In 2000, then-editor Wes Pruden of the Washington Times blasted Dan Snyder's efforts to control the flow of information about the Redskins as "chickenshit" tactics.
Last week, the same newspaper agreed to give that same owner unprecedented control over that same flow of information about the same team. And all parties celebrated the deal.
"The Washington Times and the Washington Redskins announced a unique partnership that will make the newspaper a content and marketing partner of the team," said the joint press release.
Basically, the Times will now distribute a weekly magazine produced by the Redskins and publish "commentaries" about football matters provided by the team in the newspaper. In return, columnists and reporters from the Times will appear in the team's video ventures, such as a halftime show narrowcasted via FedExField scoreboards during home games.
There was a time, kiddos, when such a pact would've been viewed as wholly unbecoming of a newspaper. In 1999, the Los Angeles Times published a 168-page special edition of its Sunday magazine, devoted to the new Staples Center; advertising profits were split between the magazine and the arena. This arrangement was deemed so poisonously unethical that the Times newsroom responded with an 11-chapter analysis of the deal called "Crossing the Line," an act of self-abuse in both senses of the word.
And yet the marriage between Dan Snyder and the Times has drawn mostly whimpers from the journalism watchdogs. Maybe that's the most newsworthy thing about the whole shebang. Snyder's cooked up so many similar media-crippling conflicts of interest by now that yet another one barely rates as newsworthy.
In any case, things weren't always so cozy between the 'Skins owner and the Times. After taking over the team in 1999, Snyder told Times management that the paper's coverage showed a bias against him and toward John Kent Cooke, former owner Jack Kent Cooke's son and Snyder's chief rival in the auction to buy the franchise from dad's estate. Then, for the 2000 season, Snyder cut the Times's ration of press-box seats from six to two; any other Times staffer who wanted to work the game was relegated to the basement of the stadium. Snyder said the credentials cutback was necessary because of a redesign to the press box—he had just installed a luxury suite inside the old media room. But the Washington Post, the crosstown paper that was viewed as a pro-Snyder operation under then-sports section editor George Solomon, did not have its credentials rationed. "I think it's chickenshit, what Snyder's doing," Pruden told me at the time.
"He wants everybody to be a cheerleader," he added, "but we don't look at our role like that. We cover his team like we cover the White House, like we cover the British government or anybody. The problem is, Snyder got rich before he grew up. He still needs to grow up." (Speaking of chickenshit: Pruden's replacement as Times editor, John Solomon, no relation to George, did not respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story; he eventually had a public relations firm decline on his behalf. He did talk to the Washington Post last week, telling the Erik Wemple Blog that under the content-sharing arrangement, "You'll know what the Washington Times did, and you'll know what comes from the Redskins.")
Dave Elfin, a star of the Times sports section when Snyder took over the Redskins, also was willing to air his views about the owner at the time. "Dan Snyder is the real Billionaire Bully," Elfin said. "He really wants to win, but he's gone about it without any class and trampled a lot of people."
Elfin is long gone from the Times. Pruden is now called editor emeritus and still writes columns for the paper, having stuck around long enough to see the Times and the Post swap spaces in Snyder's doghouse and penthouse.
Given his track record of failure since taking over the Redskins, it's hard to give Snyder credit for having any sort of plan. But his takeover of a dead-tree daily's sports section is the natural extension of a larger strategy of media creep that commenced shortly after he took over the team in 1999. And, in fairness, an overview of Snyder's efforts in this regard shows him to be as pioneering in media matters as he is devious. Lots of the worst things about modern sports marketing—team-produced programming and team-owned news operations—were Snyder innovations.
He came into ownership with an if-you-can't-beat-'em-buy-'em approach to media relations. His first big move was to bring to heel the local NBC affiliate with far and away the top-rated newscast in the city at the time. He named WRC "The Official Station of the Washington Redskins." And he made WRC sports director George Michael the play-by-play man for 'Skins preseason games on local television.
Those game telecasts were produced by the Redskins Broadcast Network, the team-owned TV and radio operation. Michael at the time was the reigning king of D.C. sportscasting. Putting him on the payroll was a gift that kept on giving. From the day he was hired until his 2009 death, Michael was the market's most fervent Snyder bootlicker on the air and the chief protector of the owner's image off it: In a 2002 profile of Snyder in the Washington Post Magazine, Peter Perl wrote that during the reporting of the story, Michael had warned him, "I'll tear you apart if you trash him."
When the team was losing the public relations battle with star player LaVar Arrington over a 2005 contract negotiation, Michael took the lead in trashing the beloved player as lazy and unintelligent until the fans turned against Arrington. He had members of WRC's news crew pose as working journalists while staffing the 30-minute infomercials produced by Redskins Broadcasting, which had names like "Redskins Nation" and "Redskins Late Night" and were aired during time Snyder bought on the station and on others in the market. (Click here for a Snyder-produced promotional video for team-owned productions featuring future ESPN anchor Lindsay Czarniak and future NFL Network face Dan Hellie.) Michael never disclosed his or his station's contractual ties to the team on the air and, more sleazily, tried to hide them by directing viewers who wanted to provide feedback to an email address with an "nbc.com" address, though the network had no hand in the shows' production.
The lines between journalism and marketing were so blurred at WRC that Michael's underlings, including Czarniak, would wear licensed Redskins clothing on-air while reporting on the team. Seldom was heard a discouraging word about the Redskins from anybody at WRC. When Michael died in 2009, Snyder eulogized him as his favorite journalist, praising the deceased for only reporting things the team had OK'd. "George knew a lot of things here that we were doing," Snyder said in a radio interview, "but he was somebody the franchise trusted."
Along with hiring Michael in 1999, Snyder scooped up Michael Wilbon, then a top columnist at the talent-laden Washington Post sports section, to be a color commentator on the Redskins Broadcast Network. Wilbon continued writing about the 'Skins while also working for them over the next several summers, and George Solomon, the sports editor at the time, let his star staffer get away with the blatant and very public conflict of interest. Wilbon told me at the time he was unaware the team owned the broadcasts and that his microphones had Redskins logos. His relationship with the team was never disclosed.
(As for my own disclosures: Snyder sued me for libel in 2011 over this story. George Solomon fired me from a weekly freelance gig for the Washington Post's sports section in 2000. I've written occasional pop music reviews for the paper's Style section for 20 years.)
There were subtler moves as well. Early into his ownership, Snyder quickly acquired or otherwise shut down all independent Redskins fanzines and newsletters, the biggest of which was Redskins Journal of Manassas, Va. Historically, the D.C. market was loaded with Redskins-themed TV programming produced by local stations; coaches' shows and "Redskins Sidelines," a half-hour show hosted by dearly departed WUSA sportscaster Glenn Brenner on the CBS affiliate, are prime examples. But Snyder killed off all indie 'Skins-related programming and began producing the weekly coach's show in-house (hosted by George Michael). He cited his trademark rights in preventing any local TV stations from using the word "Redskins" in a program's name without paying him. (Similarly, in 2011, Snyder forced the Washington Post to change the name of its Skins blog from Redskins Insider to its current handle, The Insider.)
His manipulation of the media really took off in the 2000 preseason. This was the year he brought in Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders to head a class of big-name, long-in-the-tooth free agents. And with the Redskins as everyone's preseason pick for the Super Bowl, almost everyone became a "media partner" with the team rather than risk losing access. (This was also the year Snyder became the first owner to charge fans for admission and parking to attend practices at training camp.)
One local station didn't play ball with Snyder: WJLA, an ABC affiliate. And for that there was punishment. During training camp, while Michael and the Redskins other "partners" reported live from inside Redskins Park, WJLA's crew was exiled out of headquarters. "We spent the  season shooting in the Redskins Park parking lot," said Rene Knott, former sportscaster for WJLA. (Knott had been hosting a weekly coach's show produced by WJLA before Snyder took it in-house and installed Michael as host.)
Also in late 2000, Snyder hired Andy Pollin, program director at WTEM, then the only sports-radio station in the market, to host "Redskins Game Day," one of the team-produced weekly infomercials. (In 2008, he bought WTEM altogether.)
Snyder moved on to new media takeovers. In August 2005, he acquired extremeskins.com, which at the time was the most popular 'Skins fan forum on the web. He was billed as the first pro sports owner to buy an established fan message board.
Shortly after buying up the fan board, Snyder held a chat with moderators now under his wing and bashed those covering him and the team. He cited "inaccuracies in the media" as his greatest challenge as owner. He was asked more than once during the extremeskins.com chat why there were no replays and no scores from around the league on game days at FedExField. The fantasy football boom was well underway at that point, and fans' thirst for knowledge far exceeded the technological capabilities of their phones. Snyder responded to the chatters that his team couldn't give fans the same sort of audio and video options that every other stadium in the league was providing by then because "the system we inherited was analog." (The bogusness of that analog-only excuse was exposed whenever a U2 or Paul McCartney would bring their own massive hi-def screens into Snyder's allegedly analog-only stadium for concerts.) The next season, Snyder began renting hand-held satellite televisions from a company called Kangaroo Media at FedExField for the amazing rate of $39.95 a game. Snyder didn't shell out any of his own money for digital screens in his stadium until 2010, as smartphone advances made Kangaroo TV obsolete.
Snyder's acquisition of extremeskins.com was part of an attempt to create his own web-based news organization that would bypass the established media and deliver straight to the fans whatever message the team wanted to get out. The venture was called Redskins Unfiltered, which Snyder told The New York Times would "offer fans an a la carte menu of information." He brought in Westwood One radio veteran Larry Michael to run the team's new video news operation. Unfiltered made real news only once, when Michael (no relation to George Michael) posted clips of the Redskins in pads as they banged against each other during offseason workouts. The NFLPA filed a grievance with the league accusing the Redskins of violating the collective bargaining agreement by putting players through contact drills during the supposedly voluntary practices. That grievance was upheld, and the 'Skins had to forfeit practice time. "You know how we caught them?" NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw said at the time. "We saw it on their Web site."
In June 2008, the Redskins hired Matt Terl, a Marylander who previously ran his own 'Skins blog (InternetIsForZorn.com) to be the team's "Official Blogger." Terl was billed as the first fan blogger ever brought in-house by a pro sports franchise. (Snyder had tried to hire the great Dan Steinberg, then a rising new media star at his old-media nemesis, the Washington Post, to fill the position.) Every pro organization has one now.
A year later, he got an established dead-tree football guy, USA Today's Larry Weisman, to defect from the world of real journalism to write press releases disguised as news stories for the team's Unfiltered charade. An actual press release out of Ashburn said that Weisman had brought "credibility" to the news operation. It seemed like Snyder's bravest hire to date: Weisman had brutalized Snyder through the years in print. He called the 'Skins' home stadium "FedUpField" and once wrote of Snyder's wild free-agent spending sprees: "Ever heard that expression about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing? Remember that Dan Snyder isn't so much playing with house money as with your money."
Alas, nobody in the outside world took Weisman's words seriously once he started accepting Snyder's money, and the hire ended up doing nothing to help Snyder's reputation or his relationship with the press. A former co-worker of Weisman's tells me that Snyder never felt he was getting a good bang for his buck out of Weisman. Weisman got canned in early 2011. His time as a propagandist apparently has trumped his years as a newspaper man. He's been unable to re-enter the world of journalism.
It was one thing to bring in a lone sportswriter; it's quite another to contract the loyalties of an entire old-media sports section. Snyder's flirtation with the Times goes back a few years. Since its founding in 1982, the paper has been a loss leader for founder Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church (also known as the Moonies). Intra-Moon family squabbles nearly led to the Times folding in 2010, when the paper was put up for sale. Amid the feud and selloff talks, Snyder showed up at the Times table at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April 2010, and he brought along Bruce Allen, Mike Shanahan, and Donovan McNabb. The paper had only recently killed off its entire sports section for fiscal reasons, which made Snyder's buddying up to the Times odd—unless he was considering buying the thing, which he denied at the time. But the feud ended; the Moonies re-assumed control of the paper and reinstalled the sports section.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the team and the Post has deteriorated ever since Solomon left as sports editor in 2003. Other sections of the paper took Snyder to task for things like selling obstructed view seats at FedExField and chopping down trees on federally protected lands so he could have a better view of the Potomac River. Just as Snyder had long ago punished the Times for actual newspapering by cutting its press box credentials, in 2005 he canceled a reported 267 of the Post's block of 279 season tickets. Snyder and the Post have yet to make up.
And now he and the Times are breaking bread.
If there were any doubts left, let this be proof: Snyder may not understand the media, but he understands how to get the media to do his bidding. He buys outright what he can buy; he co-opts what he can't buy; he attacks what he can't co-opt. In this methodical way, he has, over the past two decades, massively expanded the bubble surrounding him and his organization. He has his own official TV stations (the local Comcast station is a media partner) and his own radio network and his own in-house news organization and now he has, in the Washington Times, a party organ in the guise of a newspaper sports section.
His team's chronic losing and his own serial buffoonery have over time outkicked the soft coverage his conflicted minions from George Michael on down have given him through the years, to the point where his reputation locally is now nearly as bad as his national rep. But when he needs to get a message out, he doesn't need to go far.
Such are the fruits of Snyder's media creep. With very rare exceptions, he does interviews only with employees. He tends to get in trouble when he wanders off the, ah, reservation and talks to folks whose checks he doesn't sign. In a brief interview with USA Today last year at a charity event, Snyder said he'd never change the team's nickname: "NEVER—you can use caps," he said. That gave the opposition a tag line he'll never live down, and it made people who'd never heard of Dan Snyder before detest him. And in September 2011, he told The New York Times Magazine that he hadn't read the story over which he was then suing me. He dropped the suit the day before that Q&A hit the streets.
Snyder hasn't yet sat down for an interview with the Washington Times since brokering the partnership. But a hint of the sort of journalism that's in store for us came Monday, when Snyder joined host Chris Cooley on WTEM's afternoon drive-time show. Cooley, a former 'Skins tight end, not only works for Snyder's radio station but also moonlights for Snyder's faux-grassroots save-the-name advocacy group, Redskins Facts. This was Snyder's first interview of training camp. Surely, after still another offseason full of drama, some sort of reckoning was in order.
Cooley's first question for the boss: "What's your favorite beer?"
"Bud Light," Snyder answered, getting exactly what he'd paid for.
Top Snyder photo via Getty. Bottom Snyder photo via AP. Lindsay Czarniak photo via Redskins.com.