Commentary

Do the right thing

ESPN dilemmas: Competitive pressures, collegial criticism and the soul of journalism

Originally Published: March 10, 2010
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

Another month, another fertile field of topics to harvest from the ombudsman mailbag. Tony Kornheiser's suspension and the rants of a self-described troll? Check. Olympic results that come too soon? Check. Tiger Woods and the tabloid era? Check. Being asked to pay for what you want for free? Check. Let's dive in.

Kornheiser in the eye of the Storm

To know Tony Kornheiser is to know that his style is a complex mixture of knowledgeable opinion, sarcastic wit, incisive criticism and devil-may-care irreverence. His goal -- as a writer, as a radio broadcaster and as co-host of ESPN's popular show "Pardon the Interruption" -- is to be provocative, to make you think, to make you laugh (and on PTI, to drive Michael Wilbon crazy).

Kornheiser, of course, enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a sports writer and columnist. He started at Newsday in 1970, later segueing to the New York Times and then the Washington Post. For ESPN, he has debated with Wilbon on PTI since 2001, served as a commentator on "Monday Night Football" for three seasons and hosted a national radio show. His successful radio career in Washington, D.C., began in 1992, and he still has a weekday morning show there.

Part of Kornheiser's radio schtick is perusing the five TV monitors in his studio. The screens are set to news channels, local Washington stations and, of course, ESPN. Periodically, he comments off-the-cuff about things he sees on the tube. He did so on Feb. 16, when Hannah Storm, hosting the morning "SportsCenter," caught his attention. His comments that morning ultimately sent him to ESPN's penalty box for a very public two-week time out.

The offense: "I'd like to point out for those of you looking at ESPN right now," Kornheiser said on the air, "Hannah Storm in a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She's got on red go-go boots and a Catholic girl plaid skirt way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now. And she's got on her typically very, very tight shirt so she looks like she's got sausage casing wrapped around her upper body. You know, honestly, I know she's very good, and I know I'm not supposed to be critical of ESPN people ... but Hannah Storm, c'mon now."

On his radio show three days later, Kornheiser said "I apologize, unequivocally," noted he called Storm to say he was sorry, and added, "I think she's really good and I think she's really pretty ... and I've also destroyed her clothing, here and there. I've done that, as I do with Hoda Kotb, as I do if Bob Costas wears a ridiculous tie, if some guy is wearing a stupid outfit, if Herm Edwards wears these idiotic argyle socks to make a statement about his relative position in the the pecking order, this is what I do. I am a sarcastic, subversive guy ... I'm a troll, look at me. I have no right to insult what anybody looks like, or what anybody wears."

The following Monday, John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content, announced the two-week suspension of Kornheiser from PTI saying the criticism of Storm's wardrobe was "entirely inappropriate. Hurtful and personal comments such as these are not acceptable and have significant consequences."

Not surprising, ensuing missives to the ombudsman mailbag were fast and furious. A small but vocal minority was supportive of Kornheiser's banishment from PTI, and some even felt it didn't go far enough: "Kornheiser should be fired. He insulted women and is arrogant and narrow-minded" .... "His suspension should be converted to termination" ... "Hannah = smart and classy, Kornheiser = jealous and bald."

However, the majority of reader feedback indicated that the punishment far outweighed the crime: "Tony was only stating what we wanted to scream from the hilltops for quite some time" ... "To suspend him for making his usual hilarious cracks is absurd" ... "How many times has Kornheiser criticized athletes and coaches saying far worse things than merely being the fashion police? Suspending him is goofy."

Should there have been consequences for Kornheiser's remarks? (First, a disclaimer: I've known Tony for more than a decade and enjoy his work. I've spoken to Hannah a number of times and respect her professionalism.) So the answer: absolutely. A response from the network was warranted. It's unseemly to have a commentator publicly deride and insult a colleague's appearance. It's not good for morale, and it's not good for business. Regardless of whether the audience is interested in the internecine squabbles of employees, it can make viewers uncomfortable -- and simultaneously damage two valuable reputations.

That said, the network's rationale seemed disingenuous. Instead of rightfully suspending Kornheiser for denigrating a fellow employee, the company's statement issued an all-encompassing dictum that "hurtful and personal comments" would have "significant consequences." This seemed ludicrous to many mailbaggers. It established a very low disciplinary bar, considering that a sizable portion of what ESPN airs and prints involves blunt opinion and criticism -- and much of that criticism could liberally be interpreted as "personal and hurtful."

When I phoned to discuss this matter with an ESPN executive, I was placed on hold and patched into an ESPN talk-show feed while I waited. Irony of ironies: at that very time, the radio commentators were deriding the physical appearance of U.S. bobsled driver and gold medalist Steve Holcomb. He was excoriated for being overweight, and for his lack of sartorial splendor in a form-fitting spandex racing suit. The announcers made fun of him for being in what they thought was terrible shape for an Olympic athlete. No doubt, Holcomb and his fans would consider these comments "hurtful and personal." The commentators, however, found them hilarious.

So just how strenuously is the Kornheiser rule being enforced?

To imply that punishment awaits announcers and analysts who levy such remarks, no matter whom the target, doesn't seem realistic. Was this about criticizing a colleague, or lobbing "hurtful and personal comments," period? The reality is that no one likes to be criticized before an audience of millions, no matter how it is delivered (humor, serious commentary or sarcasm). And it's simply human instinct to take criticism personally.

ESPN management took six days to announce Kornheiser's suspension, implying a good deal of thought went into the decision. Perhaps the punishment was influenced by recent negative publicity about gender issues at the network or issues of ageism. And while it's understandable why those might be taken into consideration, this ultimately should have nothing to do with gender or age. Derogatory comments about a fellow employee's appearance, male or female, should be unacceptable.

In terms of attire, all ESPN commentators are supposed to select their wardrobes with the approval of producers and consultants. The byword of corporate guidance is "appropriateness," but a large number of the letters on the Kornheiser suspension questioned just that -- the appropriateness of Storm's clothing choices.

Storm is an excellent sports broadcaster -- knowledgeable, articulate, likeable and entertaining. Her breezy, relaxed delivery works particularly well on morning "SportsCenters." She's had an exemplary career, but if critiques in this mailbag reflect the audience at large, her choices for attire are not helping either Storm or the network. If anything distracts the audience from interesting content professionally presented, ESPN should take notice.

Real-time results in a tape-delayed world

While some may expect ESPN to be all things to all people all the time, that's obviously unrealistic. That came into focus again during the coverage of the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver. As the primary rights-holder, NBC did an excellent job presenting more than 800 memorable hours of the Winter Games -- and consistent with past practice, many key daytime events were tape-delayed until the evening to accommodate the network's prime-time audience.

This best served NBC's business interests, as the substantial TV ratings attested. Given NBC's strategy, some viewers were irate that multiple ESPN platforms presented real-time results from the Games even though the events had not yet aired on NBC: "A lot of us don't want to know who won so we can enjoy watching the Olympics as if they're live" ... "ESPN is ruining my Olympic viewing experience" ... "I dislike receiving texts giving me results of events before they've aired."

What was ESPN's rationale?

"We are a news and information service, first and foremost, and our prime directive is serving fans with real-time news, results, analysis and perspective," said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and executive editor/producer for ESPN.com. "The volume of traffic, conversation and interaction generated by our Olympic coverage underscores that the vast majority of our audience appreciates this timely reporting, and expects us to deliver on the same real-time promise we offer during other major sporting events."

Stiegman also noted that ESPN has previously partnered for Winter Olympics coverage with NBC's online site, "which also opts to post results immediately after events are completed during the Games."

The same approach is taken on The Bottom Line, according to Ed Macedo, ESPN's vice president for Stats & Information.

"Why do we show Olympics results and news immediately?" Macedo asked. "That's why fans come to The Bottom Line and to ESPN as a whole. If we didn't do this, we'd likely see people leaving our broadcasts as they search for the information elsewhere."

If a news entity holds back information, the complications multiply. NBC didn't air the Olympics simultaneously across the country -- as networks usually do, it delayed its West Coast airing to begin at 8 p.m. Pacific Time. So if, as many e-mailers requested, ESPN had waited to post results until after NBC completed its delayed coverage, some events wouldn't have been accounted for on ESPN platforms until well past 11 p.m. Eastern Time.

If a reader turns to ESPN.com for sports information, he should expect it will include up-to-the-minute results. The Bottom Line could consider the small accommodation of a "spoiler alert," by building in a short delay between the time the "Olympic" category appears, and when the actual results begin to scroll. This would allow those fans so inclined to avert their focus.

But avoiding sports results because another network is delaying its coverage or because a viewer is TiVo-ing something to watch later has always been a tough game for the audience to play -- and with ESPN's focus on delivery of real-time news, it won't get any easier.

The war for the soul of journalism

On the morning of Feb. 19, Tiger Woods broke his long silence on the controversy surrounding a Thanksgiving weekend flare-up that precipitated a media frenzy and his temporary withdrawal from public life -- if not the spotlight. His prepared statement was carried live by 11 networks and watched by more than 20 million viewers. That's 14 million more than viewed the final round of the 2009 Masters and close to NBC's prime-time average audience for the Vancouver Olympics.

For ESPN, it was flood-the-zone across all platforms. ESPN ratings were up 300 percent, ESPNEWS was up 400 percent and ESPN.com logged more than 5 million page views and 1.6 million video starts on its Tiger coverage. A huge audience shared an event that generated emotions running the gamut from outrage to sadness.

Woods looked completely demoralized. Gone was the effervescent self-confidence associated with the world's premiere golfer. He took complete responsibility for the harm he'd done to his family and pleaded for their privacy. He apologized to those he'd let down, asked for their forgiveness, promised to learn from his mistakes and become a better person.

His words of contrition filled some viewers with pity, while for others they rang hollow. And ESPN brought first-rate and thorough coverage to the event over the course of the day. A timeline of what had transpired over the previous three months put the whole ugly affair in context for the audience. The network's coverage included reaction to Woods' statement from tour players, other athletes, fans, business analysts, marketers and ESPN commentators.

The commentary was a mixture of observation, criticism and empathy. Said ESPN's Rick Reilly, "It was like seeing a lion without his fur ... like watching a porcupine swallow a golf ball. This was Tiger humbled, flawed and, for once, human." Said ESPN reporter Colleen Dominguez, "The man has made mistakes ... there's resistance from women, but in general the fans want to see Tiger Woods playing golf." Veteran New York columnist Mike Lupica said of Woods, "The hard part is rehab. The hard part is being the world's punch-line. The hard part is standing in front of the world like he did ... golf's going to be the easy part."

The extent of the coverage, however, did not sit well with all viewers: "You've been talking about Tiger Woods on all your channels all day long" ... "I watched 'SportsCenter' and I'm so disgusted: Tiger, Tiger, Tiger" ... "I miss the old days when ESPN was about sports" ... "Tabloid journalism is pervading ESPN's Web site and programming."

The last comment brought to mind one of ESPN's most illuminating, infuriating and thought-provoking stories on Woods. Reporter Chris Connelly traced how tabloid sites, papers and TV shows drove the arc of the story, and the rest of the media followed. It gave prominence to the sordid sources that led this train and encapsulated how the drumbeat of scandal is fed today.

In the past, the agenda for what was "newsworthy" was set by a few highly influential newspapers, magazines and wire services. All were governed by similar sets of ground rules, dictating journalistic responsibility. Today, though part of the conversation is influenced by the old mainstays, at times that mainstream approach is overshadowed by myriad new players -- cable news, blogs, talk radio and the tabloids. Their reach, popularity and influence can pressure outlets such as ESPN to re-evaluate traditional journalistic tenants and question the judgments they make.

Connelly's story gave stark insight into the attitudes and personalities of some of those driving the decisions. Barry Levine, executive editor of The National Enquirer -- which started the Woods saga Nov. 25 with the first allegation of a Tiger affair -- told viewers with some sense of pride that the entity willingly pays sources to dish the dirt.

"We make no bones about it," he said. "We practice checkbook journalism. We're the ones who have to dip our feet into the dirty pool of water to unearth these stories. Once there's some conversation, everybody wants in. [The Woods story] was one of the worst feeding frenzies on picking apart a celebrity's bones that I've ever seen in my 25 years in the tabloid business."

Caroline Schaefer of US Weekly was positively gleeful in saying "It's a soap opera and everybody wants to watch. We posted a recording of Tiger Woods' voice mail and since then its been listened to 6 million times. The first woman to say 'Yes, I slept with Tiger Woods. I've been having an affair with him for three years' ... that was huge. We were breaking news not just among celebrities, but worldwide."

Connelly's story referenced the paparazzi-tenor of the story. Yet as Tiger stepped to the microphone, ESPN covered every aspect with the same gusto. Yes, the coverage was well done. It had breadth, scope and a sense of fairness. But it was still a story made larger than life by the tabloids and blogs that make their living wallowing in the muck of celebrity transgressions. Their impact on the audience exerts pressure on other media outlets to cover stories extensively that a few years ago might well have barely been mentioned.

I spoke at length on the topic with Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, and asked for his perspective on the editorial dilemma of the new age, one that ultimately affects us all.

"The expanding nature of what qualifies as news, is challenging long-held journalistic basics," Doria said. "Reporting once entailed talking to people on the phone, knocking on doors and confronting people, face-to-face, to ask questions. All of that still goes on, of course. But often, reporting today is a process of aggregating what can be found on the Internet. A good reporter will take that information, and use it to find his own sources and develop his own original information. A lazy reporter will simply compile what's available to him to support his thesis, often creating more inaccurate information."

Where does this leave traditional media? How will the tabloids alter the philosophy of those journalists who have responsibly stayed above this fray?

"The honest answer is, I don't know," Doria said. "There is a very basic difference in philosophy, between the more conventional newsgathering operations and the new-breed purveyors of information. The traditionalists believe in checking information and sources, making sure a story is accurate before exposing it publicly. Many of the new-breed community believe information should be made available to everyone, regardless of its accuracy, and allow them to draw their own conclusions about its veracity.

"It's certainly a democratic notion: here's everything we've heard or been told, you be the judge. But that approach fails to take into account the potential harm that can result from inaccurate information. Of course, harm can result from accurate information. But, in that case, the target of the reporting has usually invited the scrutiny by improper actions. The tragic and unnecessary damage is done when the information is simply wrong.

"What I hope for is that this new breed of information gatherers/disseminators begin to embrace responsibility in what they report. But the Internet provides such easy access to a platform that's available to virtually everybody, that it's hard to believe the standards of accuracy and fairness, the bedrock of traditional journalism, will ever dominate the landscape."

Competitive pressures are the nature of the business, but the responsibility to which Doria refers seems to be eroding in favor of the "democratization" of information. There's a certain fatalism that creeps into any conversation about the future of journalism. The sturdy tests that once were the foundation of responsible coverage are overwhelmed by the demands of speed and outlets that refuse to play by rules they deem archaic.

There's a war going on for the soul of journalism. Let's hope the Vince Dorias of the world don't surrender.

The premium-vs.-public debate

ESPN Insider, a premium extension of ESPN The Magazine that runs in concert with ESPN.com, has shown remarkable growth over the past five years and now boasts nearly a half million subscribers. There's a great deal of cross-pollination in the coverage, with "free" content on ESPN.com sharing space with "pay" stories and services available only to Insider subscribers.

Historically, most commercial news and information sites have relied on advertising support, with no direct charge to the consumer. Some mailbag writers vociferously rail against the concept of paying for content online: "I am getting frustrated that ESPN continues to put more and more of the information I want to read into the Insider" ... "I go to read an article about the NFL draft, and cannot read it because I am not an Insider" ... "My biggest complaint is that sometimes on the front page of ESPN.com the lead story will be an Insider-only story" ... "Give me the news, not a bill."

Some may dismiss the mailbag complaints against Insider, as one ESPN executive did, as "symptomatic of reader hyperbole," but such reader sentiments are increasing in frequency. What is ESPN's approach to the cohabitation of both Insider and free content online, especially on its home page?

"Our goal is to offer a hierarchical view of what's important in sports that day from a news perspective, as well as representations of the various storytelling elements -- video, blogs, commentary, etc. -- available across the site, both public and premium," Stiegman said. "If an Insider element -- often predictive and deeply analytical -- best tells a given story, we'll feature it prominently, just as we would public content."

I asked Gary Hoenig, editorial director and general manager of ESPN publishing, about the philosophy of charging user directly for access.

"What we've done over the past several months is reinvigorate the Insider, with new and improved content," Hoenig said. "Only a tiny portion of what you see on ESPN.com is behind the pay wall. At about 11 cents a day, it doesn't seem like much to ask for what we think is premium content. With advertisers hurting these days, we need to find more ways to pay for all the talent that provides what fans want to know about sports."

The media landscape is rapidly evolving. Fewer users are turning to traditional media as their primary source of news and information. More and more are using the Web to devour content. Almost daily, new providers are coming online, as the cost of entry is a fraction compared to print or television. The recession has caused corporations to re-examine their advertising budgets and stray from traditional delivery systems. That said, overall, there are still more eyeballs being delivered by new media sites than advertising dollars chasing them.

The growing contraction of print titles -- newspapers and magazines alike -- is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Publishers are recognizing that if they don't charge for content online, they may ultimately not have a workable business model. The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Newsday and the New York Times, among others, are at various stages of considering or implementing pay walls for their digital products. Said Hoenig, "Total paid content amounts to less than 10 percent of all digital content [today]. At least half of those now charging didn't exist six months ago."

In order to charge for content, it must provide value to the consumer. It should be perceived as proprietary, not undifferentiated. Commoditized information in sports includes results, statistics, game summaries, player interviews, announcements, preview stories, soft feature pieces, etc. It's difficult, if not impossible to get people to pay for this type of material because it can be found free on an almost inexhaustible number of sites, from teams' to leagues' to networks' (such as ESPN's), as well as a multitude of magazine, newspaper and blog sites.

"Proprietary" information is material perceived by the user to be especially valuable, vital or unique -- it could be opinions from highly respected commentators, investigative stories, complex statistical analysis, reliable predictions or stories that truly take the audience to the next level. History shows Internet consumers will pay for this type of material, in some circumstances. Newsletters by respected experts, tip sheets for Wall Street investors and other gamblers, and time-saving or aggregation services have developed into handsome businesses. A few are expensive, most are pennies a day.

There's an unending litany of Web sites -- advertising can't possibly support them all. If these services are to exist, at some point users are going to have to cover a portion of the costs. The irony, of course, is that users don't get their content free now. Advertising is based on the audience buying products they need, want or just crave. Incorporated in the cost of almost every item consumers purchase is a charge that can be siphoned off for advertising. So, consumers already are paying for those TV programs, radio shows, print sources and Web sites that they might think they're getting for free.

Broadcast television has always been thought of as free TV. It had one revenue stream -- advertising. But in the 1980s, premium channels began charging for programming the viewer could not see elsewhere. There was resistance at first, but as the quality and originality of the programming increased, people adjusted to subscriber fees. They may not like to pay, but they wouldn't if they didn't feel they were deriving significant value or pleasure.

Web content providers won't succeed by simply relying on the old broadcast model. For ESPN, Insider is a foray into the premium market. Its readers will determine whether the content is truly proprietary or just more undifferentiated information. That perceived value will tell the story.

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.