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Knicks Owner to New York Sports Writers: Drop Dead

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The decade-long feud between New York Knicks owner James Dolan and the New York Daily News has taken an interesting turn, with reports that Dolan-owned Cablevision is preparing a bid to purchase the strapped newspaper.

Cablevision is considering making a $1 offer for the Daily News, which has been hemorrhaging money for years. The New York Post estimates that annual losses are between $20 million and 30 million, while the company has spent more than $150 million on printing presses, an ill-advised bet on print media. Real Clear Politics reports that the Daily News saw a 10 percent decline in circulation from 2007 to 2014, and the Post reports that circulation has dropped 30 percent since September.

In February, Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman announced he was exploring a sale in a memo to employees. "It has to be an ego buyer," a source told the Post at the time. Cablevision has yet to comment on the rumored bid, but as Knicks fans know all too well, "an ego buyer" is pretty much the most succinct way to describe Dolan.

It should be noted that Dolan's potential bid won't come unchallenged. Gristedes owner John Catsimatidis submitted a bid last Wednesday, while The Hill owner Jimmy Finkelstein is also rumored to be interested. But if Dolan is ultimately successful, it would be part of a troubling trend of the press being far too cozy with the teams they cover.

Fox Sports 1's Katie Nolan recently discussed the issue of teams owning media companies -- or vice versa -- and the inherent conflicts of interest that creates. Examples abound: Comcast, the parent company of NBC Sports and minority owner of NHL Network, also owns the Philadelphia Flyers. Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club owner John Henry is the principal owner of the Boston Globe and its sister sites. And in July, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor purchased the Star Tribune for a reported $100 million.

It's understandable that teams and leagues develop their own television networks and run their own websites that serve up news in a team-friendly manner. But that's entirely different from sports owners acquiring separate news organizations tasked with covering teams through an objective and critical lens. The risk to serious journalists unafraid to report the truth about teams is just one of the perils of these partnerships.

Recently, former Washington Redskins beat writer Jason Reid was set to begin his new radio show (unfortunately named "The Man Cave") on local radio station ESPN 980, which is owned by Redskins owner Dan Snyder. As a columnist for the Washington Post, Reid was a frequent critic of Snyder, who has a famously antagonistic relationship with the media. When Reid's show was pulled the day before its debut, it seemed clear that Snyder had axed the program to silence one of his detractors.

"The Man Cave" did ultimately hit the airwaves Monday morning. The explanation for the delay was a bizarre story in which an imposter supposedly called the station pretending to be ESPN president John Skipper and threatening financial penalties if the show wasn't canceled. I'll leave it to you to judge for yourself the validity of that story. It's worth considering Snyder's history of erasing his enemies in the media by enticing them with better jobs. In 2009, reporter Jason La Canfora, who occupied the same Redskins beat as Reid and was even more critical of Snyder, left the Washington Post to take a higher paying job with NFL Network, which is owned by the NFL team owners. Deadspin reports that Snyder facilitated the promotion after the league urged the team "to figure out how to stop the feud with the local newspaper."

La Canfora's case highlights the fear many Knicks fans should have over the prospect of a Dolan-owned Daily News. The sports media landscape is filled with fawning, perfunctory writing by fans, masquerading as journalists, who maintain their access by sucking up to teams. Daily News Knicks writer Frank Isola, by contrast, has relentlessly called out the team's ineptitude on and off the court for nearly 20 years. Just like the Redskins did with La Canfora, the Knicks limit Isola's access to players and team employees, part of their systematic repression of beat reporters. In 2007, the New York Observer interviewed local Knicks writers and concluded that under Dolan, the job "has become the most demoralizing reporting gig in the city."

"I'll admit," said Howard Beck, The New York Times Knicks reporter, "that the beat makes me miserable."

...

The stories from the reporters are endless: layers of institutional paranoia, public relations officials who openly eavesdrop on private conversations with executives and players, the threat -- and implementation -- of cutting off reporters who are perceived to be critical of the team.

"Everyone is so worried about upsetting Jim Dolan, or getting fired, and as a result people aren't themselves," Mr. Beck said.

Now imagine if Dolan were directly in charge of those reporters' salaries and job security.

Actually, you don't have to imagine -- since 2008, Dolan's Cablevision has owned Newsday, which it acquired for $650 million from the Tribune Co., itself an example of the disasters that may result when a team and media come under the same ownership. Under Cablevision, it's strongly believed that multiple editors have lost their jobs because of the way the Knicks were covered. Employees say Newsday's leadership is afraid to aggressively report certain stories, a culture that affects all beats, but seems to trace back to management's desire to protect the Knicks' image.

"They’re more cautious about things and I think it goes back to sports," one longtime reporter told the Long Island Press in 2012. "Dolan didn't want the Knicks criticized, and he told the sports writers he didn't want them to use adjectives to describe the Knicks! How do you write sports without using adjectives? That's ridiculous!"

It gets worse: Former editor in chief John Mancini was reportedly fired for emphasizing coverage of a sexual harassment claim against Knicks player Eddy Curry.

Given all that, it's reasonable to fear that Dolan's ownership of the Daily News would effectively muzzle Isola. That would be terrible for the city. We need reporters like Isola to be able to cover one of the worst-run yet richest teams in the NBA, whose owner doesn't care about fans and has fleeced New York City taxpayers for nearly half a billion dollars.

So let's start a campaign to Save Frank Isola and, in turn, save the coverage of a team that should and still can be the pride of the city.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net