Plot Thickens in Story of Cubs Attempting to Stifle Freedom of Press

Any organization in any industry is going to try to foster favorable coverage, that’s the way public relations work. It could mean putting out news releases that massage certain facts and stats or even omit details to cast a more positive light. Maybe it’s granting interviews to outlets that will uphold a preferred narrative, or simply getting out in front of a story before the media does.

But what the Cubs — and I want to make it clear that we’re not talking about the baseball side of the house — have been accused of recently crosses the line from PR to propaganda, or worse. A few logs have been thrown on the fire since, but this tweet from Sheryl Ring of FanGraphs sparked the flames this past weekend.

That begat an article from Bill Baer of NBC Sports titled: Cubs alleged to threaten writers who criticize Addison Russell; Cubs dispute report. The latter three words were added in a revision, along with a note that the Cubs had refuted the report as unfounded, but the story had already grown legs by then.

Making like an exasperated supervisor in the Crest plant cleaning up after a mistake on the assembly line, Theo Epstein spent part of Tuesday’s pregame media session trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

“If you want to write critical articles about Addison or about the club’s handling, you’re more than welcome to,” Epstein said. “Seriously, we believe in the freedom of the press and this is an issue where we expect there to be strong opinions. People have their right to have those opinions and express them however they want.

“We would never try to stifle freedom of the press. The threat of reprisal to a media member about any topic, especially one of this nature, is not acceptable. I would be surprised if that happened with the Cubs, and if it did, I would want to know who it was and they wouldn’t be working for the Cubs much longer. That’s a fireable offense.”

Several Cubs beat writers, including Jesse Rogers and Gordon Wittenmyer, have stated on the record that they’ve never been threatened or coerced and others have told Cubs Insider that no such shenanigans have occurred. But those on the beat have the protections of their publications and the BBWAA to prevent any such strong-arm tactics.

Wittenmyer has all kinds of credibility here, since anyone who’s followed his work at the Sun-Times knows he’s done anything but fawn over the Cubs. I mean, can you imagine the column that would come out if someone tried to push him around or stop him from writing something? C’mon, it’d be nuts.

Still, beat writers are there in the clubhouse interacting with players and execs every day. Not only do they know the deal, but trying to mess with their access in any way would create the kind of massive shitstorm not seen since most of the Wrigley Field bathrooms were out of order on Opening Day in 2015.

Not everyone who covers the team is a beat writer, though, and we’ve seen over the years that the Cubs aren’t always tactful when addressing those they view as adversaries. Whether it’s rooftop owners or the local alderman, team execs have used their bully pulpit in an attempt to muscle opponents around. Even the typically rah-rah Cubs Convention became an inappropriate political platform this year.

As the news cycle churns, other Chicago media voices are coming forward with confirmation of the initial reports. Herb Lawrence, executive producer of Cubs baseball and other shows at 670 The Score, tweeted out a link to Baer’s story and simply added, “Very true.”

Tribune sportswriter Paul Sullivan took it a few steps further in response to Rogers’ Tuesday-evening tweet about Epstein decrying the suppression of freedom of the press.

“Looking forward to the imminent firing squad,” Sullivan tweeted. “Cubs’ brass (not Theo or Jed) has been trying to influence coverage for years, constantly complaining to editors about articles and tweets they didn’t like, whether it’s Tribune, Sun-Times or Daily Herald.”

I discussed some of this on a recent episode of Inside Corner, my semi-regular YouTube show, saying that it’s very easy to believe the Cubs might try to push some media members around. Those without BBWAA membership or a full-season credential would be particularly susceptible to reprisal through reduced or eliminated access. What I did not say on the video was that it’s easy to believe because I’ve heard of it firsthand.

Neither I nor anyone at CI has been personally threatened with a reduction of what limited access we get now, since you can’t revoke a credential that doesn’t exist. And while the only request I’ve gotten to amend anything I’ve written about the team came in response to a story about the price of beer going to $10, I believe the Cubs have gotten two separate t-shirt vendors to pull some of our designs.

As for who in the organization is having these conversations with the media, Forbes and CI contributor Ryan Davis may have pointed a finger. In case you were not aware, Julian Green is the Cubs’ VP of Communications and Public Affairs and is frequently the face or voice of the organization on several different non-baseball fronts.

Barring any additional developments, I don’t believe anyone is actually going to be fired over these reports. Whether pink slips are involved or not, though, the Cubs need to have some serious internal conversations about how they handle their PR work moving forward. Because if they keep bullying people and presenting such an unlikable image, there are going to be a lot fewer puff pieces to approve.

Okay, that last bit was more of a jab than anything, but the Cubs really have made quite a few marketing missteps over the past several years. As much as that might be inevitable for any multi-billion-dollar corporation, the real problem is that the Cubs don’t seem to have learned from any of their mistakes.

Maybe they just don’t care, but it might not be a bad idea to at least fake it a little more often.

Update: Julian Green reached out to Cubs Insider to address the allegations of coercion and threats of reprisal to which his name has been attached, saying, “Bad journalism is at play and we all must be concerned.”

Green also appeared on 670 The Score’s Mully & Haugh Show Thursday morning to discuss his

A person who has had no known association or record with the Cubs and is not acting on behalf of a credible news outlet for which they work or are affiliated with — which by the way requires high standards for reporting — can send a tweet without material key facts and not have it questioned because they sent it from their personal Twitter account — it’s egregious, and I think it’s absolute power unchecked.

The next tweet that says Julian Green threatened me in the clubhouse…and it’s sent out on a Sunday night and can be picked up by the likes of a credible news outlet that I have a great deal of respect for —, which first ran the story — then basically I become news and it becomes the truth. And I take great offense to that, because again, it’s unchecked. And I can be accused of something when it wasn’t corroborated and there was no evidence provided. And that’s a problem.

You can listen to the interview for yourself via the player below.

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