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Illustration by Bob AulEverybody is entitled to their overbaked opinions, but Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke gets paid handsomely to spew his hot-and-bother. Not that Plaschke doesn't earn that money—most recently with his ranting and raving during the long and down-to-the-wire Major League Baseball labor negotiations, which finally concluded last week with an agreement that saved the 2002 season. For months, Plaschke bombed away relentlessly on those undeservedly wealthy baseball players and their national-security-threat of a union. He called them greedy and insensitive and ignorant, questioned whether it was appropriate for them to be unionized, disparaged their negotiator as "slick," and whipped up the animosity of the public. Remember the laughingstock he made of Paul Lo Duca when the Dodgers catcher apologized to fans for making some strident pro-union statements? Plaschke mocked him as "Norma Rae Lo Duca." Whoo-hooo! What a burn! Not only a commie, but also a chick!
However, while Plaschke held the millionaire players' feet to the fire, he also may have singed some basic journalistic principles. Because through all his bluster and wisecrackery, Plaschke never informed Times readers that his paychecks trickle down from the billionaire owners of two Major League Baseball teams—the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Follow the money for yourself:
• Plaschke writes his column for the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by the Tribune Co.—owner of the Chicago Cubs.
• Plaschke appears regularly on cable-TV programs (he recently began co-hosting a show with fellow Times columnist J.A. Adande called Southern California Sports Tonight: Paperboys Edition) on Fox Sports Net, which is owned by Australian-American tycoon Ruppert Murdoch—owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Suddenly, Plaschke's bold pronouncements—which seemed to teem with courage, independence and populist outrage—come across as calculating self-interest. Plaschke's opinions don't sound so much like those of Joe Lunchpail as Joseph Luxurybox. He doesn't seem to be shooting from the hip so much as from the back pocket—the one where he keeps his wallet.
Of course, that could be mere perception. It's entirely possible that Plaschke's bread-and-butter relationship with the owners of the Dodgers and Cubs did not influence his anti-players-union opinions; he could have reached those conclusions by himself. Similarly, it's entirely possible that the Murdoch/Dodgers and the Tribune Co./Cubs were completely oblivious to the shouts of sympathy they were receiving from Plaschke; they may never once have considered the value of having the LA Times' top sports columnist as their mouthpiece at a time when they could not speak publicly for themselves because of a gag order imposed on owners by Commissioner Bud Selig.
Then again, Murdoch has shown himself to be an ideologue and a very hands-on corporate overlord; he has fired employees around the world for contradicting him. The Tribune? That's a media company with a pedigree, but it's doubtful Plaschke's take on the baseball strife could have hurt his job security. Bottom line: we'll never know—because Plaschke opted not to disclose his place on those corporate family trees.
What's obvious, however, is that Plaschke's personal ambition and ladder-climbing career style don't stand up very well to the kind of criticism he kept blasting at the baseball players. For example, while Plaschke used his column to publicize the apology Paul Lo Duca issued to fans for threatening to go out on strike, Plaschke has never written an apology to his readers for the time he nearly left the Times to become the No. 1 sports columnist at the Portland Oregonian. The scenario went something like this: the small-market Oregonian wanted a big name—Plaschke is among the country's most-decorated sportswriters—and tendered him a pretty lucrative offer. Plaschke took that offer back to the big-market LA Times, which countered with an even larger salary—which Plaschke accepted.
Do you see the similarities to one of Major League Baseball's big problems? A small-market team did not have the money to attract a superstar—but that superstar used the small-market team's offer to jack up the value of the big-city offer he accepted. It's not known whether Plaschke ever worries about the fate of that small-market paper—or whether he considers the impact his fatter salary might have on his fans (through hikes in subscription and advertising rates) or co-workers (as regards the money left to give them raises).
Of course, Plaschke shouldn't have to apologize for getting what the market will bear for his services—any more than a baseball player should. We're all free agents in a free, capitalist country. We're free to do this individually, like Plaschke and long-ago Times sports reporter Rick Reilly, who recently accepted a salary approaching $1 million from Sports Illustrated magazine—after ESPN tried to lure him away. And we're free to do it collectively, through labor unions and vast corporate conglomerates. That's the way it works in a capitalist country. Journalistically, however, it would have been nice if Plaschke had shown more—as the ballplayers put it—"respect for the game." Full disclosure of conflicts of interest—real and perceived—is essential to protecting integrity. That's harder than ever in this era of corporate cross-pollination, but that makes it more important. It's fine to play hardball, but you oughtta play fair.