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With one click of the Send button last week, New York Timesfootball writer Mike Freeman ignited a firestorm of controversy about the attitudes, behavior, and even reliability of some members of the New York City sports press corps. Writing an impassioned open letter to Sportspages.com, a Web site widely read in the industry, Freeman described an environment of backstabbing, sabotage, racism, and sexism that can leave writers, especially black and female ones, feeling isolated, smeared, and distrustful. "In New York," Freeman wrote, "writers have elevated the sport of nastiness to Olympic levels, fabricating stories about competitors to the team officials they cover, portraying black writers as lackeys for black athletes, and treating some women reporters as an inferior species."
And, he alleged, it's an atmosphere that ought to make back-page aficionados wonder if they're getting an accurate story when they pick up the morning paper: "Increasingly, the ugliness between writers in New York is beginning to leap onto the pages, doing a disservice to the readers we are beholden to."
In particular, Freeman accused five Jets beat writersRich Cimini of the Daily News, Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post, Bob Glauber of Newsday, Randy Lange of The Bergen Record, and Barry Wilner of the Associated Pressof deliberately setting out to disprove a quote from Jets coach Al Groh that Freeman was alone in reporting. (The quote in question, which came from an unnamed Jets player, had Groh saying, "The nation is watching a bunch of pathetic losers.") "The writers decided among themselves," Freeman said in his letter, "that the quote was inaccurate and, as a group, also decided they were going to get Groh to deny it."
Each of the five reporters vehemently denied this behavior to the Voice."It was not portrayed accurately, in my mind," says Newsday's Glauber. "There was no conspiracy about this quote. . . . I am deeply, deeply offended by Mr. Freeman's accusations and I am embarrassed for the entire press corps." The Post's Cannizzaro says he "was really taken aback because I've known Mike a long time, and have always treated him like a gentleman and he's treated me like a gentleman. . . . Personally, the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that his facts were wrong with regards to the incident that he brought up."
One of the accused writers, the Record's Lange, did verify part of Freeman's Sports- pages.com account. In it, Freeman wrote, "[The AP's] Wilner even said, 'I've had to chase a bunch of Timesfootball stories. I think this is a good time to stick it to them for once." Of that, Lange says, "Wilner's quote was accurate to my knowledge, but even that was taken slightly out of context because there was no effort to 'get Mike.' "
No one contacted by the Voicecould corroborate Freeman's specific allegation against the Jets beat writers, and he has not revealed his sources. But in extensive interviews with the Voice many writers not only verified his descriptions of racism, sexism, and vindictiveness, but expressed satisfaction at seeing them made public.
"I felt this tremendous surge of relief because I felt like I wasn't the only one," says a female journalist who asked not to be named.
"I was happy he wrote it," agrees Mike Wilbon, a columnist for The Washington Post, who's a friend of Freeman's and was complimented in his Web post. "It took a lot of courage. We don't have a watchdog in our business, and we need one. We dissect everybody else's business and we don't have anybody look critically at ours. So I'm glad he did it."
Wilbon, who like Freeman is black, says he's witnessed incidents of backstabbing and bigotry in the business. "You get wind of it. Sometimes a player will tell you, 'Hey, you ought to know what's going on.' " It happens elsewhere, too, Wilbon says, but in his experience, not with the venom that it does in New York. "A lot of out-of-towners, they know it's true. When they cover stuff in New York, they see it," he says.
"It took great courage to point out a lot of that behavior in the press box," says Tara Sullivan, a general assignment reporter for The Bergen Record, who's known Freeman since her days at the Daily Newsseveral years back. Especially, Sullivan points out, since press-box rumormongering can affect people's very livelihoods. Reputations make and break journalists. "Unfortunately it does make a big difference," she says. "It's a huge word-of-mouth business. You don't read 'New York Yankees beat writer wanted' in the classifieds. It's all word of mouth, and you kind of need to be in the network to advance in the network."
Word of mouth on Freeman, depending on whom you ask, is that he's either an excellent journalist who takes reporting extremely seriously, or a "paranoid" writer who clearly has significant "insecurities" about his role in New York.
"He's an outsider," says the Record's Lange. "And he wants it that way, from what I understand. That's his method."
It's a charge others scoff at. "Freeman's more of an insider to what goes on than half those guys because of his work ethic," says a New York-based journalist who requested anonymity. As for the descriptions of life in the press box, the source continues: "It was exactly how he said it. And he missed a lot, too."