The media controversy around the Chicago Cubs and Addison Russell has taken another turn. Russell returned from a MLB-imposed domestic violence suspension this week and was demoted to triple-A (which led to an unfortunate, if brief, Chicago Sun-Times proposed sports front). Ahead of his return, both FanGraphs contributor Sheryl Ring and Baseball Prospectus writer Mike Gianella tweeted that they’d spoken to media members who had received pressure from the Cubs on how to cover Russell, with Ring tweeting “I spoke to one media member who told me they were privately instructed by the Cubs to lay off Russell and threatened with reprisal if they didn’t” and Gianella adding “I heard the same thing.” Hardball Talk’s Bill Baer, in writing about it, added “After publishing this on Sunday night, I received another confirmation of Ring’s report from another member of the media who wishes to keep their name private.”
That sparked plenty of criticisms of the Cubs, but also some of their beat writers criticizing the report and claiming they’d never received organizational pressure. And team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday night that it would be “a fireable offense to try to threaten a media member because of unfavorable coverage.” If the Cubs had left it there, everything probably would have been fine-ish; Epstein specifically said “I saw that story out there, I’m not calling it into question other than to say the threat of reprisal to a media member about any topic, but especially one of this nature, is not acceptable. I’d be really surprised if that happened at the Cubs, and if it did, I’d want to know who it was because they wouldn’t work for the Cubs that much longer.”
That’s a good stance; it’s indicating that Epstein disapproves of that kind of pressure, but it’s not him specifically trying to claim media members are making it up, and it could have just died there. But Cubs’ vice-president (communications and community affairs) Julian Green (seen above in a screenshot from a 2016 MLB.com video) decided to toss some gasoline on the smoldering fire Thursday, not only denying that he personally had done this, but criticizing the Hardball Talk report, suggesting this was all from one writer’s uncorroborated tweet (it wasn’t, as the three examples above show), and revealing that he’d put pressure on FanGraphs to try and get Ring’s tweet removed (which, you know, is totally how you prove you’re not trying to influence media coverage).
Here’s more on that from what Green told 670 The Score’s Mully and Haugh:
In an effort to learn more, Green reached out to a Fangraphs editor, who responded that they couldn’t do anything because “it was a personal Twitter account,” Green said. Green was upset that the allegation was then reported and widely accepted, pointing out it came from an individual who doesn’t cover the Cubs regularly and had no evidence or further details accompanying it.
“A person who has had no known association or record with the Cubs and is not acting on behalf of a credible news outlet for which they work or are affiliated with — which by the way requires high standards for reporting — can send a tweet without material key facts and not have it questioned because they sent it from their personal Twitter account — it’s egregious, and I think it’s absolute power unchecked,” Green said.
…Green was frustrated at the notion that he in any way may have threatened a media member.
“The next tweet that says Julian Green threatened me in the clubhouse … and it’s sent out on a Sunday night and can be picked up by the likes of a credible news outlet that I have a great deal of respect for — NBCSports.com, which first ran the story — then basically I become news and it becomes the truth,” Green said. “And I take great offense to that, because again, it’s unchecked. And I can be accused of something when it wasn’t corroborated and there was no evidence provided. And that’s a problem.”
First, Julian, no one had specifically accused you of anything, or said this had happened in the clubhouse. There are all sorts of ways for teams to exert pressure on media outlets, and not all of them come from or go through the communications staff. But it’s the disproportionate response here that really hurts Green’s case. First, he’s dramatically misunderstanding the story; the lack of “association or record” with the Cubs is not an indictment of Ring, Gianella, or Baer, as this is clearly them relaying what other media members have told them (and those media members were probably smart to keep their names out of it, given the way Green responded to this).
Green is also claiming this is from one person when it’s come from at least three people. And his claim that it’s “absolute power unchecked” is ludicrous: yes, people can say things about your organization on the internet, but that’s hardly absolute power. And it’s not unchecked; relaying a report like this from an anonymous source transfers the credibility of the report to the writer relaying it. And these writers all have credibility, which would definitely suffer if they were just making stuff up. There’s a risk for them in even relaying this report, and all of the people who have done so have received plenty of subsequent criticism from Cubs’ fans.
But what’s more believable, that someone in the Cubs’ organization privately instructed a writer to lay off Russell, that a writer or writers made up that story and took it to three different national media members, or that three different national media members made the whole thing up? Some sort of pressure from someone with the Cubs sure seems like the most believable from this corner, and the over-the-top way Green responded to this report definitely doesn’t make it seem like their organization is easily able to shrug off negative coverage.
Oh, and all of the beat reporters chiming in with “Pressure? Ridiculous!” just because they hadn’t seen it doesn’t necessarily prove Green’s argument either. It’s notable that pressure could be applied to people who aren’t regularly there, not just the regular beat cast. And maybe some of those reporters already tell positive enough stories that they don’t get much pushback. At any rate, there was an interesting counterpoint Wednesday from Chicago Tribune sports columnist Paul Sullivan:
Looking forward to the imminent firing squad. Cubs' brass (not Theo or Jed) has been trying to influence coverage for years, constantly complaining to editors about articles and tweets they didn't like, whether it's Tribune, Sun-Times or Daily Herald. #TrueFact https://t.co/AcLCTh5pPn
— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) May 1, 2019
And really, a better response here is much more what we saw from Epstein than what we saw from Green. Epstein saw the story and didn’t specifically go after those who relayed it, instead making it clear that he doesn’t tolerate such behavior and won’t tolerate it going forward. And when the team president is on record with that, that could suggest to whoever issued the pressure in question here that they need to change their approach going forward, and it could also provide an opportunity for anyone who receives future threats to relay them to Epstein and see what he does. And really, that’s all anyone needed. But Green’s decision to try and shoot one of three messengers after the fact (while ignoring the other two) brought the controversy back to life, and illustrated that there might indeed be significant resistance to criticism from the team. (And it’s just the latest example of the Cubs tripping over their own feet.)
All in all, this seems like a master class in how not to handle public relations from Green. He gets his facts wrong on the story and its sourcing, he takes it as a personal insult when the story hadn’t mentioned his name at all, he reignites a controversy that had largely died down, and perhaps worst of all, he illustrates that his response to a critical tweet is to call the writer’s employer, try to make them force the writer to take the tweet down, and then complain publicly to local media when they won’t do that. Yeah, that’s really showing that you’re not putting pressure on media members.