Jessica Heslam in the Boston Herald.com's "Inside Tracks" reported on Monday, April 20, that Red Sox owner John Henry had expressed interest in buying the New York Time Company's interest in the Red Sox, the New England Sports Network (NESN), and the Boston Globe.
"According to sources, Henry told Globe officials that if he bought the Times' 17.75 percent stake in the Sox, he'd also take the Globe off their hands.
Henry would not comment on whether he had the talks, but told the Herald's Inside Track in an e-mail, "Baseball fans rely heavily on newspapers. No one wants to see a newspaper with a great, long-term history go away. Losing the Globe, the Herald or any New England paper is a big loss for the Red Sox."
The possibility of the Red Sox owning the Boston Globe got me pondering about media companies owning sports franchises or, in this case, a sports franchise owning a media company or controlling sports content distribution. How would the Boston Globe's popular and highly respected sports columnists Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, and Jackie MacMullan feel about having Boston Red Sox owner John Henry as their ultimate boss?
Media companies owning sports franchises is nothing new. The Walt Disney Company owned the Anaheim Ducks from 1993 until 2005, and in 1995 Disney bought ABC and acquired an 80 percent interest in ESPN, which it still owns today. ESPN owns a small piece of the Arena Football League, which has suspended its 2009 season. The Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune has owned the Chicago Cubs from 1981 until the present, although this past January, the Tribune Company owner Sam Zell announced he was selling the Cubs to a group headed by Tom Ricketts.
Last year there was some rumbling about Chicago Tribune reporters grumbling about alleged pressure from above to squelch negatives about the Cubs while Zell, facing bankruptcy, was trying to unload the Cubs.
I have no idea whether the pressure was real or imagined, but I wonder if sports fans perceived that there was cream puff coverage. Therefore, I called the ultimate source for sports reporting, ESPN, which has had to deal with covering the Ducks when both the Ducks and ESPN were owned by Disney and has to cover Major League Baseball and the NFL while it has significant, close, and expensive relationships with both leagues.
I talked with John A. Walsh, ESPN's Executive Editor. I've known John for almost 20 years and have done consulting work for him at ESPN, so I was able to get through to him. I asked him if he thought the Globe's or, for that matter, any media outlet's coverage would be affected consciously or unconsciously because of being owned by a sports team in general or the Red Sox specifically.
In a word, he said "no." But he elaborated. Walsh is not a typical television sports executive; he's an intellectual. He has a MA in Journalism from the world's oldest journalism school at the University of Missouri, and his background is in newspapers and magazines, so he put his answers to my question in an historical and ethical perspective.
To illustrate his "no," he told me about the time ESPN's "Sports Center" showed a clip of Disney CEO Michael Eisner leaving a Duck's game early and the anchors kidding him unmercifully to the anchors' and the audience's delight. He never heard from the notoriously thinned skinned Eisner (my description, not Walsh's) nor would he have batted an eye if he had.
Walsh said that good reporters' and columnists' reputation and credibility are their biggest assets, which they would not jeopardize by caving in to a team owner's pressure. He said reporters who cover a sport have to develop strong relationships with team sources and that they often have to fight the temptation to coddle their sources and not reveal anything unflattering. However, they overcome this pull and report what they know in order to maintain their credibility.
Walsh said that the NFL was not at all pleased with the extensive coverage ESPN gave to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's arrest on charges of promoting dog fighting, but that ESPN covered it as completely as they thought it deserved.
However, if I were the czar of a major league sport and had the power, I would forbid a media company from owning a sports franchise because I think the temptation for biased reporting is too strong. As my father used to say to me, "Son, you have strong will power and can resist anything but temptation."
I often listen to Yankee games on the radio. I clench my teeth when I hear John Sterling and Susan Waldman (who I like a lot) fawn over the Yankees. They have to be homers because they are paid by the Yankees, not CBS's Newsradio 88, and we know what hard asses George Steinbrenner and Yankee president Randy Levine are. Can you imagine either of them allowing negative comments about their god, Derek Jeter?
So I do worry about the Red Sox owning the Boston Globe. ESPN might be strong and independent enough to resist pressure and air and publish unbiased coverage of sports. John Henry might not be as much a hard ass as Yankee executives are, but I wonder about how strong reporters could be at a struggling newspaper that the owner (the New York Times Company) is threatening to close unless it gets $20 million in concessions from the union.
Who would cave to pressure first, the unions or the sports reporters? What do you think?