MLB Network has for years stocked its on-air talent by contracting with columnists, insiders, and analysts who have achieved a certain level of prestige or notoriety in the baseball media world. One such insider, The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, did not have his contract with MLB Network renewed last week, a move that, according to the New York Post, was spurred by the fact that Rosenthal has recently been critical of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. Per the Post, Rosenthal was pulled off air for three months in 2020 for criticizing Manfred’s handling of COVID-19 protocols (that no one seemed notice his absence suggests people aren’t paying much attention to MLB Network in the first place), and then his contract was not renewed. In a story published on The Athletic in June 2020, Rosenthal wrote: “As if the perception that Manfred is beholden to owners and out of touch with players was not bad enough, he was trending on Twitter on Monday after performing a massive flip-flop.”
In stories from last month, Rosenthal attempted to make sense of and offer solutions to the ongoing MLB lockout, which included pointing out things Manfred would rather not have pointed out, namely that average MLB player salaries are getting smaller.
And for all commissioner Rob Manfred’s talk in his letter to fans about how players have it so good – When we began negotiations over a new agreement, the Players Association already had a contract that they wouldn’t trade for any other in sports – the players clearly do not agree, knowing their income has gone backward in the only context that matters to them, their own sport.The Athletic
Rosenthal, who will keep working for The Athletic and Fox Sports, confirmed the news of his departure from MLB Network on Monday and seemed to confirm the details of the Post report as well, saying he always “strove to maintain my journalistic integrity.”
(For its part, MLB Network didn’t deny the Post‘s report but described Rosenthal’s departure as “natural turnover.”)
It’s easy to point out that Manfred seems like a sensitive prick—that much was clear well before this latest scandal—but what’s getting lost is the broader power dynamic at play. The root issue is the acceptance of an ecosystem in which reporters who are meant to objectively and critically cover a sports league are also receiving paychecks directly from those leagues. Longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge glanced off this point on Tuesday, when he recalled interactions with former NBA commissioner David Stern.
From this perspective, the problem isn’t the unavoidable conflict of interest inherent in reporters covering the leagues and people who are paying them money, or even petty-tyrant commissioners intimidating reporters for doing their jobs. The problem, in this reading, only crops up when that intimidation goes too far. It’s very easy to grasp that there is something off-kilter about having leagues hire reporters to report on those leagues. It’s easy because an obvious fear would be that a league might cut ties with a reporter for being too critical in their coverage. This has mostly (that we know of, anyhow) been a theoretical concern and therefore easy to wave away. But now that it’s actually happened, now that MLB Network did indeed get rid of Rosenthal for critically reporting on league happenings and trying to make sense of them for readers, latent questions about the sustainability of league-run media are once again worth asking.
Absent a unionization effort and a collectively bargained contract that would ensure editorial independence or provide some sort of protection from retaliatory action, it follows that people who would like to keep their jobs at MLB Network must be very, very careful in what they say going forward. That includes what they have to say about the Rosenthal brouhaha itself. I asked a number of MLB Network personalities, most of whom have at least one other gig in addition to their work for MLB Network, about managing the conflict of interest and if, given what happened to Rosenthal, they feel they can honestly report on and talk about what they see happening in the league, even if that means being critical of its leadership. Has their understanding of what it means to cover baseball at MLB Network changed? Their responses are below.
Sean Casey, former MLB player and MLB Network analyst: “I appreciate the call but I’m not willing to speak about that. I don’t know the situation.”
Jon Heyman, insider at MLB Network and Audacy Sports: “I love working at MLB Network. I loved working with Ken Rosenthal.”
Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated senior writer and reporter and commentator for MLB Network and Fox Sports: “Hi. I am not around this week due to taking some vacation time. Thanks and good luck on story.”
Jon Morosi, broadcaster for MLB Network and NHL Network, contributor to Fox Sports and SportsNet: [Did not respond to messages seeking comment.]
Will Leitch, columnist for MLB.com and other publications including New York magazine: “I can only speak so much to this because I don’t have a contract with MLBN and do not know the details of any of Ken’s deals with them. (The extent of my knowledge of the situation is that Ken is great and I wish he were still on MLBN.) I have never been told by anyone not to write anything, other than when my NYMag editor says one of my ideas is stupid and therefore I can’t write it. I feel like I can be, and have been, critical of anyone I write about, though I of course try to be fair. I am fortunate enough to get paid by lots of different people to write lots of different things, and I don’t feel any more compromised to write something critical about baseball than I do writing something critical about NBC, or Vox, or Amazon, or Apple, or News Corp., or anywhere else that owns companies that pay me to write.”
Joel Sherman, New York Post baseball columnist and MLB Network insider: [Did not respond to message seeking comment.]
Rosenthal also declined to say anything else about MLB Network and the circumstances of his departure. The instinct of people with jobs to remain employed is understandable, as is the instinct for people without jobs to remain employable. And it tracks that the league getting rid of Rosenthal would have a chilling effect on anyone thinking about even getting close to criticizing MLB. This is bad in principle, but the timing, amid a ferocious labor negotiation between the league and the players union, both of whom are fighting to win public opinion as much as they’re fighting for a favorable CBA, makes it even more insidious. The league and the owners have a lot of power to influence the public’s perception of proceedings, and they’re willing to use it.