When local power players feel slighted by the Washington Post, they generally channel their grievances through one of several channels—a flaming e-mail to the relevant reporter, a letter to the editor, or perhaps a heads-up to Post Ombudsman Michael Getler.
The Washington Redskins these days, however, show no interest in working within the Post’s feedback loop. Twice in the past week, the Skins have issued nasty press releases savaging the paper’s Sports section. “If there are errors, we decided that at least we can do this for the fans,” says Redskins spokesperson Karl Swanson, referring to the anti-Post screeds on the team’s Web site.
The guerrilla PR moves may well mark a turning point in relations between the storied franchise and the paper. “I haven’t ever seen a team attack a media outlet like they’ve done with their past two releases,” says Post Sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz.
In a Monday piece on Redskins roster-trimming, the Post reported that the team had cut defensive back Ryan Clark, among several other players. According to Garcia-Ruiz, that bit of information came from a bad source. “The reporter [Nunyo Demasio] feels terrible about it. We all feel terrible about it,” says Garcia-Ruiz, noting that the Post “always wants to be first on cuts.”
In its next-day Redskins coverage, the paper published the following mea culpa:
“The Washington Post reported erroneously in yesterday’s editions that Clark would be among those cut by the team this week.
Vinny Cerrato, the team’s vice president of football operations, said yesterday, ‘We don’t plan to release Ryan today.’”
To get the full story of how badly the paper screwed up, direct yourself to the Redskins Web site, where a team exec gleefully turns the knife on the Post. The Redskins’ release, in part:
The Washington Post today inaccurately reported that the Washington Redskins had cut defensive back Ryan Clark.
“Imagine how Ryan felt after reading this morning’s paper, packing up his bags and coming to Redskins Park to turn in his playbook,” said Vinny Cerrato, vice president of football operations. “As his fellow players were commiserating with him in the locker room, the coaches were frantically searching for him to tell him the newspaper had it all wrong. Ryan is not being cut….”
“This guessing game to decide who will be cut has consequences, especially when the paper goes with information from uninformed sources. I wonder sometimes whether they stop to think that they are playing with people’s lives and careers,” Cerrato said.
The Skins’ release taps the Post’s mistake for every last twitch of human drama, though it doesn’t denounce the Associated Press, which also made the mistake. Demasio declines to comment on being singled out, saying only that he will “continue to cover the Redskins as fairly and accurately as possible.”
Swanson lumps the Ryan Clark saga in with an alleged Post reign of error that kicked off in January, when the paper reported that the Skins would likely hire retired cornerback Darrell Green in some capacity. It didn’t happen.
“No one bothered to check with our organization,” says Swanson. Funny thing: The Post quoted coach Joe Gibbs as approaching Green about a job. “We stand behind that one 100 percent,” says Garcia-Ruiz.
In July, says Swanson, his file on the Post grew when the paper took aim at the Redskins’ salary-cap situation. The article, by Jason La Canfora and Demasio, reported that the Redskins had parted ways with five former players—linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, cornerback Champ Bailey, fullback Larry Centers, quarterback Brad Johnson, and tailback Stephen Davis—at least in part because of salary-cap considerations. “None of them demonstrably were the result of anything financial,” protests Swanson, who expressed his displeasure directly to the Post. “They sent an e-mail back saying we could quibble about this,” he says.
Says Garcia-Ruiz: “We stand by that story.”
The Skins went straight to the public over the next tiff, an Aug. 26 Post story that charged team officials with selling substandard seats to fans. The story, written by Thomas Heath and La Canfora, reported on sales activity for 4,000 new lower-bowl seats at FedEx Field, whose 91,665 capacity is the NFL’s largest. Relying on one on-the-record source, it alleged that team sales personnel misled fans about the quality of the sight lines from the seats. Also, it reported that Redskins faithful were “urged” to buy the seats “sight unseen,” even though Swanson had earlier stated that they could come to the stadium and test the seats out before making a decision.
On their Web site, Skins honchos morphed from jocks to media critics. “Today’s Washington Post story, based on issues from a ‘handful’ of people and identifying only one fan from among the more than 4,000 who bought new seats, accepted the premise that ticketholders had been somehow misled,” read the team’s press release. Over a two-month period, said the release, “hundreds and hundreds of account holders visited the seats. Those who could not come received computerized drawings of the seating areas.”
Garcia-Ruiz concedes that one named source is not the stuff of bulletproof journalism. But lazy reporting, he says, is not the problem here. “Many of the season-ticket-holders are afraid to go on the record because of fear of retribution by the Redskins,” he says, noting that fans did contribute anonymously to the story.
The larger issue at play, suggests Garcia-Ruiz, is the team’s culture. Since the return of the secretive Gibbs as Redskins coach, he says, the Redskins have clammed up. “It has been very difficult to get the team to confirm anything,” says Garcia-Ruiz. “I would suggest the Redskins comment to us before publication if they really want to avoid errors.”
The choice words flying between the two organizations have the feel of a nice preseason pissing match. Yet the Redskins aren’t content to simply quarrel over the merits of Post coverage. In a fit of pettiness all too characteristic of Daniel Snyder’s tenure as owner, the team is also taking a swipe at the Post for—get this—buying too many Redskins tickets.
This whopper requires some explanation: The Redskins administer a category of tickets called “general admission,” which are essentially lower-grade season tickets. Accounts for general admission are limited to six seats, according to the Redskins, and more than 100,000 households are on the waiting list.
To hear the Redskins tell it, however, the Post is boxing out regular old fans by cornering a whole expanse of general admission seats under a “discreet account,” according to the latest team press release against the newspaper. Says Swanson: “Two-hundred seventy-nine tickets go to two people at the Washington Post—and almost 40 parking passes.”
The Aug. 26 press release amplifies the slam: “‘Since general admission is designed to benefit the individual fan, not major corporations, having secretly garnered more than 200 of the best lower bowl seats, isn’t it time for the Washington Post to recognize the needs of the individual fan?’ said Mitch Gershman, senior vice president in charge of the team’s ticket office.”
According to Post spokesperson Eric Grant, the real story behind those tickets is far less scandalous. The Post bought the tickets “decades ago,” he says, when interest in the Redskins was low. “Through the years and today, the tickets have been used largely by our distributors who work extremely hard, and very early in the morning, to make sure that the community receives the newspaper. Very simply, there is no ‘discreet’ account,” says Grant via e-mail.
The working-class-heroes story line isn’t resonating at Redskins Park. “As part of our tracking, [the tickets] show up regularly being resold by ticket brokers and being sold for higher prices in other ways,” says Swanson.
The epilogue to this saga should be enough to cost the team a few season-ticket-holders: Somehow, contact information for the Washington Post circulation-department employee in charge of the paper’s alleged ticket monopoly recently leaked into the public, the better for rabid fans to vent some outrage. “The employee received several calls as a result of his name and telephone number being divulged to the public,” writes Grant via e-mail. When asked if the Redskins were responsible for outing the ticket-holder, Grant responds, “All I can tell you is the gentleman’s name is on the account.”
Swanson denies releasing the name of the ticket-holder, saying that the organization prizes privacy. For example, he says, the Redskins never even “release the name of our sponsors. It’s a privacy issue.”
Then why did the team out the Post as a major ticket-holder? “We made the exception,” says Swanson, noting that the organization is looking at ways of breaking up ticket blocks.