Because it is such a serious allegation in the world of media, I can understand why there was so much attention paid to the report that someone with the Cubs had threatened someone in the media with reprisal if they didn’t stop covering Addison Russell in a negative way (or something – the specifics were never altogether specific). If that had happened, it would be a serious, serious breach of what we all understand covering the news to be (even in the sports world), and it would be a bombshell. Probably meriting quite a bit more time, attention, and care than the original report.
But what I couldn’t understand – aside from how cavalierly such a serious charge has been treated – is why the discussion about it, including from some corners of the media, itself, has seemed to avoid this fundamental point about coverage:
Please note: aiming to get positive coverage for your organization is literally just PR. Nothing wrong with that.
Where you would cross a line – as Theo said – is if you make *threats* about what could happen to a news organization if they don't do things the way you want.
— Brett Taylor (@Brett_A_Taylor) May 1, 2019
Cubs President Theo Epstein responded to the report in a very direct way, and he underscored this very important point (as recorded by Sahadev Sharma, follow him on Twitter here) – the emphasis added is mine:
“If you have other questions, I’d be happy to answer them. I’ve been happy to answer them the whole time. However you guys want to cover the story. If you want to write critical articles about Addison or the club’s handling, you’re more than welcome to. We believe in the freedom of the press. This is certainly an issue where we expect there to be strong opinions and people have the right to have those opinions and express them however they want. We support that. We would never try to stifle freedom of the press or that type of free expression.
“I saw that story out there, I’m not calling it into question other than to say the threat of reprisal to a media member about any topic, but especially one of this nature, is not acceptable. I’d be really surprised if that happened at the Cubs, and if it did I’d want to know who it was because they wouldn’t work for the Cubs much longer. That’s a fireable offense to try to threaten a media member because of unfavorable coverage. Especially on a topic of this nature.”
I’m not sure Epstein could be more clear, and if there is someone out there who wants to bust out the receipts on the Cubs, then by all means, let’s hear it. If members of the front office – baseball side, business side, whomever – are pushing for positive coverage of Russell, or less negative coverage, then I think you could take issue with that on a human level (in the same way you can take issue with them having retained him in the first place). But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing so on behalf of your organization. Trying to steer coverage is something all business – all people in the public eye – will understandably try to do at one time or another.
Where the grave sin comes in is when you threaten a free and fair press with reprisal – limited access, terrible working conditions, etc. – because they are being critical of your organization and/or your employees. We have seen organizations do this in the past (some notable recent examples in other sports come to mind), but we have not seen it from the Cubs. Maybe it has happened, and maybe we’re going to learn soon the specifics of what happened. Epstein said he would be surprised if it happened.
The Cubs, for the record, also have denied the report to me when I inquired directly about it. It is not to say you have to believe any of these members of the organization simply because they assert something, but I also don’t see why – given the context of this unspecific, third-hand report – we would immediately presume that the Cubs definitely have done this extremely serious thing.
If there’s more to this story beyond the most likely explanation – a game of telephone that turned a PR comment on the nature of coverage into a threat of reprisal – I would love to hear it, and it sounds like Epstein would like to hear it, too.[For what little it’s worth, I’ve been contacted by the Cubs just once in over 10 years with a complaint about something I’d written, and it was because *I* had very much screwed up in sharing something in a very unfair way.]