Dan Snyder’s free-agent acquisitions in his early years seemed to show a fondness for an “If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em” strategy with regard to personnel. That tack didn’t work out real well: Deion, Jeff George, the Jets’ offense, etc.
Snyder hasn’t abandoned the concept, however. He’s just taken it off the field. He’s becoming the king of all media.
One of the most novel steps came in August, when the Redskins announced they had acquired ExtremeSkins.com. That was sort of the Neon Deion of fan Web sites, the most popular and brashest such outlet in the burgundy-and-gold universe. ExtremeSkins.com is the first existing fan site ever acquired by an NFL team.
Unique or not, the move was absolutely consistent with Snyder’s behavior since acquiring the Skins. The team’s media manipulation started shortly after Snyder bought the team. He acquired established publications, including the Redskins Journal, a Manassas-based independent fanzine that predated the Internet.
He began producing a series of television shows, most of which involved putting area TV and radio sportscasters, folks who are part of station’s news departments and considered journalists, on the payroll of the team they cover most. (Last month, the team debuted the Snyder-produced Redskins Late Night on WUSA-TV, leaving WJLA-TV as the only major-network-affiliated station in this market not broadcasting the team’s infomercials.)
But whereas most of Snyder’s encroachments into traditional media have been effected with next to no fanfare, some folks are taking notice of the ExtremeSkins.com takeover. Journalists not on the payroll, mainly. The Skins site has become another weapon the team can use against anybody who publicly questions management’s moves and is seen as much as an anti-media forum as a pro-Skins destination.
In an ExtremeSkins.com chat shortly after his acquisition, Snyder slammed the media for, among other things, questioning the big-screen TV at FedEx Field and for using anonymous sources in newspaper stories about his squad. (“I would encourage the local media to follow the example of the national outlets like USA Today which refuses to use unidentified sources,” Snyder posted. “Most obviously have personal agendas.”) When asked what his biggest challenge has been since taking over the team, Snyder answered, “The inaccuracies in the media. The portrayal of people and the use of the coaches, the players and the owners to sell their newspapers.”
During his own chat on ExtremeSkins.com, Karl Swanson, the team’s senior vice president and top Snyder spokesperson, directed all visitors to the “Nunyo Files,” which was a running compendium on the site of alleged reporting mistakes by Nunyo Demasio, the Washington Post reporter who recently left the Skins beat for Sports Illustrated.
A bizarre but widely believed legend among media types at Redskins Park holds that Swanson, for some time, has been railing about the coverage of the team in various postings to ExtremeSkins.com and other Web sites under the handle “andyman.” This character has attained hero status among surfers of ExtremeSkins.com for providing dead-on information about impending transactions, trashing the media all the while. When somebody on the ExtremeSkins.com praised the work of Bram Weinstein, the Redskins beat reporter for sports station WTEM-AM, for example, andyman came through with “He has no idea what’s going on at Redskins Park and neither do the other reporters.”
A recent posting on a sports-media Web site, SportsJournalists.com, seemed to out Swanson as a chat-room lurker; it claimed that the Redskins official had screwed up by registering at that site while the board was hot from a flame-filled thread about Demasio’s move to Sports Illustrated. If such a high-ranking team official, let alone one in charge of dealing with the media, were discovered to be a pseudonymous basher, that could stain the entire organization. Swanson admits that he indeed registered at SportsJournalists.com, but he says he only was trying to reach the moderator and denied having ever posted there or anywhere else as andyman.
“I know of andyman, but I do not know who that is. I am not andyman,” says Swanson.
Swanson says he thinks the real andyman is “somebody who works at a copy desk” of a newspaper (which wouldn’t really explain the character’s apparent anti-media bias).
Some media-bashers aren’t so loath to be outed. The poster who goes by Art is the Wilt Chamberlain of ExtremeSkins.com—he now claims more than 21,000 posts to the Skins site alone. Art has positioned himself as more of a media attack dog than a watchdog; he goes after any journo who utters a negative word about Snyder’s operation with the fervor of a scorned Scientologist. Art is the guy responsible for the Nunyo Files, and he says he’d be doing it even if the Redskins hadn’t acquired the site.
“My name is Art Mills, and everybody there knows that ‘Art’ is Art Mills,” he says. “I’ve been attacking bad journalism for years, before the Redskins ever knew my name, and I’ll be attacking bad journalism for years to come.”
Demasio says he gave his enemies fuel by erroneously reporting that the Redskins were going to cut Ryan Clark before the 2004 season, but he finds the continued attacks against him on ExtremeSkins.com rather amusing.
“As a journalist, every mistake hits like a dagger,” Demasio says. “So I wish I never gave one bit of ammunition. But I still can’t figure out how [the Nunyo Files were] supposed to smear me, especially after the team bought the site. If anything, it made me realize that the Washington Post got under their skins, no pun intended.”
Eric Leichter, a North Dakota urologist and one of the board’s previous owners, declines to discuss the financial terms of the Redskins’ takeover of his board. But Leichter says he supports the site’s tone just as much now as he did before it fell under Snyder’s management umbrella. In fact, he joined Mills and andyman in crashing Demasio’s going-away party at SportsJournalists.com. Posting on the site as “SkinBlade”—he uses “Blade” while bashing at ExtremeSkins.com—Leichter prodded anybody saying nice things about Demasio to “stop swinging from Nunyo’s sack.”
The Skins have rewarded Mills, who lives in Minnesota, for his anti-media venom in a very weird way. Along with getting paid for his contributions to the Redskins Web site, since Snyder’s takeover of the site, Mills now gets to watch the team’s games from—you guessed it—the press box, and all on the team’s dime. He recounts his experiences on the site, which leads to such journalism as the following, from the press box of Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas, posted just after the Skins completed their Monday Night Miracle: “Monday, Sept. 19, Brunell to MOSS TD—Now we’re obnoxious. Mediamembers looking at us. Screw them. YES BABY!!!!!!!! We sprint down to sidelines now.”
Allowing representatives from the fan site, let alone brash media-bashers, to sit alongside working media in the press box troubles Dave Elfin, the longtime Washington Times reporter who now serves as president of the Pro Football Writers Association.
“I wish they were not there,” says Elfin. “They have cheered in the press box, which is against every tenet of the press box. There are already disputes over fan Web sites [being given press credentials] in other markets. But in those other cases, the sites aren’t owned by the team. Here, the site is owned by the team, so we really have no say who gets in the press box. It’s up to the team, and they choose to let in fans disguised as journalists. It’s a distressing trend.”
Mills, who says he used to be a working newspaperman before going into medical-equipment sales, is the opposite of apologetic when he hears that some journalists question the validity of a paid fan reporting on games.
“We give fans an eyes-wide-open, aw-shucks view that they can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “Our presence is every bit as appropriate as the traditional media.”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Max Kormell.