Canucks and Beyond

The Hockey Media's Conflict of Interest

02/25/2009 at 3:54pm EST

Sports reporting is news reporting, and if you doubt that, I would argue that you’re not paying enough attention. But while much is made of the roles of new media and their (or ‘our’) impact on the standards in journalistic coverage, very little is ever mentioned about the accepted standards within the mainstream media itself.

And there are some potential conflicts of interest that should be demanding more attention.

That’s why

Lisa Smedman’s

* Fiona Hughes’s article in the Vancouver Courier today is worth a mention. She was spurred to write about potential conflicts of interest in Canucks broadcasting coverage after witnessing the last Canucks/Habs matchup back on February 15th. She outlines the problem as she saw it, here:

Being a Habs fan, I wasn’t walking on air like many GM Place attendees. But it wasn’t just Montreal’s loss that left a strange taste in mouth. I was confused by the presence of a local CBC-TV sportscaster.

When I saw Shane Foxman on the jumbotron conducting interviews and encouraging fans to cheer for Luongo and co., I assumed he was working for the CBC. He is, after all, the local CBC-TV sportscaster who works Monday to Friday on the six o’clock news. I kept waiting to see the familiar CBC logo appear somewhere until it dawned on me that he was moonlighting for the Canucks. Foxman hosts Canucks weekend home games, while Scott Rintoul, a TEAM 1040 sportscaster, works the weekday games.

I understand the need to earn extra dough, but aren’t these side jobs a conflict of interest? Foxman covers the Canucks for Canada’s public broadcaster while Rintoul covers them for a private radio station. Because of my experience at the game, I now view Foxman differently at his CBC job. How do we know if team management hasn’t laid down rules on what not to mention on his sportscast? Or is that just understood? Will he be really critical if he thought he might lose the Canucks gig? And I’m not just talking about poor team play.

Does this mean CBC news anchor Ian Hanomansing could moonlight for the Board of Trade or VANOC? Or Ron Maclean for the Leafs? Foxman does a fine job on the CBC, but shouldn’t even the appearance of a conflict of interest be a concern?

CBC B.C. news director Liz Hughes thinks I’m out to lunch on this one and noted the CBC makes a distinction between news and sports.

Oh really? While there’s certainly a distinction when it comes to sports-as-entertainment vs the local news, no self-respecting journalist should ever forget that sports like the NHL are a business. And a big business, at that. The amalgamation of media empires is already a big concern, but it’s made even more incestuous by situations like this, where journalists are working for multiple companies.

However, I think the Foxman example that Hughes provides—and concerns about the involvement of the public broadcaster—while an important issue, distract from the most obvious. At its core, that can be found in her example above… what if, for instance, Ron MacLean were to be moonlighting for the Toronto Maple Leafs? (Cue CBC/Leafs jokes here…) But seriously: wouldn’t that be an obvious conflict of interest?

Anyone who covers the game is largely occupied with telling the stories of hockey as entertainment, a sometimes whimsical business that doesn’t demand serious analysis and critique (and thank god, because little of our hockey coverage is ever going to provide that).

But a healthy chunk of covering NHL hockey is also a very serious affair. This is a billion dollar business with a great deal of power and a huge consumer base. Paying attention and critiquing what billion dollar businesses do is the news business. Whether it’s sports or anything else. Especially when taxpayers are, at least in part, providing monies to many such pro teams.

Another example of a conflict situation exists in Vancouver when you consider the role of Dan Murphy. (And I’m just using him as an example; this is not an attack on Mr. Murphy, by any means.) The knowledgeable and popular Canucks reporter for Rogers Sportsnet has another gig in his world, as he covers the team for Canucks TV when Sportsnet is unable to broadcast the games. This makes him, by all appearances anyway, a direct employee of the Vancouver Canucks for those games.

Are we not supposed to be bothered by that? I seriously wonder why this doesn’t draw more concern.

The last PPV game—I believe it was that same game that Hughes writes about against Montreal—Murphy and his co-host had the opportunity to interview GM Mike Gillis during one of the intermissions. He asked a few questions, interesting but not terribly revolutionary, and then ended the segment. The show cut away to a Canucks TV advertisement then back onto Murphy where he made the statement that (and I’m paraphrasing here) “After we cut off the air, Mike said we could have asked some tougher questions.” Murphy and his co-host laughed it off, and the show continued.

Personally, I don’t find that funny at all. And my issue isn’t with Murphy’s softball questions—not a big deal in one situation—but because it makes you wonder about every other situation. And to be honest, it bothered me that Murphy himself didn’t find that embarrassing, rather than funny.

A sports team like the Canucks usually retains an upper hand with the media by controlling access to the team (i.e. some famous incidents between Brian Burke and the local media a few years ago spring to mind) but the conflict of interest we’re talking about here seems even more sinister. After all, there are reporters who are—by working part time for the team itself—deliberately putting themselves into situations where the stories they cover also might influence their own jobs and income.

I think these issues are something to be concerned about, because as mainstream media companies continue to fold into each other and coverage gets less and less diverse, there will be fewer individual voices to draw attention to the business practices of this monolithic league.

Perhaps that’s what makes blogs so popular to many people—we (in most cases) have accountability to no one but readers. But of course, we’re not journalists either, and the integrity of sports journalism is a paramount issue. How far does the mainstream media think that their integrity can be pushed, before they themselves become concerned about it?

Again, from Hughes’s article:

I contacted media critic Marc Edge, a former journalist and author of Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company, to see if I’m just too picky with my ethics. “The sports department of mainstream media outlets have long been considered the ‘toy department,’ where journalism is less prevalent than boosterism,” he wrote in an email from Texas, where he works at Sam Houston State University. “Teams actually work hard to discourage serious journalism through both the carrot and the stick.”

The stick is, of course, situations like those when Brian Burke was in Vancouver, and his actions and restrictions on the local media. A difficult issue for the media to navigate, certainly, but at least their hands are clean. They’re free to point out the stick is being wielded because at least they aren’t on the Canucks payroll.

But the carrot is another thing all together. If you’re actually taking salary from the team on the side, how can you ever be truly objective?


*the article was initially credited incorrectly at the original website and on this page. It’s now been corrected.

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