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Cubs MVPs: The Tribune Team


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Cubs MVPs: The Tribune Team

A controversial deal's being pushed in Missouri to build the Saint Louis Cardinals a new ballpark with more than $200 million in public money. The Post-Dispatch isn't just covering the debate; it's a player. That's why every story offers the boilerplate: "Pulitzer Inc., which owns the Post-Dispatch, and Pulitzer's chairman, Michael E. Pulitzer, are part owners of the Cardinals. Their combined take is slightly less than 4 percent."

The Tribune Company owns the Cubs lock, stock, and barrel. And though compared to the storm in Saint Louis, the Cubs' piddling scheme to expand the Wrigley Field bleachers on its own nickel is barely a drizzle, the Tribune knows its duty: every article and column I've seen it carry on the subject allows that the company that owns it also owns the ball team.

"We're pretty scrupulous about pointing out the connection," says Dan McGrath, who runs the sports department.

Readers deserve to know the facts and decide for themselves if they trust the coverage. To be sure, plenty of readers already know the facts and wouldn't trust the coverage if God himself had the byline, but coming clean helps spare the papers these readers' insufferable righteousness.

Evidence that lockstep corporate tyranny has skewed the news can always be found by anyone determined to look for it, and the Wrigley Field turmoil is no exception. When the Cubs draped that preposterous "security" tarp around the bleachers last week, Tribune columnists Eric Zorn, Rick Morrissey, and Steve Rosenbloom all wrote pieces insisting that the team did have a point: those rooftop hustlers across Waveland and Sheffield were ripping off the product. It was a point that might have led them to a larger point: which is that to spite a handful of freeloaders who weren't actually costing the Cubs a penny by looking in, the Tribune Company had blighted the exquisite view that the 30,000 ticket holders in paid seats have always enjoyed when they look out.

If the columnists' failure to properly scorn this display of corporate perversity suggests that a brethrenly defensiveness slipped into the Tribune's pages, I'd attribute the lapse to the gleeful ridicule from the Sun-Times, which Zorn pointed out this Tuesday has had a lockstep quality of its own. But a more suspicious reader might begin drawing a darker picture. And if this reader noticed that by last Saturday there'd been five pictures of the dreadful tarp in the Sun-Times and only one--and not much of one--in the Tribune, he'd be well on his way to some sinister conclusions. Constant acknowledgment of the corporate Tribune-Cubs connection won't preempt those conclusions, but at least it helps clear the air.

The Tribune writes about the Cubs every single day. Edited with an eye to the loftiest journalistic principles, last Saturday's game story could have begun: "The Cubs were dreadful against left-handed starters last season. A .500 record against them would have kept this paper's sister subsidiary in the playoff hunt until the season's final day. Instead they went 14-22."

And a team note by Teddy Greenstein could have been touched up to read: "Outfielder Mario Encarnacion, whom the Cubs signed Thursday, takes Alou's place on the roster. The newcomer, who's paid by the same corporate masters as this seasoned reporter and makes so much more money it's pathetic, will compete with Roosevelt Brown and Darren Lewis (two other lavishly compensated journeymen) in left field."

A case can be made that such bracing candor is always the way to go, and I don't intend to make it. Instead I'll push on into journalism's vast gray area, to a major baseball story in which the Tribune Company is one of the players, just not so central and conspicuous a player that the Tribune has no choice but to remind us it's the same outfit that owns the paper.

Major League Baseball and its players' union are on another collision course, and already the Tribune's coverage of the fracas is being savaged. To wit, this E-mail: "You're probably the most apt person to comment on the tendency of the Tribune's primary baseball editorialist to propagandize the party line of the owners of Major League Baseball. While it's unfortunate that the Sun-Times is not making hay with the spectacle of a ballclub-owning media company's baseball mouthpiece shilling for his masters, I would certainly expect better from you."

Well, it's nice to carry someone's highest hopes.

The object of this reader's derision is the Tribune's Phil Rogers, whose sin was failing to lay bare to the reader's satisfaction the mendacity of baseball's owners. The owners' diagnosis of baseball's troubles was laid out two summers ago by the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics, which reported that from 1995 through 1999 only three major league teams operated at a profit, and collectively the 30 teams lost more than a billion dollars. The report endorsed the already familiar complaint that "chronic competitive imbalance" was spoiling the game, and it proposed measures to level the economic playing field--such as by increasing revenue sharing and imposing a tax on payrolls that exceeded a certain ceiling. Late last year Major League Baseball presented these remedies to the players. But the players, suspicious of any change that might wind up curbing costs by curbing salaries, weren't buying.

Not that everyone had even accepted the owners' diagnosis. The other day Forbes magazine reported that last year major league teams actually netted $75 million, though baseball commissioner Bud Selig had told Congress baseball lost $200 million. And earlier, when the blue-ribbon report came out, it was torn apart in a Society for American Baseball Research newsletter. Sabermetrician Doug Pappas condemned the panel for being top-heavy with owners, and he attacked its central premise, that baseball was no longer competitive. "Since 1991, 24 of the 30 major league teams have made the playoffs. A 25th, Montreal, had the majors' best record in 1994" (the season ended by a strike).

But Phil Rogers failed to be guided by Pappas's insights. In recent articles he speaks of the "arrogance of a union that won't acknowledge how its 25-year unbeaten streak has tipped the scales too far in its favor," and he accepts the conventional wisdom that payroll disparities have ruined competition. The reader urging me to make hay wrote, "See if you draw your own conclusions about whether he's slanted, and, if so, on which side of the classic crooked/ignorant axis he falls."

"I really trust Phil, and I know how hard he's worked to research that," says McGrath. "I think he's been fair. Occasionally you get an anomaly like the Oakland A's, but payroll and performance tend to follow each other, and I think that in terms of moving toward an agreement, this time the owners have been more proactive in trying to get something done. Players don't want to interfere with the status quo, and why should they? I think that's Phil's point, and I trust him on it."

But whether McGrath trusts his reporter has nothing to do with how things look. "In the six years I've been here, not once has there been a hint of interference from the Tower as to how we should cover the Cubs," McGrath continues. "When Phil tells me what he's going to write about, it never occurs to me to think, 'I hope this is OK with corporate.'"

But when does the Tribune feel duty bound to acknowledge corporate anyway? "I don't think we have a hard- and-fast rule," says McGrath. "When the issue relates to the Cubs specifically, such as the rooftop dispute, we would. But in terms of baseball as a whole, where the Cubs are one of 30 entities, we probably wouldn't unless there were some clear-cut reason why we would. That's my sense of it."

And if the dispute between the owners and the players goes from bad to worse, as it probably will, and the Tribune Company emerges as a leader among the owners, McGrath will have his clear-cut reason. "It definitely bears watching," he says.

Last Friday, Rick Morrissey weighed in on the subject. Evenhanded in his contempt for both sides, he ascribed "mass stupidity" and "pure insanity" to owners and players alike. Yes, a vigilant reader might reply, but what if the owners were actually a little dumber, a little crazier, a little more mendacious? If so, wasn't Morrissey the sly one?

The corporate Cubs-Tribune connection haunts Tribune sportswriters. "I don't know if it's a curse, but it's definitely a burden," says McGrath. Since it makes it so much easier to dismiss reporters as puppets and scoundrels, I'll call it a curse. If the Tribune intends to go on writing about baseball's next apocalypse, it had better drag out the boilerplate sooner rather than later.

News Bites

The Tribune needs to find another word. Jewish leaders have been begging it to call a terrorist a terrorist, and an article last Friday convinced me that the paper's preferred alternative is totally inadequate. The headline read: "Israel asserts files prove Arafat financed militants." The story, datelined Jerusalem, said that the Israeli government had released documents it considered proof that Yasir Arafat "personally authorized cash payments to men on Israel's list of wanted militant suspects." One asked Arafat for money "to distribute among three militant commanders."

Militant commander? Is that a tautology or what? Did you know that General George Patton was not only a famous World War II commander but a militant commander? The word "militant" was beaten into meaninglessness back in the 60s, when every kid in bell-bottoms and his big sister was a self-described "militant." A careful reading of the Tribune article reveals that the actual link Israel believed the documents established was between Arafat and suicide bombers--whose cast of mind "militant" utterly fails to convey.

The Tribune is probably right when it argues that "terrorist" is too pejorative to be useful, though to a suicide bomber terror is exactly the point. What about "nihilist" to describe someone willing to blow himself up in order to blow up the people he hates? No? Then scratch around. Get out Roget's. Look harder.

Last October the news director of KOMU TV in Columbia, Missouri, told his on-air staff not to wear the red, white, and blue ribbons that became popular at a lot of stations after September 11. "Our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause--no matter how deserving the cause seems to be," said the edict. Because KOMU is the teaching station of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, indignant legislators promptly waded in, muttering about state funding.

Last week representative Martin "Bubs" Hohulin reminded his colleagues of the ribbon decree and moved to trim the university's budget by $5 million. "I would love to force the university to sell the station," said Hohulin. "We could use the money." After discussion, the Missouri house sent KOMU a gentler message by agreeing on a mere $500,000 cut. "It was either this," the Associated Press had Hohulin saying, about the news director, "or going over and punching him in the face."

Missouri enjoys fancying itself as the Harvard of journalism schools, and the legislature is one of the reasons it isn't.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.

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