By Murray Chass

July 28, 2009

The newspaper industry is dying quickly; we all know and acknowledge that. But can’t it at least die with dignity? Of course, to die with dignity you have to have lived with dignity, and not all newspapers and reporters have done that. Many certainly have acted with an absence of professionalism.

Believe it or not, these thoughts in my head stem from baseball. As bad as things have gone for the Mets this season, with more injuries than a rehab center and fewer hits than Tiny Tim, they got worse on Monday.

The Mets fired Tony Bernazard as their executive in charge of player development and bungled their way through a related episode. General manager Omar Minaya raised a serious, relevant issue involving a reporter for the New York Daily News at the Bernazard news conference, then reconvened reporters in the rear of the CitiField press box and apologized for bringing up the issue in the context in which he did. He was right in the first instance, wrong in the second.

But in the second instance, Minaya was accompanied by Jeff Wilpon, the owner’s son and chief operating officer, which helped explain his turnabout.

The Mets obviously concluded that Bernazard’s bad acts, among them challenging minor league players to a fight and screaming at the Mets’ superstar closer on the team bus, compelled them to jettison the former second baseman. Minaya, following an in-house investigation, made the decision and passed on his recommendation to the Wilpons, who agreed.

What Minaya didn’t mention to the Wilpons, though – and this was his mistake – was that he planned to bring up a related issue at the news conference. Adam Rubin, the Daily News reporter, who wrote the Bernazard story last week, did not have completely clean hands in his report.

At the news conference Minaya disclosed that in past years Rubin had lobbied him, Bernazard and others in the Mets’ organization for a job in the player development department.

“When the report came it was by Adam Rubin,” Minaya said. “I had to tell myself wow.”

“Are you saying,” Minaya was asked, “when he wrote the stories you were suspicious about what he was trying to do?”

“No,” Minaya replied, “I’m saying I had to scuffle a lot when I made the decision because I knew the person writing this has been lobbying myself and others in the organization for a position in player development.”

“Coming from Adam Rubin,” Minaya added a minute later, “you have to understand that Adam for the last couple of years has lobbied for a player development position. He has lobbied myself, he has lobbied Tony. So when these things came up I had to think about it. I said we have to find out about this.”

Minaya reached that conclusion even though he was aware of Rubin’s stated interest in player development.

“When the stories came out,” Minaya said, “I had to look at the stories and say look, I know who’s writing the stories, but I owe it to the organization to make an even more thorough investigation and expedite the investigation.” The Mets’ human resources department, the general manager said, had begun looking into Bernazard’s behavior even before the Daily News reports.

In response to a question, Minaya said he had never come across this sort of scenario in any other organization he worked for.

At one point, Rubin, who was at the news conference, asked, “Are you alleging that I tried to tear Tony down so I could take his job?”

“No, I’m not saying that,” Minaya said. “All I’m saying is that in the past you have lobbied for a job. You have told people in the front office that you want to work in the front office.”

“Over the years,” Minaya added, “he said he would like to work in the front office, in my front office, not only me but he has asked others.”

Again Rubin asked if Minaya was saying that he had a “personal stake” in what he wrote about Bernazard, and Minaya said, “I am not suggesting that.”

When the news conference ended, reporters surrounded Rubin, who suggested that perhaps Bernazard had given Minaya the idea to say what he had.

Is Omar lying, I asked Rubin. Anybody who says he was asking for a job is lying, Rubin said. “The most forward I think I have ever been,” Rubin began, then stopped and began again, “There may be some e-mail somewhere that they dig up, but my intention was always how do you go about doing this? That was always my intention and nothing more than that.”

Explaining his desire to find out about working in baseball, Rubin said, “The way newspapers are going we all need to look out for ourselves. I’m 35 years old. I’m thinking about the next 30 years of my life. I’ve asked in the past how do you get into that.”

Rubin said he had asked people from all 30 teams how one gets into the baseball business, but someone who has covered baseball for more than five years, as Rubin has, should not have to ask how. It has all been there in front of him.

Much of what Rubin said sounded like good old spin. The saddest thing he said was “There is no conflict of interest.”

But of course there’s a conflict of interest. I’m not suggesting that Rubin wrote the stories to undermine Bernazard, but whatever his intention was in speaking to Mets’ officials about working in baseball Rubin created a situation that raised questions about his motives. That’s certainly how Minaya saw it, and he was justified in thinking that way. Rubin was wrong for not understanding it.

I sent an e-mail to Leon Carter, the Daily News sports editor, asking if he thought Rubin was guilty of a conflict of interest. He did not reply. Instead I received the newspaper’s statement from the editor-in-chief, Martin Dunn.

“This was a well-reported, well-researched, exclusive story, and it’s a shame that the Mets deemed fit to cast aspersions on our reporter instead of dealing with the issues at hand. We stand by Adam 1,000%.”

The Mets, of course, did deal with the issues at hand. They fired Bernazard. But the Daily News editor-in-chief did not deal with the conflict of interest so I sent another e-mail on the conflict question but got no further reply.

In the meantime, Minaya and Jeff Wilpon came to the press box for news conference Part II. Minaya apologized not for what he said but for when he said it. ”That was not a proper forum for me to raise those issues,” he said.

I disagree. That was the absolutely right forum. When else? When no one was paying attention any longer?  

A few years ago I defended and supported Rubin when a few of his colleagues on the Mets’ beat attacked him for what they considered a soft interview with Art Howe, the team’s manager whom the other writers didn’t like. They were wrong because it was a legitimate interview. In this instance, all of the other writers and columnists are virtually certain to side with Rubin against the Mets because the way most reporters think the writer is always right and the team wrong. In my view, though, Rubin was wrong because yes, Adam, it was a conflict of interest.


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