Commentary

Vick coverage shows ESPN at its best -- and less than best

Originally Published: September 7, 2007
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

Before the level of lethal overdose is reached, I think ESPN should start a chapter of Michael Vick Anonymous, with membership compulsory for all its employees and available on a voluntary basis to all Insider subscribers, including this ombudsman. Most others, like my mailbag correspondents, don't need a chapter, because they either never had the addiction in the first place or they have kicked the habit on their own.

My own habit was under control until the last 10 days of August, when three legal developments in the federal dogfighting case against the Atlanta Falcons quarterback unleashed three days of torrential ESPN coverage -- Aug. 20, the day Vick agreed to plead guilty; Aug. 24, the day Vick filed his "summary of facts" in court, admitting the particulars of his guilt; and Aug. 27, the somewhat anti-climactic day when Vick formally entered his guilty plea before the U.S. District Court judge in Richmond, Va.

The avalanche of reporting, analysis and commentary on those three days showed ESPN operating at its best, at its less than best, and as usual.

The best came first.

Mid-afternoon on Monday, Aug. 20, within 20 minutes of the breaking news that Vick, despite weeks of asserting his innocence, would plea guilty, ESPN was airing a SportsCenter Special anchored by Trey Wingo that lasted 2 hours and 50 minutes.

"It was run and gun," said Wingo, who had been heading out the door after preparing for a midnight NFL Live show when the news broke and he was tapped for anchor duty. Senior coordinating producer Mark Preisler, also in the studio preparing for NFL Live, volunteered to take on the producing job.

One might debate the merits of devoting nearly 3 hours to that piece of breaking news, but length was not the most notable feature of this special. Quality was. Wingo interviewed reporter Kelly Naqi on news from the courthouse; Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Terence Moore on divided reaction to the news in Atlanta and within its black community; legal analysts Lester Munson, Roger Cossack and David Cornwell on the likely consequences of the guilty plea for Vick; Sal Paolantonio on reaction from the Falcons' front office and locker room; Chris Mortensen on reaction and likely action from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell; and John Clayton on the financial and contractual ramifications of a guilty plea for Vick and for Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

As news continued to break, several of these analysts and reporters were interviewed a second or third time, and yet there was almost no redundancy. Each interview developed the ramifications of the story in logically expanding increments. In a remarkable feat of sustained intelligence and clarity, Wingo asked all the right questions of all the right people in the right order, with all the mental and verbal commas in the right places.

"There's a certain surge of energy in those kind of things that I look forward to," Wingo said in response to a question about his marathon of spontaneous fluency. By the time he hosted the midnight NFL Live, though, he was, as always, "thankful that I can speak at that time of night in the right language, let alone say something moderately coherent."

Credit must also go to the producers for helping slice and splice the segments of the special into such a lucid whole. And to all those interviewed for their crisp, informed, articulate contributions to understanding the many dimensions of the story that was unfolding that day.

The centerpiece of the special was a mesmerizing 7-minute video timeline of Michael Vick's life in football, a career obituary of sorts, tracking Vick's rise to superstardom from high school in Newport News, Va., through college at Virginia Tech and his No. 1 selection in the 2001 NFL Draft, to his record-breaking 10-year, $130-million contract in 2004 as Falcons quarterback and the face of the franchise's future. Then came the slow skid in on-the-field performance and the fast fall through off-the-field notoriety to dogfighting disgrace and impending prison time. It was a sad, sobering and fitting centerpiece.

"We wanted it to be captivating in a visual way, but also completely journalistically sound, without any agenda," said Glenn Jacobs, the senior coordinating producer who oversaw the special, which included assigning the Vick timeline in advance to feature producers Tom McCollum and Martin Khodabakhshian. "We all know pictures can slant a story in any number of directions, and they were very conscious of choosing images to tell the story in a straightforward way."

In my opinion, they aced it. My only quibble was with the fleeting use of the image seen on ESPN so frequently over so many weeks of Vick coverage that it almost became his official ESPN portrait -- the head shot of Vick in uniform, helmet off, do-rag on, mouth-guard jutting out beyond his lips. In the timeline feature, that image took its small place among many images of Vick, but its repetitive overuse through weeks of previous programming amounted to an editorial indictment of Vick as a cartoon of stupidity.

That image, which should be retired along with Vick's jersey, is the segue to a consideration of ESPN's coverage at less than its best.

On Friday, Aug. 24, four days after Vick had announced he would plead guilty, he filed the written plea agreement and signed a "summary of facts" that detailed what he was admitting. Again, ESPN provided massive coverage, this time not via a special but through its regular programming, and this time, rather than shedding light, its coverage confused and, in my opinion, distorted the news.

Late the previous night, SportsCenter, ESPNEWS and ESPN.com had presented a "scoop" -- "Michael Vick will not admit to killing dogs or gambling on dog fights, as detailed in his indictment, when he enters a guilty plea in a Richmond, Va., federal court Monday, a source close to the case has told ESPN." This information, passed from a single anonymous source to a receptive but curiously unnamed receiver at ESPN, so upended conventional expectations of an acceptable plea deal that it was widely picked up by radio, TV and print news outlets around the country, all of whom gave ESPN credit for its scoop.

Interestingly, the most vocal skeptics about this information were ESPN's own legal analysts, Roger Cossack and ESPN.com senior writer Lester Munson. On ESPN Radio's Game Night that night, Munson said, "I find it completely implausible." Cossack said, "It makes no sense."

Why, they wondered, would prosecutors with such a strong case against Vick let him get away with so incomplete an admission, and even if they did, why would they expect a notoriously tough judge to accept such a plea deal?

The scoop dominated the news on ESPN throughout the morning of Aug. 24 and then, about 1:30 p.m. that Friday, it was supplanted by news that Vick had gone to the Richmond federal courthouse and actually signed the "summary of facts," three days in advance of his scheduled appearance before the judge.

The admissions of guilt in the signed "summary of facts" did not jibe with the predicted denials of guilt in ESPN's scoop. That's when the confusion began. For the next many hours, depending on whether you read the verbatim excerpts from the summary of facts as they appeared on screen, or listened to the legal experts being interviewed, or read the text bar at the bottom of the screen, or listened to various anchors verbally characterize what the summary said, you drew very different and contradictory impressions of the day's news. If you tried to pay attention to all those elements, you were hopelessly confused.

At 1:30 p.m., shortly after the news broke, anchor Michael Kim on ESPNEWS said, "Vick admits helping kill pit bulls. He denies ever betting on fights, only bankrolling them." Simultaneously, the text bar at the bottom of the screen read, "Source: Vick will not admit to killing dogs or gambling on dogfights."

At 3 p.m., on Outside the Lines First Report, anchor Mark Schwartz said, "Vick admits to helping kill pit bulls, but he denies ever betting on dogfights." As he spoke, the text bar beneath him read, "Vick enters plea; does not admit gambling or killing dogs." That text bar remained in place while Schwartz interviewed Cornwell, who said of Vick, "He has admitted to gambling activities; he has also admitted that in 2007 he was involved in the killing of dogs."

By NFL Live at 4:30 p.m., the erroneous text bar, clinging to the shreds of the previous night's scoop, was gone, but anchor Bonnie Bernstein still seemed confused by a "number of contradictions" in Vick's summary. If one read the summary, which had been posted much earlier in the day on ESPN.com, the contradictions were not so puzzling. Vick admitted that he placed large bets on my-dog-will-beat-your-dog wagers, but he did not make smaller "side bets" during the actual fights. When his dog won, he gave the money to his buddies. He said he did not kill dogs in 2002, but he did help kill dogs in April 2007. Or, as Cossack said, when asked if he could explain the contradictions, "He admitted that he gambled. He admitted that he killed dogs."

On the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, anchor Matt Winer characterized Vick's written plea as a document of subtle distinctions, "a carefully crafted document designed to mitigate damage to Vick's career and his reputation." Winer asked Cossack "what exactly is he admitting to" when Vick says six to eight dogs died by "collective efforts" of himself and his co-defendants? Sounding hoarse and looking frustrated, Cossack replied, "He is admitting that he and two others killed those dogs, and they killed them by hanging, and the ones that didn't die by hanging, they drowned."

On ESPNEWS Game Time at 9 p.m., the anchor was still fixated on the importance of Vick not placing "side bets," and a hoarser, wearier-looking Cossack tried again. Finally, at 11 p.m. on SportsCenter, anchor Scott Van Pelt had the good grace and good sense to go straight to Cossack and let him present the crux of the day's news, direct and unchallenged.

Why had it been so hard for so many anchors and so many producers to understand Vick's guilty plea? I am personally convinced that if ESPN had never been spun by its own scoop, the news of Vick's written plea and summary of facts would have been presented all day long in a far more lucid and straightforward manner. Intentionally or not, both producers and anchors got fixated on a few euphemistic circumlocutions in the documents that salvaged a slight shred of credibility for the previous night's scoop.

The scoop was seriously misleading, if not dead wrong, which is always the risk one takes with a single anonymous source, especially when the source has a vested interest in how the news is presented. And when such a risk is taken, it is important to be as forthcoming about it as you can. I wish the original news story had described the source as "close to Vick's defense team," as I was later told he was, and not just "close to the case," so viewers and readers could surmise spin motives for themselves. I wish the story had carried a byline, not just a "told ESPN" tag, which makes everyone and no one at ESPN accountable for it.

I speculated, as did others, about who the reporter was, which was unfair to all the reporters who have done such solid work on the Vick case for months. I learned from Vince Doria, ESPN's news director, that there was no byline because there was no reporter. The source made contact with an ESPN producer, who passed it up the chain of command. No reporter was able to corroborate it, which should have raised a red flag, as the vocal skepticism of ESPN's legal analysts should have.

Even so, the most serious problem was not the misleading scoop itself. Mistakes happen. The damage can be undone by quick acknowledgment and correction of a mistake. The greater problem was the failure to acknowledge, apparently even to perceive, the mistake, which muddied ESPN's TV news on a day many people were relying on them for clarity. Ironically, it was also a day on which many ESPN commentators were saying Vick would have fared better if he had admitted his mistakes early on.

To its credit, ESPN.com switched its news coverage of the Vick plea by simply presenting the unadorned facts of the summary as soon as they were available that Friday. That night, it posted an article by Howard Bryant describing the previous night's scoop as "an exercise in language massage" and warning readers, "Do not be fooled."

"In retrospect," Doria said last week, "I wish we had been more expansive in what we reported. Rather than leaving it at simply 'Vick would not plead guilty to gambling and personally killing dogs,' we should have more fully explained the legal strategy, and the efforts on the part of Vick's lawyers to get language into the plea that would temper his involvement on the most flagrant allegations in the indictment. Reasonable people would then read the plea, and likely come to the conclusion that the language wasn't successful in doing that."

At last we come, briefly, to Monday, Aug. 27, and Vick's formal court appearance to enter his guilty plea. Since there was nothing new to be learned about his plea, the emphasis in coverage was on his much-replayed public apology. It was a First Take, Around the Horn, PTI kind of day, with much opinionating about whether it was a good, sincere apology or not. Apology experts and image rehabilitators were interviewed. What struck me most was the oft-repeated notion that the apology must have been "heartfelt" because Vick spoke without referring to notes. I had not realized that was the surest sign of sincerity. I thought athletes, like politicians, were capable of practicing short speeches.

Like many of my correspondents, I was by now tired of hearing about Michael Vick, and then came Monday Night Football, Atlanta Falcons vs. Cincinnati Bengals. Inevitably and understandably, the announcers devoted time to the Vick story. Inevitably and understandably, in the second quarter, when announcers shifted focus from how Vick's replacement at quarterback, Joey Harrington, was doing, to more general Vick topics, my mailbag exploded with messages from viewers who couldn't take it anymore. A sideline interview with Mortensen about dogfighting among NFL players, done in split screen during what proved to be a quick Atlanta touchdown drive, was the last straw.

Without further ado, here is the reassurance that it will not happen again, from the senior coordinating producer for Monday Night Football, Jay Rothman: "We take more liberties in the preseason. Preseason, there's a risk/reward factor whenever you go down to the field for an interview. I would never take that kind of risk in the regular season. And only in preseason do we do that little two-box." He also said, "We're going to have fewer booth guests this year, and even then, it doesn't disrupt the play-by-play."

And finally, a thank you to the ESPN producers and announcers who brought us the best antidote to Vick overdose during the long month of August -- the Little League World Series. The game and its players were given the consummate sign of respect: The focus never strayed from them.

"We document the event," said Tim Scanlan, vice president of event production, "and more than anything, we try to stay out of the way. It's so broad and rich an event in and of itself, the best thing we can do is turn it all on the stories on the field."

If only the same could be said for more games played by people over the age of 13.

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.