Commentary

Serve the audience

ESPN's new ombudsman analyzes the network's handling of the Roethlisberger story

Originally Published: August 18, 2009
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

When John Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor for ESPN, first spoke with me about being the sports network's ombudsman, my instinct was to reach for a dictionary. Ombudsman: "A person who investigates complaints."

I immediately thought about all those frazzled and haggard clerks slaving away at their customer service counters. Even as Walsh explained ESPN's objectives and the service provided by previous ombudsmen, I wasn't convinced. Sports television is a world of loud, quick decisions, not quiet reflection. I've never been a fan of Monday Morning quarterbacks -- and that, in many ways, was what ESPN was asking me to be.

But as 35 years in broadcasting have taught me, colliding opinions can bring about progress. ESPN makes a decision, there's a reaction to that decision, and that reaction can ultimately lead to reflection -- and better decisions. That's a good thing. The action role is ESPN's. The reaction role is ours. As ombudsman, I knew I would have to prove myself to you and to those at ESPN whom we want to consider our criticism, and, as warranted, praise. All I could promise is honesty and my best efforts, but the reward could be an informed audience and better coverage for the ESPN fans.

So six months later, here we go.

ESPN's first two ombudsmen, George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber, set extremely high standards. I admire the work they've done. Both came from strong print backgrounds at major metropolitan newspapers. On journalistic and ethical issues, we share common philosophies: truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, proportionality and a vigorous defense against conflict of interests. All are responsibilities of those who want to inform you -- even those who just want to entertain you.

When reporting back to you, I plan to probe beyond rationalizations and that very human quality, defensiveness. It's not just about how difficult decisions are made, but rather what considerations were discarded in the decision-making process. Ultimately, I want to give YOU a better understanding of how ESPN works, and give ESPN a better understanding of how YOU feel.

Unlike my predecessors, I don't come from a print background. Professionally, I grew up in TV control rooms, production trucks, editing bays and executive suites.

This column will allow me to answer your questions, air your complaints and give you a peek behind the curtain -- a sense of how things work in a world in which I spent much of my professional career. It's an intoxicating place, and I want to take you where real people arrive at real decisions, whether in the production truck, the broadcast booth or the corner suite. The chaos and excitement of broadcasting live sports -- at the Indy 500, the World Series, the Olympics or hundreds of other major events -- is exhilarating. Producers, directors, announcers and crews transport viewers from their living rooms to events around the world.

There's an old saying in broadcasting: Production people make more decisions in a control truck in three hours than they'll make outside of it the rest of the year (which explains why no telecast is ever perfect). When it's over, everyone is drained mentally and emotionally. But there's no feeling in the industry more thrilling than walking out of the control room after a Super Bowl, knowing it was a good telecast. Knowing that for three and a half hours, what was presented had a cathartic impact on some portion of 100 million people. Knowing that for a brief time, anyway, some viewers forgot about their troubles and got lost in a vicarious world that -- as the event unfolded -- the production team helped create.

Under the category of disclosure, back in the 1980s and '90s I had my own company. It included a full-service advertising agency and production, marketing and consulting arms, with clients such as the NFL, NHL and MLB. We were hired by ESPN as a consultant. The company was a joint venture with Nabisco Brands, and, as part of our consulting arrangement, purchased 20 percent of ESPN. I represented that interest on ESPN's board. Those were the early years of what would become the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" -- when it was still carving its niche and deciding what it wanted to be when it grew up. My business relationship with ESPN ended in the late '80s when KKR took over RJR Nabisco and sold the 20 percent interest to Hearst. In 1993, I sold the sports portion of my company to ESPN.

More disclosure: One of my sons has worked at ESPN Regional Television for 15 years as a producer/director. He's made a great career for himself. If one of his shows requires comment in this space, I'll be sure to remind you. As the saying goes, "A conflict disclosed is not a conflict."

There are a few people at ESPN both behind and in front of the camera that I've known over the years. To them, I would steal a line from basketball coaching and broadcasting great Al McGuire. When talking with a fellow coach he had criticized on the air, McGuire said, "I can be your friend, but I can't be your press agent."

In my early years in the business I was fortunate to have Roone Arledge as a mentor. He changed two elements of the media for the better: network news and sports. Roone was a brilliant man who shared with me his insights on production and programming. Over the years, these teachings evolved into a mantra I've carried with me throughout my career:

  • Respect the audience:
  • As the aphorism goes, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public" … and I couldn't disagree more. The audience is much more intelligent than most in the media presume. In a three-channel television universe, mediocre programs survived. In a 500-channel world, the junk is quickly discarded by the masses. Networks have sometimes hurt themselves thinking they can fool the audience because they're smarter and more sophisticated than the "rubes." Wrong. The consumer always has the final say.

  • Serve the audience:
  • Giving viewers what they want is not pandering. After all, that's why they came in the first place. The media are not in the business of "feeding vegetables." Media work best when responsibly serving the audience what its hungry for. That said, like a doctor, the prime directive should be "First, do no harm."

  • Listen to the audience:
  • There are ratings, research, instinct and good old-fashioned feedback. It doesn't matter whether it comes from inside the company, from outside critics (including today's blogosphere) or from the best source of all: the viewers. All feedback is good feedback.

    By successfully engaging its audience, ESPN has become gigantic. It gives sports fans myriad choices: cable networks, Web sites, radio stations, a magazine. For nearly 30 years, ESPN has provided information that has upgraded fans' IQs.

    It has taken the audience on a virtual tour of not just the games, but the behind-the-scenes machinations that make sports a business, a pursuit, an escape -- and a morass. ESPN has reported stories that engage, entertain, inspire, enthrall, revile, and sometimes embarrass the sports, and the people, they cover. It has educated the audience and provided a forum and focus for opinion. The more intelligent ESPN makes fans, the more fans demand the "smart" and reject the "stupid."

    As ESPN's audience has grown, so has the company. A problem for big corporations is remembering how they "thought" when they were small. The challenge for a mega-media player such as ESPN is to stay connected to millions of viewers, readers and listeners. That audience runs the gamut from the totally committed to those that drop in occasionally, which can lead to its own challenges.

    Stories that committed viewers see over and over can feel like saturation carpet bombing, while those that drop in feel cheated because the story didn't air while they were watching. Passionate fans of local teams take umbrage to ESPN's criticism of "their" troops. Some decry the overexposure of the glamour teams, feeling slighted when their local favorites don't get equal time. And that's part of the conundrum: programming and commentating for a national audience made up mostly of local interests is a treacherous balancing act.

    As one of ESPN's viewers, like many of you, I'm middle of the road. For major events, I'm there. Other times, I just feel like watching some sports and will see what ESPN is airing. I don't follow particular teams, so like most sports fans without a rooting interest, I turn on the game, cheer for whomever is behind and hope the score stays close.

    Obviously I can't watch, read and listen to all of ESPN's platforms. That's why your comments are important to me. Diving into the ombudsman mailbag for the first time, I found more interesting nuggets than I expected, embedded in some heavy-duty emotion. Whether you love ESPN or hate it, there is tremendous passion -- and that's a good thing for ESPN.

    The feedback contained a panoply of recurring beefs: taking the focus of the telecast away from the event to interview a celebrity … overpromoting other ESPN events … announcers who thought they were more important than the game … saturation coverage of favored teams and stars … overuse of graphics that force a viewer to read the telecast instead of watching it … a lack of coverage on the network, the Web site and the magazine for less-visible sports.

    And then there were some very specific ones.

    The Roethlisberger story

    In July, a civil suit was filed accusing Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of sexual assault. It was based on an event purported to have occurred at a Lake Tahoe hotel-casino a year earlier. No criminal charges were filed. For two and a half days, ESPN decided not to report the story, except on its own local Pittsburgh radio station. That choice not to report ignited a firestorm of protests from viewers, bloggers and media critics.

    It illustrates how quickly viewers and today's media act, react and make judgments. Long ago, newspapers established a 48-hour news cycle (the time between when an event occurs, when it is first reported and when there is a response from those involved). Television changed that cycle to 24 hours. Cable news cut it to half a day. The Internet has compressed it to the immediate. Now information is released and responded to as fast as fingers can fly over a keyboard. Accurate or not, important or not, a story can explode around the globe in mere moments.

    The Roethlisberger incident is a microcosm of the instantaneous-information universe in which we live. What is news today? Is it what people need to know, are interested in, or tantalized by? What's worth reporting? When do you report a story? How much and what emphasis does it deserve? What's responsible to report? Is that responsibility only to the audience? What ethical standards exist?

    The media landscape is in a constant state of flux. To some, the superficial has become the in-depth, and we're on a never-ending quest to target the lowest common denominator. It's a battle between the specific interests of Web and cable versus the general interest of broad-based media -- and the audience goes where it wants when it wants to get what it wants.

    I think the Internet is the most transformative technological advancement since the printing press. Gutenberg's press freed information from the control of the church and the aristocracy. It led to literacy and the freedom to think based on knowledge. The Internet has revolutionized access to unfiltered information, putting it at everyone's fingertips. The blessing is that, at the touch of a finger, we can Google almost anything and find a wealth of information. The curse, of course, is you can't be sure what you find is fair or accurate.

    No one can possibly absorb everything that's out there. We want and need someone to organize it for us, separating the useful from the useless, the factual from the rumor, the important from the ordinary. That is why God created editors.

    When you watch "SportsCenter," you've opted to allow a group of producers, editors and talent to mull over the hundreds of stories and hours of tape that represent the day in sports, and then select from reams of information what they think you as a sports fan need to know -- and how and when you will know it. If you feel they do a good job over time, you hang with them. If they don't, you go elsewhere. That's the pact.

    On the Roethlisberger story, a lot of you felt ESPN had broken that pact:

  • Aaron, Los Angeles/ESPN viewer:
  • "… it certainly seems to be a sports-related and newsworthy story ? ESPN has a duty to cover all sports-related stories and to do so in a professional and ethical manner."

  • Bob Raissman, NY Daily News columnist:
  • "No one should be surprised that top brass at ESPN decided it was more important to protect Ben Roethlisberger than report a civil suit had been filed against him …"

  • Kevin, Kokomo, Ind./ESPN reader:
  • "I suppose I'm just looking for consistency. I would prefer that hearsay wasn't a news story, but it was for Marvin Harrison and it should be across the board."

  • Neil Best, Newsday columnist:
  • "ESPN still is on the journalistic sidelines regarding allegations of sexual assault aimed at Ben Roethlisberger."

  • Josh, Pittsburgh/ESPN listener:
  • "I am disgusted that you would publish the name of the woman who has filed a suit against Ben Roethlisberger."

    Some very strong criticism. In trying to understand the decision ESPN had made, I spoke at length with Vince Doria, ESPN's senior VP and director of news.

    Q: What went in to making the decision not to cover the civil suit?

    Doria: We've always been cautious in reporting civil suits alleging sexual misconduct. The allegations are among the most damaging you can make to someone's reputation, and, once made, they are difficult to disprove. Based on our criteria, it was an easy decision to make. If the story does not meet at least one of our standards, we're likely not to report it initially.

    Q: Just what are your criteria?

    Doria: First, is there a legal component? Are there criminal charges, an investigation, an arrest? In this case, there was never a criminal complaint. Second, is there a past pattern of behavior? In this case, as far as we could determine, there was not. Third, at the time the suit was filed, can we reasonably believe it might have some on-the-field impact? As the suit was filed before teams opened training camp, we didn't feel we could make that case at this point.

    And finally, is the principal speaking publicly about the allegation on his own initiative? At the outset, he was not. Then Roethlisberger called a press conference two and a half days later. At that point, our concern for fairness is moot, and we moved ahead with our reporting. It was never our intent to be out front on this story.

    Q: Do you feel you are consistent? One reader specifically asked about Marvin Harrison.

    Doria: With Marvin Harrison, we reported on a civil suit that related to a prior criminal investigation. It fit our criteria, so we went with it. In another instance, there were civil claims made against Mike Tyson for reportedly groping a woman in a bar -- because he had spent time in jail for rape, we felt there was a pattern, so ESPN reported it.

    In 2005, a woman filed a civil suit against Michael Vick, alleging that under the pseudonym "Ron Mexico" he had unprotected sex with her, then revealed to her that he had herpes. We did not report the story, based on the same reasoning we used in the Roethlisberger situation: no criminal component, no previous history on the part of Vick, it happened during the offseason. Vick never did respond publicly, the suit was settled and we never reported on it. While many other media outlets reported the story, we faced no scrutiny, no criticism, virtually no attention to how we covered it. Times evidently have changed.

    Q: Is it ESPN's policy to report the names of alleged victims in rape litigation?

    Doria: The complainant made her name public in the lawsuit; it's different from a criminal charge. Our policy is if you're going to report the lawsuit then you should report both names.

    Q: As you look back, any second thoughts?

    Doria: This whole event was discussed intensely by executives here, and there were differing points of view. Being ethical and fair can be in conflict with all that you know. It's not as simple as "We have this information, so let's put it out." If we don't know something is true, then we're involved in harming someone's reputation. I can't tell you when I make a decision it is any better than anyone else's. Different people will arrive at the decision to report a story at different points of time.

    Motives questioned

    While Doria's comments address the procedure, more dangerous for ESPN was the reaction that called into question its motives, and by extension, its integrity. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the mind. "Story" is how the mind copes with the chaos of life. When questions are raised and logical conclusions are not provided, the mind naturally makes up its own -- now you are dealing with "imagined" motives. The reaction was tangible:

  • Casey, State College, Pa./ESPN Viewer:
  • "I don't want to judge the intentions of ESPN … whether or not ESPN actually holds a bias toward protecting their celebrities, that is the why this is terribly one-sided and inappropriate coverage."

  • Mike Florio, NBC Sports/Pro Football Talk columnist:
  • "The handling of the Roethlisberger case makes us wonder whether there's a complete firewall between the business functions of ESPN and its journalistic activities. … We say this because we're convinced that the Roethlisberger story initially was ignored due to concerns that ESPN would be jeopardizing its access to the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who also happens to play for the team with the most loyal and rabid fan base in America."

  • Frank Deford, NPR columnist:
  • "ESPN's refusal to report the story gave rise to criticism that it was not only protecting Roethlisberger's reputation, but it was also shielding its TV partner, the NFL. It had taken a seemingly inviolate position that accusations in a civil suit could be false, yet incendiary enough to damage Roethlisberger's reputation."

    More questions, then, for ESPN and Doria.

    Q: ESPN's motives have been questioned. One of the charges is being soft on the NFL and its players for business reasons. Your response?

    Doria: We've done a number of tough stories on the NFL over the years. We did a series questioning the league's handling of the concussion issue. More stories on the lack of funding on the retired players experiencing physical and emotional difficulties. The Pacman Jones situation, Michael Vick, Brandon Marshall, Spygate. None of these stories put the individuals or the NFL in a good light. Anyone who contends we shy away from stories that are critical of the NFL isn't paying attention.

    Q: How do you feel about all the criticism?

    Doria: Today we're scrutinized by everybody who has a laptop. Some, I believe, do it out of legitimate concern; others, perhaps not. The drum beat has an impact. We try to be careful, and we try to be responsive.

    Some reflections

    At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about the decision. The suit was based on a year-old claim with seemingly little supporting evidence. In our legal system, anyone can sue anyone else for any reason. More than 16 million civil lawsuits are filed in the U.S. each year, and fewer than 1 percent of them ever go to trial. Celebrities are fair game, and there is no question that the public is interested when it happens.

    A rape charge is particularly onerous for both the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator. If a man rapes a woman he should get the toughest punishment allowable, but if he goes through months of media attention and speculation with it turning out he didn't do it, where does he go to get his reputation back?

    I kept thinking of those young men on the Duke lacrosse team: three players who went through a year of media accusations, innuendo, unnamed sources and pundits pontificating about all the evidence pointing to their supposed guilt. In the end, almost as an aside, they turned out to be innocent. Even though they were exonerated and got numerous apologies, could their lives ever really be the same?

    There's a real tension between the public's right to know and the media's right to prosecute. All news organizations, including ESPN, should be cautious with a power that can damage someone's life. In today's landscape, whether ESPN reported on the Roethlisberger suit was immaterial in terms of the public's right to know -- it was being reported virtually everywhere else. This wasn't a case in which ESPN had an exclusive story and, not liking where it led, spiked it.

    Honest people can have an honest debate over news judgment. Some may quarrel with ESPN's criteria. Some may feel that when any news breaks in the world of sports, it should be "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." Others may think ESPN should be applauded for having standards and sticking to them.

    But the more I thought about it, the more that mantra rang in my ears: "Serve the audience." Even if ESPN judged that it should not report the Roethlisberger suit, not acknowledging a sports story that's blanketing the airways requires an explanation to your viewers, listeners and readers. And in today's world they are owed that explanation right away -- to do otherwise is just plain irresponsible. It forces your audience to ask why the story was omitted. It forces them to manufacture a motive. And it ultimately forces them to question your credibility.

    It appears that in an attempt to tamp down media criticism, ESPN issued a statement to inquiring news organizations that had questioned its lack of acknowledgment of this story. That doesn't cut it. In a situation like this you need to be proactive, not reactive. If ESPN felt it needed to explain its rationale to The New York Times or The Washington Post, then there is no excuse for not giving the same explanation DIRECTLY to its audience.

    On radio and television, it could have been as simple as this: "Many media outlets are reporting on a legal situation involving Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. We have chosen not to report the details of the story at this point -- doing so would not comply with our standards. A further explanation can be found on ESPN.com." On the Web site, ESPN could have posted an expanded version of this statement, including its criteria and any other necessary information.

    While this would not have satisfied everyone, at least SportsNation would have received the explanation it deserved. Aside from the events to which they have broadcast rights, the most important assets ESPN has are trust and credibility. Both are amorphous qualities; hard to gain, easy to lose. They are central to a bond with the audience. Break that connection and you jeopardize loyalty and, eventually, success.

    ESPN goes to great lengths to position its brand as THE place for what's happening in the world of sports. Its stated mission is "To serve the sports fan wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played." That's its mission, and that's what we should hold it to.

    Until next time. …

    Don Ohlmeyer is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. One of television's most successful innovators as a sports and entertainment producer, programmer and network president, the longtime NBC and ABC executive was honored with 16 Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Peabody Awards. He will critique decision-making, coverage and presentation of news, issues and events on ESPN's platforms. Ohlmeyer will have an 18-month tenure and succeeds ombudsmen George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber.