A Post story Sept. 2 said that Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Capitals, Washington Bullets and the Capital Centre, was paid $1.2 million from those businesses in the fiscal year ending June 30. The figures, the sub-headline noted, were taken from data provided to the Prince George's County Council. Further on, the story reported that the basketball and hockey teams lost $2.5 million and $1.4 million, respectively.
This is one of those stories at which a complaint has been lodged less to dispute the facts than how they were presented. Mr. Pollin complained that, by subordinating his losses, the headline and lead gave a distorted and unfair picture of his declared financial net from these ventures last year and that a second-day report failed to correct the impression.
The initial story, by Michel McQueen, was drawn from documentation Mr. Pollin submitted to the council, which is considering a move to repeal a tax concession approved for the Capitals' benefit in 1982. The material was obtained by The Post. Council member Sue V. Mills was quoted as saying, "How am I going to justify to a taxpayer who has a $25,000 income that we can't forgive your taxes but we can forgive those of someone with $1.2 million." She also criticized Mr. Pollin's response as incomplete: "It's not an audit," she said.
The story said that, because Mr. Pollin's enterprises are privately owned, he could not be compelled to provide an audit. But it neglected to note that the council requested "itemized statements," not a certified audit. Council resolution CR-9-1983 requested "profit and loss" figures on the Bullets and Capitals, plus in "reasonable detail" information on the rent Capital Centre pays to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the "cash paid to Abe Pollin and Abe Pollin Sports, Inc." The material, accompanied by a "certificate" signed by Mr. Pollin, appears completely responsive.
The numbers are in the story, including $28.5 million in gross revenue for the Capital Centre, from which Mr. Pollin was paid the $1.2 million. He maintains that is all he realized from the gate receipts, which embrace attractions outside his ownership.
There is merit in Mr. Pollin's complaint; the story appears tilted, and that may be a consequence of missed communication. Before submitting her story, "endeavoring to clear up" the relationship between the $1.2 million and the reported losses, Michel McQueen tried to contact Mr. Pollin. Told he was not available, she asked that someone authorized to comment return her call. Earlier, she had talked with Mr. Pollin's lawyer, Glenn T. Harrell Jr., who was quoted in the story saying that $1.2 million "was not income but a cash payment that should be charged against Pollin's other losses." Receiving no response from Mr. Pollin's office (he says he was not aware of the call until the following day), the reporter says she called Mr. Harrell a second time without result.
Had Mr. Harrell's comment been higher up and the reported losses identified in the sub-head, the story would have demonstrated better balance. The reporter and her editors hold that the story was fair. Deputy Maryland editor Laura Stepp defends the emphasis on what Mr. Pollin was paid because Bullets' and Capitals' losses had been previously reported. However, I find the record imprecise.
The more serious flaw was in the Sept. 3 story. A letter from Mr. Harrell to the council Sept. 2, a copy of which was delivered to The Post, described Mr. Pollin as "absolutely mystified by the reaction of some members . . . and by the totally garbled story in today's Washington Post." It promised "long-form certified audits" if the council wanted them, while stating that the $1.2 million "and millions more" were "poured back into the Capitals and the Bullets to cover their operating losses." In a brief unsigned item in the Around the Region column, the paper reported only the promise of audited statements and the comment aimed at council members, omitting all else. That was unfair and unprofessional.