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The Washington Nationals sell-a-thon ended, as announcer Charlie Slowes might say, with a “Bang! Zoom!” The big winners were the Lerner family and Brett Haber: the Lerners, obviously, for getting the team over all other suitors; Haber for risking life and limb—or at least a career-defining gaffe and “Dewey Defeats Truman” episode—by declaring online and on-air that the contest was over long before any other newsperson in the market said so.
“It feels good now,” says Haber, who, other than to say they were at “the highest levels of these negotiations,” won’t disclose his sources. “But it was a tight-sphincter five days.”
Haber’s bosses at WUSA-TV were so proud of his work that they commissioned a congratulatory commercial to tout the Nats-related news-breaking. “Sometimes you’re first. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes you’re both,” reads the copy of the CBS affiliate’s promotion, which also mocks Haber’s many naysayers by flashing the very words used while trying to discredit his report, chief among them “Erroneous!”
And among the losers—besides the unchosen bidders, who’ll have to find another way to spend $450 million—is George Michael. The WRC-TV mainstay and sportscasting legend gets about twice as much airtime as Haber each night, and he used an awful lot of it to shoot down his competitor’s reportage—right up until Haber was proven correct. Again and again, Michael pooh-poohed Haber’s work with the sort of excitement he normally reserves for rodeo highlights.
“‘Erroneous!’ was from George Michael,” says WUSA Promotions Director David Reeve, who put together the commercial hailing Haber’s scoop.
The fun got started at 11:36 a.m. on Wednesday, April 26, when WUSA posted a blurb on its Web site saying that Haber had learned that the race was over and that the Lerners would be named as the Nationals owner “as early as Friday” and would quickly take control of the team from its caretaker, Major League Baseball.
He went on-air live from RFK Stadium with the same news to open WUSA’s noon newscast.
Haber says that he knew right away his report would make him some enemies.
“We did the live shot, and the first thing I did was run up to the Nationals executive offices looking for [Nats president] Tony Tavares,” he says. “But Tavares wasn’t in his office. He was already out talking to reporters, denying my report. When he saw me, he looked at me and said, ‘This is just hooey!’”
Tavares had good reason to be miffed at the messenger. The Lerners had recently teamed up with Stan Kasten, who, along with being a former rival in the bid to buy the Nats, was once president of the Atlanta Braves. So if the Lerners were in, Tavares was out. Tavares told reporters that his bosses at MLB’s New York offices assured him that there was nothing to Haber’s story.
Haber figures that baseball officials thought they could discount his report because he toils in a medium that long ago lost its journalistic credibility. A 1989 Sports Illustrated story on Howard Cosell tried to explain why Cosell stood out in the sportscaster pack: “TV sports people don’t break stories and they don’t bruise them, either. They hardly touch them.”
“I think part of the vehemence of those denials was that nobody could believe who was breaking that story, just some dumb talking head on TV,” Haber says. “I hope this dispels that to a certain degree.”
But Michael had no obvious reason to take the scoop personally—unless he felt that, as the unquestioned dean of D.C. sportscasting, he, and not Haber, should have been the one to open the envelope and announce the winner.
In any case, Michael couldn’t find enough time or ways to say that Haber didn’t have the right stuff. At 3:16 p.m. on that Wednesday, the WRC Web site put up a story headlined “No Decision Made on Nats Owner.” The piece didn’t name Channel 9 or Haber directly but said MLB and city officials were knocking down a report from “a TV station.”
Michael then went on-air for each of his station’s newscasts that night—and again and again over the next several days—to report that the report was, ahem, “Erroneous!”
“We found the reaction of some of our competitors to be humorous,” says Haber, who declines to call out any of his on-air detractors by name.
As if Michael hadn’t dug himself in too deep already, when Commissioner Bud Selig confirmed on May 3 that the Lerner group was in fact chosen, the Channel 4 sportscaster chose not to put down the shovel. Rather than praise Haber or apologize or just report dryly that the Lerners were in, Michael went live from the new owners’ press conference at the Fairmont Hotel ballroom and insinuated that he was the first guy in the market to name the winner—and that he’d reported it more than a year ago.
“A fair question will be for Bud Selig: Why did it take a year and a month to make the official announcement, when way back in April of 2005 everybody said that Stan Kasten will be the president and the Lerners will be the owners?” Michael said.
Haber was doing a live shot from the ballroom at the same time, and it seemed fitting that his voice was bleeding into Michael’s audio. Haber ended his segment by holding up a placard with “Erroneous” on it that he says was handed to him by a member of a competitor’s crew.
“That was my one moment of gloating in all this,” he says.
Michael didn’t get to the top of the heap by backing down. When asked if he thinks he should apologize to Haber or take back anything said over the air, Michael flatly says no. He stands by all the time and energy he devoted to shooting down the competition’s work, saying that Haber and the WUSA report became the biggest story in town and therefore earned the airtime. Michael also says that from the start, his quibble with Haber’s report was not that the Lerners were going to be named the owner but when the announcement would be made.
“Major League Baseball put out a statement,” Michael says. “I simply read the statement that said [Haber’s report] was inaccurate. It became very clear that it was going to be the Lerners, but when somebody says the owners of the team are going to be announced Friday, and I got somebody saying that’s not going to happen, I went with that. [Haber] said it was a specific timetable, and baseball said something else.”
And he’s not ready to credit the competition with a big scoop.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, it’s going to snow!’” says Michael.—Dave McKenna