AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2004

Wild Pitch   

Dean Singletonís Berkshire Eagle campaigned aggressively for a new baseball stadium to help revitalize down- town Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Singleton even offered to pony up $2 million for the ballpark. But voters rejected the plan, and the paperís civic activism thrust it into a credibility-straining controversy, attracting pitcher/ author Jim Bouton and PBSí Bill Moyers as critics.

By Rachel Smolkin
     

Related reading:
   » The Saga Unfolds

In November 1999, William Dean Singleton, CEO of the Denver-based MediaNews Group and owner of the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, answered the Pittsfield mayor's plea to help the town build a new baseball stadium. Over the next year-and-a-half, the Berkshire Eagle--Pittsfield's only daily paper--became deeply enmeshed in a heated battle over that proposed ballpark.

The Eagle stadium war is notable for the celebrated characters who entered the fray and for the sensational charges and countercharges that continue to ricochet. It raises complex ethical questions about the role newspapers should play in setting--and pushing--an agenda for their communities. And it illustrates how corporate civic activism can entangle a newsroom and raise doubts about a newspaper's credibility, particularly when the news organization is financially involved in a project and does not disclose every detail to its readers.

The imbroglio began during the summer of 1999 when then-Pittsfield Mayor Gerald S. Doyle Jr. approached Andrew H. Mick, the Eagle's publisher and president of the MediaNews subsidiary New England Newspapers. The mayor asked if the Eagle would consider donating a 1-acre parking lot near the newspaper for the site of a new stadium, which Doyle hoped would prevent Pittsfield's minor league team from leaving town.

Mick conveyed that request to Singleton during a management retreat in October 1999. A month later, Mick, Doyle and several other community leaders attended an hour-and-a-half meeting with Singleton in Denver. Singleton, whose newspaper company is the nation's seventh largest, agreed to donate the parking lot and also surprised his guests by offering $2 million for the new stadium. Singleton says he asked for naming rights, and the mayor agreed.

Mick and officials at the Berkshire Bank then formed a limited liability corporation, Berkshire Sports and Events LLC, which pushed to create a Pittsfield Civic Authority that would build, own and manage the facility and would have eminent domain powers to take land. With Singleton's blessing, Mick created a trust that in January 2001 purchased a 2.5-acre property adjacent to the parking lot. He planned to give the $1.2 million parcel to the authority as part of Singleton's $2 million donation. But a local petition drive forced a citywide special election on the authority.

The Eagle's editorial pages unabashedly championed the new stadium, but the people of Pittsfield rejected their paper's counsel. On June 5, 2001, half of the city's 28,495 registered voters cast ballots, soundly defeating creation of the civic authority. Opponents cited dislike for the authority's broad powers, particularly those of eminent domain. They also attributed the election results to missteps by civic-authority supporters, who they said had not sought public input and forged the authority proposal in "back rooms."

Since Singleton made his financial pledge, the Pittsfield Mets moved to a new stadium in Troy, New York. An independent minor league baseball team, the Berkshire Black Bears, came and went, leaving Pittsfield with no professional baseball team and no new stadium.

The tale of the Berkshire Eagle's failed stadium crusade might have remained shrouded within the mountains of western Massachusetts but for the entrance of two famous personalities. The first was sports icon Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankee pitcher and author of "Ball Four," a 1970 exposť of baseball's raucous underbelly. Named one of the New York Public Library's "Books of the Century," the best-seller rocked the sports world and the journalists who covered it.

In June 2003, Bouton, who lives near Pittsfield, released the self-published "Foul Ball," which chronicles his experiences with Pittsfield baseball. After the Eagle-backed plan collapsed, Bouton and two partners proposed to renovate Wahconah Park, the city's century-old minor league stadium, and to buy an independent minor league team. They requested a 30-year lease from the city. The city parks commission rejected their plan--which they shared with Mick several months before the civic-authority vote but publicized afterward--on October 4, 2001.

Bouton casts himself in his book as an underdog valiantly fighting to save a historic stadium and the city's soul.

The second personality to trumpet the Pittsfield baseball saga was public television journalist Bill Moyers, who seized on Bouton's tale as an example of the dangers of media consolidation. In the year leading up to the Federal Communications Commission's June 2003 decision to loosen the rules limiting media concentration (see "News Blackout," December/January), Moyers used his PBS show to warn of deregulation's threats to democracy. On November 28, 2003, the journalist interviewed Bouton on his "NOW With Bill Moyers" program.

Bouton claimed the Eagle had secretly tried to foist polluted property on the taxpayers of Pittsfield, saying the paper's owners "had an economic interest in the outcome of it because it would enhance the value of their property plus relieve them of the liability of a cleanup." He described his book as a "case study of what can happen when a distant media conglomerate owns the only daily newspaper in town."

"You earned a reputation many years ago for telling the truth with 'Ball Four,' " Moyers told Bouton in a flattering comment typical of the interview. "Now you've done it again."

Moyers also espoused Bouton's views as fact in an online column. "Bouton is back with another truth-teller that deserves to be a best-seller," Moyers wrote. He stated that the Eagle "wanted to use $18.5 million of taxpayer money to build a new baseball stadium on property it owns. Turns out the property is polluted, although the newspaper didn't bother to disclose the fact, and that the new stadium was a way of passing off the liability to the public even while enhancing the value of the newspaper's property." Neither Bouton nor Moyers mentioned that Singleton had purchased the 2.5-acre property specifically for the stadium.

The interview and online commentary enraged Singleton, who called Moyers a "scoundrel" and a "villain" when I interviewed him in December in the Eagle's conference room. "Bill Moyers gave up his right to call himself a journalist here," Singleton declared. His newspaper was equally vociferous. The Eagle produced a 1,030-word editorial lambasting Bouton and excoriating Moyers for violating "basic principles of Journalism 101 in not challenging Mr. Bouton's many misstatements and wild speculations.... Mr. Moyers couched Mr. Bouton's story as a cautionary one about the perils of media consolidation, an issue dear to the heart of Mr. Moyers. Media consolidation is indeed an important issue--but it is not the issue here. The issue here is much simpler--The Eagle and its parent company attempted to do something good for the city and community and were unfairly attacked for it. Mr. Moyers didn't have the facts, didn't bother to get them, and has contributed to this defamation."

The editorial also stated that the Eagle newsroom and editorial department "enjoy complete independence, and indeed the idea for a downtown ballpark originated within The Eagle newsroom."

Moyers returned fire. "When Dean Singleton starts defining good journalism, we better all lift our eyebrows," Moyers told me. "Dean Singleton calls everybody names. Look at his record. He's the swashbuckler of name-calling in American newspapering today." Moyers says he knows of no television interview program that features a noted author, such as Bouton, and asks other people mentioned in a book to comment in advance of the interview.

When Singleton, Mick and Bouton's original publisher objected to the Bouton interview and Moyers' failure to contact them for comment, Moyers posted their correspondence on his program's Web site. He invited the critics to appear on his show--an offer they declined.

"They say I was wrong to describe the book as an investigative report when indeed it is Jim Bouton's diary, and they're right," Moyers told his viewers in a December 12 broadcast. He noted the objections to his statement that Bouton was " 'back, telling the truth again.' Well, what I should have said is that he was telling the truth as he saw it."

Moyers also corrected several "inconsistencies" online and in his December 12 broadcast. Among them: His team only could confirm the stadium project involved $6 million in public funds, rather than the $18.5 million Bouton cited; the Eagle agreed to contribute $2 million, and its "owners say they had arranged to cover the cost of the environmental cleanup as part of their donation."

"The fact is, we don't know the full story yet," Moyers says, adding, "What Jim Bouton's book and my interview have done is to open up a complex story that deserves more attention."

Beneath the Eagle-Bouton-Moyers-Singleton brawl lies a web of questions spun when the newspaper donned a role beyond gathering and sharing facts. When does a philanthropic donation assume the appearance of a financial stake in a project? Does corporate advocacy for a controversial civic authority unduly entangle the newspaper and compromise its credibility? What pressures does corporate involvement in such a divisive community issue create for the newspaper's reporters?

Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, describes the Eagle saga as a "great example of where even the purest of motives by media organizations can be tarnished by even a whiff of an agenda or a financial stake or both.... The fact of the matter is when a news organization takes that first step--no matter how good the intentions--to get itself involved in a sports enterprise, there is no way to predict the problems that will ensue, as this situation so vividly illustrates. The potential for conflicts and problems are almost limitless and totally unpredictable."

McMasters notes that news organizations' involvement in sports teams, stadiums, naming rights and civic centers has raised ethical questions for years and that such controversies are by no means unique to the Berkshire Eagle. "It's sort of a sad and tawdry and inevitable story line that emerges in such situations," McMasters says.

The questions become all the more pressing when a newspaper dominates the market. The Eagle, with a circulation of 31,300 (35,300 on Sunday) is Pittsfield's sole daily. No local TV stations are based in Pittsfield, which is considered part of the Albany, New York, market. The weekly Pittsfield Gazette, which blasted the Eagle's behavior during the stadium war, has a circulation of just 2,500.

Singleton and Mick depict their involvement in the stadium fight as an effort to protect Pittsfield's baseball tradition and reinvigorate a languishing downtown. "When you are as much a part of the fabric of Pittsfield as the Berkshire Eagle was and always has been, it's hard to say no to something that we believed was that good for Pittsfield," Singleton says. "Any plan that would be the corner of rebuilding downtown, of making it a destination for the Berkshires, seemed to be positive for the community."

Singleton purchased a nearly bankrupt Berkshire Eagle in 1995 from its longtime family owners, bringing a distant corporate presence to a local institution with a heritage of civic participation. When Mick approached Singleton with the mayor's donation request four years later, Singleton sensed an opportunity. "There were a lot of people nervous about group ownership of a paper that had been here for 113 years," he says. "It was a way for us to show, 'We're not interlopers who come in and just take from you.' It was a way for us to show the local community that we're part of this community, too."

But in this instance, the Eagle's community activism exposed its news reporting to charges of hidden agendas. "It's difficult because it seems to put the newspaper in a position of being an advocate rather than a trustworthy and credible objective observer, gathering facts and letting people make decisions," says David Scribner, the Eagle's editor. "On the other hand, why are we in journalism in the first place? I'm in journalism to make a difference, to make the community better. We're a work in progress. Sometimes we do right. Sometimes we muff it up. In this case, I think we muffed it up, trying to do something right, but I think we were clumsy about it."

While Scribner embraced the stadium project in his editorial pages, he sounded more conflicted during a December interview in his office. In retrospect, he says, the company "should have done it far differently." The project was "way too hastily done," the civic authority's eminent domain provision "was very carelessly written," and the group "driving this," including the bank and Mick, "had no respect for opposing views."

Scribner says his reporters felt uncomfortable covering the stadium drive. "They resented being put in that position," he says. "I resented it. I still resent it."

D.R. "Dusty" Bahlman, who has worked at the Eagle since 1984, was one of the principal reporters covering the stadium saga. "We bent over backward to try to get the side of the folks who were opposed," says Bahlman, 50. But he had some trouble getting opponents to return his calls. "Unfortunately, the newsroom got caught up in this vortex, and we all became the enemy," Bahlman says. "I don't think that the corporate managers who got involved in this deal fully apprehended the consequences of involving the newspaper, and I underline the news part of that word, in such an enterprise....

"All we have to sell is our credibility," he says, adding that he believes "there has been damage to our credibility" as a result of the stadium episode.

I told Bahlman that Singleton says the Eagle's credibility hadn't been compromised. "Dean Singleton is a newspaper owner," Bahlman replied. "I am a newspaper reporter. Dean Singleton lives in Denver, Colorado. I live in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and I grew up in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.... His job is to run MediaNews Group. My job is to cover Pittsfield."

Another primary reporter on the story was Bill Carey, a business reporter, who returned to the paper in September 2000 when the stadium issue was building to a crescendo. "It's easier writing about two parties [when] one of them doesn't sign your paychecks," Carey says.

Carey, 43, was a reporter at the Eagle in the mid- to late 1980s. He then worked in Washington, D.C., for the aviation trade press and served as editor of a technology newsletter. He says the stadium coverage was "extremely difficult.... It was difficult for me to interview my employer, Andy Mick, who's a wonderful guy but he is my boss, and also on occasion having to call Dean Singleton in Denver and to interview him and to ask pointed questions."

Carey describes the civic authority legislation as "well-intentioned but badly executed," noting proponents' failure to involve the public early on fueled a perception that it was conceived behind closed doors. "My own criticism is we got a little strident in some of our editorials," Carey says. He thinks the editorials' tone "hurt our reputation in the community, fairly or unfairly."

Eagle news coverage from that time period appears consistently to have noted the involvement of the parent company. (Bahlman jokes he should have programmed his F8 key to drop in the obligatory boilerplate paragraphs). Stories also described opponents' positions and the anger of people whose houses would have fallen in the stadium's path.

"There seemed to be, particularly early on, a lack of diversity in viewpoints on the civic authority, the stadium and related issues on the news pages," says Jonathan Levine, publisher of the weekly Pittsfield Gazette. "They may have been a little tardy in suggesting there was anyone questioning this plan or giving fair credibility to some of these people. But then later on they made a conscious effort to make sure that was happening."

Carey put together a comprehensive overview of the stadium issue, a three-part series published just over a week before the special election. Part one examined claims that the civic authority had "unacceptably broad power and little accountability, especially in its ability to take land by eminent domain." Part two focused on the claims of backers in the business and political communities that it was the "best vehicle available to build a multipurpose downtown stadium" and would "breathe life into the downtown." Part three explored the issue's divisiveness.

But an AJR review found weaknesses and oversights in the paper's day-to-day coverage. The stories centered heavily on meetings and daily news developments. Few, if any, probed beneath the surface to scrutinize the origins of the project or the process that solicited scant public input before rapid passage of the civic-authority legislation, which had to be modified after state legislators complained about its broad eminent domain powers. The Eagle did not report that Singleton would have naming rights. It did not report on pollution at the 2.5-acre property Singleton purchased for the stadium until the spring of 2003--nearly two years after the civic-authority vote. And unlike the paper's news stories, the Eagle's editorials rarely mentioned Singleton's $2 million donation and the involvement of New England Newspapers.

The Freedom Forum's McMasters cautions that when news organizations do get involved in such a civic venture, "no detail is too small to divulge."

Carey's series described the planned financing for the anticipated $18.5 million stadium as a mix of corporate contributions, state grants and revenue bonds to be issued by the authority and repaid with stadium revenues. The authority was supposed to protect local taxpayers from incurring costs. Left unexplored in Eagle stories: How did national municipal experts and economists assess the financing plans? What would happen if unanticipated state deficits jeopardized state grants? What if stadium revenues were lower than expected, and the civic authority defaulted on its bonds?

Time-consuming enterprise stories such as these are a luxury at the Eagle, which has a loose quota for its reporters of two stories a day. Once one of the great independently owned papers, the Eagle had 67 full-time newsroom employees when Clarence Fanto arrived as Sunday editor in 1987 but suffered significant staff reductions in the financially troubled final years of family ownership. Fanto, now managing editor, says Singleton cut a few additional positions and reduced salaries by as much as 39 percent after he took over; until then, the Eagle was paying well above industry standards for a paper of its size.

During the stadium saga, the paper had 38 newsroom employees. Of those, 10 were reporters. "It's definitely more difficult and challenging to do long-range investigative reporting," Fanto says. "We like to see two [stories] a day, but if somebody's working on a major story that requires a full day of reporting and writing, that's fine."

Nor was the stadium the only story to dominate headlines in late 2000 and throughout 2001. Mayor Doyle became embroiled in a financial scandal involving mismanagement of the city's health insurance and pension funds and a city deficit that eventually exceeded $10 million. The deficit precipitated property tax increases and the creation of a state-controlled oversight board that governs the city's finances to this day. Reporter Jack Dew, 30, whose expansive beat includes City Hall, the environment and health issues, was the primary reporter on that issue and based much of his coverage on documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Dew says the reporting was "hell" because the mayor stopped talking to him and wouldn't take his phone calls. Meanwhile, the mayor remained the Eagle's ally in the fight for a new stadium.

The paper did not disclose the naming-rights agreement between Doyle and Singleton. Reporters apparently never asked Singleton or Mick directly about naming rights, and they seem not to have volunteered the information, although they say it was not a secret. Singleton says he told the mayor that because his company was likely to be the largest donor, he'd like the new stadium to be called "Eagle Field." Singleton says there was no "quid pro quo," and he planned to make the contribution even without naming rights. When I asked if that was clear to Doyle, Singleton replied that he thinks it was, adding, "they didn't ask."

Singleton's naming-rights request became public only after Moyers posted a December 5 letter from Williams & Connolly, a well-known Washington law firm, on his program's Web site. The letter objected on behalf of Singleton and Mick to Moyers' interview with Bouton and to Moyers' online commentary. The Eagle "was to receive no benefit in return, other than the right to name the stadium," the law firm's letter said. Bouton then wrote a letter of his own, also posted on the site, asserting that "the Eagle's $2 million was not a 'donation' as it was always presented, but rather a grab for an asset worth far in excess of $2 million--stadium naming rights.... Some donation. More like a rip-off."

Reporter Bahlman says he doubts there was any intent to conceal the naming-rights agreement. "I think it was just one of those things that didn't get out there, for whatever reason," he says. "I can't imagine why anybody would think that we would ask specifically about naming rights."

The Freedom Forum's McMasters says the fact that naming rights weren't disclosed, "and that could have been an innocent mistake in the rush of covering the news, makes the issue much larger than it probably needed to be." He calls the omission a "case of the news organization unintentionally handing over a drum for the other side to beat."

Edward Wasserman, the Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, describes the naming-rights agreement as an "emblematic" issue. "It's sort of symbolic of what sounds to me like a generous and public-spirited impulse that kind of became a bit of backroom deal-making," Wasserman says. "And newspapers are ideologically and spiritually bound to hate backroom deal-making." Wasserman says naming rights "seems to be a rather material fact" that "should have been put before the public." When I described Singleton's conversation with the mayor, as Singleton had explained it to me, Wasserman added, "Skeptics might very well infer a quid pro quo."

Before Singleton agreed to purchase the property for the stadium in January 2001, a private company performed environmental tests on the land. Those tests showed "minor" pollution from petroleum on the site, which previously had been home to several car dealerships with body shops, at least three gas stations and a junkyard. "It wasn't a story yet because the public didn't have the land yet," Singleton says. "We, a private company, were buying a private piece of land." Singleton says his $1.2 million purchase of the land included $100,000 in escrow for any necessary cleanup, and "we would have gifted it clean" to the civic authority.

In July 2003, Mick's Berkshire Sports and Events Nominee Trust sold the land for $1.35 million, with buyer Konover Development Corp. of Farmington, Connecticut, accepting responsibility for environmental cleanup.

The first reference I could find in the Eagle to pollution on that land came in an April 15, 2003, story that described allegations contained in advance copies of Bouton's book. The B1 story by Derek Gentile quoted Bouton as saying the new stadium would have been "a Band-Aid over a tumor" and included responses from Mick and Mayor Sara Hathaway, Doyle's successor, denying a cover-up. In May 2003, Carey reported that the parcel had been "classified as a Tier II waste disposal site, the least severe under state environmental regulations." He reported in June that the state had fined Berkshire Sports and Events Nominee Trust $3,750 for "failing to report within 120 days a hydraulic oil release it became aware of on Jan. 10, 2001, but reported on May 10, 2002." Carey quoted an attorney for the trust describing the late report--which came nearly a year after the civic-authority vote--as an "oversight."

The Eagle's editorials on the stadium issue were abundant and unyielding. They ridiculed stadium opponents as "naysayers" and unceasingly proclaimed the merits of the project. It fell to Levine, publisher of the weekly Pittsfield Gazette, to question the fairness of the civic-authority process. "With no advance warning, scant public input and no due deliberation, the city councilors voted to cede these powers to an unelected board lacking public accountability," Levine wrote in a May 25, 2000, editorial. "The rushed vote--scuttling possible public participation--sadly typifies this proposal and taints its laudable elements."

In addition to denouncing the "secret strategizing" of the "Eagle Stadium Team," Levine blasted the Eagle in his own editorials for its "relentless and often silly bludgeoning of anything perceived as anti-Eagle stadium."

Editor Scribner, who along with Editorial Page Editor Bill Everhart wrote the Eagle's editorials on the stadium, defends their tone. "Editorials should be unapologetic," Scribner says. "There's too much wimpy editorial writing around." Everhart says the community "and those who opposed this project received a full voice" in the Letters to the Editor section. While he did not tally the letters, he says "it was probably more anti-letters than pro."

Both men dismiss the notion that they should have consistently disclosed their parent company's involvement in their editorials. "From the editorial point of view, it didn't make any difference whether we were involved in it or not," Scribner says. "It was a good idea." Everhart, who has worked at the Eagle for 20 years and was once a sports reporter there, says such a disclosure would have been redundant. "Everyone was very clear that the Berkshire Eagle, or more accurately MediaNews Group, was involved," he says. "There was nothing to disclose."

But media commentators disagree. "In writing its editorials, the newspaper has to be very clear and repetitive in referring to the newspaper company's involvement," says Bob Giles, curator at Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism and former editor and publisher of the Detroit News. "That has to be done in every instance of writing an editorial" as a matter of transparency. Washington and Lee's Wasserman says "every time you touch that issue that has to be pointed out, in the news and editorial pages."

The Eagle's editorial pages also derided Bouton, whose public quest after the civic-authority vote to lease and renovate Wahconah Park might be viewed as Chapter Two in the Eagle stadium war. Bouton's group "is also burdened with a fantasy world vision of 'historic' Wahconah Park that is as unrealistic as the field of dreams from the Kevin Costner movie of the same name," proclaimed an August 24, 2001, editorial. And that was positively complimentary compared with the editorial page's treatment of Bouton's book. His "command of the facts is so tenuous, and his allegations so unfounded, that it is no wonder he is reduced to self-publishing the book," declared an April 16, 2003, editorial.

The book surprised some of the people it quotes. Bouton says Chip Elitzer, one of his partners in the ballpark project, and their wives knew he was writing the book, but he did not tell anyone else. He took notes during telephone conversations, having learned from writing "Ball Four" that "the important thing to write is the quote" and context could be added later. After private meetings, Bouton wrote his recollections of what everyone had said.

"It's more than a diary," Bouton told me as he leaned back on the living room couch in his home, tucked in snowy mountains about 45 minutes south of Pittsfield. "It's much more than what I remembered at the end of the day. Short of carrying a tape recorder around, it's about as close as you get to re-creating" events. So, I asked, you didn't interview people? "This is far more valuable because it wasn't interviews," replied Bouton, 64. "People were being themselves."

Bouton says word of his book began to spread in January 2002. He self-published it in June 2003 after a dispute with his initial publisher, PublicAffairs. The New York-based company had demanded that he "verify or substantiate" claims about the "motivations and actions of others," according to a letter to Moyers from Publisher Peter Osnos, a former Washington Post reporter and editor. PublicAffairs is suing Bouton to "recover what he owes us under a cancellation agreement that he signed." Bouton recounts in his book that he was "annoyed" by the request to seek comment. "I never asked for a response from the baseball commissioner when I wrote 'Ball Four,' " Bouton wrote.

Levine, the Pittsfield Gazette publisher, criticized Bouton's book in a December 11 editorial as "rife with errors, dubious quotes, naÔvetť and a lack of context." But he also decried the Eagle's "ethical quagmire and conflicted news & editorial coverage during their civic authority push."

That failed civic-authority push ultimately brought the Eagle national notoriety it could not have anticipated, its desire to revive a struggling downtown overshadowed by accusations of conspiracy, pollution, naming-rights rip-offs and distorted coverage. As famous figures feud over the Eagle's actions, its reporters go about their jobs, covering a city where their role as objective observers has been compromised.


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