The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘stunning’ shift in how the media covers MLB labor strife

Max Scherzer’s Porsche became a flash point in the debate over how the baseball media is covering the sport’s latest labor dispute. (Greg Lovett/AP)
11 min

Opening Day was on the line late last month when negotiators for Major League Baseball’s owners and players spent more than a week in Jupiter, Fla., attempting to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.

As the two sides met, Jeff Passan, ESPN’s lead baseball reporter, contextualized the impasse in a column: “If you went and got the next 1,200 best players in the world, the product would suffer greatly. If you handed MLB teams over to any 30 competent businesspeople, the sport would not suffer. Actually, it might improve. It doesn’t take a billionaire to leverage a spot in a legalized monopoly with profound built-in revenues.”

Passan’s words were emblematic of the tenor of coverage in recent weeks, which — with undercurrents of anti-billionaire sentiment and a sympathetic eye toward labor — has overwhelmingly laid the blame at the owners’ feet for the canceled games.

At the Athletic, a headline declared: “Baseball games will be canceled, and there’s no both-sidesing this one.”

At Yahoo, there was a plea not to “call the MLB lockout millionaires vs. billionaires,” a common description for past sports-labor disputes, in a piece that pointed out many players are not millionaires.

A New York Times column described Commissioner Rob Manfred’s last offer before the canceled games as “engineered to be rejected.”

And a Washington Post column screamed that baseball’s owners were “billionaires who live by one creed: Show me the money.”

“It’s stunning the way it has turned,” said Ken Rosenthal, an Athletic writer, Fox Sports analyst and one of the sport’s most visible reporters.

Rosenthal recently wrote in a story, “How dare commissioner Rob Manfred and the baseball owners treat their players and their fans like this.”

“It was beyond where I wanted to go in tone,” Rosenthal said. “But when I sat down, I was so pissed and I let it fly.” (Rosenthal’s contract was recently not renewed by MLB Network, the league’s cable channel, because, according to one report, he had been critical of Manfred. He said his relationship with MLB had no impact on his coverage.)

To plenty, the coverage has been a welcome pendulum swing from what baseball’s economic coverage once looked like and an acknowledgment that baseball players, like any other workforce, ought to exercise their labor rights.

“It’s the most accurate coverage, factually, of any labor negotiation I’ve been involved in,” said Scott Boras, baseball’s most powerful player agent.

Among those who think the coverage has swung too far: MLB officials. MLB declined to comment on the record about the coverage, saying in a statement that its leadership is focused on getting an agreement done. But reporters say they’ve heard the criticism.

“They find it maddening that they don’t think the union is getting the same scrutiny through the process that they are,” said one reporter who was in Jupiter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his working relationship with MLB. “And we’ve heard that from them.”

‘Commoditized, dehumanized’

Baseball’s previous work stoppage was in 1994-95, when a player strike wiped out two months of the season and the World Series, then pushed back the start of the next year. The coverage sounded much different.

One Associated Press reporter, for example, visited a striking worker who inspected walnuts for a living to ask about baseball. The resulting piece was headlined, “Ordinary Workers Have Little Sympathy for Rich Ballplayers,” and noted the walnut inspector made $9.82 an hour compared to Mets third baseman Bobby Bonilla’s $5.7 million that year.

It’s difficult to imagine such a story being written today, even if it’s possible that walnut inspectors might feel the same way. When AP reporter Ron Blum noted in one story from Jupiter that pitcher Max Scherzer arrived to a bargaining session driving a Porsche, it was met by a cascade of mocking tweets from seemingly every corner of the baseball media, all with the same message: If reporting is going to insinuate that the players are rich, it has the responsibility to tell readers that the owners are richer.

In interviews, baseball writers offered several explanations for the shift. They cited the larger industry’s retreat from “both-sides” journalism, in which two sides of an argument are reflexively given equal weight. They also pointed to a younger class of reporters who have brought new and important voices to coverage, though some wondered if some of the more pointed coverage has gone beyond insightful and veered into advocacy for the union.

But the biggest factor, many said, was the information available to reporters. In previous eras, reporters knew Bonilla’s salary; now they know the net worths of the owners, the valuations of their teams and the prices when they are sold. The Mets recently sold for $2.4 billion, the Dodgers for $2 billion before that. The smaller-market Marlins still went for more than $1 billion in 2017.

That kind of reporting has been driven by the proliferation of digital media, including niche publications covering the business of sports with increasing fervor and depth. Baseball Prospectus, for instance, has written about how higher ticket prices aren’t affected by player salaries and how the average player salaries have fallen in recent years even as revenue has risen.

“We know about the ways that owners benefit from tax breaks and real estate holdings,” said Hannah Keyser, a national baseball writer for Yahoo. “There is so much information out there, and analysis on the business side of the sport. Rob Manfred can’t say it’s a worse investment to own a team than [investing in] the stock market because there are, like, 12 stories the next day saying it’s wrong. So, as a writer, you can’t repeat it.”

Rosenthal pointed to the shifting balance of power between players and owners, including how teams have embraced tanking and manipulated service time to delay their young stars’ free agency. The analytics revolution played a role, too, he said.

“Efficiency was celebrated, and it was celebrated in all corners of the media to a certain degree,” he said. “That was how you had to do it, and it was smart, and it was this culture where players were commoditized — ‘dehumanized’ might be another word.”

After the season’s first week of games was canceled, union head Tony Clark used the same word to describe players: commoditized.

Love of labor

Beyond baseball, there has been an uptick in media criticism that resembles some of the backlash the traditional political press faced in the early years of the Trump administration, when debates of whether to call a “lie” a “falsehood” roiled journalism. Craig Goldstein, the editor of Baseball Prospectus, wrote a story last month, headlined “Call It What It Is,” that implored writers covering the lockout to abandon repeating the arguments of players and owners in favor of a more direct analysis of the unfolding events.

“What’s happening aligns with the cultural moment beyond baseball,” Goldstein said in an interview. “And what you have is billionaires expressing an unfathomable amount of greed.”

Of Scherzer and his Porsche, Goldstein added: “I want a holistic understanding of the situation. You’re writing what you see there and that’s making a judgment, but you’re not writing what you don’t see, and maybe you need to.”

That type of critique seemed to resonate with ESPN’s Passan, one of the most influential voices on the lockout, who said he had tried to be more careful with his language.

“In the past, I’d probably have written that MLB canceled games after the union rejected its proposal, which is technically true,” he explained. “But that ignores all the context around it. MLB didn’t technically have to cancel games. It chose to. Thus, linking the union rejecting a proposal specifically with MLB canceling games is the sort of thing that I now try to avoid.”

Other writers noted the changing guard of baseball writers: fewer older, White men covering the sport, replaced by a younger, more diverse reporting corps. Two reporters joked about seeing Bernie Sanders campaign stickers on laptops in press boxes. Some of those younger reporters also have been involved in their own labor disputes, part of a wave of unionization across the media industry.

Yahoo’s Keyser was part of the bargaining committee of her union in a previous job. “One thing I learned, and the way I think about this, is the fact that ownership can change your job unilaterally,” she said. “But workers can only change it by leaving or by collective action.”

“I think the players’ cause is righteous,” she said. “The economic structure of the sport should change.”

Some of these shifts are reflected in public polling. A Gallup poll last year found unions had a 68 percent approval rating, their highest since 1965. Billionaires, meanwhile, have a 35 percent favorability rating.

Fans have also shifted. In 1994, one poll found that people blamed the players by around a 2-to-1 margin for the work stoppage. Last year, a YouGov poll found owners took the blame for the lockout by a 35-18 margin among respondents interested in baseball, though about half were unsure.

Still, the public doesn’t have much sympathy for either side: The poll also found that 21 percent of respondents had “a lot of” or “some” sympathy for the players; around 13 percent said the same for the owners.

‘That’s advocacy’

But several writers said they have been looking at coverage around the industry and wondering whether they and their peers had collectively tilted too far toward the players.

An Athletic writer expressed gratitude that the Athletic ran a column by former general manager Jim Bowden that was more critical of the players because so much on the site had been pro-player.

Keyser noted a tweet that San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Christina Kahrl sent over the weekend that criticized a reporter for reporting a statement from Glen Caplin, MLB’s spokesman, describing the talks as “deadlocked.”

“Repeating the 'd' word w/o noting potential motivations behind its use would be a mistake,” Kahrl wrote. “Do journalism, not transcription,” she added.

“It is still important to represent the league’s position, and you’re not failing the public by relaying it,” Keyser said. “There’s not a moral paradigm.”

Ken Davidoff, a longtime New York Post baseball writer who retired after his trip to Jupiter, said he was personally sympathetic to the players. But, he said, “There is a segment of the baseball media that just has made the decision that the players should get whatever they want and it’s not relevant how much they want or what they want.”

He continued, “The idea that [AP writer] Ron Blum is some owner advocate because he took a picture of a Porsche is laughable. There was this idea that you shouldn’t report that. That’s advocacy.”

And nearly every reporter noted that one type of coverage gets praised more on social media. As one national baseball reporter put it: “You see the dopamine rush people get from dunking on owners and you want to feel that. But when you do it, you’re also right.”

The delicate nature of it all was on display in recent days, with Passan in the middle. On an ESPN podcast last week, he said he had texted players and agents and asked if they were going to accept an MLB proposal, which he described as a “s--- sandwich.”

ESPN, which is a broadcast partner of the league, edited the comment out of the audio it posted online. By Monday, both Passan and the network issued statements apologizing for the comment.

“I took the phrasing of a source and mistakenly did not make clear they were his words, not mine,” Passan said in the statement. “ESPN and fans rightfully expect me to be objective, and my record shows I’m extremely committed to representing all sides of a story. In this instance, I fell short of that standard.”