Back in the day, some guys in high places coined a slogan for how to stay on top in political Washington: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Dan Snyder grew up around here. But he’s always operated by another creed: When the going gets tough, attack the Washington Post.
“I remember Ben Bradlee saying years and years ago that the Washington Post always sold the most papers after a Redskins game, a game everybody knows the outcome of,” says Carter Eskew, another guy who knows how this town runs. “People want to read about this team. So one could argue that cutting them off is maybe not the smartest thing to do.”
Eskew is a founder of the Glover Park Group, a big-time political consulting firm, and among the many bold-type lines in his résumé is the one about being chief media strategist for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. Using the press is his business. In his spare time, Eskew feeds an older, stronger passion: Redskins fanaticism. Eskew grew up in D.C., and he recounts a Sonny Jurgensen cameo in one of his childhood neighborhood football games with much more excitement than he does, say, the Florida recount.
I called Eskew this week to get a political consultant’s views on the media strategy, if that’s not too oxymoronic in this context, that followed the Robert Henson situation. Henson’s the inactive linebacker who Twittered his way to infamy after the Redskins were booed at home during the win over the St. Louis Rams. He used all his thumbs to type that fans were “dim wits” and poorer earners than him. Other Redskins, including Chris Cooley, followed with barbs at the fans.
Redskins fans will boo their own. Mark Rypien got booed at home during the Skins opener at RFK in 1992. He’d just been named Super Bowl MVP. But then Rypien held out for more money during the offseason, and, much worse, opened up the next season with a lousy performance against Dallas. The fans let him know his goodwill tank was on E.
And if the home fans booed the MVP of the reigning Super Bowl champions, well, this current crop of Redskins should feel blessed they haven’t been old-school stoned at FedExField. But Henson, who has never played in an NFL game, let alone won a Super Bowl MVP, believed Skins players were above being razzed by the local consumers. And in the middle of the uprising over Henson’s anti-fan tirades, Snyder chose to go after the Washington Post. A piece posted on the team’s Web site, Redskins.com, and bylined by communications staffer Gary Fitzgerald, took bizarre jabs at the local paper of record.
Among them: “Henson’s apologies on Twitter and in his Monday media session—as well as Zorn’s comments on the young linebacker—were not fully included in a Tuesday story in The Washington Post. The article focused more on the mistake and not the contrition.”
I assumed a guy like Eskew would find the Skins behavior during the Henson episode at least as confounding as the recent playcalling, including that Clinton Portis option pass.
“It’s totally self-defeating,” Eskew says of the Redskins’ response. “There used to be this wall hanging in Chris Dodd’s private bathroom, a list of the 10 stages of political denial.…One of them was, ‘Blame the consultant.’ Then ‘Blame the media.’ Then the final was, ‘Blame the voters.’ That’s what the Redskins have done here. In politics, there are still some people who like the press. I don’t see anybody in sports who likes the press. They’ve determined that these people aren’t their friends but that they can be used. So you learn how to use them.”
Snyder has never learned how to use any medium he doesn’t own. He’s been acquiring and developing media properties for a long time and has used every new medium to go after the Washington Post.
Some of his biggest sorties into media attack land:
• In 2004, Snyder created an in-house news organization called Redskins Unfiltered and used it to beat down Nunyo Demasio, then the Post’s beat reporter. Like many of his peers, Demasio had reported a rumor that defensive back Ryan Clark had been cut by the Skins. Snyder tried using that opening to whale away at the paper.
• The next year, Snyder took over what was the most popular independent Redskins fan message board, ExtremeSkins.com, at a time when the Post was covering “obstructed view” seating at FedExField and Snyder’s axing of trees near his home to give himself a better river view. He was also taking heat for canceling a lot of season tickets that had historically been controlled by the Washington Post. Snyder used his first chat on his new message board to personally accuse the Post, though not by name, of being among a group of “corporations that had amassed [Redskins season] tickets” and then sold them to “mass scalping rings.”
• Then, in 2006, Snyder paid $33 million for a series of low-powered radio stations in the area. No real audience could get those frequencies, so he bought three more stations in 2008, including WTEM-AM, the original sportstalk station in the D.C. market and a longtime conduit of fans’ ill will toward Redskins management. He gave team executive Vinny Cerrato a show on WTEM. And Cerrato, just as he’d exploited Redskins Unfiltered to go after Demasio, attacked his successor, Post reporter Jason La Canfora.
None of these past attacks on the Post have paid any dividends. But there was at least one sign that things might be different between Snyder and the media this year. In July, he hired Larry Weisman, a longtime NFL reporter, from USA Today. Weisman wasn’t only respected by his peers, he was liked. The hire made Snyder seem big, since it required him to overlook things like Weisman referring to FedExField as “FedUpField” in previous writings.
But the anti-Post Hail Mary that Snyder threw during the Henson episode proved nothing has really changed at Redskins Park.
Dan Gerstein, another political consultant and longtime advisor to Sen. Joe Lieberman, says some crises call for specific media attacks. Gerstein points to the John McCain campaign’s focus on the New York Times during the 2008 presidential campaign. That paper put out a front-page dud of a story about the candidate’s relationship with Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist. The article hint-hint-hinted at romance between McCain and Iseman but fell far short of proving they were rubbing naughty bits. McCain’s camp attacked the Times with everything it had and won some battles: Even before the story ran in the print edition, the paper ran a “note to readers” on the Web denying that the piece was meant to imply a romantic relationship.
“The McCain campaign very effectively used that strategy to deflect attention from the substantive issues the story raised, about the lobbying,” says Gerstein, a committed New York Giants fan. “But it’s a very short-term strategy. People both in politics, business, and sports get fooled because there’s this distrust of media. They think that they can leverage that hostility to cover up their own mistakes and shortcomings. But usually it’s a mark of desperation.”
Both Gerstein and Eskew agree that Snyder would be better off working on improving his team than on attacking any messengers.
“We can all watch the games,” says Eskew, who stayed in front of the TV for “every play” of Sunday’s Detroit fiasco. “The media doesn’t interpret anything for us about the Redskins. We saw it, and it’s pretty visceral.”
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