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As players suit up for the NFL preseason, local media outlets are adopting different postures towards Washington’s iconic football team. The Washington Times recently announced a “unique partnership” with the Redskins, teaming up with the franchise for both news content and marketing deals. Meanwhile, the Washington Business Journal has announced it will cease to use the team’s name in its pages. We examine how local media cover the “burgundy and gold” and explore broader ethics issues in sports journalism.
- Dave McKenna Sports Writer, Deadspin
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEvery August the burgundy and gold media juggernaut begins to roll. Players suit up for their first preseason games and the local press begins churning out a steady diet of news and features about this year's players and the season ahead. But the team's relationship with local media is in flux. The controversy over the team's name is well known. And a small but growing list of outlets are refusing to use it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILess well known is the team's relationship with major TV and newspaper outlets in Washington, which can sometimes blur the line between reporter and cheerleader, or so says sports writer Dave McKenna. His latest article, "How Dan Snyder Bought Off the D.C. Media," appears on the website, deadspin.com. Dave McKenna, welcome back.
MR. DAVE MCKENNAGreat to be here, as always.
NNAMDILast month the football team and the Washington Times announced that the called a unique partnership, making the newspaper a -- quoting here -- "content and marketing partner of the team." What exactly does that phrase mean?
MCKENNAWell, I guess we're going to find out. What they say it means is that the paper will lend their personalities, their columnists and stuff, to do a halftime show. And in exchange, the team will provide actual copy in the form of at least a magazine and columns that will appear in the newspaper. And, you know, it's straight from the PR department, so it's very -- in the old days of newspapering that would have been, you know…
MCKENNA…a deal breaker. It's a…
NNAMDIYou'd have to have an advertisement that you paid for, but in this situation, when the team provides content it appears just as news?
MCKENNAYeah, in the old days it would have been called propaganda. And now it's, you know, it's the state of the art.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How would you assess the coverage of local teams by the local press? 800-433-8850. A couple of things to note at the top here, Dave. First, we invited representatives of the team and the editor of the Washington Times to participate in this conversation. The team declined. And secondly, you, Dave McKenna, are coming at this issue with some baggage yourself since you were once the target of legal action by team owner Daniel Snyder.
NNAMDIAll that being said, we're interested here in talking about how local media covered the team and how the team, in turn, tries to influence the media. You describe Snyder as an innovator I forging these media partnerships. They have a similar deal right now with NBC 4, but you think these deals are insidious. Tell us about how this partnership model came about and how it influences coverage.
MCKENNAWell, Snyder came in, he, you know, when he sued me he was saying that he's a friend of journalism. And it was kind of funny. But he came into this -- when he bought the team -- it's not -- it's his job to get good press for his team. He's a marketer and so it's not his fault that he goes out and asks these new organizations to make deals with him. That's -- it's responsible to his business to do stuff like that.
MCKENNAAnd -- but just in the old days, the newspapers and the media organizations would have said, you know, we're a news -- we can't do that. Go talk to the advertising department. Yet, Channel 4, in the form of George Michael, buddied up to Snyder right away. And there was so much buzz about this rich guy coming in and I guess they didn't want to, you know, lose access. They wanted to have -- to be known as "the official station of the Washington Redskins."
MCKENNAAnd they were the official news department of the Washington Redskins. And then it became just ridiculous to -- from a news standpoint when you'd see George Michael's staff, you know, at least I remember watching Lindsay Czarniak. And George was a very talented person. And Lindsay Czarniak was a very talented, obviously, she's had a great career. And she's great to watch, but wearing Redskins gear while on the news broadcast. And that's kind of, you know…
NNAMDIFrom a media ethics standpoint, does it matter that we're talking about sports here? If a major media outlet struck a unique partnership with, oh, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the Democratic Party, allowing it access and exclusive content, that clearly would not be ethical from journalistic perspective. Are there different standards of objectivity for sports journalism than for regular journalism?
MCKENNAWell, I mean, that would be one excuse for it, perhaps. But this is from the WRC news department -- is the one who started this. This was out of their -- it was called the news department of the station, not the advertising department. And there are laws about, you know, about marketing -- about labeling advertising as advertising and non-advertising you don't have to limit. And so I just think the -- it's only sports is an excuse for the guilty. It's not -- it's news. Sports is news in this -- news organizations treats sports as news.
NNAMDIWell, on a certain level some people would argue, most sports writers seem to be cheerleaders for the local team. Aren't they?
MCKENNACorrect. Yeah, and it's, I mean, yeah. Maybe they were just better at hiding it before. Or they didn't take their money so openly or their perks so openly. But it's a change in -- yeah, I mean, it might just be my view is dated and the, like the horse has left the barn, so to speak. Because, I mean, the Redskins also have partnerships with Comcast and, you know, the Washington Times. And they still -- WRC is still the official station. And they had partnerships with WTTG for a long time, and WUSA.
MCKENNAAnd you talk to the people at the stations who worked under, you know, while a partner of the Redskins and while not a partner of the Redskins and they'll tell you that, you know, they lost their favoritism and they had to cover the team differently.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dave McKenna. He's a sports writer with the sports website, Deadspin. His most recent article, "How Dan Snyder Bought Off the D.C. Media," explores the evolving relationship between the team and local outlets. I'm interested in hearing what you think about it. So give us a call. 800-433-8850. Should sports reporters and media outlets be held to the same standards of objectivity and conflicts of interest as, oh say, political reporters?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. And you're telling, Dave, one of Snyder's innovations was to hire local journalists as talent on shows produced by the team, effectively making some of the most visible sports journalists in this town Dan Snyder's paid employees.
MCKENNAYeah, well, like Michael Wilbon, who has had, you know, obviously he was already a star in 1999 when Snyder came, was a very star-filled Washington Post sports section, yet he went to go work for Snyder's Redskins Broadcasting. And they hid it. And WRC, they would say, well, it, you know, well, it's produced by Channel 4 or it's -- I don't think they used that wording, but anyway they claimed that it was via Channel 4.
MCKENNAAnd Wilbon always said, "Well, George Michael got this for me. I don't know what I was doing." But he's handling -- he's holding a microphone with a Redskins logo. He's working for a wholly owned organization of the Washington Redskins, the Redskins Broadcasting Network. And, you know, again, that would not have been allowed in the old days. They would have hid it better.
NNAMDIWell, let's go to the phones and talk with Ray, in Washington, D.C. Ray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAYYes, hello. From a legal standpoint, could the argument not be made that the relationship between WRC and the Redskins is a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, which requires licensed broadcasters have to serve the public interest? And through such an agreement the exclusive access to the content would preclude other licensed broadcast organizations from having equal access. Is that not in the public interest?
NNAMDIAnd you can talk about how other media reacted when this relationship between WRC and the team was first disclosed.
MCKENNAI have absolutely no idea about the legal standpoint, but other than that advertising used to be legally required to be labeled as advertising. And Snyder, when he put on these infomercials, using WRC's talent and WTTG's talent, that was not labeled as advertising. At the end you'd see one logo, The Washington Redskins, and it was wholly owned by the team.
MCKENNAI, again, it's not -- the legal aspect -- I don't think anyone would care enough to go after somebody's license for that, maybe because it is sports. But, you know, if WRC's reporter showed up with a Fenty for Mayor t-shirt on at Fenty headquarters or at Gray headquarters during the race a few years ago, I don't think that would have been kosher.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Well, through one lens these arrangements seem to present major conflicts of interest for news operations who have financial ties to the teams they're covering, but the truth is, this may actually be the norm in this country. When I watch a Nationals' game or an Orioles' game, a Wizards' game, those commentators are not 100 percent free to criticize the team's they're covering. Sometimes they're being paid by those teams.
NNAMDIThe teams may not be able to fire reporters they don't like, but all teams can -- and it would appear do -- exercise strong influence over the information that actually comes out about them.
MCKENNAYou know, that's where I think -- why I say Snyder was an innovator. I believe. Because before that the teams always had some kind of tie to their broadcasting team. They got -- when Snyder came in the Redskins had what they called -- they had control over hiring. So they could say who their announcers that the productions were, which I think previously were done. --they'd sell the contract independently every few years. But -- so they did have some say.
MCKENNABut then Snyder just took the whole thing in house. He did it with his radio team. His radio team used to be on 106.7. And Larry Michael -- the announcer, he hired Larry Michael to -- and fired Frank Herzog, who was an independent announcer with WJLA at the time. And Larry Michael's an in-house employee, is now the lead mouthpiece for the team.
NNAMDIOh, Herzog was never really employed by the team at all?
MCKENNAHe was not employed by the team.
NNAMDIGo Frank Herzog. Bob, in Chillum, Md., you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHi, gentlemen. How are you today?
BOBGood. I'd like to say that this sort of unabashed booster-ism on the part of certain local media organizations is not limited to their sports staff. It extends, in the case of Channel 4, to Jim Vance, the anchor, who unabashedly and gleefully uses the name of the area football team and expresses his support and love. And I think it's really amusing because recently he was so offended by the behavior of the Clippers' owner, that he began referring to him as the former owner of the Clippers while that was factually inaccurate. So it's very kind of hypocritically behavior. Anyway thanks for the show.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up because, full disclosure here, even though I'm not a news actor, I am a well-known fan of just about every local team that there is. And in Jim Vance's case it must be said, that even though he's clearly a fan of the team, he came on the air and publicly denounced the team's name and said it should be changed.
MCKENNAYeah, I thought, too. So maybe he's confused.
MCKENNAMaybe Vance's contractual obligations, you know, precluded his beliefs.
NNAMDIYeah, well, I think he's kind of allowed to say certain kinds of things that he really feels because he means a great deal to that station at this point in time. At one time major newspapers and media outlets had much more sway in this town, but real football fans today can get their information from websites, from blogs and directly from the players themselves through their Twitter accounts. But Burgundy and gold actually has a huge array of websites and blogs run by people on the team's payroll. And you say this was another Dan Snyder innovation.
MCKENNARight. He's the first guy that they bought -- it was called Extreme Skins. It's still around. Its popularity seems to be dwindling. But it was the first fan message board, the most popular fan message board in the area. And it was the first one bought by an actual pro-sports franchise. That was -- and then he also hired the first in-house fan blogger. So those were both innovations. You know, he was thinking outside the box and wanted to control the message for his own good, but, again, that's his job.
NNAMDIGetting back to the team name. All local journalism outlets have been grappling with the question of whether to continue to use the team's name, Redskins, which may consider to be offensive. The Washington Business Journal recently announced it would stop using the name, joining the Washington City Paper. But this is a question that honest people can arrive at different answers on. What is your take?
MCKENNAWell, you know, it's up for everyone. You know, whatever people want to do. The name is offensive. It's clearly offensive. I went back and looked at every, you know, George -- President Marshall was a D.C. guy. I went back from 1933, the year he named the team, and looked at every reference previous in the Washington Post archives. And I recommend anyone who questions the offensiveness of the name go do the same thing because this is the reference point, you know, that -- where Marshall got it.
MCKENNAIt's a very offensive name. It could have been -- I think it could have been turned around had Snyder handled things differently, where he could have said, you know, I didn't name the team. It's a different -- I hope it has a very different meaning now and I'll work to change the meaning of -- and to eliminate the darkness. But he didn't do that. And it -- just with every discussion it becomes uglier.
MCKENNAAnd the Washington Post, which has taken a stand against the name, you know, there is precedent. They will not use certain words. And even if organizations -- they won't use racially-charged words or gender slurs in their articles. They'll use asterisks or something. And like a band that I liked as a younger man, The Dead Kennedys. When The Dead Kennedys came out they would not call them in reviews. They would call them The DKs. And so there is precedent for them.
MCKENNAEven though I had never seen any other organization go with that when writing about The Dead Kennedys. So there is precedent for, you know, using your own verbiage.
NNAMDIBut how do you make -- how do you oppose the argument that people say journalistic integrity requires you to use the name of the team and that is the name of the team?
MCKENNAWell, yeah, that's why I brought up The Dead Kennedys as an example. Because that's -- there is precedent for going beyond that. I see that argument, if you're -- but just be consistent with it. So the Post, if they say they're not going to use it because it's the name of the team, well, why didn't they call The Dead Kennedys, The Dead Kennedy's?
NNAMDIOnto Bill, in Silver Spring, Md. Speaking of the team name. Bill, your turn.
BILLHi, good afternoon. I was raised out West in South Dakota, Wyoming area. And then I, in my teen years, I moved down to the Deep South, Louisiana. And I can tell you for a fact that out West the term Redskins was the same as the "N" word.
NNAMDIWhich is the argument that a lot of people make.
MCKENNARight. That's what I've seen in other references, too.
NNAMDIBill, thank you very much for your call. How do you think the Dan Snyder media strategy you describe has influenced this debate? I'm assuming the Washington Times and NBC 4 are not going to follow the City Paper and Washington Business Journal.
MCKENNAWell, yeah, Channel 4 would be -- we're the official station of Washington's football team, doesn't really have a good ring to it.
NNAMDIIt wouldn't work, wouldn't work, yes.
MCKENNAThat wouldn't be worth paying money for. I mean, I think -- I really believe, you know, and I'm not really going out on a limb here, but if the name's going to go away, when kids are not going to want to be part of something that seems racist. And, again, with every discussion it'd be -- it's -- the image of the name is more racist.
NNAMDIWe don't have a lot of time left, but in June of this year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a surprised ruling canceling six trademarks of the team because they were deemed to be disparaging to Native Americans. That decision is being appealed. But you write that the Redskins are very protective of their trademark and that they've actually used it as a premium when they negotiate partnerships with local media.
MCKENNAYeah, well, the Washington Post, now, if you go to their football column, they're called the -- it's called "The Insider," now because it was, "The Redskins Insider," for years. And he made them -- he forced them to stop. And I've asked Ted Leonsis this, "Well, do you," you know, "I see 'Caps Insider' and 'Wizards Insider,'" he owns those properties. And I said, "Do you -- have you talked to the people using that?" And he said, "No. I don't care." And the baseball guy -- this is what kills me -- the "Nats Insider" is on Snyder's own station.
MCKENNAIt's a guy named Mark Zukerman. And he promotes it as, "Here's the 'Nats Insider," and he, you know, he has no relationship with the Nationals. He's totally independent. Yet Snyder would not allow the same courtesy for a Redskins report.
NNAMDIDave McKenna. He's a sports writer with the sports website, Deadspin. His most recent piece, "How Dan Snyder Bought Off the D.C. Media," explores the evolving relationship between the team and the local outlets. Always a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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