BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 10/22/2012

Thiel: 3 epic fails in public accountability

Three unconnected stories — Lance Armstrong, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Mariners — collided in a week of accountability avoidance.

Lance Armstrong, right, owes all the people who supported him, a lot of explanation. / Wiki Commons

Three stories, otherwise unrelated, this week about public empires left me sadly amazed at the collective obliviousness to public consequences of the perpetrators’ calculated indifference:

*The need for victory and glory was so important for cyclist Lance Armstrong that he chose to lie for years to millions in the world of sports and the world of health care that held him in high esteem, while intimidating teammates into keeping his secrets about using performance-enhancing drugs. To this moment, he denies the overwhelming evidence. How? Why?

*The Seattle Times chose to put its No. 1 asset, public integrity, in jeopardy with a desperate, embarrassing maneuver to fund two political campaigns “to prove the power of print advertising” without any explanation of what that meant.  How? Why?

*The Mariners, who finished last in seven of the past nine seasons, including three in a row, not only raised ticket prices for 2013 at Safeco Field, they abandoned their customary practice of a courtesy explainer to season ticket holders in advance of billing, making a bad public move worse. How? Why?

The connection among these unrelated developments is that they are one-of-a-kind operations that rely on monopoly, and trade on public trust, that apparently has allowed them to be dismissive of public conscience and consequence.

Most people want these enterprises to succeed, and surrender their tolerance grudgingly for error. But these misdeeds are not mistakes. A mistake is getting five when two and two are added. These are plans that come from carefully considered policy, policy that can only be described charitably as tone deaf.

Cynics can say these sorts of thing go on all the time with the Pentagon, Google, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, the NFL — remember the replacement refs? — and countless other other institutions and people who believe explaining the how and why is for others. To which I say:

So?

Because it is pervasive doesn’t mean it is unworthy of illumination and criticism. A shrug of the culture’s shoulders does nothing for anyone.

First, Armstrong.

A Sports Illustrated story in the latest print edition examined the conclusions provided two months ago by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that prompted the stripping of   his seven Tour de France titles, followed by last week’s “reasoned decision” explaining the testimony and evidence that led to the action.

Armstrong in August chose not to fight the USADA claims, saying he was exhausted and “done with this nonsense.” The “nonsense” was 164 pages with 850 pages of documentation, in which USADA described a case of “massive fraud more fully exposed.” The evidence includes sworn testimony by 10 of his teammates that Armstrong doped, and they covered for him and doped themselves, partly out of intimidation by Armstrong.

The upshot is an epic betrayal by one of the most honored, revered athletes in modern U.S. sports history. The exposure doesn’t invalidate the inspiration provided by his story as a cancer survivor, nor the deeds done by his foundation — from which he has resigned — but his continued silence makes his future worthless and undermines those who have supported him by word and deed. No greater indictment can be offered than when Nike, whose conscience can be discovered typically only with an electron microscope, kicked him down the stairs.

So far, his own self-aggrandizement is more valuable to him than providing the how and why of portraying himself for 15 years as virtually the only clean racer in the sport’s most massively corrupt era. He is utterly untrustworthy, and every day that passes without his recognition of that makes any future good deeds more unlikely.

A bit less seriously, but more locally, the Times business officials stunned their own editorial staff, not to mention the national journalism community, by offering $75,000 worth of advertising prior to the election to gubernatorial candidate to Rob McKenna as well as an initiative advocating gay marriage.  The claim was to “prove the power of print advertising.”

Really? So if McKenna wins, the Times is rolling in dough? And if he loses, the newspaper filing Chapter 11? Or is there something in between? What metric “proves the power of print advertising” that is worth subverting the Times’ standard of impartiality?

No one needs to re-tell story of the decline of newspapers, nor apologize for desperation. But executive editor Dave Boardman, in an editorial on page A-2 Sunday, gamely went to lengths to say “not our fault” as he tried to paint in hunter orange the wall between journalism and the business side of the newspaper.

But the facts are that the in-house division of church and state in newspapers is almost unique in American commerce, is understood by relatively few outside the biz and is believed by fewer, especially in this polarized age when every decision is scrutinized through a red or blue perspective.

Whatever caused this obtuse spasm-dance, few hear the music. Boardman’s essay tried to protect his troops by making a pretty-please request of readers that they continue to trust Times reporters and editors.

Personally, I would, because I know many and would vouch for their cred standing strong. But Boardman had it backward in his essay when he wrote, “They say past performance is the best indicator of future performance.” Well, no, especially if you go to Emerald Downs, or any race track or betting parlor, where the credo is, “Past performance is NO indicator of future performance.”

That disclaimer may be legal boilerplate to keep people from suing The Racing Form, but it doesn’t change its validity for many enterprises under seige. The more specific point that resonates in journalism is what discerning reader might ask:

“What has gone on before in this regard? What may happen next? And why hasn’t anyone at the Times explained the how and why of their premise about print advertising?”

In this acid political/economic climate, good luck unringing that bell.

Finally, the Mariners. Aside from the absurdity of raising prices when the club’s Safeco attendance has hit an all-time low — the club’s 1.6 million attendance vs. capacity, 44.6 percent, was the worst in Major League Baseball  –  the Mariners said in a Seattle Times story the increases have so many variables for so many amounts in different sections that it “is difficult to show on the (seating) map.”

But they had no difficulty in sending along the increases in the invoices, without warning. In effect, the club is saying what the Times and Armstrong are saying: “Trust me/us.”

The Mariners have done so little to earn that trust over the last decade that it stretches credulity to think — business problems be damned –  that they would even ask, particularly at a time when their motives are under scrutiny for objecting to the proposed basketball/hockey arena next to Safeco in SoDo. The club says its opposition is purely a matter of traffic congestion; common sense says it’s the threat of two more pro teams in town fighting for the discretionary sports dollar.

Even though the Mariners say they haven’t raised prices since 2008, they have, via the use of dynamic pricing, an increasingly popular technique in which prices go up based on market issues such as caliber of opponent, day and date, who knows what else — port traffic?

Somehow, the Mariners aren’t hearing their fans who grow weary of “plans” for contention and want the same thing as fans of the A’s, Nationals, Rays and other perennial ne’er-do-wells. But first, the fans have to pay more — as if they haven’t already.

The position is backward. It’s tone deaf. And even more lamentable lately, because the erosion of accountabiltiy is so pervasive to a public that is emotionally and financially invested in these enterprises’ successes.


YourThoughts

  • Jamo57

    Thanks again, Art.

    ‘a public that is emotionally and financially invested in these enterprises’ successes.’

    One thing that came through for me in your interview with Howard Lincoln was his reference about how the Mariners were simply ‘trying to run a business here’ or something to that effect. To Howard, it’s ‘a business’. At about the same time, I read a tweet from Keith Olbermann responding to a follower giving him a hard time for being a Yankees fan and season ticket holder during their struggles. (Politics aside, Keith writes a pretty good baseball blog for mlb.com). Keith’s response was ‘I’m not a Yankees fan, I’m a Yankees customer’.

    Professional sports is always a conflict between our emotions and civic pride and loyalties vs. the reality we are cheering for multi-million or billion dollar corporations. Whenever there is labor strife, the fans are reminded of that but when we go back to normal operations we forget, or push it to the back of our minds. Howard isn’t allowing us to do that to the detriment to the franchise. I am very aware of the fact he sees us as customers, not as fans. And as such the death of the soul of the sport comes within sight.

    As for the Times, one has to fear for the employees when an enterprise in such a supposedly economically depressed industry struggling for advertising revenue decides to give away $75,000 in ad revenue. Who’s job is going to suffer as a result of the shortfall?

    In both cases, as a ‘customer’ I’ve had to look elsewhere. The Times’ place in my life had become precarious with it’s desire to use the arena issue to meddle in mayorial politics. Meddling in gubernatorial politics was my tipping point. And the Ms have made me more curious and interested in MLS soccer and I will most likely be at the Clink next spring, not the Safe.

    As a customer, one always has to shop around.

    • art thiel

      Intriguing take, Jamo — a sports fan will to shed an old loyalty based on the quality of the experience.
      You’re right that fans are always conflicted between sports business and sports sentiment. We know there’s no logic to it — then again, if we were logical beings, who would ever write a love song?
      Over the last three decades tolerance for mediocrity has dwindled as prices have soared. I don’t think Howard gets that because, as you say, his business decisions keep getting in the way of fan enjoyment. That may be the most critical misjudgment of his tenure.

      • Jamo57

        Art, I have often defended the Seattle fanbase to transplants and out of towners who view us as bandwagon jumpers or fair weather fans, ones that only support a winner.

        If they are new to the Seattle sports scene, I recite our history of free agent departures, franchises threatening to leave or actually leaving (either temporarilly as the Hawks did, or permanently as the Pilots and Sonics did). After hearing our history, they usually empathize, or at least understand.

        My point is that if our players and franchises can be ‘free agents’, then the fans can be too.

        Or to put it in terms that Howard Lincoln can understand, ‘It’s strictly business’.

  • Jamo57

    Thanks again, Art.

    ‘a public that is emotionally and financially invested in these enterprises’ successes.’

    One thing that came through for me in your interview with Howard Lincoln was his reference about how the Mariners were simply ‘trying to run a business here’ or something to that effect. To Howard, it’s ‘a business’. At about the same time, I read a tweet from Keith Olbermann responding to a follower giving him a hard time for being a Yankees fan and season ticket holder during their struggles. (Politics aside, Keith writes a pretty good baseball blog for mlb.com). Keith’s response was ‘I’m not a Yankees fan, I’m a Yankees customer’.

    Professional sports is always a conflict between our emotions and civic pride and loyalties vs. the reality we are cheering for multi-million or billion dollar corporations. Whenever there is labor strife, the fans are reminded of that but when we go back to normal operations we forget, or push it to the back of our minds. Howard isn’t allowing us to do that to the detriment to the franchise. I am very aware of the fact he sees us as customers, not as fans. And as such the death of the soul of the sport comes within sight.

    As for the Times, one has to fear for the employees when an enterprise in such a supposedly economically depressed industry struggling for advertising revenue decides to give away $75,000 in ad revenue. Who’s job is going to suffer as a result of the shortfall?

    In both cases, as a ‘customer’ I’ve had to look elsewhere. The Times’ place in my life had become precarious with it’s desire to use the arena issue to meddle in mayorial politics. Meddling in gubernatorial politics was my tipping point. And the Ms have made me more curious and interested in MLS soccer and I will most likely be at the Clink next spring, not the Safe.

    As a customer, one always has to shop around.

    • art thiel

      Intriguing take, Jamo — a sports fan will to shed an old loyalty based on the quality of the experience.
      You’re right that fans are always conflicted between sports business and sports sentiment. We know there’s no logic to it — then again, if we were logical beings, who would ever write a love song?
      Over the last three decades tolerance for mediocrity has dwindled as prices have soared. I don’t think Howard gets that because, as you say, his business decisions keep getting in the way of fan enjoyment. That may be the most critical misjudgment of his tenure.

      • Jamo57

        Art, I have often defended the Seattle fanbase to transplants and out of towners who view us as bandwagon jumpers or fair weather fans, ones that only support a winner.

        If they are new to the Seattle sports scene, I recite our history of free agent departures, franchises threatening to leave or actually leaving (either temporarilly as the Hawks did, or permanently as the Pilots and Sonics did). After hearing our history, they usually empathize, or at least understand.

        My point is that if our players and franchises can be ‘free agents’, then the fans can be too.

        Or to put it in terms that Howard Lincoln can understand, ‘It’s strictly business’.

  • Michael Kaiser

    “What has gone on before in this regard? What may happen next? (with regard to the Seattle Times)” What has gone on before is more variations of the same slime. It is just now that the public is waking up to the fact that the press has NEVER been pushed to be impartial. Newspapers have been shills for their owners agendas from day one. Period. There is no other side to this argument. And “reporters,” and I use that term lightly, in fact very lightly, are humans of the same variation as 99% of the species of humans. With little to no integrity when push comes to shove, with the only question being where, on an individual basis, push comes to shove. Reporters pursue their own agendas WHENEVER possible. As do all humans. So let’s call the press what it always has been. Not try and sugercoat things and discuss the high level of “integrity” of most journalists. I never have met someone of high integrity in my life. Just people who have lived under better or worse circumstances that have hastened or forestalled their perceived need to “do what they have to do.” At least with columnists you know what you are getting.
    As for the Mariners, this pathetic, wimpy community has given us the Mariners and all the Mariners are. Period.

    • art thiel

      Michael, please feel free to say what you think.

      I don’t share your experience of never having met anyone of high integrity, even in journalism. But I do understand about the human element. I’ve always believed the impartiality is an aspiration, not a guarantee or even achievable in the absolute. It’s like the NY Times slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print.” Does anyone, even at NYT, believe that? Of course not. It’s an aspiration not to be taken literally. But I do believe groups of people are able to get behind professional aspirations and agree to pursue it to a high level. Some do it better than others — just like the rest of life. Journalism has never been a good business for most of its workers, but much good beyond ordinary has come from dedication to their craft that aspires to impartiality.

      As for the Mariners, the community is still showing up to the tune of 1.6 million for pathos. You can write them off as stupid or wimpy, but they haven’t had a chance to pass judgment on your frailties, vulnerability and humanity.

  • Michael Kaiser

    “What has gone on before in this regard? What may happen next? (with regard to the Seattle Times)” What has gone on before is more variations of the same slime. It is just now that the public is waking up to the fact that the press has NEVER been pushed to be impartial. Newspapers have been shills for their owners agendas from day one. Period. There is no other side to this argument. And “reporters,” and I use that term lightly, in fact very lightly, are humans of the same variation as 99% of the species of humans. With little to no integrity when push comes to shove, with the only question being where, on an individual basis, push comes to shove. Reporters pursue their own agendas WHENEVER possible. As do all humans. So let’s call the press what it always has been. Not try and sugercoat things and discuss the high level of “integrity” of most journalists. I never have met someone of high integrity in my life. Just people who have lived under better or worse circumstances that have hastened or forestalled their perceived need to “do what they have to do.” At least with columnists you know what you are getting.
    As for the Mariners, this pathetic, wimpy community has given us the Mariners and all the Mariners are. Period.

    • art thiel

      Michael, please feel free to say what you think.

      I don’t share your experience of never having met anyone of high integrity, even in journalism. But I do understand about the human element. I’ve always believed the impartiality is an aspiration, not a guarantee or even achievable in the absolute. It’s like the NY Times slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print.” Does anyone, even at NYT, believe that? Of course not. It’s an aspiration not to be taken literally. But I do believe groups of people are able to get behind professional aspirations and agree to pursue it to a high level. Some do it better than others — just like the rest of life. Journalism has never been a good business for most of its workers, but much good beyond ordinary has come from dedication to their craft that aspires to impartiality.

      As for the Mariners, the community is still showing up to the tune of 1.6 million for pathos. You can write them off as stupid or wimpy, but they haven’t had a chance to pass judgment on your frailties, vulnerability and humanity.

  • Will

    Of the three examples you’ve given, what the Seattle Times has done has the most significant of consequences of them all. As traditional news sources shrink or become political platforms and blogs and other internet newsy sites grow, an on going question is, “Who can the reader believe?”

    I’ve always assumed there was bias when newspapers recommend a candidates … now it’s in the open… “This Space For Rent”.

    As for the Mariners? They’re a product, nothing more. And the simplest way to complain about a product … don’t buy it.

    Armstrong is a different bird. If he did drugs to enhance his performance … is there anyone (jock or non-jock) on the planet who doesn’t use something to get an edge? Coffee? Tea? Tobacco? Horse liniment? Toothpaste? Alcohol? Vitamins? Street drugs? And, if he is to be pilloried, I think there’s a long, long list of other athletes standing in the same line.

    Bottom line on Lance: Sports is entertainment and performers come and go and audiences will always boo or cheer for more.

    • art thiel

      Will: Newspapers have forever had the custom of endorsing candidates on the editorial page, although I’m persuaded that many young people have never been made aware of the custom. Now that the Times has blurred the distinction further, it may well be time for the remaining newspapers to abandon the practice of political endorsements. The marketplace has whooshed by, rendering the practice nearly irrelevant.

      Mariners: People are voting with their wallets — 50 percent decline since 2001.

      Armstrong: You’re missing the point. It’s not whether drug-taking is right or wrong for athletes. It’s lying, in a belligerent, condemning manner, about whether he broke the sport’s rules, while virtually forcing others to join him.

      But I do agree on the entertainment aspect: The only way to curb whatever is deemed illegal is to break the business by not supporting it. Since you and I many others support the biz, we are all complicit in its abuses.

  • Will

    Of the three examples you’ve given, what the Seattle Times has done has the most significant of consequences of them all. As traditional news sources shrink or become political platforms and blogs and other internet newsy sites grow, an on going question is, “Who can the reader believe?”

    I’ve always assumed there was bias when newspapers recommend a candidates … now it’s in the open… “This Space For Rent”.

    As for the Mariners? They’re a product, nothing more. And the simplest way to complain about a product … don’t buy it.

    Armstrong is a different bird. If he did drugs to enhance his performance … is there anyone (jock or non-jock) on the planet who doesn’t use something to get an edge? Coffee? Tea? Tobacco? Horse liniment? Toothpaste? Alcohol? Vitamins? Street drugs? And, if he is to be pilloried, I think there’s a long, long list of other athletes standing in the same line.

    Bottom line on Lance: Sports is entertainment and performers come and go and audiences will always boo or cheer for more.

    • art thiel

      Will: Newspapers have forever had the custom of endorsing candidates on the editorial page, although I’m persuaded that many young people have never been made aware of the custom. Now that the Times has blurred the distinction further, it may well be time for the remaining newspapers to abandon the practice of political endorsements. The marketplace has whooshed by, rendering the practice nearly irrelevant.

      Mariners: People are voting with their wallets — 50 percent decline since 2001.

      Armstrong: You’re missing the point. It’s not whether drug-taking is right or wrong for athletes. It’s lying, in a belligerent, condemning manner, about whether he broke the sport’s rules, while virtually forcing others to join him.

      But I do agree on the entertainment aspect: The only way to curb whatever is deemed illegal is to break the business by not supporting it. Since you and I many others support the biz, we are all complicit in its abuses.

  • jafabian

    The whole Armstrong scandal says as much as it does about him as it does about the sport itself, especially when some of his accusers had been guilting of doping themselves. You’d think someone would have tried to cut a deal with him to get him to keep his mouth shut. As it stands he could very easily bring the sport down if he decides to come clean. IMO, there’s a lot of dirty cyclists out there.
    As far as the M’s go, I imagine since this season was a disappointment that means the club will be adding some new food to the menus! They need to wake up and realize that winning solves everything. CONSISTENT winning. This year there’s a nice young nucleus of Montero, Seager, Ackley, Smoak, Carp, Vargas and Wilhelmsen. Before that it was a young nucleus of JJ Putz, Yuniesky Bentancourt, Jose Lopez and Felix. Before that it was Ryan Franklin, Gil Meche, Joel Pinero and Ben Davis. And before them it was ARod, Jose Cruz Jr., Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. It seems based on how they continously go on the five year rebuilding play every five years that M’s ownership isn’t all that different from George Argyos at least in terms of player personnel management.
    At least we’re guaranteed some new beer options when that happens.

    • art thiel

      Armstrong did keep his mouth shut, and his sponsors and endorsers (Nike) happily went along. But Armstrong coming clean will be only a help for him and the sport in the long run, however grim the short term hit.

      As far as the M’s, nice list of failed hopes. That’s why the cynicism runs so deep for th latest “plan.” I believe Wedge is sincere, but he hasn’t lived it as you have.

  • jafabian

    The whole Armstrong scandal says as much as it does about him as it does about the sport itself, especially when some of his accusers had been guilting of doping themselves. You’d think someone would have tried to cut a deal with him to get him to keep his mouth shut. As it stands he could very easily bring the sport down if he decides to come clean. IMO, there’s a lot of dirty cyclists out there.
    As far as the M’s go, I imagine since this season was a disappointment that means the club will be adding some new food to the menus! They need to wake up and realize that winning solves everything. CONSISTENT winning. This year there’s a nice young nucleus of Montero, Seager, Ackley, Smoak, Carp, Vargas and Wilhelmsen. Before that it was a young nucleus of JJ Putz, Yuniesky Bentancourt, Jose Lopez and Felix. Before that it was Ryan Franklin, Gil Meche, Joel Pinero and Ben Davis. And before them it was ARod, Jose Cruz Jr., Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. It seems based on how they continously go on the five year rebuilding play every five years that M’s ownership isn’t all that different from George Argyos at least in terms of player personnel management.
    At least we’re guaranteed some new beer options when that happens.

    • art thiel

      Armstrong did keep his mouth shut, and his sponsors and endorsers (Nike) happily went along. But Armstrong coming clean will be only a help for him and the sport in the long run, however grim the short term hit.

      As far as the M’s, nice list of failed hopes. That’s why the cynicism runs so deep for th latest “plan.” I believe Wedge is sincere, but he hasn’t lived it as you have.

  • Will Ganschow

    This is the worst column you have ever written. I also wrote you when you wrote your best.

  • Will Ganschow

    This is the worst column you have ever written. I also wrote you when you wrote your best.

  • Pat

    Art, I appreciate your alignment of a triple threat to public intergrity that might be otherwise lost. So I immediately cancelled my Times subscription, don’t buy season tickets, and can only wonder at the heady confidence of Lance in not being caught for so long. On the Times, like a red card at a soccer match, the loss of a subscription can incrementally reduce the effectiveness of the team and only that will awake the interest of the business side of news in stopping the political intrusion of an inhouse ad. I wonder how many others did this, given the monopoly? Will that be reported? Diddo for the Mariners.

  • Pat

    Art, I appreciate your alignment of a triple threat to public intergrity that might be otherwise lost. So I immediately cancelled my Times subscription, don’t buy season tickets, and can only wonder at the heady confidence of Lance in not being caught for so long. On the Times, like a red card at a soccer match, the loss of a subscription can incrementally reduce the effectiveness of the team and only that will awake the interest of the business side of news in stopping the political intrusion of an inhouse ad. I wonder how many others did this, given the monopoly? Will that be reported? Diddo for the Mariners.