Working The Refs

by John Marino

June 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Phil Jackson tried it as his Lakers lost their grip over the course of the last week, falling to a team of underdogs who beat their pants off.

Starting in Los Angeles, and extending during that long week in Detroit, Jackson complained, almost constantly, about the calls going against his team.

While the griping may have seemed petty, Jackson knew it could also work to his team's advantage by creating doubt that referees working the NBA Championship were acting in a fair and impartial way.

Jackson was simply engaging in that age-old practice of "working the refs," criticizing the calls made by the referees in the hopes that during the next game more calls would fall the other way.

The philosophy behind the move is that by throwing a spotlight on the issue, the referees themselves would think twice about calling fouls on the Lakers, or not calling them against the Detroit Pistons. With Jackson howling loudly about bad calls, the refs would be under so much more pressure to make sure they got them right.

The strategy has long been played out in the sports world, but it is also an integral part of political battles as well.

Journalist Eric Alterman, a long-time staffer at The Nation, made that point in last year's book "What Liberal Media?"

Alterman argues that there really is no "liberal media bias" that conservatives have been complaining about for so long. It's simply that conservatives are better at "working the refs" than liberals, or in this case complaining about the media coverage they are getting.

His thesis: the conservatives are so good at "working the refs" that the media is actually more protective of conservative interests than liberal interests.

No matter what one thinks of Alterman's conclusions, he should be credited with exposing that age-old strategy of complaining about officiating. The more one does it, the more likely one will win influence with the refs.

In Puerto Rico, it's the New Progressive Party that has mastered the art of "working the refs," arguing since Carlos Romero Barceló was governor that local journalists are largely populares and independenistas, and there is a bias against statehood in the local media.

The truth is that today's Puerto Rico news media -- a vibrant mix of radio, television, newspaper, and Internet and magazine outlets -- is probably more diverse than at any time in its history. And most owners of the media are sympathetic to statehood (even Romero Barceló has acknowledged that).

The Rosselló 2004 campaign has been battling with local press organizations over the comments of its electoral commissioner, Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has criticized as "a liar" a reporter covering the issue of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló's government-approved pension. He has also criticized reporters in more general terms, exhorting them to take notes and pay attention during press conferences.

Two journalist groups criticized Rivera Schatz, and may have stepped across the line from covering to participating in campaign 2004 by calling on Rosselló to apologize for his electoral commissioner's actions. The former governor and other NPP officials have instead defended Rivera Schatz's right to criticize media news coverage and have suggested the local press could benefit from some self-examination.

A demonstration Wednesday outside the Commonwealth Employees Retirement System headquarters by the NPP certainly condemned as planned the "political persecution" being waged by the Calderón administration against Rosselló, but it was also a protest against the local media's coverage of Rosselló's reelection race.

There's no doubt that many local journalists could actually use some soul searching. While the Puerto Rico news media as a whole is genuinely balanced through shear diversity, there are some visible biases in individual outlets, some of which are quite powerful.

Of course, Rosselló's very public battle against the owners of Puerto Rico's largest daily newspaper, even though settled in federal courts, has left behind open scars on both sides. It's probably responsible for slanted coverage against Rosselló in the newspaper, as well as for what increasingly appears to be a battle by the campaign against a much wider swath of news media.

Also, journalists who were involved in the drafting of the letter calling on Rosselló to apologize should not be covering the Rosselló campaign, but they are. But whatever legitimate gripes the Rosselló camp may have had, they have probably squandered them by taking a too buckshot approach in its media criticism.

And although it's true that local journalist groups have entered into the campaign 2004 debate, they were also equally combative with the Calderón administration, suing it over police access procedures and its insistence on subpoenaing raw video footage in the rioting case against Carlos Pesquera and three other NPP leaders, which ultimately resulted in acquittal.

Rosselló and other NPP officials don't appear concerned by the criticism of their complaints about media coverage. It's probably because they know they're simply "working the refs," a necessary tactic employed by any political campaign director worth his or her salt ˆ despite whatever criticism the strategy may engender.

Journalists should likewise not spend too much time pondering Rivera Schatz's obnoxious comments, or complaining about them. They should simply report them, exposing them for what they are.

Journalists, especially those covering the 2004 campaign, would be better off ensuring that those comments don't affect their fair-mindedness.

They do, after all, have some tough questions to ask Rosselló as he makes a third try for La Fortaleza. They want to be sure they are making the right call when asking them.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback