When Mark McGwire and his team of public-relations gurus decided that the former slugger should make his first on-screen public apology for using performance-enhancing drugs on the MLB Network, it was a major score for the year-old network.
A year ago, the interview would have been televised by ESPN, Fox, NBC, or any of the established, mainstream networks. But McGwire's people chose Bob Costas to interview him on the channel owned by Major League Baseball to discuss one of the game's darkest sins.
"I would say that the McGwire story is a historic, seminal event in the evolution of sports media in America," said Tim Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. "I think it's that big a deal."
As league- and team-owned networks and media outlets gain steam and resources while traditional media continue cutbacks, the lines between news and public relations have become blurred.
The McGwire story is the highest-profile example of the changing landscape, said Franklin, a former editor of the Baltimore Sun.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles and Flyers employ writers for their respective Web sites who travel with the teams. The Phillies have a writer for their Web site who is employed by Major League Baseball Advanced Media. All of the team-driven outlets compete for readers when it comes to disseminating news.
And Comcast SportsNet has reporters who cover the Flyers and Sixers for both TV and the Internet. The teams and the network are owned by the same parent company, Comcast.
"There really aren't any guidelines or constraints," said Brian Monihan, senior vice president and general manager of Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia. "We challenge our reporters to go out and get the best information that they can on all the sports teams. We've proven over the past 12 years that they deliver the stories and information that the viewers want."
Spreading the news
The McGwire story is an example of how league-owned networks are gaining ground in the market. The former St. Louis Cardinals slugger hired Ari Fleischer's sports public relations firm to coordinate how he would distribute his message, according to the New York Times. Over the last month, Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, mapped out the strategy for making McGwire appear to be most contrite.
Calls to Fleischer's office were not returned yesterday. His firm's Web site promotes its services, which "can help you handle the bad news and take advantage of the good."
In this case, Fleischer saw MLB Network as the best vehicle to achieve that, even though the network has about half the subscribers that ESPN does. It is not known whether Costas and the network agreed to any constraints before the interview. MLB Network executives were not available for comment yesterday.
"It symbolizes the diminishment, to some degree, of mainstream news organizations," Franklin said. "It symbolizes the fracturing of the media market. It also symbolizes how the creation of all these new media, league-owned, team-owned, conference-owned, have a powerful megaphone and are increasingly using it."
Interestingly enough, unlike ESPN's interview with Alex Rodriguez last February, when he confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, MLB Network has mostly avoided media criticism for being too soft on McGwire.
When Rodriguez chose Peter Gammons and ESPN to deliver his apology, the network and Gammons were chastised for failing to ask the New York Yankees star the proper questions, and many felt Rodriguez had not told the whole story. ESPN - save a multiyear and multimillion-dollar contract for rights to televise Major League Baseball games - has no direct corporate influence from baseball.
Gammons has since taken a position with MLB Network, which has shelled out a great deal of money to secure some of the most visible baseball analysts - with Gammons and Costas atop the list.
"Yes, they decided this was the place for Mark to tell the story, but not because it was the place where they'd get the easiest ride," Costas told the New York Times.
Heavy hitters at the mike
Franklin said this is another way that league-, team- and conference-owned affiliates are gaining credibility. When viewers see journalists who have appeared before in mainstream outlets, it does not matter to them who is ultimately behind the message as long as someone familiar and trustworthy is delivering it.
"My guess is, a majority of folks said, 'Hey, this is Bob Costas doing this interview. This is legit,' " Franklin said.
"In this new, fractured environment, individual reporters or journalists become brands. Teams and conferences and leagues are not just hiring a person, they're hiring a brand. They're hiring that brand because they bring credibility and a trusted voice."
Yesterday, senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com criticized McGwire for not being truthful enough during his MLB Network interview. Rosenthal also works as an "MLB Network insider."
"Costas repeatedly gave McGwire the opportunity to concede that steroids helped him hit home runs faster and farther than any player in history," Rosenthal wrote. "But McGwire never wavered, insisting 'absolutely' that he could have been the same hitter without the drugs.
"The interview was full of such cringe-inducing moments."
As an emerging media conglomerate, MLB also created MLB Advanced Media, which operates the official Web sites for the league and its 30 franchises. Those sites have hired reporters to cover each team, and many are former newspaper beat writers. Each story written on the site ends with a disclaimer: "This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs."
After the interview, two columnists on MLB.com posted stories criticizing McGwire's apology.
Are they journalists?
There are, of course, repercussions involving employees who cover teams as journalists. Philadelphia fans are most familiar with Dave Spadaro, editor of philadelphiaeagles.com, who spat on the midfield star at Cowboys Stadium two weeks ago. Spadaro posted the video on the team's Web site, though it was quickly removed.
Spadaro, who worked for the West Chester Daily Local News before joining the Eagles, has a visible presence in the media and writes an online column on the team's Web site.
"I admit I get carried away with my love of the Philadelphia Eagles, and if this is a crime, I am clearly guilty," Spadaro wrote in an apology.
Monihan, of Comcast SportsNet, said his network can provide balanced coverage even with the corporate conflict of interest.
"I don't think people would watch if they felt they weren't getting credible and excellent coverage," Monihan said.
But Franklin said he was not sure if the average consumer understands the difference between, say, MLB Network and NBC.
With the McGwire story, viewers watched a compelling interview because of Costas' credibility, he said. That might not be the case every time.
"To many people, information is information," Franklin said. "The news source may not matter as much."