MLB Network Cuts Ties with Ken Rosenthal
Rosenthal criticized commissioner Rob Manfred. Manfred didn't like that very much.
On Monday, Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported that MLB Network cut ties with journalist Ken Rosenthal, believed to be because the future J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner was critical of commissioner Rob Manfred. In particular, Rosenthal wrote a column for The Athletic in June 2020 in which he criticized Manfred’s handling of negotiations with the MLB Players Association prior to the 2020 pandemic-shortened season. After the article went live, Rosenthal was put in, as Marchand described, a “months-long penalty box” in which he didn’t appear on air on MLB Network for several months. After the season, they didn’t offer him a contract or retain his services as an independent contractor.
Rosenthal confirmed Marchand’s report on Monday evening:
As the news circulated yesterday, many were understandably upset on Rosenthal’s behalf. Rosenthal is a household name and universally beloved, a feat that is incredibly hard to pull off in the age of the Internet. He is as middle-of-the-road as you can get, and his reports are almost always on the money. The defense of Rosenthal from baseball fans comes from a good place: he’s earned their trust, and they know whomever his replacement(s) end up being won’t be as reliable or digestible.
That being said, losing Rosenthal from MLB Network is not a big deal. If anything, it’s a good thing. MLB Network, as its name might imply, is the official TV network of Major League Baseball. Various mega-corporations such as AT&T and Comcast have ownership stakes in the network, and they have their tendrils in various teams as well. MLB Network and MLB.com are not independent companies, even if they have acted as if the league and its content generation were separate entities. MLB.com has had reporters for as long as they’ve owned the domain, and they have also had bloggers for quite some time. But there has never been anything approaching criticism of a sitting commissioner or the league because that’s bad for business. If a writer ever tried to publish criticism, it would have been stymied by an editor along the way.
The league has employed many legitimately terrific journalists whose reporting was just as reliable as Rosenthal’s, but they typically only covered the rote stuff: free agent signings, trades, injuries, front office personnel changes, etc. We’re in the midst of the first work stoppage in the MLB.com era. If you look at the front page of the league’s website, it has only a couple of headlines mentioning it. One article, a FAQ about the collective bargaining agreement negotiations, uses the pronoun “we” in reference to MLB. On more contentious topics, like a labor dispute, MLB’s media arms either ignore the issue entirely or take the league’s side, even in seemingly inoffensive ways like pronoun usage.
MLB.com is, to use slightly dramatic phrasing, a propaganda tool, as is MLB Network. For as great a reporter as Rosenthal is, his on-air reporting for MLB Network has always needed to be taken with a grain of salt for the “MLB-approved” filter it passed through. While every media company has its own list of yeses and nos, he has far more freedom to report authentically with his other employers than on the league network.
Manfred has been preoccupied with messaging much more so than any other commissioner in the modern era. His canning of Rosenthal is a threat to every other reporter and personality in the league’s employ, especially since it concerned a report outside of MLB’s purview (The Athletic). He challenged the biggest dude to a fight and won, metaphorically speaking. Fall in line or else. If it can happen to Rosenthal, it can happen to you. And it’ll succeed. While Rosenthal will likely never be in want of work for very long, other reporters and personalities aren’t as fortunate. They’re reliant on their checks from MLB, so they won’t dare to rock the boat (and I don’t blame them).
From a business perspective, it makes sense to want to control the messaging. For example, various companies over the last two-plus years have fired employees who posted anti-vaccine/anti-mask posts on social media because it makes them look bad and earns them criticism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a business wanting to micromanage its image; it’s just that Manfred is clearly — to most of us, anyway — doing it for nefarious reasons. I would likely need more than my given two hands to count the number of times Craig Calcaterra and I, when we were with NBC Sports, called out Manfred for outright lying or trying to manipulate the media.
MLB.com and MLB Network reporters and personalities should be upset at the Rosenthal news because it severely dings their credibility. They’re helplessly caught in the crossfire. With Manfred’s thumb on the scales, can I really take — for example — a report from Mark Feinsand (an otherwise terrific reporter) at face value? Fans are either going to hold a magnifying glass up to each report, or simply find their news elsewhere. There’s a surfeit of options out there and if MLB’s milquetoast reporting wasn’t appetizing before, it sure isn’t now.
In summation, I view this whole thing as a net positive. I know the impulse is to see it as a negative because we love Rosenthal and want to protect a national treasure at all costs. However, he’ll be just fine. Meanwhile, Manfred needlessly exposed MLB Network’s bias, which will cause many who might not have been aware of beforehand to consider it going forward (the Streisand effect). If fans want legitimate baseball news, they shouldn’t have been getting it from MLB Network to begin with and now a non-zero amount of them won’t be for the foreseeable future. Manfred wanted to control the message, but now that message has less impact and reach than if he had just left it alone.
Editor’s note: If you’re reading this, you may have noted my extended absence. This article doesn’t portend my return, I’m sorry to say. I had some thoughts on this particular topic and felt like putting them out there, but I’m still on an indefinite hiatus from writing/social media. I greatly appreciate everyone who reached out to me in the interim. I hope the holiday season treated you all well and 2022 brings you happiness and good health, as much as that is possible in these uncertain times.