Thiel: 3 epic fails in public accountability

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on October 22, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 24 at 12:45 PM

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.

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