Commentary

Paying a penance

All ESPN reporting on LeBron James will be judged against the sins of 'The Decision'

Originally Published: September 23, 2010
By Don Ohlmeyer | ESPN Ombudsman

For all the wonder and amazement of this age of instant information, the ease of Internet publishing can occasionally turn that blessing into a curse, resulting in the instant availability of inaccurate, incomplete or inadvertent information.

Such was the case recently when an ESPNLosAngeles.com story chronicling a party LeBron James and friends had hosted in Las Vegas mistakenly found its way onto the Internet before the editing process was finalized. Indexed by several search engines, the story quickly cycled through the blogosphere before ESPN discovered the publishing error and removed the posting.

The decision to spike the story, and announce that it would not be republished even after editing, triggered alarm bells in the ombudsman mailbag: "Is ESPN now censoring negative information about LeBron James?" … "Is ESPN afraid of a backlash from the James camp or the NBA when ratings optimism for Heat games is at a new high?" … "Can fans trust ESPN to be objective on LeBron after 'The Decision'? Apparently not." … "This makes ESPN look pathetic, scared and weak." … "A sad day for a once great network."

Pretty strong stuff. The reaction wasn't aimed at the story itself but rather at the perception that ESPN was hiding something, trying to protect a star athlete from embarrassing revelations or covering up news to protect a valued relationship. The article itself was rather innocuous. Other than an off-color remark by James and the chronicling of some testosterone-driven antics, it was -- by modern day standards -- fairly benign. No arrests. No indecent behavior. No controversy.

But what started out as a behind-the-scenes feature piece on a famous athlete morphed quickly into a news flap about ESPN and its motives. In truth, the entire fiasco was an almost tragically comedic sequence of misconceptions and miscommunications, compounded by human error.

"It's hard to recall a story that encountered such a series of breakdowns in our editorial process," said Rob King, vice president and editor-in-chief for ESPN Digital Media. "From the initial story pitch, to the vetting of the idea, to the execution of the newsgathering, to the quality and completion of the editing, and finally, to the errant publishing of the story to an internal server … each of these breakdowns contributed to the decision not to republish the piece."

Before a typical story is published, it goes through a tedious progression. And although many writers hate it, finding it frustrating and exhausting, the editing process is aimed at constructively improving and polishing a piece into its final form. At ESPN.com, as many as five or more editors might be involved in the review of a story (from line and section editors to copy and senior editors). The more important, potentially troublesome or controversial the material is, the more attention the story receives -- and if legal issues arise, a lawyer would be consulted.

During the process, the writer might be challenged on accuracy, sourcing, context, tone, tenor, etc. Questions might be raised about fairness or deficiencies in supportive information. Editors might call attention to an important unasked question. They might, for example, challenge the balance or fairness of a piece. Good editors make sure the logic of a story is clear and consistent. In many ways, editors are to writers what directors are to actors. Appreciated or resented, their goal is to keep the author focused and get the best performance possible.

The goal of this column is not to assess blame or reconstruct every detail on a he-said, he-said basis, but rather to examine the editorial process and how decisions are reached. After numerous conversations with the editors involved, there doesn't appear to be much dispute about key elements of the timeline. The problems with the James article began with the pitch. Arash Markazi, a solid writer who had joined ESPNLosAngeles.com in December after five years with Sports Illustrated, had proposed a feature story to L.A. editors. The piece, he said, would provide an intimate behind-the-curtain look at the so-called new kings of the NBA.

An associate of Miami forward Chris Bosh, it turns out, had invited Markazi to a party in Las Vegas hosted by Bosh, James and Heat guard Dwyane Wade. The ESPNLA editors understood (or assumed) that Markazi would have access, but were under the impression the party participants would be aware a story was going to be written.

They later learned that was not the case.

Based on their assumptions, the editors approved Markazi's trip and, the next week, he filed a story that gave the clear impression that he was a welcomed participant in an intimate affair. The L.A. editors raised issues concerning the tone of the piece and his editorializing. Later, a senior news director at ESPN.com questioned a direct quote from James ("I wish they'd have one of those girls with no pants do that instead of the guy," referring to a waiter lowered from the ceiling who landed near James). Was the comment on the record? Did James and the others know Markazi was reporting a story, and did they know they were going to be quoted?

The answer was no, but that wasn't made clear to the editors until after it was discovered that the story had inadvertently been posted to the Web (though never directly referenced or linked from ESPN.com). The reality was that the author's access was not as cozy as suggested in the pitch. He was not sitting at the table with James, as the story implied, but at a nearby table. Clearly, he could observe the evening's festivities, but, in a crowded club, how well could he hear?

When questioned, Markazi told his editors that he had not identified himself as a working writer, nor had he spoken directly with James or business manager Maverick Carter, both of whom were quoted in the story. Given the discrepancies, editors decided to hold the piece -- and only then discovered that, through human error, the story link had actually been published and was discoverable through several search engines.

Typically, a story goes through a workflow process in the publishing system, moving from assigning editors to copy editors for proper grammar, spelling, style and coding and back to originating editors to add headlines, photos, graphics and other related elements. In this case, however, the story was inadvertently made live before it reached the copy desk for final editing.

The more the editors contemplated Markazi's story and how it was gathered, the less it felt like a news report and the more it felt like tabloid "gotcha" journalism.

Since the interaction was not on the record, it became eavesdropping on James' private life, even in a public place. Reporting on something that ultimately seemed more voyeuristic than important raised pertinent internal questions. Was it fair? Balanced? Were any ethical lines crossed? Is this the kind of journalism ESPN wants to be known for? This is the type of thing we hate when others do it to us, so why would we do it to someone else? King made the final decision not to republish the piece.

"Without question, plenty of important journalism has come as a result of reporters working -- at least initially -- outside of the awareness of the key subjects of their stories," King said. "Reporters at some point traditionally confront their subjects with the information they've managed to gather, offering them a fair opportunity to comment. It would be hard to argue that this story qualified as important journalism. And it's inarguable that our approach to covering LeBron in Las Vegas fell short in terms of fairness."

In a statement through ESPN, Markazi said that he understood why the story was pulled but that he also stood by the "accuracy of the story in its entirety." ESPN did not comment on whether any disciplinary action was deemed necessary. In the weeks that followed the incident, Markazi published 37 stories and blogs for ESPNLosAngeles.com -- on par with his output in the weeks preceding.

Did ESPN make the right call in not republishing?

Although there's nothing easier to second-guess than a news decision, ironically, there sometimes is nothing harder to make than a news decision. But it seems that finalizing the editing process and republishing the story -- which didn't contain earth-shattering revelations, and was already floating through the blogosphere -- would have raised more questions than it answered. Attention would have turned to the comparison of the two versions, leaving readers and critics to question every change and demand that ESPN explain and justify every word, phrase or characterization that was inconsistent.

We posed a hypothetical to several ESPN editors: What if, under exactly the same circumstances, the writer had not overheard some innocuous quote … but rather had discovered that James had decided to sign with Miami, before that was publicly announced? The reaction was straightforward. Because the information would be of real value to the audience, ESPN would have pursued the story but would have taken pains to be transparent about how the information was gathered. It would have been made clear that the reporter had not disclosed his intent. And before any story was published, the writer would have sought comment from James' camp -- and that response would have been included prominently in the final report.

What's not hypothetical, of course, is the fact that criticism aimed at ESPN in a circumstance like this almost immediately moves to motive.

"Let's be clear," said King, referring to some critics' speculation that ESPN was pressured into spiking the story by James or his business managers. "The decision was made without influence from any outside party."

In some respects, it might be easier for ESPN to skip rigorous editing processes and embrace the conventional wisdom of some that journalistic ethics no longer apply to the modern media world of 24/7 news cycles, blogs and tweets. As King put it, it would be simpler to "go with the flow and let the muck fly."

"A decorated columnist described the basis for spiking the James piece as 'correct,' but 'an outdated ideal that the marketplace has pushed to the cusp of extinction,'" King said. "A blogger described my thinking as 'tight-assed.' I'm starting to adopt the term 'quaint.' In any case, we'll continue to drive ethical decision-making in our journalism. It's just how we choose to do business."

Such ethical decision-making would be enhanced by concrete standards and practices guidelines. But since ESPN is still in the process of codifying those as part of a larger policy, it is condemned to rely on individual interpretations of its generally accepted procedures that can vary from editor to editor, writer to writer, and story to story.

It's also important to note that the reaction to the spiking of the Markazi story did not happen in a vacuum. That decision came in the wake of "The Decision," ESPN's now infamous televised announcement of James' plans to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach. After that episode, this column opined that future ESPN reporting on James would be put under microscopic examination because "The Decision" left many viewers thinking an unholy alliance existed between the network and the superstar.

Perhaps this is just the first round of penance ESPN will pay for a previous sin.

Regardless, the question of ESPN slanting coverage to appease superstars and leagues is a common one in the mailbag. The audience might sense this more than it actually exists, but an organization in business with the people it covers is constantly open to questions about conflicts of interest (real or alleged). It's incumbent upon ESPN to be overly sensitive to that point, and not just ignore or dismiss viewer reactions to it. To do this requires not only being transparent but being aggressively open in explaining decisions directly to the audience and factoring such perceptions into its journalistic decisions, as warranted.

The editing process can be cumbersome, yet it is critical in keeping journalists on the straight and narrow. There's an abundance of unfiltered information on the Internet, making it difficult for consumers to know what's reliable. ESPN.com readers need to be able to trust that the site's information has been vigorously vetted.

Having both criteria and process to verify information before it is published is anything but a "quaint" idea. It's one of the best ways to avoid a public black eye.

The case of Jay Mariotti

Like many news organizations, ESPN is occasionally challenged to report on its own employees and contributors. Such was the case Aug. 21, when ESPN.com posted a news story concerning "Around The Horn" panelist and AOL FanHouse columnist Jay Mariotti's arrest in Los Angeles after what police deemed a "domestic incident." Mariotti originally was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic assault and released from jail on $50,000 bail.

On Sept. 14, ESPN reported that the L.A. County district attorney's office said there was not enough evidence for the felony charge and instead charged the veteran sports writer with seven misdemeanors in connection with a domestic disturbance involving his girlfriend. Mariotti's attorney, Debra Wong Yang, called the allegations "inaccurate and sensationalized."

The conversation page that accompanied the original ESPN.com story logged an extraordinary number of vitriolic comments and observations. Letters in the mailbag questioned what many saw as a conspicuous lack of coverage on ESPN's air: "I find it amazing that you are keeping so quiet on Jay Mariotti." … "Where's the headline coverage of Mariotti's situation?" … "While blasting [Roger] Clemens and other athletes, not a word about ESPN's Mariotti." … "If he wasn't an employee his story would have been the top story of the day."

I asked Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, about how the network handled the story.

"We reported on the Mariotti arrest [all day Saturday] on 'SportsCenter' and on The Bottom Line," Doria said. "In general, ESPN has not covered media personalities to the same degree and emphasis that we do athletes, teams, leagues, associations, etc. When sports media figures find themselves in the news, we report it, but in most cases, don't spend a lot of time discussing, debating or speculating on the outcome because we don't believe it carries great interest for our audience in general.

"If the transgression directly touches sports -- Don Imus' comments on the Rutgers women's basketball team a few years ago, for example -- we may spend some time in discussion, but the Mariotti story did not fit that description."

This past November, ESPN did an extensive piece on "Outside the Lines" focusing on Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable, who had been accused of domestic violence but not arrested. The mailbag and this column criticized the extensive nature of that coverage on the network in general and TBL in particular. The Mariotti case, however, was handled in a much more restrained manner. Why the dramatic difference in the weight given the stories?

"In our judgment, we believe we offered the appropriate coverage for both stories," said Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor of studio production. "Consider that Cable's situation was dealing with the head coach of one of the NFL's most historically successful and controversial franchises. Additionally, we had proprietary reporting over several weeks on his situation.

"The Mariotti story was a news report with little factually confirmed detail, so we reported it as a straight, quick news item. Despite any similarities in allegations, we don't think the level of coverage for these two stories are comparable in any way."

It's clear that many viewers anticipated more extensive coverage of Mariotti, commensurate with ESPN's past practice with scandalous situations. To many, ESPN's approach to Cable, Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger and other notable off-the-field transgressors seemed excessive -- extensive discussion, speculation and opinion often surrounding a paucity of facts or new information.

Not so, it seems, when it is someone affiliated with the network. Viewers expressed an understandable expectation that ESPN must be privy to more information about Mariotti's circumstance than the network was sharing.

ESPN decision-makers have recognized and admitted on several occasions that they aren't adept at reporting on themselves. They can disseminate the known facts, but the reality is that an organization shouldn't be speculating about legal issues confronting its employees or contractors. There's only so much a company is allowed to say about personnel matters without violating privacy standards.

Beyond the volume of coverage, some observers suggested that ESPN had a responsibility to "respond in kind" because of Mariotti's aggressive style of commentary and the perceived attacks he had launched on other sports figures: "ESPN owes it to its viewers to report on this because of how polarizing a figure Mariotti is." … "He's the guy who's always been intolerably harsh on athletes with demands they be punished to the full extent of the law." … "Mariotti comments on the lives of young men in similar situations without any compassion."

"Retribution, obviously, isn't a tactic we would ever employ," Doria said in response. "This isn't about Jay's point of view as a columnist. This is about allegations made concerning an employee's behavior. Law enforcement became involved, and we're doing what any responsible employer would do -- monitor the situation, see how it plays out, and then take the appropriate action.

"It does seem in the best interest of both Jay and ESPN to keep him off the air for the time being."

Interestingly, commentary on the Mariotti matter was limited to "Around the Horn." Outside of ATH viewers and longtime newspaper readers in Chicago, Mariotti was not a well-known personality and certainly not a national figure. However, given that Mariotti had been a regular on ATH the past eight years, the show's producers owed it to the audience to clearly outline what had happened, ESPN's official response, and the reason he was -- and would remain -- absent from the show.

That didn't happen.

On the first broadcast after Mariotti's arrest, ATH host Tony Reali launched into a segment with the somewhat ironic lead-in "Let's get awkward." After a rather oblique reference to Mariotti's situation, he asked the panelists for their "reaction to the reactions" in the media and around the sports world -- much of which had been negative and punctuated with highly charged condemnations.

"I was always disappointed that Jay Mariotti didn't use his very formidable writing skills in a positive way more often," said ATH panelist Bob Ryan, a longtime columnist for The Boston Globe. "But he chose to be America's ultimate contrarian and seemed comfortable in doing that. He took on players, coaches, owners, everybody -- sometimes even other members of the media. He took a very high moral stance, and now there's a great deal of schadenfreude, people reveling in his downfall."

"I really wasn't surprised," said Kevin Blackistone, a fellow AOL FanHouse columnist, referring to the criticism of Mariotti . "Jay has always been a very polarizing figure. I think there's a lot of ego and envy in this business of sports commentating. A lot of people are very uncomfortable that he's risen by being such a provocateur and always telling people what to do and how to run their lives and how they should be treated thereafter."

Added Woody Paige of The Denver Post, "I'm saddened by the situation, but not shocked by the reaction. We've chosen to go on this national stage and offer strong powerful opinions. Sometimes the critics become the criticized. We've moved into glass houses. We tend, in this country, to build people up, then knock them down. Jay has a lot of enemies. It's a very sad situation that reflects on all of us."

"Around the Horn," with an average audience that approaches 1 million, is billed as "the show of competitive banter." It is the barroom brawl of ESPN talk shows, seeming to care more about "heat" than "light." Insults abound in this land of fast talkers, and compassion is at a minimum. It's filled with the shtick of hyperbolic rants. Stats and facts are integral, but outrageous observations are what score points on the show and with its viewers. The stage on which Mariotti performed may well explain some of the harsh reactions to him in the mailbag.

Programs such as ATH exist because there's not enough "news" to fill all the hours of ESPN's inventory. As a result, a substantial portion of non-event programming -- whether on radio or television or in other media -- relies on opinion, discussion and speculation. Ratings indicate that some sports fans find it entertaining. There's endless chatter about good or bad performances by athletes, intelligent or stupid decisions by the front office, smart or boneheaded choices by coaches. This is the fodder of sports discussion for fans and media commentators alike.

The subjects of the resultant praise or derision might not like or appreciate it, but it is part of what they signed up for. When off-the-field antics affect on-the-field performances, they clearly become an integral part of the dialogue. But when the events are purely private, as we've discussed in the past, ESPN needs to walk that very fine line between responsible reporting and sensationalism -- no matter who is the subject.

There can be a tendency to rationalize going overboard on a "juicy story" because "the fans want to know" or "it's good for ratings" or "if we don't cover it someone else will." But ESPN is the big dog. It often sets the agenda for the national sports conversation. In the Mariotti situation, ESPN's coverage actually appears to have been professional and responsible. The network was criticized in the mailbag for not doing more, but more doesn't seem to have been justified.

That said, writing this column has only reinforced an appreciation for the old adage "You can't please all the people all the time." It's a reminder of how passionate fans can be about their programs and their perceptions. So whether or not they agree with viewer complaints, ESPN's decision-makers should be aware of the criticism, be prepared to address and defend programming and editorial choices and recognize that they ignore audience input at their own peril.

The case for 30 for 30

There are few things more enjoyable than a good story well told. ESPN has hit the mark in that regard with three recently offered documentaries in its 30 for 30 series. The project has attracted some of the finest filmmakers in the business, and many people rightfully feel the finished product has taken a good idea to riveting fulfillment.

Documentaries are often criticized for being "dull," "ponderous," "stilted," "preachy" or "melodramatic." ESPN's latest episodes skillfully avoided the genre's traps and struck an appreciative chord in the mailbag.

"The Two Escobars" is a stunning reprise of the confluence of an infamous narco-criminal and Colombia's national soccer star back in the '90s. The mailbag liked it: "An incredible film." … "After the movie was over I cried for a hero, for a villain, for a nation." … "Outstanding." … "Thank you ESPN; I have not experienced anything quite as moving in a long time."

This well-constructed and emotionally rewarding film is presented almost entirely in the principals' Spanish language with English subtitles. The gripping story takes the audience inside a world in which the punishment for a referee's badly called game or a player's errant goal might literally be a matter of life and death. It forces the audience to contemplate a society in which the line of demarcation between civilization and anarchy is a slender thread, with the love of playing the game pitted against winning at any cost. It challenges the viewer to confront one of those questions the most engrossing dramas pose: "How would I feel, react or respond if confronted by similar circumstances?"

The mailbag feedback on two other installments was just as positive. "Jordan Rides the Bus" looks back 17 years to NBA superstar Michael Jordan's pursuit of his father's dream for him to play major league baseball. The audience goes along for the ride as one of the greatest basketball players of all time ventures on -- depending on your perspective -- either a heroic or a foolhardy quest to prove himself in another professional sport. Viewers commented: "Excellent." … "You rarely see the human frailties of a superstar." … "I gained a whole new appreciation for someone I always rooted against."

Another film, "The Birth of Big Air," chronicles jumper Mat Hoffman's quest to take BMX to another level as he risks life and limb to go where no one had gone before. The viewers responded: "Wow -- those jumps knocked me out and the story floored me." … "Compelling entertainment." … "Before seeing this film I always just dismissed X Games athletes as goofballs." … "Big Air, big thrills, big kudos to ESPN."

These films present a conflicted look at the triumphs and tragedies inherent in the pursuit of dreams. Each offers enlightening insights into the search for the motivation that sets individuals such as these apart from the rest of us. Why, for example, does Hoffman risk his body, and when does his courage turn into lunacy in the temptation of fate? Why does Jordan put his reputation of invincibility on the line, opening himself to humiliation and ridicule? Ultimately, the films attempt to explain what makes these special athletes tick, and what we might learn from the choices they make and the chances they take.

The 30 for 30 concept was dreamed up and presented in a one-paragraph pitch by Bill Simmons, the ESPN.com columnist known as "the Sports Guy" and one of the series' executive producers. ESPN developed the series to be dramatic, focusing on selected sports moments from the 30 years (now 31) since the network's birth.

"We were especially attracted to stories that resonated at the time but eventually were forgotten, for whatever reason," Simmons said. "We wanted people to say, 'Wow, I forgot how -- fill in a word: great, amazing, poignant, crazy, depressing, unbelievable -- that was' or 'I can't believe I never knew that whole story.'"

The 30 for 30 films set a high standard that should become the yardstick for storytelling by which ESPN productions should be judged. These intelligent and emotionally engaging films deserve more promotional attention and airplay than they've received to date. But that shouldn't pose an insurmountable problem, considering ESPN's multiple platforms and the timeless nature of the sagas.

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.