By: Allan Wolper
IN THE OLD days, baseball temas paid for travel and food for writers who covered them, showered them with gifts and took them on junkets.
But those politicies changed during the ’60s and ’70s sports editoris worked feverishly to cleanse their image as championship free leaders.
Newspapers stopped accepting free tickets for anyone not covering the games. Cases of liquor and sets of golf clubs were politely declined. It was time, the editors believed, for sportswriters to be treated with the same respect as reporters in other sections of the newspaper.
“We really took a hard-ass stance, “” said Dave Smith, executive sports editor of the Dallas Morning News. “”We didn’t even want to take a stick of gum. But you have to handle these kinds of situations with common sense. Not everyone who gives you a T-shirt wants to buy you.””
But now the discussion over sports payola has shifted to newsrooms and focuses on the propriety of journalists buying tickets that Joe Fan may wait all night to get, sometimes in vain.
George Steinbrenner Ill, principal owner of the New York Yankees, created a stir during the baseball playoffs when he invited news editors and reporters to join him in his luxury box at Yankee Stadium. The great majority of newspeople rejected the freebies-but wrote $40 checks for seats scalpers were selling for $2,000 percipating a national ethics imbroglio.
Steinbrenner’s largess comes as the Yankees seek public approval for a billion-dollar plan to build a new Yankee Stadium in Manhattan.
Rich Levin, director of public relations for Major League Baseball, said Steinbrenner’s ploy was unusual, but understandable.
“The clubs like to take care of people who you think might be hlepful to you,”” Levin explained.
But the journalists who bought Yankee post-season tickets say the arrangement won’t win Steinbrenner any favorable editorial or news coverage for his stadium plans.
Karla Garrett Harshaw, head of the ethics committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, views the ticket gambit as an attempt to undermine the credibility of New York newsroom.
“In my view, accepting Steinbrenner’s ticket could raise doubt among readers about the objectivity of any coverage involving the Yankees on or off the field,”” said Harshaw, editor of the Springfield (Ohio) News Sun.
That point of view has several editors thinking of rewriting their ethics rules to prevent reporters from buying hard-to-get sports tickets.
“It is a valid concern,”” said Richard Weil Jr., managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “”It is time to re-examine that issue, even though being able to buy tickets won’t affect the way we cover the team,””
Weil disclosed that the Post-Dispatch bought 35 tickets to the division playoffs and the league championship series against the Atlanta Braves, then resold them to employees. He did not indicate when he might change the paper’s policy on tickets.
William Marimow, managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, also is having second thoughts about allowing reporters to buy tickets in short supply.
“I am not issuing an executive order,”” Marimow said, expanding on a previous interview in which he labeled the buying of scarce tickets as a close call. “”But I am going to re-evaluate our policy in that area.””
John Maroon, director of public relations for the Baltimore Orioles, sold four impossible-to-get Oriole Yankee Americal League Championship Series tickets to Buster Olney, a Sun columnist.
“I don’t think selling tickets to anyone compromises anything,”” Maroon said. “”They weren’s great seats and they weren’t terrible seats.””
Marimow’s re-evaluation had nothing to do with Olney, who the editor called “”an excellent report and a man of integrity.””
The Orioles also sold tickets to Tom Boswell and Mark Maske of the Washington Post and Linda Stowell, Associated Press Blatimore bureau chief.
Michael Silverman, AP deputy managing editor, said nothing prohibits employees from tickets to events that are hard to get into.
“We do not accept free tickets,”” Silverman said. “”We bought 18 tickets to every World Series game in New York City and sold them to our employees and some AP members. I frankly don’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t think it buys any leverage. It doesn’t cross my radar screen as putting us in anyone’s debt.””
George Solomon, Washington Post sports editor, said he prefers that staffers not buy tickets from teams they cover.
“The less we are in the ticket business the better,”” Solomon said. “”To my knowledge, no one did anything out the ordinary to buy a ticket.””
Ron Martin, editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, believes reporters should not be able use their privileged status to buy scarce tickets.
“I would be very surprised if anyone in our newsroom bought a ticket from the Braves,”” Martin said, “”I expect my reporters who are not covering the game to wait in line like everyone else.””
The Atlanta Braves sold approximately 100 tickets to local newspaper and broadcast reporters, in addition to accrediting 530 journalists who were covering the World Series.
“I do it as a favor,”” said Jim Schultz, director of media relations for the Braves. “”Some of them were sold to beat writers who covered the team.””
Jeff Miller, assitant sports editor in charge of baseball coverage for the Dallas Morning News, said reporters there bought tickets at the box office for Yankees-Rangers playoff games.
“You have to keep your financial distance,”” Miller said.
The courtship of newsrooms is part of a trend in which team owners in all sports try to win editorial favor-usually when they want taxpayers to goot the bill for new stadiums.
Newspaper editors say their coverage of professional sports is complicated by the role publishers play.
The Post-Dispatch, for example, financed $5 million of the $250 million the St. Louis Cardinals needed to rebuild its stadium. Tribune Co., corporate parent of the Chicago Cubs. And the Arizona Republic’s ownership has invested in the Arizona Diamondbacks, a National League expansion team scheduled to play ball in 1998.
The most complicated situation involves Rupert Murdoch, who owns the New York Post and Fox Television, which has a contract to broadcast major league baseball games and the World Series.
“People outside the sports departments are more susceptible to being influenced than those who are inside,”” said Bill Huffman, who just completed a year as president of Associated Press Sports Editors (ASPE). An assistant sports editor at the Arizona Republic, Huffman was amused by the public perception that team owners cultivate sportswriters more than news editors and writers.
“The big guys on the teams don’t want to assiciate with sports people,”” he said. “”They want friendships with people who control the news side. We keep hearing stories all the time about editors and publishers who ask the sports editors to lay off certain stories. “”It’s kind of hush-hush.””
The New York Times’ conflict-of-interest policy-seven pages, single spaced-is a stern warning against reporters who might damage the reputation of the paper. It asks that the staff protect “”our common journalistic endeavor by avoiding conduct that conflicts with or raises doubts about our independence.”” Its guidelines forbid reporters from accepting free tickets, but do not address the issue of buying scarce or rare tickets.
Bruce Weber, who covered Yankee post-season ticket shortages for the Times, described the Yankee-Braves World Series ducats as “”as scarce and desirable as pearls in oysters.””
Joseph Lelyeveld, the paper’s executive ditor, said buying hard-to-get Yankee post-season tickets did not vilate any ethical standards.
Joann Byrd, a visiting professor at the Poynter Institute For Media Studies in Florida, disagreed.
“Journalism should not buy things that the public can’t get,”” said Byrd, a former Washington Post ombudsman. “”The New York Times is the standard bearer for the entire newspaper industry. When the Times does somethign that reflects badly on journalism, it affects everyone.
Howard Schneider, managing editor of Newsday, said his news executives were among those invited by Yankee owner Steinbrenner to post-season games.
“Under no circumstances will we accept free tickets,”” Schneider said. “”The only ticket that we bought from the Yankees were for four reporters who were covering the games but couldn’t get credentials for them.””
New York Daily News executive editor Debby Krenek, managing editor Arthur Browne and outgoing editor martin Dunn bought tickets from the Yankees and saw games from Steinbrenner’s box.
New York Post editor Ken Chandler, managing editor Marc Kalech and deputy editor David Yeland accepted free passes from Steinbrenner.
Michael Goodwin, Daily News editorial page editor, said the tickets he bought would have no bearing on the paper’s policy.
“There is no conflict no way or the other,”” said Goodwin. “”The publisher controls the editorial page. It is different from other parts of the paper. He will decide what our position on a stadium will be.
“We covered the ticket issue on the news pages bigorously. We didn’t change our coverage because we got some tickets.””
Dave Smith, of Dallas Morning News, believes it is dangerous for a newspaper to become so consumed with strict ethical policies that it becomes paralyzed. “”The improtant thing is to be fair,”” he said “”When you get
right down to it, journalists are pretty straight these days.””
?(Joseph Lelyveld, New York Times executive editor, says news staffers who buy hard-to-get Yankee post-season tickets do not violate the paper’s ethical standards.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Wolper, a journalism professor at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J. reports on campus journalism in these pages) [Caption]