Commentary

Peccadilloes on parade

With tabloid coverage of sports stars' scandals on the rise, ESPN must tread lightly

Originally Published: December 22, 2009
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

The best-laid plans of mice and ombudsmen, it turns out, sometimes go awry.

When I signed on to do this column for ESPN, it was with the anticipation of writing about the sports television business -- production, programming and the intricacies of the changing media landscape. But in these first five months, feedback to the ombudsman mailbag dictated my having to address such subjects as ESPN's reporting of a civil suit for sexual assault against Ben Roethlisberger, claims that Raiders coach Tom Cable had a history of violent behavior toward women, coverage of the Steve Phillips affair and now ESPN's approach concerning the indiscretions of Tiger Woods. The column is starting to feel like "peccadilloes on parade."

The fall from grace of a superstar is always troubling. It's filled with disappointment, bitterness and even anxiety as we learn our idols have feet of clay and an object of our admiration has let us down.

Schadenfreude, the satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune, seems to be a contagion afflicting many media outlets and their consumers. Smirks, sly asides and feigned outrage all seem parts of a culture that relishes the destruction of the famous and powerful. The late-night comics have a field day as tabloids shift into overdrive and the mainstream media tag along. That is the atmosphere surrounding ESPN's coverage of the Woods affair.

A broadcast news program interviewing a woman claiming to have had sex with Woods attracts almost 10 million viewers. The New York Post puts the Woods story on its front page for 20 consecutive days, breaking the record of 19 days (held by 9/11 coverage). Multiple ESPN.com stories about Woods generate more than 1.2 million page views each, an enormous number compared to usual traffic. There is no question that the imbroglio surrounding Woods is the buzz in the media and a topic of casual conversation. Everyone, informed or not, seems to have an opinion.

News judgments are incredibly difficult when dealing with a situation such as the Woods melodrama. Do too little, and ESPN is accused of covering up. Do too much, and it's perceived to be character assassination. ESPN's handling of Woods on "SportsCenter" and other news and opinion programs can be debated, but it appeared the network tried to walk the line between satisfying the audience's inquisitiveness about the self-destruction of arguably the world's most famous athlete and trying to avoid the trap of sensationalism. There were exceptions, but in general the network covered problematic subject matter seriously, avoided rampant speculation and provided context.

Still, some viewers felt ESPN's coverage was overblown and invasive: "Why are your journalists in such a rush to crucify Tiger Woods?" … "You're stooping to the level of the tabloids and paparazzi." … "Is ESPN going to start reporting on every athlete that cheats on their spouse?"

When ESPN credits certain sources for information it disseminates, it diminishes itself in the eyes of some viewers. "Using TMZ as a source bothers me." … "Does ESPN really need to report what the National Enquirer has to say?" … "Couldn't you do your own investigation?" … "ESPN is becoming a gossip rag."

How did ESPN view its coverage relative to the tabloids?

"As to giving exposure to stories first reported on sites and entities that typically cover the entertainment industry and likely have standards that are different from ours, we realize they often do present accurate reporting," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news. "We attempt to confirm stories that are reported by others, but -- accounting for the nature of the story, our sense of potential credibility and in some cases the track record of the entity doing the reporting -- we may well decide to report that information on our air without our own confirmation. When we do, we attribute it to the entity making the report and make note of what we know about their sourcing."

The news business is, by nature, extremely aggressive. There is an immutable desire to be the first to break a story. Just as important is the goal of accuracy, but the competitive frenzy of the former sometimes can blur the latter obligation.

Some of ESPN's coverage decisions -- such as playing the 911 call about Woods' mother-in-law fainting, using a quote on The Bottom Line from one of Woods' neighbors that left the impression the golfer was drunk, and relying on the National Enquirer and TMZ as sources -- should raise eyebrows.

The Bottom Line (TBL) is arguably ESPN's most powerful on-air tool in delivering news, scores, stats and information. Because of its frequency, TBL is often what viewers most remember when they watch ESPN. They may have missed a story on "SportsCenter" or were distracted and weren't quite sure of the details of the report. If it's important to know, they presume, it will show up on TBL.

But, the constant repetition of the "Tiger" crawl on TBL can't help but lead to a sense of overkill for heavy ESPN consumers. There it is, on average 12 times an hour and sometimes as many as 20, most of the day for several weeks. The scores, stats and standings all change, but all-Tiger-all-the-time remains ever-present.

In advertising, if you want to sell a product, the mantra is "irritation and repetition." Irritation means get their attention. When TBL crawl categories read "NFL, NCAA, NBA, Tiger," that gets the viewer's attention. The repetition relates to frequency, and what could be more frequent than TBL's unbridled assault on the Woods story? The constant drumbeat brought back memories to one viewer of the most irritating advertising campaign of all time -- "HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead."

Many viewers were put off by the whole sordid Woods affair. Many said they changed the channel when Tiger was discussed. That's a viewer's choice. But what choice is there when the crawl is ubiquitously embedded in a college football or basketball game or other lengthy sports telecast? Some viewers said they resorted to putting tape across the bottom of their screens.

TBL started out as a scrolling scoreboard, and as that it's an enormously effective tool for viewers. It has expanded to include stats and short news bites. TBL is effective when the information displayed is limited to factual elements that require no context. The final score of a game, for example, will never change. Similarly, the announced hiring or firing of a coach is an indisputable fact.

But there are two areas in which TBL's strength can prove to be a weakness. It's extremely difficult to provide context in short bites, no matter how well constructed the language, and its omnipresence can be a bludgeon on stories relating to people's reputations. An allegation, an unconfirmed report, a witness observation, a claim of sexual involvement -- these are neither indisputable nor necessarily factual. Repeating these bites on a seemingly endless loop, can be misleading and do irreparable damage to the subject of the report.

TBL is a tremendous plus for ESPN's viewers, but the criteria it uses for including information that could in any way be in dispute must be refined. And a less frequent cycle should be considered for repetitive news bites airing in multihour programs that attract large, dedicated audiences.

Beyond TBL, there's been considerable conversation in ESPN's newsrooms and executive offices in recent months about how to deal with stories that revolve around sexually charged subject matter -- and this self-analysis undoubtedly will continue. The tabloids, National Enquirer, TMZ and the blogs have made a handsome profit exposing the sexual escapades of movie stars, politicians and cultural icons. Clearly, they now see there is an appetite for invading the national sports marketplace -- so thinking the Woods exposé is a one-shot phenomenon would be naive.

Although it is disconcerting to think the mainstream media are being driven by lowbrow outlets, the Woods affair only reinforces a media mantra that seems to have evolved into "anything worth doing is worth doing to excess." Let's hope ESPN can avoid that clarion call.

Announcers and quality

The quality of ESPN productions is a frequent topic in the ombudsman mailbag, typically a mixture of complaints and occasional praise. One of the most common claims is that announcers are biased for or against certain athletes or teams.

ESPN viewers are generally fans (remember, derived from "fanatic") who watch with passion. When they hear criticism of their favorites, the reaction is visceral and emotional, and the buzzword used to vent that anger is "bias." It's fascinating to read letters from different viewers watching the same telecast who feel the "bias" of the announcers is exactly reversed.

In watching an enormous amount of ESPN during the past six months, I've seen very little that would qualify as outright bias. Commentators are paid to cover the action and have opinions. Some of the opinions are well-founded and factually accurate, while others are spur-of-the-moment points of view. The former don't receive much criticism; the latter don't receive enough.

ESPN employs more than 700 announcers, analysts and reporters to broadcast more than 26,000 programs a year. Like any group, some announcers are excellent, some are good, some are adequate and some aren't up to the task. If they are good, or have potential and improve, they'll be around for a while. If they don't improve, they should be replaced. In football, you don't cut a rookie quarterback because he's not Brett Favre right out of the blocks. The goal should be to bring them along on less-watched events until they're ready for a bigger stage. Give them too much prominence too soon, and you run the risk of destroying them before they're ready. Keep mediocrity around too long, and you rightly risk credibility with the audience.

Improvement comes only when announcers are prepared to work hard and adapt to constructive criticism. The role of the producer of individual telecasts is key to an announcer's development. It's the producer's job to provide the ongoing critique, much as a film director has to steer actors into their best performances.

As the "face" of a telecast, announcers sometimes take the heat for a poorly produced show. If there's no coherent storyline, if the replays aren't very good, if there is a lack of focus on the game, if there isn't any sense of excitement or if the game itself isn't competitive, commentators are the easiest target. But broadcasting is a team sport. Based on 35-plus years in the industry, here are 10 things I keep in mind when making judgments about the quality of a telecast:

• Good sports television is relevant to the hard-core fan, accessible to the occasional fan and unpredictable to both, making the telecast enjoyable for all.

• Everything in a telecast should be motivated by and tied (even if tangentially) to the game being covered on the field. Preparation and imagination provide the best opportunity to accomplish this.

• The overall goal of production should be to bring the audience to the game. A great telecast makes viewers feel as if they're sitting in the stands, a part of the excitement of the contest with the added advantage of replays, graphics and expert commentary. Although the pictures let them watch what's going on, it's the high-impact shots and the sound that really make them "feel" it.

• Storytelling is at the core of all telecasts. The initial storyline sets the stage by signaling to the viewer why an event is important. The events on the field then dictate ever-changing plotlines that resolve in a win or loss, success or failure, triumph or tragedy. The telecast must periodically reset the trajectory of the story so that the drama is explicit as it unfolds.

• Announcers should possess distinct voices, articulate distinct points of view and have distinct responsibilities. They should master the art of observing the obvious with a sense of discovery. Synchronicity between the commentators and the production truck is an imperative. All must be telling the same story.

• Good sports broadcasts take into account that athletes are human, and their strengths and frailties are central to the story. The production team should seek methods to tie events on the field with universal truths to which audiences generally respond -- courage, selfishness, camaraderie, sacrifice, pride, hubris, fear, success and failure.

• The game should be treated with respect even while maintaining the sense of humor and irony that increases the fans' enjoyment.

• One of production's goals is to push forward technical innovation by finding new ways to capture the speed, strength, teamwork and intelligence of the game.

• Informative and arresting graphics are central to an effective telecast. Graphic excellence is determined not by quantity but by quality. Because typically one-third of the audience is watching the game without listening, viewers should be able to follow the game without the aid of commentary.

• Promotion is the lifeblood of television. Handled well, it does not seem a distraction to the viewer; handled poorly, it is painful to sit through.

There are many more elements requisite for a good telecast, of course. But as you critique ESPN's programs in the new year, at least you'll have a sense of where I'm coming from.

OTL and Florida State

On Dec. 13, "Outside the Lines" aired an investigate journalism piece on a cheating scandal involving Florida State's football program. That story prompted an avalanche of mail from outraged FSU supporters who called the report "biased," "tabloid journalism," "irresponsible" and "a hit job." Some of the letters reached the mailbag before the piece even aired, and all seemed to rely on the same basic themes: The producer of the piece went to archrival Florida, and the two main witnesses in the story were "disgruntled," "despicable" and "untrustworthy." The volume of mail, the timing and the similarity of content gave the clear impression that this was an organized complaint campaign.

ESPN's response?

"Much of the material reported in the Florida State story had already been made public in the NCAA finding of academic fraud on the part of the athletics program at the school," Doria said. "That included 61 athletes involved in various violations, including receiving test answers in advance and having papers written, typed and edited by tutors supplied by the school.

"The piece offered interviews with people who were involved with the fraud or exposed to its practices. As is typical in a story like this, these people were no longer associated with the school, and their motives in talking may well have been driven by their experiences at Florida State. To that end, we were very careful in the piece, as we always are, to note elements in people's background that might raise questions about their credibility.

"We noted that [former Seminoles wide receiver] Fred Rouse had been dropped from Florida State after a positive drug test, and that he had been arrested for burglary. We noted that [former Florida state employee] Brenda Monk had been charged with academic fraud in the NCAA investigation, that the NCAA had mandated that she should not be hired by another member school until 2013 and that she had filed a lawsuit against the school. We noted that [former Seminoles defensive tackle] Paul Griffin had been implicated in the academic fraud investigation.

"Because much of the detail they provided was consistent with the NCAA findings, and because documentation existed in some cases, we believe what they told us was credible. Obviously, viewers can weigh the interviewees' background, along with their respective stories, and draw their own conclusions."

OTL debuted in 1990. It has received 10 Emmy Awards and multiple CableACEs for respected and responsible journalism. In examining this piece, it appears to be well-researched and fairly presented. Ironically, few of the complaining letters claimed that the facts presented by OTL were untrue. Instead, they impugned motives, equivocated about fairness, pointed out that "it happens at many universities" and called the piece a "witch hunt." My favorite missive admitted "much of what was reported seemed to be true, however ..."

Isn't truth the most important element?

Viewers aren't going to like every report that appears on OTL, "SportsCenter" or ESPN.com. This is particularly true if they have allegiances. Who wants to see his school, team, favorite coach or player criticized? Certainly, ESPN's journalists should be accountable if they carelessly make mistakes or violate their own codes of conduct. But before jumping to such conclusions, let's ensure that everyone has checked the facts.

ESPN360.com access

The mailbag has repeatedly received complaints from viewers who can't access live game coverage on ESPN's broadband network, ESPN360.com, and don't understand why. The service is an online network that features more than 3,500 live events a year as well as replays. It's available via Internet service providers in 70 percent of U.S. homes that have broadband capability. It also can be accessed on most college campuses and military bases.

The cost for fans to access the service is included in payments to their ISPs, such as AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Cox and Verizon. ESPN is continuing to gain increased participation with ISPs around the country. (Talk to your local provider to see whether it's available in your area.)

There were also questions about the ability to record or save ESPN360.com programs. For security, antipiracy and copyright reasons, you can't burn a disc from an event on the service. Because video on demand is available for most events, even though you can't record, you can still retrieve an event for later screening.

Simmons and Reilly

The mailbag also received a number of inquiries concerning the absence of Conversation pages on columns by two of ESPN's most widely read writers, Rick Reilly and Bill Simmons. These pages allow readers to comment, compliment, disagree with or even disparage the writer's work and are linked directly from the column page.

Observed Brian from Rockville, Md., "It gives the impression that they are somehow beyond commentary by the fans, which I find troubling given the opinionated stances they take on issues. What does ESPN risk by not allowing dialogue and debate to accompany their work?"

What's ESPN's rationale?

"We encourage user interaction in many forms across ESPN.com," said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and executive editor & producer for ESPN.com. "In the case of Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly, based on the volume of comments, we channel feedback via heavily trafficked venues such as writer mailbags, live chats and -- in the case of Simmons -- a tremendously popular Twitter feed. Both also have distinct sections within the site (Sports Guy's World for Simmons, Go Fish for Reilly) through which fans can correspond."

Seems like one strong opinion deserves another, and it seems that's possible even without a Conversation page.

Reilly also provoked some angry feedback from readers concerning an article that appeared in ESPN The Magazine and later on ESPN.com. Some of you, as well as some bloggers, accused him of plagiarizing a column he had written earlier in his career while at Sports Illustrated. Even though it seems difficult to plagiarize yourself, a response was still in order.

Rob King, ESPN.com vice president and editor-in-chief, said he and Gary Belsky, editor of ESPN The Magazine, "looked into this immediately" and concluded that the column -- headlined "Why I love sports" -- was a case of "uncharacteristic carelessness."

"Rick, who is noodling with column ideas all the time, keeps an ongoing file of works in progress, some more fully fleshed-out than others," King said. "In this instance, Rick, seeking an evergreen idea for an upcoming issue of The Magazine, inadvertently chose a set of notes he'd forgotten he'd used in a previous assignment. Rick expressed no small degree of embarrassment, and I can assure you we will put more rigorous checks in place to ensure that this won't happen again."

Something worth remembering

There were numerous letters in December praising ESPN for once again celebrating Jimmy V Week. The annual corporate commitment is intended to raise awareness of cancer -- a disease striking 28,000 Americans each week -- and support donations to the V Foundation, which has raised $90 million for cancer research.

The week honors Jim Valvano, who coached college basketball for 20 years and was later a commentator for ESPN and ABC. The highlight of his coaching career was North Carolina State's NCAA championship in 1983. A warm and emotional man, Valvano built ties at ESPN that haven't dissipated in the decade and a half since he passed away. A company and its employees can silently say a great deal about themselves by the things they don't forget.

The week of special events kicked off on 11 ESPN platforms simultaneously with Coach V's famous speech from the inaugural ESPYS Awards in 1993.

His poignant words as he accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award carried with them the pain and resilience of a spirit that had courageously fought bone cancer during his final year.

"Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities," Valvano said. "It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you, and God bless you all."

It appears that ESPN doesn't want America to forget a man of inner strength and purpose whose constant mantra was "Don't give up, don't ever give up."

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

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.