Redskins media ‘partners’ get preferential treatment in covering the team


Quarterback Robert Griffin III speaks to the media in 2012. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)
December 6, 2013

When Robert Griffin III held his first news conference as a Washington Redskins rookie last year, the event was big news. But on sports-talk radio station WJFK-FM, the news had to wait.

The station, devoted to covering all things Redskins, was told by team officials minutes before the conference’s start that it couldn’t broadcast live. WJFK cried foul, pointing out that other news outlets, including sports-radio rival ESPN 980 (WTEM-AM), would be going live with it.

The difference, the officials explained, is that ESPN 980 is a Redskins media “partner.” And WJFK is not.

In exchange for paying a professional or college team an annual fee, partner stations receive special access to players, coaches and team facilities, and sometimes the right to broadcast the team’s games. A partner can also brand itself as the team’s “official” station and use the team logo.

Although media partnerships are common, the deals can create a stark disparity between stations that pay for access and those that don’t. The Redskins impose some of the toughest restrictions in the National Football League on non-paying media outlets. No other team in the league’s NFC East Division — the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles — prohibits live broadcasts of news conferences by non-partner stations, as the Redskins do.

This leaves stations such as CBS-owned WJFK, known as “106.7 The Fan,” scrambling to keep up.

“Our goal is always to give our audience the best information and access to the team and players as possible,” said Chris Kinard, WJFK’s program director. “Sometimes that’s harder than it needs to be.”

Fred D’Ambrosi, news director at WUSA-TV (Channel 9), which is not a Redskins partner, said the team is more difficult for non-paying stations to cover than other NFL franchises he’s dealt with, including the Steelers, Browns, Packers and Chargers. “I would say the Redskins are the most challenging” for non-partner stations, he said.

ESPN 980, a station owned by a company controlled by Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, has the exclusive right to broadcast live news conferences on the radio and to originate news or talk programs from Redskins facilities, including its training camp in Richmond, its team headquarters in Ashburn, Va., and FedEx Field.

WJFK, its direct rival, is shut out of such broadcasts, although other, non-partner radio stations that don’t cover sports full time typically aren’t.

In discussing this discrepancy, Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie said the team is obligated to uphold contractual obligations to its media partners. He said that it complies with NFL policies on media access.

WJFK and WUSA both say their requests for interviews with star players are regularly rejected. Channel 9, for example, was turned down repeatedly by team officials when it sought an extended interview with cornerback DeAngelo Hall; the station got Hall only after it asked Redskins legend Darrell Green to act as its intermediary and interviewer. “I realize the deal is some stations paid the money for the contract with the team and in exchange they get additional access, and they deserve it,” WUSA sportscaster Dave Owens said. “But it’s sometimes difficult for everyone else who doesn’t have that same access.”

Furthermore, while the Redskins permit WJFK’s reporters to transmit brief news “updates” from team facilities, they aren’t allowed to use Redskins phone lines. They must report via cellphone.

At one point in 2009, the team prohibited WJFK from making any transmission from its premises, including cellphone calls. This forced a reporter to drive off the property to call his station. The station protested, and under apparent pressure from the NFL, the Redskins rescinded the ban.

The prohibition on using Redskins phones continues, however, putting the team out of step with other NFL franchises. Broadcast outlets in the Baltimore area, for instance, have direct lines to their stations in the Ravens’ practice facilities. “We encourage [all reporters] to use them,” said Kevin Byrne, a Ravens spokesman.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league sets broad policies to ensure news media access, but teams can set their own rules for “routine” press conferences and other newsworthy events, including favoring a partner.

“If a team sees an opportunity for a media partner, if someone is willing to pay [for exclusive rights], that’s up to them,” Aiello said.

For all the advantages a partnership conveys to a station, the flip side is whether it poses a journalistic conflict. Is a partner station not asking tough questions of a coach or player, or avoiding touchy subjects — say, concussions — because it has a business deal with the team?

“At the very least, the appearances of conflicts of interest are everywhere,” said Malcolm Moran, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. The partnerships are essentially “pay for play” agreements in that they buy access for one news outlet at the expense of others, he said.

The Redskins’ media partners — WRC-TV (known as NBC4), ESPN 980 radio and the regional cable network Comcast SportsNet Washington — insist they have never compromised their reporting despite paying millions of dollars for partnerships each year.

Yet several episodes underscore the inherent conflict.

■ During the NFL playoffs early last year, Comcast SportsNet (known as CSN) pulled a blog posting critical of the Redskins written by beat reporter Kelli Johnson. She wrote a post unfavorably comparing the Redskins’ facilities and media relations to those of the nearby Baltimore Ravens. The Redskins complained, and the post disappeared.

Comcast won’t comment on the matter, but said, in general, that it removes posts that “don’t meet editorial standards.” Johnson, who now works for CSN in Houston, declined to comment.

■ In 2011, CSN recorded Redskins coach Mike Shanahan boasting that the Redskins would win a division title in 2012 (in fact, they did). But the team said Shanahan was in a restricted area at the time, and his remarks therefore shouldn’t have aired. CSN stopped airing the clip after the team’s complaint. It also took the footage off its Web site.

■ During a TV interview on CSN with then-Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell in 2006, broadcaster Steve Czaban twice asked Brunell if his poor performance on the field warranted his benching. Brunell protested to team officials, the team complained to Comcast and Czaban was suspended for three weeks. In a letter of reprimand, CSN said he had used the interview “to confuse and embarrass a guest.”

Czaban, who now works for the Snyder-owned ESPN 980, said in an interview that he regards his suspension “as a badge of honor. In the end, it didn’t serve them any good. . . . The whole thing made them look petty and small.”

Given the team’s popularity, the Redskins command premium prices for their media partnerships. In 2001, the last time one of its local radio rights contracts was publicly disclosed, WJFK paid $50 million — believed to be an NFL record — for a five-year deal that included game broadcasts, promotional signage at FedEx Field and special programs. The team moved its game broadcasts to ESPN 980 when Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting bought the station in 2008.

According to one local executive who has been involved in recent negotiations, the team now collects “seven-figure” annual fees from both NBC4 and CSN, for deals that do not include broadcasting regular-season games.

This season, NBC4 is airing five Redskins-related programs each week. Some, such as the panel-discussion show “Redskins Showtime,” are produced by the station’s news staff. Others, such as “Inside the Redskins” and “Redskins Late Night,” are produced by the team, making them essentially program-length commercials.

NBC4 says it lets viewers know which is which. When a program is produced by the Redskins, the station airs an announcement beforehand and displays the logo of the Redskins Television Network, the team’s in-house production company.

But it can be tough to distinguish between promotional and news programming. NBC4, for example, airs “The Mike Shanahan Coach’s Show,” a program that features full-length interviews and game analyses, much like a conventional sports-news broadcast. The program is a Redskins production, with no input from NBC4’s reporters.

CSN, ESPN 980 and NBC4 all say their media “partnerships” with the Redskins do not affect their coverage.

“The content of our news, analysis and digital coverage isn’t affected by whether or not we have a rights agreement with a particular organization,” CSN said in a statement. “Our partners understand and respect that, and it is evident in our product.”

Said NBC4’s assistant news director, Matt Glassman: “No one from the team influences our news coverage, and no one attempts to.”

Yet, this summer, Post sports columnist Mike Wise said NBC4’s top sports producer, Jeff Greenberg, told Wise he was cutting his appearances as a panelist on “Redskins Showtime,” a show produced by NBC4’s staff. The station was about to start negotiating with the team for a new partnership, Greenberg explained, and Wise’s vigorous denunciations of the team’s name as racially offensive were problematic, Wise said he was told.

Wise has become a visible and vocal critic of the name, writing columns, doing national interviews and serving on a symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian.

“If my stand against the name was the primary reason for reducing my profile,” Wise said, “and contractual negotiations with the team were a part of that, yeah, that’s a little disappointing.”

Greenberg declined to comment. But Glassman, the assistant news director, said: “The station was not concerned about having [Wise] on [every show] because of his viewpoints. No one tells us who can and can’t be part of our content. . . . We’ve learned that it’s much better television when we change up the contributors.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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