Schreiber: Meet ESPN's new Ombudsman

Originally Published: April 5, 2007
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

I am your new ombudsman, ready to pick up where George Solomon left off. You can find out the basics about me here and, if you are reading this column, the odds are you also know how to Google and get the goods on me. So rather than repeat that information, I will use this first column to begin letting you know what kind of ombudsman I will be.

The first thing you should know is that I am a highly unrepresentative representative. I do not fit the actual or desired profile of an ESPN viewer, listener, reader or ESPN.com-interactor. For starters, I do not wear a mighty mansuit. I am a female, age 61; I live and will write this column from my home on a little lake on the outskirts of a rural hamlet (pop. 3,358) in upstate New York, outside the reach of any major media markets or reliable cell phone service; I am an avid reader of books and stroller (also paddler) in nature.

I never played organized sports (there weren't any for girls in my schools). I remember, fondly, the days before television. In fact, I remember the exact day television arrived in my life, in the form of a small black box that did not impress me, because the only thing its 10-inch screen displayed was a fuzzy gray test pattern. I could not imagine why on earth my father had called my big brother and me in from the park where we were playing tag football to see the boring box.

That night, my father made us sit still and quiet before that box while Ezzard Charles went 15 grainy title rounds with ... well, honestly, I don't remember. But thanks to the Internet, I now know it had to be Jersey Joe Walcott, and the day had to be Friday, June 21, 1949. I was about to turn 4, and the lesson I learned that day was that watching sports was no substitute for playing sports, which I loved to do -- weedlot softball, driveway basketball and, my favorite, street football, using the distance between cast iron street lights as 10-yard markers. I was a tag-a-long tomboy little sister -- all speed/no brawn -- and playing sports was pure pleasure. Yes, you skeptics, even before the age of 4. There is a studio picture of me at that age, with a black eye from a missed football catch not entirely airbrushed out.

By high school, though, I had put down my bats and balls and picked up my books. I was also turning on the television, manually, with its three national networks and no remotes. That pre-video, pre-computer, pre-cable universe was a vastly different world from the one we now inhabit, and it probably made me very unlike most of you who grew up in more media-saturated times. That (and all of the above) is why my first response to the notion of my being your ombudsman, when the prospect was broached in a profoundly unexpected call from ESPN, was, "You've got to be kidding!"

"Don't decide yet," said John A. Walsh, ESPN executive vice president and executive editor. "Just watch our programming and read our Web site for a week or so, and we'll talk again."

Before the week was out, I realized my liabilities for this position were also my assets. The almost mutant scale of ESPN's growth in recent years makes it seem the likely ultimate employer of every sports anchor, announcer, analyst, writer, talker, producer, editor, technician and, last but not least, blogger in the land. I exaggerate, but not by much. It would be hard to find someone younger, someone more thoroughly and recently engaged in the world of sports, who would not bring potential conflicts of interest to the position of ESPN ombudsman.

So the upside of the misfit between me and SportsNation is that I approach this job with absolutely no conflicts of interest. None. I am not pals with the ESPN staff, either on-air or behind the scenes. I want no other job from ESPN than this one; after two years, I will return, joyfully, to the life I have built for myself as an independent writer and sometime teacher. There is no favor I need to curry here, except perhaps yours. And since "you" are tens of millions, that isn't even possible.

I probably have as many biases as the next person, but they do not extend to the world of sports fandom. I have been too long gone from my hometown, Chicago, to cling to original loyalties (Cubs and Bears), which in any case were loyalties borrowed from my father and brother. After an adult life that has taken me from Chicago to Houston to San Francisco to Boston to Manhattan to the beautiful boonies of upstate New York, I have become a fickle fan. I can pretty much enjoy any good team or individual athlete.

Another asset I bring to this job is a thick skin. I developed it way back in 1978, when The New York Times announced my appointment as their first female sports editor, in charge of a staff of 59 men. The next morning, I unlisted my home phone number. Before I even began my first day on the job, I was deluged with calls threatening premature death and heaping premature praise. I will ask you to do neither.

And I will add that my one significant overlap with present-day ESPN arises from those days, when it was both my pleasure and my grief to be the young Tony Kornheiser's boss at The New York Times. Why grief? Because The Times kept pressuring me to make Tony more Timesian, and Tony kept pressuring me to make the Times more Tonian. My failure in both directions led to the parting of Tony and The Times, which was no doubt for the best of both those institutions.

What else recommends me? Well, I have a reputation among friends as a fair-minded person of sound judgment. For that reason, I am often asked to weigh in on their decisions about everything from choice of mate to choice of career, coast or coffee maker. I have no way to tell whether my reputation for sound judgment is deserved, though, because my advice is dismissed as routinely as it is solicited. After asking advice, most people tend to do whatever they wanted to do in the first place, for reasons of their own, however sound those reasons seem to me. That will probably be the case with ESPN. They have promised me complete freedom to make my opinions known in this column. They have not promised to heed me. That is as it should be. It's their business, and will remain theirs long after I am gone.

I have no illusions about being a Worldwide Leader-beater. This may end up being a low-to-no impact column. Then again, we may all surprise ourselves. Relaying your responses and my own, I may strike some chords that resonate long enough or loud enough to reach the ears of receptive ESPN decision makers. As I begin this column, I know some of the chords I want to strike. Mostly though, I see my role as improvisational and, in all likelihood, impossible to execute in a fashion that will satisfy me or anyone else.

Why presume such an uphill climb? Because most media ombudsmen are attached to newspapers whose editors make explicit promises to their readers to abide by published guidelines of journalistic ethics, standards and practices. When the ombudsman detects deviations from those standards, he simply holds the editors' feet to the fire of his righteousness. Within broadcast journalism, the only ombudsmen I am aware of are in public television -- PBS or CBC -- where there is a stated mission of serving the public interest.

In commercial television, the ESPN ombudsman stands alone. To many of the questions I might raise about news and programming decisions, the answer might appropriately be, "It's the ratings, dummy," or "We paid billions for the rights." The only publicly expressed standard to which I can hold ESPN accountable is its stated mission "to serve the sports fan wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played." It is a standard open to broad interpretation.

And now I come to the disclosure of my vested (as opposed to conflict of) interest in being an ombudsman for ESPN: I care about journalism, as a reader, listener, viewer and practitioner of it, and as a citizen of the Nation as well as the SportsNation. Call me Chicken Little if you want, but I have come to think of ESPN as the canary in the coal mine of journalism: ESPN is so huge, sprawling, successful, and it operates on so many media platforms, that its potential for cross-promoting its programming, and that of its corporate partners, is overwhelming. Add to that the inherent conflict of interest between rights-ownership (not to mention league ownership) and news coverage. Add to that the need to satisfy not only the huge maw of 24-7 multichannel tele-consumers, but the boundless appetite of obsessive Web-snackers. Add to that advertisers intent upon outmaneuvering channel-surfers and DVR commercial-deleters by embedding their messages ever more deeply in program content. Put all that together, and the pressures to blur the boundaries between news, gossip, rumor, entertainment, advertising and promotion operate at the highest possible pitch.

Similar pressures now impinge on all news media, but ESPN is the very model of a modern megalomedia empire. ESPN's total revenue is the highest in cable television, twice that of the next closest cable network, according to George Niesen, the managing editor of Kagan Research. As ESPN goes, so may go other media outlets that aspire to its success.

That's just the way it is these days, and I don't want to turn back the clock. (Well, maybe I do in some respects, but I know I can't.) In the face of those realities, I will be a strong advocate for placing firewalls between sports news and the many pressures to distort or dilute the news -- if only so that we can remember what news is. Blurry news serves the sports fan about as well as blurry telecasting.

Rights come and go. Think of the NHL. But the core of ESPN, "SportsCenter," has persisted beyond its 30,000th airing. Once lost, rights can be regained. Think of NASCAR. But news credibility, once lost, cannot be bought back. Think of ... well, I know, from recent conversations with a score of ESPN executives and producers, that ESPN does not want you to think of them. But if you do, if as a viewer, reader, listener, and especially if you are a subject of ESPN coverage, if you think credibility has been compromised, I hope you will e-mail me. I won't be able to answer all of your e-mail, but I will read it, and I will try to find ways to respond in this column to the complaints that surface with the most consistency, urgency and legitimacy.

Finally, I want to be clear about what I mean by news credibility. It's fairly simple. No matter how much the media platforms change and proliferate, credibility still rests on the basics of fairness, accuracy, news judgment that neither grossly overplays nor underplays the importance of a day's or season's events, and disclosure of conflicts of interest. Those basics apply not only to "SportsCenter," which presents the news, but to the whole host of ESPN commentators, columnists, analysts and announcers who handle or manhandle the news on air, on the Web and in print.

That's enough from me for now. Next week, I will get down to specifics -- starting with a look at how ESPN walks the line between handling and manhandling the news. Don't worry. This is not going to be a weekly column. After these back-to-back opening columns, I plan to pipe up about once a month.

Ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets. The former New York Times sports editor and author will critique decision-making, coverage and presentation of news, issues and events on ESPN television and other media. Schreiber will have a two-year tenure and succeeds George Solomon.