Red Sox owner John Henry just bought the Boston Globe, and it could spell trouble.
While I was growing up an obsessive White Sox fan on the South Side of Chicago, I nursed a deep-seated suspicion of the relationship between the cross-town rival Cubs and the newspaper that covered both teams, the Chicago Tribune. Between 1981 and 2008, the Trib happened to own the Cubs, an arrangement self-evidently bizarre even to a 12-year-old. How does a major media outlet have a vested financial interest in one of the most newsworthy institutions in town? And how's a kid supposed to believe the Sox really belong on page D7 while the last-place Cubs muck up the whole Sports front... again? (This is a gross exaggeration tapping into my 20-year-old memory, but the point still stands.)
The Trib eventually sold the team (more out of financial need than civic responsibility). But something even more unnatural just happened in Boston over the weekend: John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, bought the Boston Globe (and for a pittance). This development turns that awkward Chicago scenario into something even worse – now it is the sports team that effectively owns the media outlet.
This obviously puts the journalists who cover the Red Sox in a weird spot. Sports team owners and sports columnists are some of the great adversaries in any town (see Redskins owner Dan Snyder and every media outlet in Washington). Picture the following scenario, described by Peter May in the The New York Times, in an alternate past where John Henry already owned the Boston Globe:
The team’s stunning collapse in September 2011 was followed by a Globe investigative piece by Bob Hohler, revealing that pitchers John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester had been eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during games. Hohler also wrote that management had concerns that Francona’s deteriorating marriage and his use of painkillers may have affected his performance.
In a radio interview at the time, Henry said of the article, “It’s reprehensible that it was written about in the first place.”
Readers and fans more astute than my 12-year-old self will inevitably come to wonder if the Globe can write stories like that in the future. But clubhouse drinking scandals aside, the real issue doesn't have to do with how the players are covered or how the win-loss record is couched. Sports is a huge business. Sports teams are major players in civic decisions about how public money is spent and how public space is used. Team owners are notorious for extracting concessions that cities can't afford on the theory that sports franchises are a greater economic development catalyst than evidence suggests they really are.
Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy raised this larger issue in the Huffington Post over the weekend:
Earlier this year the Globe published a tough report on a sweetheart licensing deal the Red Sox have with the city to use the streets around Fenway Park before games -- making "tens of millions of dollars" while "paying a tiny fraction in licensing fees." (Further disclosure: Some of the Globe's reporting was done in partnership with Northeastern's Initiative for Investigative Reporting).
Sports teams arguably already wield outsized influence in many cities. What else is pretty influential? A 140-year-old newspaper.
Top image: Brian Snyder/Reuters