Commentary

Trust is a must

For ESPN, a little transparency could go a long way in reinforcing viewers' faith

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

You tell them they should believe you.

They want to believe you.

And then you give them reasons to doubt their belief in you.

ESPN, that's your opportunity, and your challenge.

We live in a society obsessed by celebrity. It seems as though the more voyeuristic, prurient and invasive a story, the more coverage it gets. Print and TV tabloids, plus the Internet, feed this fixation with a mixture of rumor, innuendo, photos, video and interviews, all built on a molehill of facts and a mountain of speculation. Entire industries have developed to follow the exploits of pop culture icons, movie stars and sports heroes, all of whom have become grist for the paparazzi mill.

As it relates to ESPN, Steve Phillips and Brooke Hundley's sordid relationship generated national attention. Phillips, 46, the former New York Mets GM, joined ESPN in 2005 as a studio analyst and then on "Sunday Night Baseball." His short-lived sexual relationship with Hundley, 22, an ESPN production assistant working on baseball, gave rise to charges and counter-charges given full throat in the media.

Among the headlines:

• "ESPN execs playing around"
• "ESPN's Steve Phillips has a 'Fatal Attraction' of his own"
• "Everybody loves a nut"
• "Sex at ESPN taboo unless it's on the air"
• "You're out! ESPN cans Phillips; he heads to rehab"

Salacious stories about celebrities generally focus on the principals, not their employers. When David Letterman was dragged into the muck of an alleged extortion attempt surrounding his affair with a co-worker, Letterman was the story. CBS was an afterthought -- the only involvement was that it airs his show.

With the Phillips affair, ESPN seemed to provide much of the celebrity cachet. Without the network, Phillips-Hundley probably would have been limited as a local New York story, and then only because of his association with the Mets. While ESPN was center stage, the network itself made a choice to provide minimal coverage of the story on its platforms.

"Stories involving us are angst-ridden, and we recognize that we don't always do our best work on them," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news. "It's tough to be objective when we're involved in some way. We tend to do the minimum that allows us to say, 'We covered it.' Fortunately, these types of stories don't come along too often."

The media firestorm that engulfed ESPN for weeks began early in the morning of Oct. 21 when the New York Post ran a story on its Web site headlined, "Exclusive: ESPN's Phillips in foul affair with production assistant."

The Post reported that Phillips had "confessed to his wife and local cops that he slept with ESPN assistant Brooke Hundley several times before dumping her. In retaliation, the jilted young woman repeatedly phoned Phillip's wife. ... Hundley's desperate actions -- including accidentally smashing a car into a stone column while speeding away from the Phillips' home -- terrified the family, according to the Wilton, Conn., police report." Phillips, the Post reported, declined to press charges even though he said he "feared for his children's safety" after Hundley became "obsessed and delusional."

At 2:20 p.m. that day, ESPN sent out a four-paragraph newswire to all of its news platforms, summarizing and attributing the contents of the Post story. There was a brief quote from ESPN announcing, "We have granted Steve's request for an extended leave of absence to allow him to address [this matter]. We have no further comment." There was also a brief quote from Phillips expressing his regret for the affair, but the overall coverage was sparse, to say the least.

The item was posted on the front page of ESPN.com, but was mentioned only once in the entirety of the evening's "SportsCenters." It was carried once on "Baseball Tonight," once in the late afternoon "SportsCenter" and once during the afternoon on ESPNEWS. The coverage on ESPN's air was similar to a major newspaper covering a scandal involving one of its columnists by putting it in a small box on page A37 of the Saturday edition.

ESPN is typically tight-lipped on personnel matters, as are most companies. It's a minefield of legal and privacy issues. We can piece together that the company had become aware more than a month earlier of a sexual relationship between the two employees. A private affair that doesn't have workplace ramifications is not normally within a company's purview. A sexual relationship between consenting adults generally does not raise harassment charges. If an employee raises issues concerning sexual improprieties inconsistent with proper workplace conduct, then a responsible employer must investigate and evaluate.

ESPN spoke to both, handled it as a private personnel matter, and the two returned to work. ESPN later noted it had taken "appropriate disciplinary action at that time," but it was not clear what facts ESPN was privy to or what that action was.

ESPN's coverage notwithstanding, a torrent unleashed on the Internet and in the tabloids. It wasn't just the New York Post and "Entertainment Tonight" -- "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show" chimed in, and the late night comedians had a field day. As the story picked up steam, coverage broadened to mainstream outlets. ESPN's viewers, listeners and readers also sounded off:

• "ESPN can be viewed as the network where experts are sex-perts."
• "Phillips has not only embarrassed himself and his family, but he's tarnished ESPN and its family of networks."
• "I will change the channel any time I see Phillip's face."
• "If you've got dirty laundry you wash it out -- fire him!"

Advertisers, rights-holders and others with business ties to ESPN also expressed concerns. What had started as a personal indiscretion had morphed into something, ESPN deemed, that was interfering with its capacity to do business.

On Oct. 25, the network released this statement: "Steve Phillips is no longer working for ESPN. His ability to be an effective representative has been significantly and irreparably damaged, and it became evident it was time to part ways." Ed Durso, ESPN's executive vice president of administration, later explained that "given the notoriety that attached to his conduct, we determined he could not effectively continue on air."

At 9:02 p.m. on Oct. 25, an ESPN newswire went out instructing the story be reported on all platforms. The news was posted shortly thereafter on the front page of ESPN.com and carried on "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS that night.

Hundley was also dismissed with the terse statement: "She no longer works here." In later explaining her firing, Durso would only say, "Our investigation determined that Hundley's characterization of the events was inconsistent."

ESPN has an outstanding newsgathering operation. It disseminates sports information over multiple platforms 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The network positions itself as THE source and provides one-stop shopping for news, opinion, discussion and information, whether on air or online. Their news decision-makers take pride in their unquestioned leadership, and rightfully so.

That's why it can be so troubling to some of ESPN's viewers when they encounter something dramatically out of the ordinary -- and that includes minimizing coverage of a story getting substantial play elsewhere. When ESPN is confronted by an editorial decision that results in diminished coverage based on policy (Ben Roethlisberger) or a perceived journalistic conflict (Phillips), there seems to be a reticence to offer the audience any explanation.

It's as though there's restraining logic that runs, We're paid to make the tough decisions. We've made this for the right reasons. We're professionals and we don't make excuses. We'll take our lumps from whomever, and do it in silence.

Problem is, honesty with your audience is not a self-serving cop-out, and it's not an apology. It's a form of respect. When those whose trust you seek to maintain encounter behavior that is out of character, some form of explanation may be required.

One of the great strengths of "SportsCenter" is its conversational tone. By design, ESPN announcers talk to and with the audience, not at them in the stentorian tones you encounter in some newscasts. That approach breeds a sense of openness with an audience, a trusting relationship that would keep an honest explanation from sounding out of place.

For example, after stating the basics of the Phillips story, ESPN could have added, We are not covering this story in detail because of the conflict any media organization has in aggressively covering itself. A further explanation is available on ESPN.com. On the Web site, ESPN could provide a deeper justification.

It's quite simple: Openness builds trust.

And if your business is news, then trust is a must.

Most daily news decisions require no such explanation. But when they do, a little transparency can go a long way toward reinforcing the audience's faith.

ESPN's minimalist approach to covering the Phillips-Hundley story generated predictable reaction from other media and in the ombudsman mailbag, from "When stories about their own employees make the news, ESPN hides it" to "Shouldn't ESPN be the one to provide its consumers with this information?" to "You're willing to expose everyone not involved with ESPN."

Did ESPN owe it to its audience to offer broader coverage?

"Trying to remain unbiased and to make informed, objective decisions as to the newsworthiness of these stories is difficult," Doria said. "In retrospect, trying to serve our viewers as thoroughly as possible, we could have reported the Phillips stories more widely than we did."

Still, while the incident caused some viewers to question ESPN's journalistic integrity, Doria doesn't believe the network's credibility was compromised.

"I'm not sure where our journalistic integrity comes into question," Doria said. "We reported the Phillips stories in a timely manner. Did we include all the lurid details that were reported elsewhere? We did not. I think our journalistic obligation in this case was to report that Steve Phillips was no longer working here, and why. I believe we did that."

Will ESPN's decision not to aggressively report these circumstances make it more difficult for the network to cover similar situations in other organizations?

"If it was a big-name presence who had been on a network for many years, we would likely make it a Hot List item," Doria said, referencing ESPN's internal newswire. "If it were a lesser name, likely we would not. There is a line there somewhere; different people might draw it at different points."

What was the human equation in ESPN's decision? Did the network alter its approach on the Phillips story because he was both an ESPN employee and colleague of many in ESPN's studio and event operations?

"Trying to be as subjective as possible," Doria said, "I think our restraint in reporting the Phillips story was out of greater concern for the company, and the impact on the workplace."

A number of mailbag contributors questioned what steps ESPN was taking to ensure that a "Phillips situation" wouldn't happen again. Others wanted to know whether a culture existed that allowed or even encouraged this type of behavior. ESPN has a responsibility to provide an atmosphere that's conducive for effective, efficient and creative work.

"ESPN is committed to providing a positive, professional work environment free of inappropriate behavior," Durso said. "We take that responsibility very seriously, hold our managers responsible for it and respond promptly and thoroughly to any concerns. We will continue with aggressive steps to meet the needs of our employees and act fairly and responsibly."

After long discussions with a number of ESPN executives, it is clear nobody at the network ever wants such an incident to happen. ESPN has sexual harassment rules in place and holds employee training sessions that stress appropriate behavior, positive instruction and discussions of serious consequences for violations.

Any company is only as good as the people it employs. Human nature is what it is. In any group there'll be those with strong moral compasses who play by the rules. Then there are others who believe the rules only apply to someone else. All of them, at times, may make bad decisions. Perhaps those employees witnessing the dismantling of so many lives and reputations in the Phillips affair will consider it a cautionary tale.

Cable's battles

In a Nov. 1 enterprise story, "Outside the Lines" reported claims by Tom Cable's former wife and a recent girlfriend that the Oakland Raiders coach had a history of violent behavior toward women. The charges came on the heels of an alleged fight involving Cable and then-Raiders assistant coach Randy Hanson.

A third woman, Cable's second wife, Glenda, said in documents related to the couple's 2008 divorce that "in the past he has been physically and verbally abusive to me." However, her attorney issued a statement to OTL that contradicted the statements in the divorce documents.

Both the girlfriend and the assistant coach's claims were investigated by the police, and no charges were filed. And while the interviews with the women were emotional, compelling and powerful, a story of this kind is always tough to balance, as nobody representing Cable's side would agree to an on-camera interview. OTL used full-screen graphics to tell Cable's story and reinforce his denials.

The mailbag response was mixed. There was some applause: "Violence against women is an important issue that touches everyone, even sports heroes" ... "Great story, but why would the Raiders keep a man like this?" Others dissented: "I hate when I'm watching a sports show and you bring this stuff up" ... "The piece served no purpose other than to smear the reputation of this man."

While the report was attention-grabbing journalism -- both on air and in the companion story on ESPN.com -- that attempted to supply fairness and context, the same can't be said for its handling on what ESPN calls "The Bottom Line."

A graphic crawl used at the bottom of the television screen, The Bottom Line (TBL) constantly updates viewers on scores, statistics and, when warranted, breaking news. ESPN presented the Cable story on the crawl in less than 90 words that ran on a seemingly endless rotation both on Sunday, Nov. 1, and Monday, Nov. 2. The result felt more tabloid than journalistic.

Charges of abuse against women are not only serious, they can be incendiary. Like racism, the stigma of the allegation lingers long after the claim is either proved or disproved. The language on the crawl concerning Cable seemed to be carefully, even impeccably worded. However, it's difficult to imagine the average viewer was paying close enough attention as it flashed by on TBL to fully comprehend a straightforward account of a nuanced situation.

Scanning the crawl while simultaneously watching a program, viewers may catch words and phrases devoid of thorough context. Hour after hour, the words scrolled on the screen: "Cable ... physically abused ... girlfriend ... 20-year period ... altercation ... only once ... denied ... touched a woman inappropriately ... says he slapped ... regretted."

The crawl ran four times an hour on Sunday, and another version with updated information ran Monday until the next morning. Some mailbag contributors commented on the obvious contrast between the oft-repeated Cable info on TBL and the absence of any reference to Phillips on the crawl. How does ESPN justify this imbalance?

"I won't attempt to defend that," Doria said. "The Cable story was an important story, it's one that we broke, and we believe we best served our viewers by reporting it on all our platforms with some frequency. In the case of the Phillips story, we were not the best place to get the most detailed account of what happened. Having said that, we certainly could have included Phillips on The Bottom Line."

The quality of investigative reporting does not justify running that information in a format requiring more attention than most viewers may be prepared to expend, especially while consuming other programming on the screen. ESPN disagrees.

"As for context and perspective, it seems we were fairly comprehensive," Doria said. "Our position is that TBL serves sports fans by distributing news and information. It is not simply a headline service. It isn't as comprehensive as a longer treatment on a show, but we believe that given the news value, relevancy, sport (NFL) and that it was another element of another story, that it was proper to use to distribute this news."

ESPN should save stories requiring explanation and balance for shows such as OTL, "SportsCenter" and outlets such as ESPN Radio, ESPNEWS or ESPN.com. Perhaps TBL is best limited to single, self-explanatory elements that require no context -- scores, stats and basic news updates, such as "Bradford separates shoulder, out six weeks" and "Quinn fined $10K for chop-block."

Sometimes it may be better for TBL to offer no information than run the risk of leaving the viewer with a faulty impression.

A collateral observation: Talk for any length of time to ESPN executives and personnel involved in news and production operations and you appreciate the pride of task that forces them to continually reappraise their procedures and question their processes. Introspection and self-criticism are part of the culture.

Will they make mistakes, bad calls, faulty decisions? Of course. Do they take the time to question themselves and learn from it? Yes, they do. Will they ever perfectly fulfill the expectations of all their viewers? Not a chance.

Should they keep on trying? Absolutely.

The Griese suspension

Accountability and consequences are key to discipline in any organization, but so is consistency. During the Oct. 24 Ohio State-Minnesota football telecast, ESPN commentator Bob Griese made a vain attempt at humor.

During a NASCAR promo that included a full-screen graphic of the top five drivers in the Chase for the Cup, fellow announcer Chris Spielman asked "Where's Montoya?" (referring to Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who was not listed in the top five.) Griese responded, "Out eating a taco."

The former Purdue and Miami Dolphins QB uttered what he believed to be a light-hearted retort. ESPN deemed it culturally insensitive, and gave Griese a one-game suspension.

"We have the utmost respect for Bob, his work is excellent and there's no track record of any similar comments," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production. "But, we want our announcers to be smart, not flip. He meant it as a joke, but that doesn't relieve the fact that it was offensive. He apologized, but we felt further action on our part was necessary to send a message. One of our company's priorities is to reach out to and serve the growing Hispanic community in America -- that's not done by offending them."

Montoya poked fun at the comment several times over the next week, saying he considered bringing trays of tacos for reporters during a news conference. He also tweeted, "The wife, I told her I wanted Italian, and she said 'No, I want Mexican,' So I said, 'Let's go have some Mexican.' The tacos were so good, too."

Viewer response indicated that 65 percent of those who wrote or called were offended by Griese's comments, while 35 percent thought ESPN's response was excessive and smacked of political correctness.

The offended viewers cited "cultural stupidity," "racism," "outrageous and ridiculous comments" and an apology that "fell short of genuine sincerity." The dissenters felt just as strongly: "I'm Mexican-American and took no offense," "It was just a joke," "Gross over-reaction" and "Accept the apology and move on."

Was the suspension appropriate, or an overreaction? Like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. Cultural sensitivity is a fact of life in America today, and ESPN has deemed it a core principle of its business. It's part of an outreach program that ensures respectful treatment for its audience. The network's response to Griese's comment was, to it, emblematic of that commitment. While that position may be admirable, it can come with unintended consequences.

There is no excuse for offensive behavior, but one man's cultural sensitivity is another's political correctness -- and PC can be carried to extreme. Griese's suspension was not just punitive. It was a message to all the commentators at ESPN, as if to say "Be careful. Humorous off-the-cuff comments that have ethnic connotations can be hazardous to your health."

Humor always has a price. Comedy comes from a hint of truth combined with a helping of hyperbole, mixed with a dash of pain and a smidge of humiliation. For almost every laugh there's someone who bears the brunt of the joke. So perhaps it makes sense to put a governor on an announcer's humor pedal. Unintended consequences can arise, though, when you burden announcers with too many reasons to second-guess themselves. Talking extemporaneously for three hours, mixing in observations, stats, factoids, human interest and trying to be serious, entertaining, analytical and informative with an added touch of humor is not easy. Try it sometime. But don't make any mistakes.

Another revolves around consistency. Will viewers use the Griese suspension as the yardstick for punishing announcers whom they believe have "offended" them with some comment? Does ethnic sensitivity apply to all groups? Had Griese's observation been about an Irishman eating corned beef or a Pole enjoying kielbasa, for example, would the punishment have been the same?

And then there are the pressure groups. A cottage industry exists made up of small but vocal organizations that further their interests and visibility by latching onto "slights and insults," real or perceived, and turning them into media events. Could ESPN's legitimate introspection and sensitivity end up unintentionally painting a target on its back?

"When you believe you're doing the right thing, unintended consequences should not hold you back," Williamson said. "You either do the right thing or you don't."

Hopefully, the intended results outweigh the unintended consequences.

Something to savor

This month's mailbag contained some resounding kudos directed at "30 for 30," ESPN's series of 30 documentaries celebrating the network's 30th anniversary: "Magical moments" ... "terrific" ... "It took me back" ... and even "I cried."

From "King's Ransom" (the story of Wayne Gretzky's migration from Edmonton to L.A.) to the film documenting the Baltimore Colts marching band to the "Tragic Tale of Jimmy the Greek," this is storytelling at its best. Top directors, producers, writers and crews have spanned the sports world freezing in time famous, infamous and little-known classic sports moments for today's viewers to savor -- and future generations to enjoy. These are dynamic tales filled with heroes and villains. The films vibrate with pathos, drama and humor as they dig far beneath the surface and provide a glimpse into why sports stories can be so compelling.

If the first six episodes are a harbinger, this is going to be one of ESPN's most memorable achievements.

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.