The How-To of an Admission in the Steroid Era
The strategy that Mark McGwire used Monday to lay out his admission to using steroids demonstrated that lessons were learned from other baseball stars who preceded him in making mea culpa about their drug use.
He did it all in one afternoon, starting with a statement that was distributed widely to the news media, and that came across the Associated Press wire at 3 p.m.
The A.P. followed quickly with a story that featured an interview with McGwire, who subsequently spoke to numerous other news media outlets — including USA Today and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tim Kurkjian and John Kruk of ESPN (both by telephone, not on the air); KTRS Radio in St. Louis; and The New York Times, before talking to Bob Costas live at 7 p.m. Eastern on MLB Network.
The one-day plan — coordinated over the past month by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs a crisis-communications company, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who recently hired McGwire as their batting coach — contrasts with last year’s roll-out of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission.
Last February, Rodriguez’s steroid use was first reported by Selena Roberts on SI.com; three days later, he confessed to ESPN in an interview with Peter Gammons that lacked adequate follow-up questions; eight days later, Rodriguez responded to questions at a news conference at the Yankees’ spring training camp as his teammates looked on.
That all came more than a year after Rodriguez denied using steroids to Katie Couric of CBS News.
Rodriguez lacked any arrogance in his confession, unlike Roger Clemens, whose drug-use denials have been defiant and angry. The genial Andy Pettitte took two months to speak about his use of human growth hormone after it was revealed in late 2007 in the Mitchell report that investigated drug use in baseball.
McGwire had been silent since his embarrassing refusal to discuss his steroid use during a Congressional hearing nearly five years ago. His strategy back then, concocted with avoiding prosecution on his mind, made him appear hapless and as guilty as if he had confessed. This time, McGwire and his handlers surely knew his credibility would be enhanced if he confessed before spring training and made himself widely available, not only on Monday but Tuesday. An interview with ESPN is to be scheduled, but because it’s not exclusive, its thunder will be muted.
McGwire’s personality has usually been low key, and he has not always been comfortable with the news media.
In his repeated confessions Monday, he had no defiance or anger, just sadness and tears.
“I like the door-to-door strategy, in that he is telling his story in long form and in less confrontational settings,” said Kevin Sullivan, a former White House communications director who runs a strategic-communications company. “He needed to rip the Band-Aid off before heading to spring training.”
Sullivan added: “I suspect McGwire will soon have some form of a press availability where he takes questions. He won’t be able to completely turn the page until he satisfies the pent-up demand and takes some questions.”
The McGwire interview was a coup for the year-old MLB Network and justifies what the channel is paying Costas. It provided McGwire with a stage for acceptance on a channel that is majority-owned by the league that has, after a long goodbye, welcomed him back to his old team. MLB has a little more than half the subscribers ESPN has. But MLB had an edge in Costas if, indeed, McGwire wanted to be interviewed at length by a smart interrogator.
(A corporate connection should be noted: Costas is represented by IMG, which owns half of Fleischer’s company.)
Before he sat down to talk to McGwire, Costas said in a telephone interview, “Yes, they decided this was the place for Mark to tell the story, but not because it was the place where they’d get the easiest ride.”
Costas said he talked to Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa last year about interviewing McGwire.
“I said to Tony that if Mark hopes to be able to proceed from opening day on, he has to address this forthrightly, to answer all legitimate questions and all secondary ones,” Costas said.
Tony Petitti, the president of the MLB Network, said that although talks with McGwire’s camp made it clear that McGwire was going to say something significant, he and Costas did not know until the release of McGwire’s statement exactly what it would be.
“We didn’t see the release ahead of time and we had to react to what he was going to say,” Petitti said.
Whatever it was, the channel was guaranteed the exclusive interview.