The 'Decision' dilemma
By ceding control to Team LeBron, ESPN raised ethical issues, damaged its credibility
It was billed without irony as "The Decision." But for those who thought ESPN could agree to televise live LeBron James' announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat -- ultimately served up with ample hype in the form of an awkward, uncomfortable, staged one-hour network special -- and still be free from public controversy, it might as well have been called "The Delusion."As has been well documented, Team LeBron proposed the exclusive special to ESPN with the following conditions: (1) Veteran broadcaster Jim Gray, who has no current association with ESPN, would host the segment in which James announced his plans; (2) The network would yield the hour of advertising inventory to be sold by James' team with the proceeds directed to the Boys & Girls Club of America; (3) The network would produce the entire show and pay for all production costs. Notwithstanding the noteworthy audience for the July 8 special -- it peaked at more than 13 million viewers, giving ESPN its second-highest rating of the year -- I think ESPN made some major mistakes handling the entire affair. In fact, in many ways, the network's decisions in airing the James' special -- and its justification for making them -- are a metaphor for what ails the media today. Although past columns have paid scant attention to outside media opinions, in this instance their criticism of the network is germane because the media are part of this story -- ESPN made that so. And the critics' appraisal of ESPN's coverage seemed in sync with so much of what the ombudsman's mailbag offered. Examples:
• David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: "ESPN led the way Thursday night in some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing. The hype was shameless, the lack of perspective colossal."
• Leonard Shapiro, Washington Post: "The most troubling aspect of the whole ill-conceived mess was ESPN's willingness to hand over an hour of prime-time television to an egomaniacal athlete the network should be covering as a news story.
Does this not-so-subtle form of checkbook journalism pass the smell test anywhere else but in Bristol, Conn.?"
• David Barron, Houston Chronicle: "LeBron James hijacked ESPN, selling the network on an hour-long glorified infomercial preceded by three hours of breathless hype and numbing repetition."
• Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated.com: "The Decision is the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to, and it will take a long time for some viewers to get over it."
• Tom Hoffarth, Los Angeles Daily News: "The truth is, how does anyone believe anything else ESPN reports about James from this point forward?"
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About ESPN's Ombudsman
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.