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Cubs Conflict: Team Blue About Tribune Coverage

Ever since the Tribune Company bought the Chicago Cubs in 1981, the company's newspaper subsidiary, the Chicago Tribune, has lived under a huge shadow of suspicion about its coverage of the team amidst a conflict-of-interest (and arguably a violation of the company's and paper's own ethics policies) as big as Sammy Sosa's ego in its prime.

I've written many times that I've never seen or heard evidence of the Tribune sports section favoring the Cubs because the players and sportswriters work for the same company. But I've also argued - as have Tribune writers themselves - that the paper will never overcome the perception that its Cubs coverage is biased. Nor, as unfair as it seems, should they be allowed to, because readers can never know for sure what goes on behind the curtain.

That curtain lifted briefly last week when The Score's Mike North interviewed the Tribune's Cubs beat writer Paul Sullivan about a recent meeting he had with team officials about his coverage. North's interview was prompted by an item in Chicago Sun-Times gossip writer Michael Sneed's column last Thursday that said "top Chicago Cubs executives Andy McPhail and Jim Hendry berated Chicago Tribune sports editor Dan McGrath and Cubs beat writer Paul Sullivan over what they felt was the paper's unfairly critical coverage of the team. The expletive-laced tongue-lashing supposedly took place last week at Wrigley Field, according to a source."

On Friday morning, Sullivan told North on the air that the Cubs seems to believe the Tribune should be the team's "house organ" - and that positive Cubs coverage in the Sun-Times is "part of the problem."

Here is a transcript of the interview - which can be heard on The Score's Website - edited for clarity.

Mike North: What happened?

Paul Sullivan: Number one, it wasn't last week, it was like three weeks ago. And no, it wasn't all four of us together. They were, I guess you would call them, separate tongue-lashings. And none of them were expletive-laced.

North: Who gave you the tongue-lashing, was it MacPhail or was it Hendry?

Sullivan: Hendry and I had it out about a story I wrote, it wasn't about my coverage in particular. We settled it, and he's cool with us. MacPhail, you'd have to talk to him, he got a little personal, so, we've had some problems with him, but I don't know if I want to talk about them on The Score, to tell you the truth. I'll talk to you off-the-air about it if you want. I thought it was a private conversation and I'm really kind of shocked it was in the Sun-Times. I mean, they're part of the problem themselves, because their coverage is so opposite of ours that I think it makes the Tribune look like its against the Cubs sometimes, like [the Sun-Times is] pro-Cub, which is bizarre.

North: I believe it has to do with you being very, very honest and maybe some other people, maybe not - I don't know if honest is the right word - how about puppets on a string. How about that. Would puppet be a good word?

Sullivan: No, I don't want to characterize another paper's work.

North: Why? I never mentioned anybody.

Sullivan: I like a lot of people at the Sun-Times and I think they do a pretty good job. I just think that, uh, I've been out there for years doing this beat and I think I'm pretty objective and I never really consider the fact that the Tribune owns the team. I write what happens and sometimes bad things happen and I have to report it, and I think some of the people in the Cubs hierarchy kind of think that we're just another subsidiary of theirs and we're supposed to kind of be like their house organ, and obviously that's not the truth.

North: Let me ask you this, this has happened to me, Paul. I'll go down into the locker room and I'll go up to a certain ballplayer and he'll say, Hey I heard you said this about me or you said that about me, and I'll go, What are you talking about? Well another so-called reporter said this. I'll go, Who? They'll tell me. I'll go, I never said that. But apparently somebody is out there poisoning the well for whatever reason. Has that been a problem where somebody else goes to tell MacPhail or Hendry or somebody from the Cubs that, Hey, did you see what Sullivan wrote, or, Sullivan said this or Sullivan said that?

Sullivan: No, I don't think so. I mean, like I said, I've always got along with Hendry, and I thought I got along with MacPhail, until this recent episode.

North: Well, what did you write that upset them?

Sullivan: In general they thought that I was too harsh on Jacque Jones, basically. And some of their criticism is probably right. But I like Jacque Jones, and I talked to Jacque Jones after this whole thing, and, I mean, I've never had a problem with him either.

[Editor's Note: Sullivan may be referring to this story and/or this one; the Sun-Times followed with this.]

North: And I'm sure Jacque Jones would tell you that there are things he could've been doing better at that time.

Sullivan: Yeah, Jacque Jones is not the kind of guy who's going to go hide. I think he's a good guy, he's very honest with himself, and just like [Juan] Pierre, I mean Pierre stunk it up and he said he stunk it up. That's the difference with this team, and I tried to say that in the paper today when I was writing the letter to Gonzo, I mean, these guys are really stand-up guys, and they know that it's going bad, and no one's hiding from it, and in the past I think some of the Cub teams, some of the players, prominent players, like Sammy, maybe Moises, would, if not hide, they would kind of make themselves unavailable in the trainer's room for a long time.

North: Unless they knew you were on their side.

Sullivan: And they knew I wasn't on their side [laughs]. It is a weird beat, I'll say that.

North: Is it the weirdest beat you've been on?

Sullivan: Oh yeah. Just working there, covering it and being on the Tribune, you're always going to get people saying you're part of the house organ, or you're too against the Cubs. It doesn't seem like you can write anything that people don't think one way or the other.

North: Did MacPhail do this in person or over the phone?

Sullivan: It was a private meeting with him and my boss and me, and I thought it would remain private. I think it should be private.

North: Was it done at the ballpark, in his office?

Sullivan: Yeah.

North: Did you have any idea what you were going up there for?

Sullivan: I knew that he probably wasn't happy, but I didn't know that he was that unhappy, let me put it that way. I didn't know he was unhappy over my career, I thought he was unhappy over one story. But I guess it was the cumulative effect . . .

North: If he's unhappy about your career I hate to hear what he has to say about mine.

Sullivan:
I'm sure they don't like you, or anyone on your station, including George Ofman.

North: I'm unhappy about George's career.

Sullivan: It's terrible that your station pulled him off the Cubs beat, he did a good job. I don't know what your station is thinking, he was the only honest radio guy down there. What was the reason they took him off? Was he too hard on Dusty? Too hard on the players?

North: I don't know.

Cross-talk about Ofman possibly being pulled from the beat for reporting on a trade that didn't happen.

Sullivan: [in disbelieving tone] Please. Please.

Following the interview, a Tribune online sports editor posted an explanation on the paper's ChicagoSports.com site explaining that these sorts of meetings happen all the time with sports execs around town.

That may be, but ironically the Tribune/Cubs ownership situation ought to preclude Cubs management from saying anything to the paper's reporters about their coverage. Sullivan and his colleagues are already in an impossible situation.

Consider the fact that Sullivan considered his meeting with MacPhail private. I can understand that, but I also might consider that meeting news - which it has obviously become.

This latest hullabaloo - not only with Sullivan, but Ofman - raises questions once again as well about what really went on behind-the-scenes that led to the departure of the enormously popular and enormously talented TV analyst Steve Stone, whose honest yet understated criticisms of a very bad team rankled a whiny clubhouse.

Truth be told, the Cubs have so much goodwill as lovable losers who have much of the city's affection despite the Tribune Company's horrendous mismanagement of the team that the corporate suite doesn't realize how good they have it. I find press coverage of the team not nearly critical enough, particularly when it comes to holding team president Andy MacPhail responsible for a complete failure to build an organization with a competent farm system and a coherent philosophy, and for the media in general catching on way too late to Dusty Baker's sorry act.

But the attitude not only of Cubs management but Tribune Company management appears to have changed little since the day the company bought the team.

"Being a corporate sibling of the famous baseball franchise became a nightmare," former Tribune editor James Squires wrote in Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers. "[It was] a constant source of tension within the sports staff, a political liability in the newspaper's relationship with the public and a regular cause of corporate bickering."

Ironically, Tribune Company honchos have always seemed to prefer the Sun-Times's coverage of the team.

Squires wrote that "Hardly a week passed without some complaint from the twenty-fourth floor about the 'tone' of Cubs coverage. Anything other than totally complimentary stories which portrayed the company as a paragon of both success and virtue had problems of 'tone.' These usually brought me a call or visit from one of the three executives who outranked me.

"Ironically, considering their fear of reporters not in their employ, they were most often accompanied by a clipping or a transcript of a more flattering account from competing media. Typical was one from [then-publisher Stanton] Cook after the Sun-Times published a much longer story on Tribune Company's annual stockholder meeting than the Tribune did. 'Looks like they gave us a lot better coverage than we gave ourselves.' Another from [John] Madigan on the appointment of his successor as president of the Cubs, 'Their coverage was much better than ours.'"

Amidst recent rumors of a shake-up of the Tribune empire in order to jolt the company's flagging stock, CEO Dennis FitzSimons has insisted the Cubs are not for sale.

And from his point-of-view, why should they be? As long as the Cubs make gobs of money for the company, they will keep the team, no matter how attractive a short-term infusion of cash may seem.

But the elephant in the room remains. The outstanding question isn't what the Tribune Company or the Cubs will do about their relationship with the Chicago Tribune; it's what, if anything, the Chicago Tribune will do. It's incumbent on the paper not only to hold the line, but react the way they would to a similar ethical incursion by City Hall or any other powerful local institution. An editorial castigating Cubs management would be one place to start. Deeper coverage of the executive suites of both the team and the company - which, again, doesn't seem forthcoming from the seemingly uninterested Sun-Times - would be another.

Otherwise we're in for more of the same. But then, to do nothing in the face of misguided and mediocre management would be very Cubs- (and ultimately Tribune)-like.

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