by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Hello sports media watchers. With the busy sports season in full swing we are going to get back to regular posting. Hope everyone had an enjoyable summer.
This past week brought lots of exciting developments, with the most interesting being a peek behind the veil at Sportsnet. In case you missed it, Steve Simmons wrote this in his Sunday column:
“Recently, Sportsnet president Scott Moore sent out a memo to staff which included an ardent defence of the work Shapiro and Atkins have done, all but saying to give the guys a break. Which is basically an insult of sorts to the many professionals who work for him.” – Steve Simmons
Here is the memo in question:
“The hockey season is literally a couple of weeks away and baseball is finishing up the dog days and heading into the real pennant races. For the Jays, we always seem to have a dramatic story to tell, and this year is no different. With the Josh Donaldson story playing out in a bizarre way, we once again have an intriguing soap opera to follow. Of course, we are all over every part of this story.Yesterday, Stephen Brunt was on The Starting Lineup and put much of the current Jays story into perspective (as he often does well). Fans are ready to blame management as they did with the Bautista story. In hindsight, most fans would have to admit management was right on that one.
What’s interesting is that the Jays will continue to be a fascinating story over the next 24 months as we get a chance to see how management’s strategy plays out. It’s not dissimilar to what happened down the street with the Leafs. You have to go through some pain to get to the next chapter. Look at the similarities between having Austin Matthews and having Vladdy Guerrero Jr. Both may be franchise players to build around. For us, telling all sides of the story is going to be a fun challenge. But it’s rarely boring in Jays Land!” – Scott Moore
Interpreting the Evidence
With the evidence in front of you, here’s the basic question: is Simmons’ statement that this memo includes a directive to “give management a break” accurate or not?
At first glance the answer is no, that is not what Moore is literally saying. But if you look a little deeper some other questions come to the surface. Let’s get one thing out of the way. The season has been a disaster on several fronts. The team has underperformed on the field after raising ticket prices, there have been lots of injuries again, and a key asset from a year ago has yielded next to nothing in return. The re-build is starting a year late and many are wondering why the team chose to tread water when they could have got to work getting back to competitive respectability.
With that as the background, Moore states that Sportsnet will be covering “all sides” of the Jays’ terrible season and the ones to come. Now, look again at the memo and tell me how many sides you see represented there. All I see is ‘fans blame management’ and ‘management has been right in the past about not resigning a player’. Putting those two together is pretty easy: Moore is saying that the current criticism of management is off the mark. The implication seems to be that this is the “side” of the story he wants to see covered going forward.
Second, he cites Stephen Brunt as someone who has put things in perspective. Brunt’s published work on Shapiro has been unequivocal: fans haven’t given him a fair chance. Want some receipts? Here you go:
If you have evidence of Brunt writing something critical about the current administration, post in the comments. (If you want to know more of my own thoughts on whether Shapiro has been given a fair shake, I wrote about that here.)
Some people in the media took offence at Simmons’ charge of editorial meddling by Sportsnet’s leader.
I have covered the Blue Jays for nearly a decade. Not once has Sportsnet's president dictated tone of my coverage. To falsely suggest we have been directed to "all but give these guys a break" is not only incorrect, but also questions integrity of many. Irresponsible and wrong.
— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) September 9, 2018
And of course Arash is right. There is nothing in the memo that “dictates” anything. However there is text and there is subtext. To my eyes the mandate in the subtext is “be like Brunt!” If you’re a Sportsnet employee and want to comment on the Jays you now have to show that your side of the story fits with the one your boss has told you he wants to see covered. As a fun exercise over the next few months let’s all count the stories that come out of SN.ca that paint a different picture than the one Moore has described above.
Putting Things in Context
In my years writing about sports media it is striking how often people say both publicly and privately that no one has ever told them what they can and can’t say. However, what is also striking is how everyone at a network knows which lines not to cross. Here are some relevant examples: after Marcus Stroman blew up at Arash about “Nat Fucking Bailey”, there was no story about it on Sportsnet. The same is true with regards to the MLB commissioner’s criticism of Sportsnet regarding the Facebook exclusive broadcasts. Both of these stories were widely discussed elsewhere. The same thing happened when the NHL concussion emails broke and Sportsnet didn’t write about them for a whole week.
What is the most plausible reason these stories didn’t make the cut at Sportnsnet.ca? It’s possible that people tried to get these stories published and were told they by management they could not. I haven’t heard any evidence to support that, and if we believe people like Madani then this simply doesn’t happen. Rather, it seems that no one chose to write these stories (at the time they happened) and no one in an editorial capacity demanded that the website cover “all sides”. And just like that these incidents passed without a mention on the network’s main public outlet of record. (I have more to say about the relative worth of what gets said on the website vs radio vs tv but this is not the time for it.)
So there is good reason to believe that memos like Moore’s have a chilling effect on option diversity without ever needing to come right out and say what you can and can’t write. It would also be wrong to say that Moore runs Sportsnet in a way that allows only positive news about Rogers properties. For example, Arash covered some difficult topics with Kevin Pillar in his recent feature. The Jays would probably prefer that Pillar’s slur against gays not be mentioned, all else equal. But, just because some people can be critical some of the time doesn’t mean that the audience’s interests in objective and comprehensive coverage is being well served.
The Bigger Picture
Here are some interesting coincidences. Scott Moore sends his memo on Friday. On the same day Shi Davids publishes an article about the rumours of a rift between Shapiro and Rogers. That story is tweeted out by Ed Rogers.
— Edward Rogers (@EdwardSRogers) September 8, 2018
Any reasonable person would wonder whether Ed spoke with Moore about the coverage of Shapiro. I have no idea whether such a conversation took place or whether Moore spoke to Davidi. But Ed certainly seems pleased with Shi’s story on the same day that Moore gave a directive about the kind of coverage he would like to see.
Here’s another question: why is Moore talking about how to cover the Jays at all?
It is of course part of his mandate to highlight the great work being done by his staff, but why say anything at all about “all sides” needing to be represented. I’m told that Moore’s memos are a regular thing but that they mostly stick to recapping big stories and network accomplishments. This memo stood out as having an editorial agenda. That is presumably why someone sent it to Simmons.
This is one of the pieces of the picture that readers and viewers need to keep in mind. Unlike newspapers or digital outlets, both TSN and SN have high level corporate relationships with the teams they cover via broadcast agreements. That’s why Gary Bettman can pick up the phone and talk to Moore about the kind of national coverage he wants to see on HNIC. That’s why Ed Rogers can do the same. There is no similar lever to be pulled if the Jays aren’t happy with the coverage they are getting from the Toronto Sun.
Until recently Sportsnet Magazine provided a kind of safe space for their serious journalists. That publication had an editor in chief and a masthead and spent money chasing stories that would have a longer shelf than the usual .ca fare. When the decision was made to kill that publication and fold all of it into the generic website this was a significant loss along several dimensions. From what I understand there is no editor in chief position at the website. That means there is no real journalist who takes responsibility for the editorial decisions of the whole publication. As a result it is unclear who decides what gets run and what gets cut. If that person is Scott Moore then something has gone wrong. Real journalists should be given the freedom to chase stories wherever they lead, and it is the job of their editors to protect that freedom. As long as Sportsnet is going to employ real journalists and present them to the audience as such then they need to give them better journalistic cover.
For what it’s worth Scott Moore told Toronto Mike that “We have the largest baseball editorial staff in the country, representing all points of view. All of them have full editorial freedom.”
Both are guilty of wrongdoing here and I’ll leave it to you to decide who failed to the greater degree. Simmons’ gloss on the Moore memo is obviously inaccurate even if there is a kernel of truth behind it. It’s also antagonistic towards the folks who work at Sportsnet, many of whom are Simmons’ peers. They didn’t choose to have their employer and the team they cover be one and the same. On that point, I have put the question to many at Sportsnet: would you be happy if Rogers sold the Jays? Most say they would trade the access for the independence, but not all. Take that for what it’s worth.
Moore’s transgression is, in my opinion, the fact that once again he has missed an opportunity to stick up for the journalistic integrity of his team. When questioned about the Rogers/HNIC deal and whether people would be free to criticize their new and exclusive league partner, Moore often talked about wanting to celebrate the game with Sportsnet’s coverage. Comments about objectivity and independence came later, if at all.
I was hoping for some strong statement from Moore when Stroman shouted at Madani. This is a clear case of a player – one with a history of anger at media – questioning a journalist trying to do his job. The story was not covered at all by Sportsnet.ca at the time. If I’m Madani I want my boss to have my back, and would want some public support as that clip went viral.
What about TSN? They are in bed with the CFL right? Why don’t we go after Mark Milliere the same way we do Moore? Why don’t we criticize them for their soft coverage of the CFL’s labour and concussion problems? These are valid questions with, in my opinion, valid answers: TSN does a better job of staying out of the kind of integrity mess described in this post. Admittedly, they have it easier since their quaint $43M/year CFL broadcast relationship doesn’t really compare with the NHL’s national $5.2B/12 year deal. Also there is no equivalent to Sportsnet’s corporate relationship with the Jays.
Another part of the explanation is that Sportsnet devotes more energy to its written content than TSN, so we are harder on them because they are actually trying to use writers on their website to draw in readers. TSN’s website is an assault on the senses for the most part, and their writers are relegated to the margins. The best thing Sportsnet could do would be to find a way to separate their real journalists from the rest of create a firewall between the two. I would gladly pay for access to the former assuming they were editorially distinct and were left off Moore’s memo mailing list.
Over to you for discussion: given the track records of the personalities involved, whose side are you taking in Simmons v Moore?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)