Shortly after becoming the Milwaukee Brewers’ new president and CEO, Ulice Payne Jr. quit his plum job as managing director at Foley & Lardner law firm to prevent any appearance of a conflict. It turns out Foley has a direct business relationship with the Brewers, making it a potential conflict to serve the interests of […]

Shortly after becoming the Milwaukee Brewers’ new president and CEO, Ulice Payne Jr. quit his plum job as managing director at Foley & Lardner law firm to prevent any appearance of a conflict. It turns out Foley has a direct business relationship with the Brewers, making it a potential conflict to serve the interests of both.

“Because of their connection with the Brewers, I thought it would be better if we did it this way,” Payne told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Of course, Payne then resigned from the board of directors of media giant Journal Communications, which also has a direct business relationship with the Brewers.

Guess again. Payne, it seems, is still cozy in his director’s chair at Journal Communications.

Although Journal subsidiary WTMJ-AM (620) pays big money to be flagship station of the Brewers’ statewide radio network, Payne apparently sees no conflict there. And he apparently sees no conflict in cashing both Journal and Brewer paychecks. This sweetheart deal has rekindled long-smoldering fears that these local institutions are far too chummy for the public’s good. Widespread suspicions date back to the 1990s, when then-Journal CEO Bob Kahlor openly lobbied to build Miller Park for the Brewers at taxpayer expense. Kahlor retired in 1998, yet critics continue to argue that news coverage of the beleaguered team is suspect at all of Journal Communications’ influential local affiliates, including the Journal Sentinel, WTMJ-AM and WTMJ-Channel 4.

At a time when the public already harbors deep mistrust of the media in general, Payne’s connection to Milwaukee’s only daily newspaper and its top-rated radio and television news stations just doesn’t look right.

Even the company’s own employees don’t get it. One JS sportswriter says his colleagues fully expected Payne to step down from the board when he took the Brewers job. “He’s now working for an organization that’s going to be reported on every day,” complains the scribe, who asked not to be identified to protect his job. “It certainly creates the appearance of a conflict.”

Kelly McBride, media ethics specialist at Florida’s well-regarded Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says Journal Communications should make every effort to explain why the Brewers CEO sits on its board and why this won’t compromise its coverage of the team. To further court the public’s trust, company journalists should also disclose Payne’s position on the Journal board “every time” they report on him, she insists.

“You have to be completely transparent with the public,” McBride argues.

How transparent are Payne and Journal Communications? Practically invisible.

We put in several calls to Payne’s cushy new office at Miller Park, home of the Brewers. “I think you should address any of those questions to Steve Smith, chairman of the Journal Communications board of directors,” Payne replied.

Our apologies – we didn’t realize the Journal CEO is now spokesman for the Brewers CEO.

Our call to Smith – whose phone number appears in every issue of the Journal Sentinel to show he’s available to the public – was returned by Journal flack Bob Dye. “Just wanted to let you know he’s very busy and he’s not going to be able to return your call,” said Dye.

“That’s a big mistake,” says McBride of Payne and Smith’s evasiveness. “It’s almost condescending to the public if they think people won’t understand or care about this issue.”

As for disclosure of Payne’s ties to the company, the Journal Sentinel, WTMJ radio and Channel 4 all have spotty records at best. “I disclosed it a couple of times when he was first hired. I’m not sure how many more times we need to mention it,” says JS sports business reporter Don Walker, who covers Payne more than any journalist in town.

Meanwhile, Payne has enjoyed remarkably upbeat coverage for a guy who has no experience running a sports franchise. Speaking for Journal Communications, Dye dismisses any notion of real or perceived conflicts since the company isn’t currently negotiating new business deals with the Brewers. Dye: “I’m not concerned.”

Radio Rumblings
WTMJ-AM host Jon Belmont admits that his frank demeanor likely fueled persistent rumors of his frustration with the chemistry on “Wisconsin’s Morning News.”

“I have this problem with being almost compulsively honest,” concedes Belmont, an ABC network radio veteran who came to Milwaukee in January 2001. “There were days when I probably didn’t look very happy. If people read into it that I was frustrated, I think that’s fair. Because I am as demanding of myself as I am of others, I have been frustrated at times.”

What’s there to gripe about? After all, Belmont’s show has seen impressive ratings spikes ever since he was hired to replace sacked host Robb Edwards. The gregarious yet driven Belmont wants the permanent co-host he was promised when WTMJ hired him and he’s not about to let that slide just because the show is a ratings winner.

“The status quo is working well,” Belmont says with a wry laugh. “Does that give management the license to drag their feet? No.”

Belmont is careful not to criticize any colleagues, but it’s obvious WTMJ has saddled him with a revolving door of uninspiring sidekicks. Look for the station to keep Belmont happy by hiring a savvy female co-host, ˆ la WKTI-FM’s Amy Taylor.

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