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August 20, 2004
Can Of Corn
The Perils of Ownership
What's going on in Chicago right now got me thinking about what baseball has in its current gaggle of stewards.
For the uninitiated, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Tribune Company are busy exchanging shots across the bow. It all stemmed from the recent structural problems at Wrigley Field, which, of course, was built way back yonder in 1914. Daley, in so many words, has softly alleged that the Tribune Company has mishandled the potentially dangerous problems at Wrigley. Those problems include falling concrete, repairs performed without permits and a lack of full disclosure.
On three separate occasions in recent months, concrete has tumbled into the seats at Wrigley. The first time it happened, on June 9, the city learned of it only after elderly Iowa woman wrote to complain about the hazardous conditions. Daley called the Tribune Company's laggard response "disgraceful." In turn, the Chicago Tribune, the most prominent of the Tribune Company's various media tentacles, responded with a shrill editorial defending its coverage of the issue.
This has set off a civic feud of sorts that's really been more petty than sordid. Pursuant to Daley's allegations, the Chicago Tribune filed a curiously-timed Freedom of Information Act request regarding the city's handling of some structural problems at City Hall. Daley publicly called them on it and then proceeded to order construction halted at the studios of WGN-TV, another Tribune subsidiary, because of permit issues. Naturally, city officials denied this had anything to do with the Wrigley-FOIA flap.
The Cubs and, by extension, the Tribune Company, are currently seeking permission to add 2,000 bleacher seats and a building adjacent to Wrigley that would house parking, a Cubs museum and retail space. It doesn't take much imagination--or cynicism--to envision this as the next battleground.
I'm not here to say whether the Chicago Tribune was derelict in its journalistic duties or whether Mayor Daley is indulging in self-righteous saber rattling. What I will say is that the Trib's guilt or innocence on this matter, on a certain level, doesn't matter. The whiff of suspicion is really enough. That's because this is the problem of media conglomeration writ small. How can the Tribune Company, through its media holdings, be expected to cover accurately and dispassionately a team that it's owned since 1981?
It's possible that they are doing just that, but people, by and large, don't buy it. In journalism, accuracy in the absence of trust is a formula for cognitive dissonance on the part of the public. In this instance, it goes far beyond the Trib's innocuous soft-pedaling of the Cubs; this is about the team's duty to be a good corporate citizen and protect the safety of its customers. Let's face it, with demand for Cubs tickets amped up like never before, there's plenty of disincentive against losing a docket of home games to make urgent repairs. Again, the Cubs may be handling the situation in good faith and with earnest resolve, but we can't really know that with the team under the aegis of the most powerful media in Chicago.
I wrote for ESPN.com when they were Disney label-mates with the Angels, and I worked for FoxSports.com (much more happily, I might add) when NewsCorp also owned the Dodgers. Not once was my coverage of the teams in question influenced by editors or those higher up the food chain. Not once. But do you believe me?
The consolidation of media outlets under the corporate umbrella has far more harrowing consequences than the coverage of a baseball team, but this just demonstrates how it can affect every aspect of our lives. Earlier this year, the FCC under commissioner Michael Powell voted to loosen the rules that govern how many outlets a single media firm can own--the most drastic steps in more than 30 years. So this problem isn't going away (but, happily, there is a growing and disparate groundswell of opposition).
As for baseball, this touches on a larger issue. By and large, we have bad owners. Whether it's a company flushed with mixed motives like the Trib, a faceless, corporate behemoth like AOL/Time Warner, vagabond pilferers like Carl Pohlad or the Scrooge McDuck-types at the switch in Oakland, baseball is positively turgid with owners or ownership groups that seem to care not a whit about the game itself.
That's not to say we don't have some good ones. Peter McGowan comes to mind. Arte Moreno looks like a committed and caring proprietor. And even George Steinbrenner, for all his faults, felonies and peccadilloes, is singularly dedicated to putting a great team on the field. Even so, those that view their team as a tax advantage or profit vehicle are far more numerous and influential. If we could have more of the "sporting gentleman" types in the game, we'd all be better for it. That means no Pohlads and no impossibly conflicted arrangements like the one we have in the North Side of Chicago.
Unfortunately, running-with-scissors Bud Selig regime isn't going away for at least another five years. One of his innumerable faults is that he's more concerned with adding fellow travelers to the stable of owners than in bringing in those who want to be caretakers of the game. In short, he wants owners who are willing to join the financial bleating and stay excruciatingly on-message in an effort to get more public subsidies and put one over on the MLBPA. Winning on the field is more happy accident than objective.
Selig's quest for a minority owner fortunately led him to Moreno, but otherwise it's been an unpleasant recycling of Lorias, Lucchinos and multi-nationals. In various ways and by different means, they're doing harm to the game. Any chance we can trade one of them for a Mark Cuban or three? Or if anyone wants to capitalize me, I'll promise to color within the lines.