Giving Credentials Where Credentials Are Due

On the brink of a football season that local fans are anticipating as one for the ages, the Washington Times and Daniel Snyder are feuding. At least, that's what folks at the paper think. They claim that Snyder has cut back on their access to his team, for offenses such as solid reporting and unbiased commentary. The Redskins, meanwhile, say that the Times has no right to feel persecuted and that if the paper is a victim of anything, it's the team's current prominence.

In any case, this much is not argued: The Times requested six sets of media credentials for home games in the upcoming regular season. That's the same number the paper got last year and for several seasons prior. Last week, the Redskins denied the request.

The team's media-relations office granted the Times just two seats in the press box. If the paper desired, the Redskins would also allow two additional Times reporters into FedEx Field on those eight special Sundays, but only if they would agree to stay in the basement of the stadium and watch the game on television in a chamber adjacent to the locker rooms. Such arrangements are normally reserved for Super Bowls.

Naturally, Times brass were upset by the rejection. But, given that so much is expected from the Redskins this season--Vegas oddsmakers have made the team an overwhelming favorite to win the Super Bowl--one would think the paper's higher-ups might be interested in kissing and making up with the team before the first kickoff.

Well, one would think incorrectly. Here's the olive branch the Times' highest-up, Editor Wes Pruden, offers about the credentialing situation.

"I think it's chicken[poop], what Snyder's doing," Pruden tells me.

So Snyder's behind the rejection? "Sure, this is Snyder," Pruden says. "Everybody with the Redskins is afraid to blow their nose until Snyder sneezes. This is him."

According to Pruden, the problems date back to before Snyder acquired the team from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke. Pruden admits to having had friendships with the former owner and his son, John Kent Cooke. Snyder knew about those relationships and thought that the Times stories and columns about the transfer of ownership, during which John Kent Cooke tried unsuccessfully to hold onto the Redskins, revealed the editor's pro-Cooke bias.

Little things have happened out at Redskin Park in the last month that the Times people have taken as signs of Snyder's discontent: Credentials to one workout were limited at the beginning of preseason training camp after a column poking fun at Snyder's decision to charge fans $10 admission, for example. But despite the paper's name-calling--"Danny Boy" and "child" are often used to describe the diminutive, deep-pocketed owner--there was never any retaliation so obvious as the recent press-pass cutback.

"We've heard for some time that Snyder was unhappy with our coverage, and now this happens," Pruden says. "It's unprecedented. He wants everybody to be a cheerleader, 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."

In a statement faxed to Washington City Paper on Wednesday, Pruden said, "Neither I nor the newspaper thought there was a feud between us and Mr. Snyder."

On a few occasions this preseason, the Times has filed complaints about the Redskins' behavior with the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA), an advocacy group for NFL beat reporters. John Clayton, reigning PFWA president, says that his group's investigations have uncovered a "cause-and-effect" relationship between what the Times has written about the Redskins and how its reporters are treated by the team out at Redskin Park. Clayton said, however, that he's not ready to declare the credentialing situation a one-paper problem.

"The [Redskins'] treatment of the media in general, not just the Washington Times, has been a cause for serious concern," says Clayton. "We will continue to look into the matter."

According to the Redskins, the Times is being treated exactly like every other news organization. Yes, the team did cut the Times' supply of press box credentials by 67 percent, admits Doug Green, director of public relations for the Redskins. But, Green adds, a lot of newspapers and media outlets were cut out entirely, because of a new configuration to the press box that has eliminated a lot of space formerly taken up by reporters. (In fact, Snyder has just installed a luxury suite inside the press box--making FedEx Field the only stadium in the NFL where beer-guzzling, paying patrons and working press share the same quarters.)

"We have a lot fewer seats available in the press box this season," says Green. "So everybody has been tuned back a bit, and for newspapers it was totally based on circulation. The Times wanted a guaranteed number of seats for the entire season, and we wouldn't guarantee them, because then I couldn't get them back in a week where we need to fulfill requests from other news organizations. We expect to get a lot of [out-of-town] requests this season, and if it comes down to giving a seat to a reporter from Sports Illustrated or one more person from the Washington Times, I'm sorry, but it's going to Sports Illustrated."

So Snyder didn't order the credentialing cutback? "Well, no," says Green. "I've heard the Times say that, but I've told them I don't think that's the case."

Paul Woody, who has covered the Redskins for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 21 years, has no trouble believing the Times version.

"Well, it's hard to look at the situation and not think the Times is suffering more than anybody else," says Woody. "The Times seems to be the paper that really sets off the Redskins, and Dan Snyder really is hands-on enough to do something like this."

If the Times is indeed being punished for its editorial content, it wouldn't be wholly unprecedented behavior for a Redskins owner. Jack Kent Cooke famously banned all his employees from talking to Washington Post reporters for a time a few years ago because of that paper's coverage of his personal life. The beneficiary of that embargo was the Times, to whom ex-general manager Charley Casserly leaked information about draft picks and signings.

The Post patched up its differences with the Cookes and now enjoys a relationship with the Redskins that Times staffers often claim is too cozy to be trusted. The Post will have six seats in the press box this season. Don't expect any such detente between Snyder and the Times.

"Dan Snyder is the real Billionaire Bully," says Dave Elfin, longtime sports reporter for the Times, recalling the infamous nickname given to Jack Kent Cooke by former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. "He really wants to win, but he's gone about it without any class and trampled a lot of people. All I can say is, his team better keep on winning." --Dave McKenna

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