By: allan wolper
IT STARTED BEFORE the first round of the baseball division playoffs when police broke up lines of angry fans unable to buy tickets for sold-out games between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.
It got worse when the Yankees made it to the second round against the Baltimore Orioles, with tales of nonworking Ticketmaster telephone banks.
It turned into a nightmare when World Series tickets went on sale as scalpers bused in homeless men from Jersey City to wait on line for them.
The scalpers ? peddling $25 bleacher seats for $500 and $70 box seats for $2,000 ? also worked the Major Deegan Expressway near the stadium, the coffee shops, the subways, the parking lots and the side streets.
And there were the near-perfect counterfeit tickets going for black-market rates, with newspapers publishing poignant pictures of victims who bought them, and listing the names of the people charged with selling them.
The television cameras focused on fans lying on the cold concrete sidewalks for up to 48 hours, while newspapers published stories about people using the pavement as a toilet while they waited to buy tickets.
The Yankees had captured the core of the Big Apple, from Wall Street to Westchester, and everyone wanted to be in the South Bronx for an emotional baseball revival meeting.
The news pages were filled with those stories, and local broadcasters aired sad sound bites of ticket-starved fans who were turned away.
At one point, the city’s papers flared with indignation with reports that Peter Vallone, the City Council majority leader, had bought 204 post-season tickets for local legislators. The papers also took apart politicians who used their influence to buy the precious tickets without any regard for fans who were shut out.
But the story circulating through local newsrooms and receiving virtually no mention in the mainstream press was the one about the access reporters and editors have had to Yankee tickets. Those who acquired tickets went to the games as spectators ? not as working journalists ? a sore point to the thousands of fans who couldn’t get them.
As E&P reported earlier, George Steinbrenner III, the principal owner of the Yankees, sent out faxes offering key editors and reporters free tickets to join him in his luxury box to watch the games.
Some journalists accepted the free passes, but the majority of the newspeople who went to the games paid for their tickets, much like the politicians who were criticized in their stories.
Meanwhile, Howard Rubenstein, the team’s public relations and political consultant, served as an unofficial broker and sold tickets to journalists who Steinbrenner had not invited.
Some reporters rejected the tickets ? free or for sale ? and complained about what they saw as a blatant attempt to buy favorable coverage for the Yankee campaign to build a new taxpayer-financed stadium in Manhattan.
The Yankees have been trying to sell the media on the idea of a new stadium, even though New York is still paying off a $125 million tab for refurbishing the 73-year-old Bronx landmark.
The allocation of post-season tickets always has angered the working-class fans who trek to the stadium during the regular season, but are left out on a limb for playoffs and the World Series.
The Yankees offered to the public 16,000 of the stadium’s 57,000 seats, while others were sold to celebrities, baseball officials, season ticket-holders, and other well-connected people.
The Baseball Writers Association of America, for example, was allowed to buy 600 tickets and to resell up to six tickets each to members.
But the overwhelming demand for Yankee tickets in the New York area this year has focused national attention on how playoff allocations are made.
Journalists from the New York Post accepted some of Steinbrenner’s freebie luxury box accommodations, paid for other tickets, and shrugged off criticism that the special favors would affect news coverage.
News staffers at the New York Times, Daily News and Associated Press all bought blocs of tickets to playoff games, but denied they received special treatment.
However, Newsday said it bought four extra tickets so reporters without credentials could cover the games.
Steve Geimann, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said non-working news execs who attended games through special arrangements violated the organization’s new code of ethics.
“Our code says that journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” said Geimann. “When a news executive or a reporter is sitting in the box of someone he covers, it raises questions about his objectivity.”
Journalist-fans in other baseball playoff cities ? Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis and Arlington, Texas ? also had special opportunities to buy tickets in their hometowns.
William Marimow, managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, wouldn’t permit reporters to accept free tickets from organizations the newspaper covers. But he was uncertain about whether it is wrong to buy them.
“To be honest, paying for a scarce ticket is a close call,” he said. “But if something makes me hesitate or pause, I don’t do it.”
George Solomon, assistant managing editor for sports at the Washington Post, has four prime-location season tickets to Baltimore Orioles home games. He shares them with Post executive editor Leonard Downie and publisher Donald Graham.
“I called the Oriole top management when Camden Yards first opened six years ago and asked to buy them,” Solomon said. “If you are going to ask me whether I would I have gotten them if Donald Graham was not in our group, I would have to say I don’t know.”
Still, the New York City journalists who accepted the Yankee largess insisted their integrity couldn’t be compromised by a ticket to the World Series.
“I don’t understand the conflict,” said Joseph Lelyveld, New York Times executive editor. “I do not see it as a good, ethical issue of the day. We paid for our tickets.”
Lelyveld, who bought a ticket to a Yankee-Texas Rangers division playoff and sat in Steinbrenner’s box, doesn’t think it changed his newspaper’s relationship with the team.
“It was not a favor,” he explained in an interview. “I go to as many New York events as I can. I go to an opening night on Broadway once a season. I am the executive editor of the entire paper. I move around quite a bit.” Lelyveld also plans to buy World Series tickets.
Michael Oreskes, Times metropolitan editor, said a number of his staffers purchased Yankee post-season tickets.
“We decided that if we paid our way it was OK to go,” said Oreskes, who paid $40 to see a Yankee-Texas division postseason game from Steinbrenner’s luxury box.
Bruce Weber, a Times reporter who bought a playoff ticket, later was assigned to cover the ticket crisis gripping the city. He said he and Oreskes spent 15 minutes working on a way to inform their readers of the privileged status of New York City journalists.
“We wanted people to know that reporters had access to tickets,” said Weber, who decided not to buy a World Series ticket after reading a Village Voice article on it.
“It seemed unseemly to me,” he said.
The Times, in an above-the-fold metropolitan page story headlined “Fans Dig Deep and Give It All They’ve Got for Series Ticket,” noted on a jump page that Steinbrenner “also offered tickets in one of the stadium’s luxury boxes to members of news organizations who are not covering the game.”
Nina Robinson, a Times spokeswoman, said purchasing hard-to-get tickets did not violate the paper’s conflict-of-interest policy. The policy does not provide guidelines for reporters buying tickets for high-profile events.
Ethics or sense?
The New York Post sent a three-member delegation ? including editor Ken Chandler, managing editor Marc Kalech, and deputy editor David Yelland ? to watch the playoffs with Steinbrenner.
“We were invited by George Steinbrenner,” said Kalech. “We didn’t pay for our tickets. There also were other tickets available in the newsroom.
“This is all about common sense,” Kalech continued. “Media critics always look at things as having hard and fast rules. You can’t operate like that. Believe me, I won’t be swayed by free tickets. I still expect to get calls from Steinbrenner complaining about our coverage.”
Kalech doesn’t think daily journalists can afford to pay attention to what he sees as academic-oriented ethics codes.
“We operate on a case-to-case basis,” he said. “Journalism professors who write those thick books on ethics have never been in a newsroom.”
Kalech said the Post covered the media access to post-season tickets in sports columnist Phil Mushnick’s column.
Mushnick, the paper’s sports media critic, condemned the city’s leaders for not voicing outrage at the way Steinbrenner had “extended New York’s politicians and top media execs favored access to post-season tickets.”
But Mushnick did not point out that some of those news executives worked in his newsroom. He made a much stronger statement to the Village Voice: “When you’re talking about tickets that people are jumping off buildings to get and top media guys and captains of industry are getting tickets, clearly there is a quid-pro-quo quality to it that can’t be ignored.”
The Daily News contingent enjoying Yankee games included executive editor Debby Krenek, managing editor Arthur Browne, editorial page editor Michael Goodwin and former editor Martin Dunn.
Browne, who accepted a free ticket to one game and bought field seats for another, is a longtime Yankee fan who had always wanted to meet Steinbrenner.
“He is a character,” Browne said. “And I had helped get him kicked out of baseball a few years ago by pushing an investigation that linked him to Howie Spira, a shakedown artist. But I only spoke to him for a second. We shook hands and he left.”
Browne didn’t argue the contention that Steinbrenner’s generosity to the media was part of a grand plan to win public support for a new stadium. “That might be his goal, but it won’t do him any good,” Browne said.
?(Rain postponed the start of the World Series at Yankee Stadium Oct.8, but didn’t dampen demand for tickets, which journalists found easier to obtain than fans in general did.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Wolper, a journalism professor at Rutgers University; Newark, N.J., usually covers campus journalism in these pages) [Caption]
?(“I do not see it as a good, ethical issue of the day. We paid for our tickets.”) [Catpion]
?(-Joseph Lelyveld, New York Times executive editor) [Caption]