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The ethics exchange.
Author: Wolper, Allan. Source: Editor & Publisher, the Fourth Estate v. 132 no12 (Mar. 20 1999) p. 48 ISSN: 0013-094X Number: BBPI99026170 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.


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The chroniclers who record the movements of spring training -- rehearsals for America's most enduring spectator sport -- are at their warm weather outposts in Arizona and Florida.

And that means newspapers will be saturated with stories about privately owned teams demanding that their taxpayer fans build them a new stadium.

The San Diego Padres won the National League pennant last fall and immediately threatened to abandon the city if their citizens didn't vote to build them a $225 million playpen. A lovely form of blackmail. And the referendum passed.

The New York Yankees beat the Padres, were given a ticker tape parade on Broadway, and began lobbying loudly for a billion-dollar diamond in Manhattan.

Nevermind that New Yorkers were still paying off the new-old $125 million Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Newspaper readers rely on reporters to give them the score in the corporate suites as well as on the playing field. It is a matter of trust between reader and writer. But that compact is being victimized by a matter of perception.

That's because the editors of Major League Baseball's annual World Series and All Star souvenir programs will once again be handing out paid, freelance assignments to some of America's best and brightest baseball scribes.

The 1998 World Series Souvenir program included writers from Long Island, N.Y., Newsday, USA Today, Baseball Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, ESPN Magazine, The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J., The Arizona Republic, Phoenix, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, and Florida Today, Melbourne.

Monte Lorell of USA Today stopped the writer-for-hire practice as soon as he became sports editor. "I didn't allow it because of the potential conflict of interest," Lorell says. "Just the appearance of having your writers in those magazines is unacceptable. If someone has a byline in a league magazine, people wonder whether they can be independent.".

But another writer thinks it is just as offensive to suggest that a journalist can be bought for a freelance assignment or two. "There is nothing wrong with it," says James Street, president of the Baseball Writers Association of America who works for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "The only conflict I see is if a magazine asks us to slant an article in a particular way. Otherwise, I would think it would be an honor to be asked.".

Major League Baseball recruits its freelancers with care.

"There are a number of writers who aren't allowed to work for us," says Kieran O'Dwyer, editor of "The Fall Classic," the official World Series program. "Some newspapers like The New York Times say they can't write for us because they're covering the league.".

Could O'Dwyer provide some financial details on the freelance arrangement?

"I don't think I can tell you how much I pay them," he replies.

Writers also benefit in other ways.

"It gives writers celebrity status," says Donald S. Hintze, director of publishing for Major League Baseball. "Their newspapers appreciate that. The writers always have to check with their editors before they agree to work for us.".

Readers can learn the identity of the writers by calling 1-888-851-8456. Major League Baseball has magazines on file going back to 1984. They're only $13.50 apiece, which includes shipping and handling.

But just don't blame the writers. The editors who enforce ethical freelance decisions are just as cozy with the Good Lords of Baseball.

The best seats for the American and National League playoffs are often filled by the men and women on the masthead.

New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has been a gracious host the past three years in his glass-enclosed Yankee Stadium box to editorial luminaries from the New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News.

Editors say they are not doing anything wrong because they pay face value for the tickets, forgetting the headlines in their own newspapers that show the tickets go for up to twenty times that amount.

Phil Mushnick, the New York Post media watchdog, wondered about the Journalism IQ of the editors who accepted Steinbrenner's hospitality.

"Those guardians of the good should know better than to place themselves in a position where the question needs to be asked," he wrote, noting that his bosses were there, too.

Mushnick is right. It's hard to convince readers that their newspapers have their best interests at heart if their favorite writer or columnist is accepting freelance work or tickets from the people they cover. Especially when polls show that so many people think so little of what we write or say -- a feeling reinforced by a visit to Mickey Mantle's, the restaurant and bar of the late New York Yankee hero.

"That kind of stuff sounds bogus to me," says Brett Meskauskas, a bartender, as he burnished a mug. "It colors their commentary and compromises their integrity.".

Greg and Jean, two Broadway writers who asked not to be identified, sipped their drinks and smiled. "It doesn't seem right," says Greg after some reflection. "It would be nice to think that all journalism is impartial, but it's not." Jean was just as philosophical. "People are influenced by the people who pay them," she says.

William, a real estate agent accustomed to the seamy side of city life, shrugged: "Quite frankly, everyone is paid off today.".

Richard Hollar, a computer executive from Wilmington, Del., stood alone as a defender of the writers for hire. "I don't think you can buy someone for $500 or $5,000," he says. Hollar's wife, Barbara disagrees. "Those writers shouldn't do that," she says.

As they say in the bleachers, beware of the vox populi.