Alleged partnership between Pac-12, LA Times raises questions

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Back in 2018 — before Cal took back the Axe for the first time in a decade and the world discovered that owning an MLB team is (allegedly) not very profitable — the Pac-12 was having a moment.

But not a very good one.

Yahoo Sports had obtained exclusive documents alleging that Pac-12 general counsel Woodie Dixon phoned in to the Washington State vs. USC game to overrule the game’s trained football officials. The scandal was exacerbated by allegations from three former Pac-12 officials — Charles Czubin, Fred Gallagher and Mack Gilchrist — that Commissioner Larry Scott was much more interested in sweeping the problems Dixon had created under the rug than in fixing them.

This, according to John Canzano of The Oregonian/OregonLive, alongside a poor conference performance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the lack of distribution of the Pac-12 Network, left the conference scrambling for any kind of positive coverage.

In early 2019, Canzano reported that the Pac-12 had hired a crisis management agency to help it fix its “broken brand.” FleishmanHillard, the team in question, then produced a 34-page manual focused on shifting the conversation in a positive direction.

“Expand upon media partnerships with The Players’ Tribune and Los Angeles Times and identify new national partner(s) to increase national and regional media coverage,” recommended the manual, which was obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Almost two years’ worth of scandals and struggles for the Pac-12 led up to July 31, when Canzano once again brought the Pac-12 into the limelight as he reported that in 2018, the organization allegedly signed an agreement with the LA Times to funnel $100,000 in advertising revenue in exchange for greater news coverage.

Such a deal would be appalling to journalistic integrity. Journalism is supposed to be free from the temptations of advertising revenue. A deal like that would create a clear bias in favor of the Pac-12 — one that would clearly overstep journalistic boundaries.

Up until recently, the Pac-12 denied that there was ever a formalized agreement, and the LA Times continues to deny that such an agreement ever took place. LA Times spokesperson Hillary Manning issued a statement claiming that Canzano’s story was written based on misinformation.

While the statement admits that the two groups were at one point in contact with each other, it ultimately claims that the proposal never made it past the paper’s management.

But internal communications obtained in Canzano’s investigation imply that a deal was indeed signed. After the deal was allegedly made, Andrew Walker, the Pac-12 vice president of public affairs, offered to help provide Blake Richardson, a newly hired reporter for Pac-12 coverage, exclusive access to the conference.

“I can make sure you have all the access and info to become the best Pac-12 reporter out there,” Walker wrote in an email to Richardson.

Here’s where Cal sports fans should really start to pay attention.

Of all the access provided to Richardson, one offer Walker made to the reporter involved embedding her with the Cal men’s basketball team during its season opener in China. It’s unclear whether this actually ended up happening.

Either way, this implies that there’s a possibility Cal was aware of the alleged partnership between the Pac-12 and the LA Times.

Neither the Cal athletics department nor its basketball team has issued any public statements regarding its involvement in the alleged partnership, and the situation remains an issue of he said, she said.

Whether or not you believe Cal was actually involved in the alleged deal, it will be interesting to watch how this scandal continues to unfold. How the Pac-12 chooses to address this could have long-term effects on the public’s already shaky perception of the brand.

The Pac-12’s moment back in 2018 has snowballed into an issue that goes much further than just publicity. The integrity of the conference and the LA Times has been called into question, possibly implicating Cal as well.