Monday, August 12, 2013

Washington Post Sports (And Business) Watch: Failing to Ask Leonsis Some Tough Questions

OK, today's post isn't technically about the Washington Post Sports section. But when I opened up Monday's Washington Post Business pages and saw that Post business writer Thomas Heath had spent "the better part of an hour last week"  talking to Washington Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, I got excited. And then I read the interview.

The interview, this week's edition of Heath's Monday column, was pegged to the sale of the Post to Jeff Bezos and its similarity to Leonsis buying the Caps and Wizards--they were both tech entrepreneurs who bought a well-known D.C. business from one of the city's best-known families. It had some interesting stuff in it, such as Leonsis saying he has volunteered to help Bezos and the Washington Post going forward because his sports teams and investments "need a healthy, thriving Washington Post," and his statement--not all that surprising having watched Leonsis run the Caps all these years--that Monumental Entertainment is an "e-commerce platform and media company and social media company. Oh, and yes, we also own sports teams." And I was really puzzled that Leonsis said his son, Zach, who is 24 years old, has "never read the physical paper." Either his son didn't read much when he was a kid, or Ted is just exaggerating for dramatic effect.

But what stood out the most to me was what wasn't in the article at all. Thomas Heath, the reporter who writes about local sports business issues when they arise for the sports section, spent "the better part of an hour" with Leonsis and yet apparently never asked him anything about why he refinanced the team's debt, how that affects the Caps and why, despite the claims that he's never made any money on the Caps, the loan was oversubscribed--meaning more people wanted a piece of it than could be accommodated. Sure, this wasn't totally in line with the theme of his column, so it would have been perfectly fine to have written another story or blog post with Leonsis' comments on this matter--but I can't find anything on the Post website about it and haven 't seen it in the paper. I guess I should assume that the question wasn't asked.

Even more glaring in its absence is the other question I brought up when I first broached this subject last month--Leonsis' invention of a story about the Bullets' championship trophy being hidden in a closet when he took over the team, a story whose only purpose was to make him look better and Abe Pollin look bad. I can understand how information on the refinancing of the Caps' loan wasn't directly relevant to Heath's piece, but how can this story not be? Heath specifically notes that the reason that he called Leonsis is because he "has experience in buying legacy family businesses" and then "shaking up the organization." The fact that after the trophy story was printed, Abe Pollin's widow, Irene, reportedly called Leonsis to dispute his story and the two "cleared the air"--that could certainly be an example of a possible pitfall in buying a company owned by one of the "city's leading families," couldn't it? That if you say something that makes the former owners look bad--especially if it's not true and only serves to make you look good--that they're going to be pretty mad and it's going to be written about in the newspaper?

Sure, I understand asking a question about this topic isn't easy. Leonsis may have refused to even address it if it was asked (although you don't know until you ask it.) But I am amazed that this incident wasn't even mentioned in Heath's piece, even to say that Leonsis declined to talk about it. It's directly relevant to the topic of the story! (And Leonsis has never spoken publicly about this incident, only releasing a statement admitting that the trophy story wasn't true to the Post last spring.)

Furthermore, can you imagine Heath calling up Dan Snyder and doing an interview where all he talked about was Snyder's marketing background? Or calling up Ted Lerner just to talk about building shopping centers? Ted Leonsis is much more media-accessible than those two, but that doesn't mean that a Post reporter shouldn't be asking those questions.

I don't think either of these questions are unreasonable or out-of-line. In fact, they're just logical questions a business reporter should want to ask the owner of the Caps and Wizards. For some reason, it seems Heath didn't ask them. Heath's Monday column is called "Value Added." Unfortunately, there was a lot of value that was missing from this one.

(By the way, there is some really good stuff in today's Post sports section, including the Davey Johnson piece.)


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