HBO Sports silences its most ardent critic

Kevin Iole
Boxing Experts Blog

Richard Plepler, the co-president of HBO, has continued to keep a close watch over the network's boxing operation even after the hiring of Ken Hershman in October as president of HBO Sports.

On Wednesday, Plepler made a move that stunned nearly all of the HBO Sports employees and made at least a few of them nauseous: He hired boxing writer and author Thomas Hauser as a consultant.

Hauser has been an ardent, and eloquent, critic of HBO Sports, particularly the regime of its now-former president, Ross Greenburg. Writing for Internet sites such as Seconds Out and The Sweet Science, Hauser repeatedly blistered HBO in a series of lengthy articles about the inner workings and failures of its sports division in the boxing space.

His pieces would often exceed 5,000 words and would describe, in great detail, what had occurred in private meetings.

Greenburg resigned as president of HBO Sports in July amid heavy pressure, much of it brought on by Hauser's writings.

Plepler and Michael Lombardo, the president of HBO Programming, had sought to identify the source of the leaks to Hauser, but were unable to do so.

So, on Wednesday, Plepler made a brilliant move in the game of office politics when he hired Hauser as a consultant. With that one move, Plepler plugged the leak and kept more embarrassing information about HBO from getting into the media.

Plepler has a background in public relations and has a habit of surrounding himself with talented writers. When he was looking to solve some of the problems that were raised in Hauser's columns, he sought the counsel of author, magazine writer and journalist David Remnick.

Last summer, Plepler hired Peter Owen Nelson, a talented writer who had done work for Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, and who is working on a biography of boxing trainer Freddie Roach, as his director of sports programming.

On Wednesday, he continued the trend of bringing aboard boxing writers, adding Hauser.

Hauser announced in a statement he released Wednesday that he would continue to write, but that has become extraordinarily problematic. He is now highly conflicted, and even by putting a disclaimer on everything he writes that he is employed as a consultant by HBO Sports, questions will be raised about his work.

More significantly, what Hauser doesn't write will be as much of an issue, if not bigger, than what he does. Readers now can only speculate what information he has gained from being part of HBO's team that he is not disclosing that he would have disclosed previously.

In an email to Yahoo! Sports, Hauser defended his decision to continue to write about boxing.

"I'm not (and never have been) the HBO police," he wrote. "If you go back and look in my article archives, I wrote one or two articles about HBO each year. I'm still free to write about HBO and anything else I choose to write about. At the end of the day, my articles will speak for themselves. Readers (knowing that I'm a consultant to HBO) can put that in the equation when they judge the merits of what I write. It's no different from Frank Rich (who writes regularly about the arts and politics) being a consultant to HBO."

It is different, though. Rich was an op-ed columnist at the New York Times and a noted drama critic when Plepler hired him in 2008 as a consultant.

In announcing the move, Rich said he had no difficulty getting the OK from the Times to accept the consultancy.

"I am completely out of covering HBO whatsoever," Rich said at the time.

The problem is, Hauser won't be out of covering HBO. If you're a boxing writer in the U.S., you can't cover the sport without covering HBO. It's one of the sport's dominant forces and broadcasts a great majority of its biggest fights.

Roy Peter Clark is a veteran journalist who teaches writing and journalism ethics for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He said the problem of journalists working for people they cover is becoming increasingly common. He said he is not familiar with boxing, but said a journalist must work fiercely to maintain independence. Going to work for a large player in the boxing industry, Clark said, "clearly complicates the process of covering an industry that has traditionally been regarded as corrupt."

"If I am going to cover this industry with integrity, and as much of it as I can muster, it's better for me if I'm covering it from the outside in," Clark said. "Once I step in to play any role whatsoever in the industry [I'm covering], my position is compromised."

Hauser is one of the few boxing writers who wrote with depth and a long-range view of the sport.

It's a dark day for boxing journalism. Despite Hauser's protestations, Plepler essentially bought the silence of one of the few men with the sources, the gravitas and the courage to take on the sport's powerful forces.