Knick Trick At MSG? p.15

By: ALLAN WOLPER PR staffers tail reporters interviewing fans at Madison Square Garden
THIS IS THE way the New York Daily News sports media critic Bob Raissman ended his Friday, Feb. 13, column:
"If the Knicks could play defense the way the team's PR department put a tail on reporters from the News and Post . . . they wouldn't be fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the playoffs."
What's going on here? Private eyes probing the media? Sports skulduggery? CIA meets NBA? It's a lot more complicated.
The Knicks were playing the Charlotte Hornets Feb. 10 as New York papers pursued stories about off-the-court problems of players on both teams.
Anthony Mason, a former Knick star now with the Hornets, was making his first appearance at Madison Square Garden after his arrest and bail on statutory rape charges involving a 14-year-old girl.
Word had leaked that Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' injured center, had separated from his wife of seven years, in part because of an alleged relationship he had with one of the team's dancers.
The Daily News was hot on the Ewing divorce story, hoping to get interviews with players, fans, Ewing and the dancer, later identified as Heather Errico. The New York Post was mostly after the Mason saga, although reporters were scouring the Garden for interviews with principals in the Ewing divorce. The Knick PR people provided reporters with press passes, but also sent along a couple of escorts with the roving journalists.
When the dust settled, reporters managed to wring some quotes out of fans, even though Garden officials temporarily yanked press credentials from a Post reporter trying to lose his PR shadow.
To Raissman, the Garden PR snoops smacked of intimidation. "I've never heard of any writer getting followed around while they were doing a story," he said in a telephone interview. "I understand that this was difficult for the Garden because of the sensitivity of the Ewing story. It's the kind of thing that might intimidate some reporters, having someone along looking over their shoulders while conducting interviews. I just don't feel it is right. I think their antenna went up too far."
Chris Weiller, Knick PR director, insisted his assistants shadowed the press in order to keep paying customers from being badgered, not to act as censors. "If I am credentialing a reporter, then I am giving him approval to talk to anyone," Weiller said. "I don't want to impede their coverage. They have total access. We just don't want any reporters to interfere with the fans. They are there to watch the game. I have had numerous complaints about people walking by and blocking the floor. That's all we were concerned about. We do it all the time with television reporters and they never complain. I don't have any problem with what Bob Raissman wrote.
"We took a shot, which is OK. When the going gets tough, you have to take a shot. That goes for big-time athletes, and their press people, too. But I still wonder how far you have to go with a story about someone getting a divorce. There are other, more interesting stories in town."
Raissman was puzzled by the team's anxiety over reporters interacting with fans. Reporters "wouldn't badger anyone," he said. "They are professionals. If reporters were bothering anyone, we would hear about that."
Chris Brienza, director of media relations for the National Basketball Association, said concerns about journalistic interference are legitimate.
"I know Chris Weiller real well, and he would never try to stop a reporter from doing his job," said Brienza, who was the Knicks PR chief before moving to the NBA. "We always used to get complaints from fans about TV crews roving around. They go to the games and pay a lot of money to see them. They want to see the court without being molested."
Brienza said each arena has different rules for journalists who cover games.
Leon Carter, the deputy sports editor of the Daily News, indicated the only reason the newspaper did not complain to the NBA was because Weiller is normally very accommodating. "Chris Weiller is one of the best in the league," Carter said. "But it was wrong for him to put a tail on the reporters. I have never heard of anything like it in the 15 years I have been covering sports here."
The Daily News reporter, K.C. Baker, was uncomfortable with being followed, but went along in order to complete her assignment, according to Carter.
Stuart Marques, Post metropolitan editor, said,"They took away the credentials of our reporter, Dareh Gregorian, after he went outside to talk to some fans. They made sure that he had to ask for the PR person to get back in. He couldn't shake her. It was extremely unusual.

?(Wolper, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University's Newark, N.J., campus, reports often on college journalism and other media issues.) [Caption]

?(E&P Web Site:
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher February 28, 1998)


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