com. Would an editor run it “up the flagpole,” and would the ultimate decision be made in the interest of informing the public? Would MLB’s other contractual obligations have limited its ability to break legitimate news? For example, Major League Baseball had agreed with the players association not to divulge the names of players who tested positive for steroids in the 2003 round of testing. Would that agreement have kept an ambitious MLB Network reporter from breaking the A-Rod scandal?

One other backdrop to these new questions is the growth of sports blogs that promote their distance from what might be called the sports-industrial complex. The popular blog Deadspin brands its coverage “Sports News without Access, Favor, or Discretion” and argues there can be value in reporting sports news from an arm’s length. Implicit in that argument is that there are conflicts inherent in even the traditional beat reporter’s job, since he relies on access to the team to do his job — and at least part of that access is strongly influenced by the team itself. Those conflicts are obviously magnified when that reporter is on the team’s payroll.

But whatever one thinks of the Deadspin critique, the A-Rod scandal alone proves that there’s enough at stake in sports for it to matter if the news is produced independently or not. “I will go to the grave thinking people find more credibility in the independent voice of the Boston Globe or Boston Herald,” Cherwa says, “and believe it to be more factual than the people at MLB.com.”

Photo by Alan Penner used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 1, 2009, 8 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Shifting media power in sports
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