Mark Cuban is a basketball owner, not a baseball owner, but I’ve gone on enough in recent weeks about team and league-controlled media usurping the role of the outside press that Cuban’s little rant from the other day is still within my bailiwick. So let’s talk about it, shall we?
Cuban’s piece is long and has some interesting and valid observations, but it boils down to this: teams have their own websites and players have their own Internet outlets, so there’s no point to deal with sports media websites and “internet reporters.” Not unpaid bloggers — he likes them — but professional Internet reporters that work for big media like ESPN.com, Yahoo! and, presumably, NBC Sports.com. This, combined with the fact that the internet reporters are TMZ-style, rumor-mongering paparazzi (at least in Cuban’s mind) means that the internet reporters should not have access to locker rooms. “Their interests are not aligned with the team’s interests,” Cuban says, and thus they are useless.
He’s right about the first part. As I discussed at length last month, teams and leagues are better positioned to disseminate certain types of information. Switching to baseball, this includes that day’s lineup. The press releases. The injury report. Anything that is information in its most neutral sense and is not given much value by virtue of its source (and actually, is closer to its original source if it comes via official team channels).
If I run a media company, I don’t want my reporters tweeting that day’s lineup or merely passing along press releases. I want my people to be offering opinion and critical thinking. Tell the readers what the lineup means and what the news release means. For this, locker room access is not important or — if it comes with too many conditions from overly-controlling team personnel — even preferable.
But Cuban loses me when he starts going after straw men. It’s easy for us all to agree that people who simply make up rumors or act like TMZ reporters are useless, but who are they? Do they exist? Who at ESPN.com is simply inventing things from whole cloth? Who at Yahoo! is? Have any of them asked any players any “have you stopped beating your wife?” questions in the name of tabloid journalism? If they did, they’d be laughed out of the business or kicked out of the clubhouse by media relations people for acting like idiots. The working press — even the online press — is overwhelmingly professional when they enter the clubhouse, and Cuban’s demonization of them in this regard is fantasy.
Or misdirection. Because one of the more notable things about Cuban’s piece is that he exempts a large swath of reporters from his ire: TV and print newspaper journalists. Cuban is just fine with keeping these guys in the locker room. This despite the fact that these are guys who do the same thing that the Internet reporters do to annoy Cuban. The less-salacious things Cuban complains about, anyway, such as constantly asking players about the latest rumors swirling around even if they themselves didn’t invent the rumor. Asking players “how they felt out there today” questions and other such inanities.
Why are the newspaper and TV people exempt? Cuban is actually pretty up front about it:
Newspaper has to be in the room. I know this is counter intuitive to some, but it is a fact. Why? Because there is a wealthy segment of my customer base that does not and will not go online to find out information about the Mavs. If I don’t have a PRINT beat writer and /or PRINT columnist showing up and writing about the Mavs, both sides lose … The same logic that applies to newspapers, applies to TV.
Note use of the word “wealthy.” This isn’t about information and accuracy and professional journalistic ethics. It’s about favoring those outlets who buy advertising panels on his scoreboard and purchase broadcast rights. Outlets that actively sell tickets for him. This is about Cuban, as an owner of a profit-generating business, wanting to control the message, limit bad publicity and, in his exception for TV and newspaper people, push customers through the turnstiles.
This is all pretty chilling, in my view. Especially considering that the fans don’t view the Mavericks as solely Cuban’s private business but, rather, they view it — rightly or wrongly — as something akin to a public trust in which they have invested their lives and their tax dollars. The interests of the media don’t align with you Mr. Team Owner? What a shame. Unless and until your interests are something other than generating profits for your team, there’s a really good reason for that and you should understand why that is.
But yes, in the end it is Mark Cuban’s team and he can do what he likes. It wouldn’t particularly bother me on a practical level if he — or if the baseball owners — severely curtailed clubhouse access. I don’t need to get into the clubhouse to do my job. I’d probably lose three to five posts a day that I write based on clubhouse interviews conducted by others, but we’d manage, because most of what we traffic in is on-the-field action or news that occurs far enough off the field where clubhouse access isn’t an issue.
But I do wonder whether Cuban has thought this through all the way. Whether he’s realized that even if he cut off access to his locker room, that the “Internet writers” would still write stuff and people would still read it. And that, without the need to maintain decent enough relations with the team to ensure that their credentials are in order, the aggregate coverage of the team will likely get more critical, not less. That reporters will feel liberated to rake muck and offer opinion and rumor without checking back to an official team source for comment because, hell, if they don’t need us, we don’t need them.
There’s a Faustian bargain between the media and those they cover, both in sports and on every other beat. Allowing reporter access is annoying for those being covered but useful as well. It’s empowering for the reporter but it limits them in important ways. When you’re outside and not beholden, you can’t deliver a certain sort of coverage, but thanks to direct access from newsmakers to the public via their own Internet outlets, that kind of coverage is becoming less and less important.
What does that leave? The kind of coverage that gets a lot closer to the truth of any given matter than that which Mark Cuban wants Mavericks fans to read. And if he thinks he doesn’t like the way things are, God help him if he ever decides to give a lot of smart and curious reporters a bunch of free time and a reason to resent him.