By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 25, 2007 10:58 AM
To understand why broadcasting companies should avoid allowing themselves to become the official station/network of the Washington Redskins or any other professional sports organization; we bring you this past Sunday night's "exclusive" interview with Redskins team owner Daniel Snyder on Comcast SportsNet.
CSN, of course, is the official cable partner of the Redskins in the Washington market, but instead of having one of its own more-than-capable sportscasters -- versatile anchor Chick Hernandez, or bulldog Redskins beat reporter Kelli Johnson, among others -- conduct the rare interview of the media-reclusive Snyder, former Channel 4 sports director George Michael was brought in to handle the assignment on a freelance basis.
That was a mistake on many levels, in my humble opinion. I've always praised Michael for producing the best and most comprehensive sportscast on the air for so many years until his recent retirement. But he also happens to be one of Snyder's "guys" and hardly the proper choice to interview another guy who rarely in recent years has subjected himself to some tough one-on-one questioning by members of the local or national media.
Michael has always had more access to the owner than virtually any media person in the local market, going back to the days when Channel 4 also had an "official" relationship with the Redskins. He's been a guest in the owner's box on game days, and Snyder clearly considers him a friend, at least according to Redskins public relations man Karl Swanson.
I specifically recall a telling scene related in a Washington Post Magazine story in 2002 when Snyder was sitting with Michael over breakfast one morning during training camp in Carlisle, Pa. Peter Perl, now an assistant managing editor at The Post, was the writer of that revealing profile, and at one point, Michael turned to Perl and said of Snyder, "this is a good man. He's a good man. I'll tear you apart if you trash him (in the ensuing magazine article.)"
Conversations this week with several people in the local sports broadcasting business evoked the same initial reaction I had to CSN's choice of Michael. We all were certain that the owner surely must have hand-picked him to do the interview, knowing full well that his buddy probably wouldn't ask him the really tough questions the owner has been ducking for years.
"I guarantee you it was no George, no interview," one veteran broadcaster said.
But Swanson, Snyder's personal gatekeeper at Redskins Park, insisted that was not the case.
"We had no input into who did the interview," Swanson said. "Comcast asked if they could do the interview. In the past, (Snyder) has done interviews with our partners. It's part of the partnership."
In an interview Tuesday, CSN General Manager Rebecca Schulte said it was her choice, and hers alone, to ask Michael to handle the assignment. She said she had actually approached Michael this past summer about possibly doing some future feature or interview work for the cable network, and that he seemed amenable.
"He said 'I might be interested,' and that when we got a big interview to let him know," Schulte said. "Dan was interested in doing the interview with us. I thought he'd be comfortable with George, and when I told the Redskins about it, they thought it was a great idea. I was the one to say I wanted George to do this interview, not them.
"And this was not just aired in the Mid-Atlantic. It was available to all our networks, New York, Philadelphia. We picked a national talent. From a national perspective, it made sense to have (Michael) do it. I thought George would get the most out of Dan. And I thought he did a good job on it."
With all due respect, I disagree.
During the interview, broadcast about 45 minutes into the post-game show, Michael began by asking Snyder that if he'd known from Day One what owning the Redskins would do to his private life, would he still have bought the team? And then Michael kept up the touchy, feely stuff throughout the session, as if the young mogul had somehow suffered terrible indignities during his spotty stewardship of Washington's favorite sports franchise.
Did Snyder know how hard it would be to win in the NFL? Did he know it would be so trying? Had he been humbled by last year's 5-11 season? Snyder responded exactly the way you might expect -- that last season was "real disappointing," that he's excited about the future and that his ownership of the team is "all about winning" and blah, blah, blah.
To his credit, Michael did ask Snyder why his relations with the media were so strained, and all of a sudden, the owner became an expert on the declining circulation of newspapers. Better he should focus on why more people aren't flocking to Six Flags and its tumbling stock price since he bought the chain of amusement parks.
"They need controversy to sell ... negative," the owner said of the print media. "It becomes a feeding frenzy."
When Michael asked him about the Redskins trying to control their message with their own web site, their own in-house broadcasting unit, their own radio network, Snyder said, "it's not so much controlling the message... We give (fans) unfiltered (information) ... It's not filtered by a 26-year-old reporter who doesn't have a clue."
At that point, a more objective inquisitor surely would have followed up with some hardball questions. Personally, I might have pointed out that there are hardly any 26-year-old reporters covering his team at Redskins Park, with most of the press corps veterans on the beat, including some who were around when Joe Gibbs came through the first time around.
I also might have reminded Snyder that he essentially has put the future of his own billion dollar franchise in the hands of an inexperienced young quarterback, Jason Campbell, who won't even turn 26 until Dec. 31? So it's okay to be the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins at age 25, but not to cover the team at age 26?
Michael did ask Snyder about his unwillingness to hire a real live general manager, and there was another answer that begged for a skeptical follow-up.
"If you look at Joe Gibbs (NASCAR) racing team, there's no GM," Snyder said. "There's no reason to have a general manager with less experience (than Gibbs) to tell him how not to do it."
At that point, Michael again should have jumped all over Snyder with a tough question, as in "do you honestly believe that running a NASCAR operation was in any way, shape or form related to putting together a winning football team?"
Michael also might have asked the owner to name the last team that won a Super Bowl without a general manager (probably the Bill Walsh/Joe Montana/Steve Young 49ers, a franchise run by a man acknowledged to be a coaching genius as well as an astute personnel evaluator).
He also might have pointed out to Snyder how much success the Redskins had with a general manager during the Gibbs I era, when Bobby Beathard and Charley Casserly supplied the talent that helped fuel four Super Bowl appearances and three championships that ultimately and properly got Gibbs into the Hall of Fame. And wasn't it Beathard who hired Gibbs in the first place, arguably the greatest decision in club history?
Michael also might have mentioned to the owner that Gibbs' reputation as a mediocre evaluator of college players back in the 1980s and early '90s has always been well-known all around the NFL, and that Vinny Cerrato's shortcomings as a judge of talent also has been pointed out by many of his NFL peers.
There were so many more questions that could have been asked, but never were.
Why, for example, are so many long-time Redskins season-ticket holders handing off their seats to their kids or friends because they simply hate the in-house FedEx experience of ear-splitting music, a cheerleading PA announcer, too many unruly and often soused fans, outrageous costs to park their cars and agonizing traffic jams before and after games?
Why did he try to convince Beathard to come in and be the general manager a few years ago, then offered him a laughable contract that guaranteed he'd say no?
Why has the team traded away so many high draft picks and brought in high-priced big names (Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Adam Archuletta, even Steve Spurrier among many others) who happily took his money and were saying goodbye before anyone could hardly say hello?
Looking back, was it worth the price of perennial Pro Bowl, lockdown cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft choice to acquire running back Clinton Portis from the Denver Broncos?
Why did he allow long-time play-by-play Frank Herzog to be fired, and how long will it be before Sonny and Sam are let go in favor of, say Joe Theismann, who did color on the preseason games?
Why has he never had the good sense or the common decency to invite John Kent Cooke, the son of the team's long time owner and a long-time club executive himself, to sit in his box at a home game in the seven years since he outbid John Cooke to buy the team?
And by the way, I'm not the only one who thought Comcast's "exclusive" interview with the Redskins owner left quite a bit to be desired.
Former Redskin Brian Mitchell, who co-hosted the Comcast post-game show (for now, anyway), said on the air right after the interview that it should have been an in-house Comcast broadcaster grilling Snyder. He also mocked what he described as "the cotton candy type questions" the owner was asked and said Michael "laughed them (the questions) in and laughed them out."
Mitchell also described the owner as "still stubborn" and pointed out that Gibbs hardly won all those Super Bowls by having the final say on personnel. "No, he had Beathard there, and Casserly there," he said, adding that Snyder should be fair game for criticism considering the team's dismal record since he bought the team.
"The quarterback gets blamed for everything, the coaches get blamed, why not the owner?" Mitchell said.
Come to think of it, the next time Snyder agrees to an interview with Comcast SportsNet, and as long as he allegedly has no say in who conducts it, wouldn't Brian Mitchell be one of the guys you'd want asking the questions?
Absolutely.E-Mail of the Week
Countless e-mails come in to the Sportswaves basket, so we're going to pick the best of the bunch every week and post it at the end of the column on a regular basis. Keep it clean and keep it within 250 words, and make certain you type in your name and where you live.
This week's entry comes from Phil Katz of Clarksville, Md.
Was ESPN aware that there were two teams playing last Monday night? I have never heard such a one- sided broadcast in my life. Even my wife, who never watches football, commented that they never say anything about the Redskins. Tony Kornheiser's main comment is basically that the Redskins are not very good, but we like Joe Gibbs. No comments about our secondary, which is at least one of the better secondaries in the league. They spend an enormous amount of time talking about Andy Reid's sons, but no time talking about Joe Gibbs' grandson.
I am not looking for the broadcast to be pro-Redskins, but at least it ought to be even-handed. To have the third quarter totally dominated by Charles Barkley talking about Philadelphia and basically making the game secondary was not what I tuned in for. Even at the end, Tony in effect was apologizing for saying the Redskins might be good this year. Ron Jaworski certainly was not unbiased in his disappointment at the end of the game. It was almost as if Tony was embarrassed about living in DC and Jaworski was proud of being an Eagle and the broadcast was dominated by this dynamic.