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“This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.” For years, this statement, or at least some form of it, followed stories published at MLB’s website. It is technically correct legalese, which as you know is the best kind of correct in that arena: sure, the stories published at MLB.com were not making their way to the desk of the commissioner’s office before their publication, but you can bet that the approval of that office mattered for whether the author would get to publish anymore stories in the future.
It doesn’t have to be a binding part of your contract to be the reality of the situation. This isn’t just some inference I’m making, either: I used to write for Sports on Earth, which was, once upon a time before the latter bailed and put a bunch of people out of work, a joint venture between MLB and Gannett. I was a freelancer who had to pitch a couple of stories per month, and it was made clear to me (in a helpful, non-threatening manner, it is important that I make that clear so as not to make an unfair impression of my editors or the outlet here) that I should save my stories that were going to be critical of MLB for another publication. And that made sense to me: again, it was a joint venture half-owned by MLB, and I was making as much writing two pieces per month for them as SB Nation was paying me for significantly more work, so it was pretty easy to go, “I will keep saying Bud Selig sucks, but I will do it elsewhere” and then just focus on like, Gerrit Cole’s potential as one of the best prospects out there, or how Ichiro Suzuki is the true hit king and Pete Rose can eat shit, or use Sports on Earth’s MLB connections to interview Josh Reddick about his interest in wrestling.
It’s not the kind of thing I could have pulled off nowadays, however, given how far down the labor rabbit hole I’ve gone in the years since. Instead of just being a thing I’d write about occasionally, it is My Entire Beat. And given MLB is, historically and in the present, a real problem when it comes to labor, there isn’t exactly a lot of reason for me to have interest in writing for their publications, or for MLB to want me to. And again, that’s fine: I am certainly never going to argue that MLB’s state media should try to be fair or impartial. All I want people to recognize is that MLB’s state media is not fair or impartial when it comes to things like discussions of labor or its commissioner, and to judge what they read — or what they even choose to read — accordingly.
Ken Rosenthal’s contract with MLB Network was not renewed, according to Andrew Marchand, because of a 2020 article in at The Athletic where Rosenthal said Manfred’s legacy would be harmed by not coming to a deal with the players in 2020. There’s nothing particularly egregious in there — I like Rosenthal’s work plenty, but I’ve also done media criticism on him in this space, so it’s not like he’s a guy who shows up armed to the teeth ready to take down Manfred or MLB on the regular — but yet, pointing out the truth of the matter was enough to get Rosenthal taken off of MLB Network in a secret punishment for some time in 2020, and then his contract was not renewed after it expired at the end of 2021.
Let’s just get to the point here. MLB.com and MLB Network are fine. I like plenty of their work and find it entertaining — well, more on the dot com side, MLB Network’s whole thing is not my idea of a good time just in general, never mind when it’s league the putting it together. But it is important to remember that when it comes time to talk labor or Manfred or legacy or the league’s legacy or what have you, MLB.com might as well be WWE.com keeping up kayfabe, and MLB Network’s productions akin to WWE-produced documentaries about how good and cool WWE is and how all of their enemies over the years were both bad and probably stinky, too.
If you’re expecting fair and impartial from MLB’s media outlets when it comes to how great Shohei Ohtani is, then yeah, you’re going to get it. He rules, and MLB’s employees know it. If you want to know how they’re going to handle labor, well, consider that Rob Manfred’s extremely full of shit letter published at MLB.com as the lockout began, and the only other modern content left on the site at that time was from Mark Feinsand, the guy currently paid by MLB to talk about how good and cool the league’s collective bargaining ideas are, and it’s all somehow even more embarrassing than Manfred’s whole deal. This isn’t a new thing, either. After the 2016 CBA was agreed to, Richard Justice, then with MLB.com, wrote some pretty typical propaganda for his time there, and the url for the story said, “labor peace benefits everyone in MLB” — I don’t think that url is what led me to write like 6,000 words in a six-part series about why labor peace is a lie, but it sure didn’t hurt. As I said at the time, though, this kind of thing can run “without anyone taking a second to think about how weird it is that MLB has their own outlet designed to influence fan opinion on matters like labor peace.”
People like Rosenthal — well-respected journalists who also work at independent outlets like The Athletic and FOX Sports — getting paid by MLB is part of why people don’t stop to consider how weird that very thing is. His presence legitimized the rest of the operation, which is fine in your typical day-to-day stuff when you’re talking about WAR leaderboards and all-star voting, or, again, how much ass Shohei Ohtani kicks, but there’s some carryover in that legitimization when it comes to labor discussions or the legacy of Manfred. Rosenthal’s only crime was threatening the false reality MLB has carefully constructed with their media outlets since their inception: even though he didn’t actually do so on air at MLB Network, he was too significant a personality for Manfred to let him get away with speaking truth on a subject where truth isn’t allowed.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that the disclaimer that followed MLB.com’s stories no longer appears after them. You instead have just author bios, with no word on whether or not these stories were subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs or the commissioner’s office. Now, again, Manfred might not be personally approving pitches on 25 years of Charlie Hough’s knuckleball, but it seems fair to think that, with the disclaimer missing, there’s at least a little more oversight of the editorial wings of MLB than there used to be. Remember that whenever you find yourself reading something related to labor there all the time, but especially mid-lockout.
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