October 21, 2008
If you haven't been keeping up with the big NHL media news of the week regarding the Edmonton Oilers' treatment of a blogger in their press box, here are the important summary links: The original post on Covered in Oil, our coverage of the controversy here on Puck Daddy and CBC Sports journalist Elliotte Friedman's well-reasoned rebuttal from Monday.
Time to add one more important link to that list: Our friend David Staples on the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey blog interviewed Edmonton Oilers media relations director J.J. Hebert and vice-president of communications Allan Watt, who admirably hold the corporate line in defending their organization's actions.
A few reactions to the case they've stated today:
• Let's get one thing clear at the start: Generalizations about all NHL media relations departments are just as awful as generalizations about all bloggers. We work with enough of them to know that many hockey communications folks are aces, and not Neanderthalic luddites like the PR drones in Edmonton. Apologies if there was any confusion about that.
• Back to the issue at hand. The Oilers media relations duo makes it perfectly clear that journalist David Berry was singled out for live-blogging from the press box because of that live blog's content, which included colorful language and unrestricted player-bashing. "It was disrespectful, it was embarrassing and we simply do not need it," Hebert said. "What triggered it initially was the content," said Watt. "It was profane."
We can quibble over whether or not a professional sports organization has the right to censor media by restricting access; what we can't argue about any longer is that censorship is, without question, at the heart of this particular case. And whether you're Scoop Typewriter with the "media" sign on his fedora or blogging in your boxers, that's a rather chilling and audacious revelation from the Oilers brass.
They're not the morality police. What they consider "profane" or "disrespectful" matters only for the tepid, filtered content they create for their own Web site.
Covered in Oil's audience will decide if the content is profane. Berry's credentialed employer (Sports Ticker, correcting the record) will decide if his writing elsewhere is "disrespectful" enough to warrant his continued employment.
The Oilers certainly have every right to explain their discontent with Berry's content; but they chose to bully the guy with scare tactics in an effort to restrict his speech. That's rather pathetic, and certainly something that wouldn't have been done had a newspaper -- with its editor and publisher ready on defense -- been on the credential around his neck.
If you read me on Deadspin, you know the tone of my hockey writing has changed here at Yahoo! Sports. To put it succinctly: [Expletive deleted] has become "poop face." I've even been told that a word used in the winning entry of our Chris Pronger contest can't be used here on Puck Daddy. Despite it being a rather tasty ingredient for cooking.
But the important, not-to-be-missed, essential point here: It's my employer, Yahoo! Sports, setting those guidelines, and not the NHL or its teams. That's the difference between standards and practices, and outright censorship.
• Regarding their treatment of Berry, Hebert told Staples: "It's not like we bound and gagged the guy and pulled him out of building."
You'd think having Berry delete the blog he had written and published from the game might fit under the "gagged" header.
But no, the Oilers media relations staff did not actually tie Berry's hands and feet together, stuff a gimp-like ball-gag in his mouth and then carry him out of the arena, tossing him in a trash heap while yelling, "AND STAY OUT!"
Congratulations. Want a cookie?
• The flimsiest part of the Oilers' argument has always been that Berry was there on one credential but was doing work for a non-credentialed organization, that being Covered in Oil. As I pointed out over the weekend, members of the media have been working for one company while collecting information for other forms of media (books, magazines, radio, the Web) since either the Stone Age or Stan Fischler's first hockey tome, whichever came first.
So I find this passage from Staples' interview just laughable:
Press box pass holders can only do the work that was agreed upon by their media organization and the Oilers, Watt says, though there are some exceptions to this rule. A writer might be there on a press pass to do a story for a magazine, but then may want to use some of the information gathered for some other newspaper or radio station. If the writer clears this with the Oilers beforehand, this practice would be acceptable. "All we ask is that you tell us," Watt says.
I've been a sportswriter for close to 10 years, and before that I worked in PR. The operative phrase above is "if the writer clears this with the Oilers beforehand." Because it doesn't happen. Members of the media are not lining up before a game to brief the VP of communications about the various masters they're serving that evening. If anything, they're confronted about it later or not at all.
Staples, unfortunately, didn't get into the specific cases of media working for multiple outlets that Naete Sager did in his coverage of the Berry affair. Obviously, they've all cleared their coverage with Edmonton beforehand. Even the bloggers. Uh-huh.
• If a team chooses not to accredit independent bloggers, that's their choice. Just don't say it's because "you can't open the door to one guy and then say no 250 others."
There are blogs that want access, and blogs that don't. There are blogs that earn access, and blogs that do not. "Letting 250 blogs into the press box" means you're too lazy to develop guidelines for access, for the ones that desire and deserve it.
Or that you just don't give a damn about alternative media. This is a really pitiable argument here by the Oilers, akin to saying gay marriage will lead to marriage between man and Doberman. It's that kind of disconnected, extreme logical leap.
• Finally, I completely understand the Oilers' desire to squash live blogs in the press box because they believe they own "live blogging" rights.
What I'd like to see is a test of common sense in which they explain why fans can live-blog a game off of their television screen at home, but not from the press box; and then, depending on their answer, a legal test that can determine who owns the right to provide the public with information: News outlets and blogs and YouTube and that guy with his Blackberry at the game, or corporations who sell their rights to other corporations?
Obviously, the debate continues. I encourage you to read the Oilers' statements in the Staples interview and judge for yourselves whether they get it. Because reading lines like this makes me believe they never will:
"There are a lot people out there who are gathered in threesomes in a basement somewhere, and you have to read that for awhile and then skip over it, and you might have to go to two or three more before you get anything that's any good."
While I'm all for "threesomes in a basement," I'm pretty sure these guys don't believe the alt-hockey media is anything to respect.
If you're not over this mania yet, I highly recommend giving Tyler Dellow's take on the matter a read. It's outstanding.