To some, the Globe’s inclination to shrug off concerns about these overlapping business interests is more than a little myopic. There would be a hue and cry, critics say, if Globe publisher Gilman served in an investor-management role with an entity such as Raytheon, but it’s deemed less serious because the holding is a sports team — no matter that baseball has long been a big business and that the Red Sox play a multifaceted role as a storied cultural institution with considerable civic influence.
"Almost without exception, they have operated on the up and up, and it’s not as if they’re afraid to criticize ownership," says a sportswriter at another paper. "What does bother me — there is this double standard, that if someone else was in the same predicament about even the appearance of a conflict, the Globe would be the first one to mention it, but because it’s their parent company, it’s like, ‘Oh, we know how to take care of it.’"
This source also cites a widespread suspicion among other sportswriters "that the Red Sox are taking care of their own" by feeding the Globe slips and leaks about the direction of the franchise and other news- and business-type stories. While some observers dismiss this view, attributing the broadsheet’s coups simply to good reporting, the Globe scored another big scoop during spring training, breaking the story of how the Sox ownership had committed to remaining at Fenway Park.
Charles Steinberg, the Sox’ genial executive vice-president for public affairs, rejects the notion that the Globe is gaining an edge in coverage because of the Times Company’s investment. "If the Red Sox were to give any preferential treatment to the Globe, what benefit has that?" he asks.
A Globe staffer offers a similar view. The Times’ 17 percent ownership stake in the franchise "hasn’t been an issue in the newsroom," this insider says. "It’s an uncomfortable conflict in the abstract, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s made no difference at all." Still, the source admits, "There are plenty of people inside the newsroom who are uncomfortable with the investment, but nobody asks us about it."
Shaughnessy says the paper’s link with the Sox through the Times Company "puts everyone in somewhat of an awkward position. All we can do is write what we believe, and think and trust that the readers will see that we’re independent of any financial conflicts or overlaps." Shaughnessy doesn’t perceive any benefit for the Globe from the connections, "but I understand that it does raise eyebrows. It would make me wonder if I was at the other paper."
Globe editor Marty Baron says suggestions that a "cartel" links together the Times Company, the Globe, and the Red Sox are plainly mistaken. "I’m not aware of a single instance where our coverage has been influenced by the corporate connection, and we’ve maintained our journalistic independence completely," Baron says. When it comes to the perception of possible conflicts, "All I can do is address the issue of reality."
Indeed, although some observers, including Steinberg, credit the Herald with offering more aggressive business coverage of the team, the Globe has picked up the pace, recently assigning Sasha Talcott to a part-time sports-business beat. The Globe has done its share of tough stories, including a Sunday front-pager in April by Andrea Estes that described how the new ownership has significantly expanded alcohol sales at Fenway, adding at least 16 new beer stands. Subsequent stories detailed management vows of a crackdown on drunken behavior, and how a Boston police officer in the three-member squad that monitors Fenway and other alcohol-serving establishments was also on the payroll of Major League Baseball, as a security agent for the Red Sox.
Baron acknowledges his paper’s less-than-perfect record in disclosing the Globe-Sox relationship in every story or editorial with a corporate connection, "but we try to be diligent about it. I suspect that there are very few readers at this point that don’t know that the New York Times Company, which owns the Globe, has a stake in the Red Sox."
As Gilman explains it, the Times Company has two seats on the partners’ committee of New England Sports Ventures, the holding company for the Red Sox and NESN. "It’s not a board or a board of directors per se," he says, "but a group consisting of those who have a financial stake in the Red Sox.... The managing partners control the business on a day-to-day basis. We’re not involved in that in any way. The limited partners are called upon to monitor their investment, and periodically called upon to approve major decisions that the club wants to make."
Asked whether his role with the Red Sox — a leading cultural and news-making institution — represents a conflict, Gilman says, "Our editors and our journalists, their task is a difficult one, but it’s a direct one. It’s to cover the news without fear or favor, as they say. My job is somewhat more complex than that. I both run and represent the Globe in public and the [Times Company subsidiary] New England Media Group, which means that I’m involved in all of our media properties and a variety of community activities. That means balancing the needs and desires of many different interests, and keeping those interests entirely separate whenever it’s necessary to do so." Ultimately, he says, the success of those efforts is "quite clear from the independence of journalism ... I think the proof is in the product."
If the Globe has had a difficult time replacing heavyweights like Peter Gammons and Will McDonough, the paper’s sports section continues to devote copious coverage to the Red Sox and other sporting news. Yet despite the dominance of the Globe, which creams the Herald with a bigger and more advertiser-friendly suburban demographic, sports is one area where the two dailies continue to compete on a basically equal footing.
In fact, the ability of the scrappy Herald to score scoops — such as Tony Massarotti’s revelation that Trot Nixon will require post-season leg surgery, or Massarotti and Michael Silverman’s report that Keith Foulke was getting reviewed early in the season at a sports-medicine clinic in Alabama — illustrates how both sports sections are a must-read for the far-flung legion of Sox obsessives.
Boston’s sportswriters have displayed little reluctance to criticize the Red Sox, especially when things aren’t going well. When he came on the job in 2001, Baron could more easily bat away questions about the Times Company’s involvement, since metro columnist Brian McGrory and business columnist Steve Bailey — like the local press in general — favored suitors other than the eventual buyers of the team. At the same time, the symbiotic relationship between the Sox and the dailies, which reached a crescendo last fall, is certainly good for selling newspapers. There’s also a widely held view that the press has been too accepting of management pronouncements about Fenway — be it the previous ownership’s insistence that the ballpark couldn’t be saved or the current regime’s reversal of course.
The ability to offer critical coverage notwithstanding, the big broadsheet has traditionally been subtly supportive of the team, while the Herald has delighted in tweaking the Globe. With the linkage of the Globe and the Sox, this dynamic has grown sharper, as the Herald has assumed the role of the loyal opposition. A case in point is how the tabloid devoted prominent attention to the latest hike in Sox ticket prices, the most costly in baseball.
Going forward, Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan faces the task of maintaining the broadsheet’s reputation for having one of the best sports sections in the country — and perhaps adding a little zip to it.
As is stands, New England’s baseball enthusiasts arguably have the best of both worlds — not just the improbable world champions, but also two dailies, as well as a host of other papers and Web sites in Red Sox Nation that aggressively compete and assiduously cover the Red Sox. But for those willing to look beyond the diamond, the story of what happens when Boston baseball collides with media consolidation will remain a similarly dramatic game whose last inning is far from over.
Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.compage 1 page 2
Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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