The Post and the Gnats

Those of us who live in Washington can sometimes over-inflate the importance of what goes on here, foisting local stories on a national audience.

Sometimes, though, those stories can help make a useful point. So today I write about the Washington Nationals and The Washington Post and what they share in common with so many of our failing institutions.

I’ll give it away: They are now being run by people who seem to have too little regard for their companies’ unique ways of doing business. They seem to consider unimportant the sometimes-tedious ethics and practices that made the properties they’ve taken over prosper in the first place. Economy-wide, whatever the enterprise, it’s only about making as much money as possible. Corner-cutting — of all types — is the way to do it.

The Nats, as their dwindling number of fans call them, have just fired their manager, Manny Acta. For those who are not baseball falls — REALLY not — the manager is the head coach, the guy who runs everything that happens on the field … outside the front office, which is the professional-sports name for Headquarters.

I call them the Gnats, which reflects on their tiny number of wins this season. They have finished the first half just below the .300 mark, which is fine if that’s an individual batting average, but pathetic when it’s an entire team’s winning percentage. They have lost way more than twice the number of games they’ve won. The Gnats are the worst team in Major League Baseball this year, and could possibly become the lousiest ever.

The word “manager” in baseball can also mean “scapegoat,” as it does here. The problem is at Headquarters. The teams’ owners come to baseball from the real estate business, and even though they obviously have experienced professionals on the outside and inside, the pros are hamstrung by a do-it-on-the-cheap philosophy that makes creating a decent playing roster impossible.

What makes it galling is that even though the taxpayers provided them a $600 million-plus new stadium, the owners are still refusing to go out and spend the kind of money for ballplayers that would make them competitive. Those of their ilk are often dismissive of the tedious fundamentals that are the foundation of any enterprise. When these basics are too long ignored in the name of expedience, the infrastructure disintegrates — and possibly collapses.

Speaking of The Washington Post, the paper is now embroiled in a self-inflicted scandal: Publisher Katherine Weymouth appears to have been caught selling special access to reporters and top newsroom staff for corporations and lobbyists willing and able to pay big bucks. In the uproar that followed disclosure, Weymouth says it was all a mistake and misunderstanding, but her critics point out that while she is the granddaughter of the legendary Kethrine Graham, Weymouth had never worked in a newsroom before she became publisher.

It’s possibly difficult for her to relate to the bothersome, jealously held ideals and practices which made the Post powerful, one of America’s “Papers of Record.” It is a prestige, earned by the relentless excellence that disdains cutting corners. Even with her pedigrees, Weymouth may be from the “Used to be I couldn’t spell Publisher. Now I ARE one” school.

Now she’s trying to finesse things, following the usual pattern of promising to do better and characterizing the mistakes using passive verbs.

The paper is also suffering from a major decrease in staff, which is proportional to an increase in typographical errors, factual mistakes and other embarrassments that can look downright amateurish. But the bottom line must be protected. Anyway, who cares? (The readers seem to.)

She’s certainly not the only person who believes that media can run without regard for what they consider unnecessary hassles that get in the way. When the big-money owners who find journalism or baseball cultures to be a big pain, they can easily fritter away the credibility that is essential in communities that tie much of their identity to them.

They have responsibilities — what amounts to public trust — and are not just profit-generating playthings. If they aren’t ready to adopt the ways of their unique businesses, then they probably need to first work hard to understand them. Somewhere in the minor leagues, before they ruin the major-league team.





Visit Mr. Franken's website at www.bobfranken.tv.