Commentary

ESPN (mostly) rises to the occasion with Mitchell report

Updated: January 23, 2008, 6:28 PM ET
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

The release of the Mitchell report on the steroids era of major league baseball revealed almost as much about the state of ESPN as it did about the state of the game. Copies of the report, 20 months in the making and 409 pages in heft, were released Dec. 13 only minutes before former Sen. George Mitchell began his scheduled 2 p.m. news conference to present the highlights of his findings.

Although Mitchell took the high road of emphasizing solutions for cleaning up the sport, members of the media predictably embarked on a frenzy of speed-reading to find the names of alleged users among the ranks of current and former players.

Two media impulses were inflamed: Defiling names has become the national pastime in the rumor era of journalism, but the names in the Mitchell report were also the news, and an appropriate focus of aggressive reporting. The challenge of the day for ESPN was to separate those two impulses, unleash the reporting and rein in the rumors. Reputations, livelihoods and legacies were at stake.

An hour before the official release of the report, ESPN's Bob Ley -- always a reassuring sight -- was at the anchor's desk of a "SportsCenter Special," setting the tone for the hours of coverage to follow.

"We are going to be very careful about context and sourcing throughout the afternoon as we report on the names that emerge from the Mitchell report," Ley said. He demonstrated that care by asking ESPN The Magazine senior writer Shaun Assael to give the exact sourcing for the news, broken earlier that day by Assael, that baseball's pre-eminent pitcher, Roger Clemens, would be named in the report.

"A source close to [Clemens' former trainer Brian] McNamee, who was read portions of the report about McNamee over the phone" was how Assael described his source, before detailing what the source said. That is a model of how ESPN should handle characterizing anonymous sources, providing as much information as possible about the source's grounds of information so viewers can make judgments about its reliability.

More reassurance about ESPN's commitment to handling the day's news with precision, accuracy and due caution came from ESPN The Magazine senior writer Buster Olney, who would be at Ley's side all afternoon.

"What is the standard of proof applied [by Mitchell]? And what corroborative evidence is there? That's the big question," Olney emphasized in advance of the report's release. If ESPN would always ask those questions about information, I thought, I would be happily out of a job.

Still, I was thankful that ESPN was indeed rising journalistically to the occasion of this major news event. And I remained impressed throughout the arduous news day by the informed, restrained professionalism of Ley; Olney; Jeremy Schaap, who was on site at the Mitchell news conference; investigative reporter T.J. Quinn, on the site of commissioner Bud Selig's later news conference; and others, including Karl Ravech -- the longtime "Baseball Tonight" host who anchored a second studio desk throughout the day -- alternating with Ley in conducting interviews with reporters in the field.

Mixed loyalties

As the day wore on, though, and the released names were discussed, a latent problem surfaced. Almost by definition, the Mitchell report -- whose investigators had neither subpoena power nor voluntary cooperation from the vast majority of MLB players -- could not rise to the high standards of corroborative evidence that many ESPN reporters and analysts were asking of it. The report's limitations, particularly its reliance on "hearsay," were pointed out so often by so many on ESPN throughout the day that some viewers began to perceive the effort to be journalistically responsible as a "cover-up" by apologists for MLB.

"The baseball reporters for ESPN are so loyal and beholden to MLB players, administration, and owners for information that, it appears, they must protect them at all costs," one viewer wrote.

I do not agree with that viewer's assessment of ESPN's reporters, but the conflict-of-interest issues he and others perceived were real, and they were particularly apparent at the desk Ravech anchored with two ESPN baseball analysts at his side, former MLB first baseman John Kruk and former Mets general manager Steve Phillips. Several of the players named in the Mitchell report were friends or former teammates of Kruk's. Phillips was the Mets' GM from 1997 to 2003, the presumed height of the steroids era before MLB instituted its mandatory drug-testing program.

The potential for seriously compromised commentary from ESPN analysts, whose ranks are filled with former players, once and future coaches, and the occasional former GM, was underscored mightily when Fernando Vina -- a former MLB player and an ESPN analyst on "Baseball Tonight" during the 2007 season -- was named as a user in the Mitchell report.

These conflicts, including the naming of Vina, were openly acknowledged on ESPN the day of the Mitchell report's release, and it was extremely interesting to watch Kruk and Phillips struggle with their mixed loyalties to journalism and baseball, to their current, former and potentially future employers.

"Why do you gotta name the names?" Kruk asked, referring to former players no longer "dirtying" the game. "Why drag them all through the mud? Let them go. You don't have to get out in the public with this."

The day's public washing of baseball's dirty laundry provoked Phillips to greater honesty about his own complicity in the steroids era.

In April 2007, when former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski pleaded guilty to distributing performance-enhancing drugs to players from 1995 to 2005, Phillips wrote, in a piece for ESPN.com, "I am hoping that there aren't any of my former players outed by this process, as it would indicate that not only was I in the clubhouse too much, but that I was also deaf and blind."

On Dec. 13, though, Phillips admitted that he had been far from deaf and blind to steroids during his years as GM. When talk turned to the Mitchell report's naming of Lenny Dykstra, a friend and former Phillies teammate of Kruk, Phillips said, "Lenny Dykstra was one of those guys that we said, 'Yeah, he's gotta be on them.'"

To his credit, Ravech put Phillips on the spot by asking him what he did when he suspected a player was using.

"Nothing," Phillips said. "And you know what, as a GM, sure, we deserve some blame, I guess, for that. I guess we do. We could've made it more of an issue. But the reality is this: I have a family. I am a GM of a team. If I don't have a system in place to be able to correct the problem, for me to go stir up a problem that would ultimately make us a weaker team and that could cost me my job, I wasn't going to do that."

Kruk, who repeatedly expressed his aversion to steroids talk on "Baseball Tonight" last season, then added his two cents to Phillips' confession, saying, "If you try to be a clean GM, be a clean owner, have a clean team, you lose. You are not going to be able to compete." Earlier in the day, Kruk had sounded the same note: "Steroids make you a better player. That's just an established fact. I can't hide that anymore."

In those moments and many others throughout the day, I appreciated both Kruk's and Phillips' candor, however belatedly it came in the steroids era. They added a valuable element to ESPN's coverage of the Mitchell report, not despite of but because of their complicities, their conflicted loyalties and the manifest struggle of their efforts to balance them. Their facial contortions alone revealed much about how deeply embedded ESPN analysts can be in the sports they cover, how hard it can be for them to achieve a calm objectivity.

I do not fault them for those conflicts, nor do I fault ESPN for hiring former athletes and coaches who bring similar conflicts along with their insider knowledge. As I have said in this space before, ESPN has become so much a part of the sports it covers that conflict of interest cannot be avoided. It can only be managed. In this case, I think it was mismanaged, not by making use of Kruk and Phillips on the day of the report's release but by giving them far too prominent a role as "analysts" of the day's news.

The Ravech-Kruk-Phillips desk was given equal time with the Ley-Olney desk, and both desks sported the "SportsCenter" logo, as if the two very different kinds of ESPN teams -- one rooted in reporting, the other in the sport being covered -- brought equal journalistic weight to the task of providing perspective on the day's news.

According to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, the two-desk format that day was simply "a logistical solution" that allowed Ley and Ravech to spell each other on the air so they could digest information and news updates being fed them by a group of eight senior editors who were plowing though the report.

The rationale was logistical, but it was freighted with unfortunate journalistic implications. If Ravech's duo had been speaking from a clearly designated "Baseball Tonight" set, it might have helped signal to viewers that ESPN respects the difference between objective analysis and deeply subjective commentary.

Golden egg

Kruk and Phillips were not the only ones on ESPN feeling the strain of the day's news. As legal analyst Roger Cossack said late in the afternoon, "Baseball is a golden egg for a whole lot of people -- for television, for players, for owners -- and nobody wants to kill that goose."

Lack of proof was the reason cited most often by baseball writers, announcers and analysts who did not air their suspicions about steroid use in MLB over the past 15 years. The golden egg was another incentive for silence. A third complicating factor, obviously felt by many of those involved in ESPN's baseball coverage, was a long-standing love of the game and admiration for the achievements of its present and past players.

ESPN's much-respected Peter Gammons, who has reported on baseball for close to 40 years, did not try to hide how sullied he felt by the day's sordid revelations. He praised the Mitchell report for its "portrait of the era," but called McNamee and Radomski, the report's two crucial informants, "sewer rats."

Many viewers assumed that, in blaming the messengers, Gammons also was making a snap summary judgment about their credibility. Unsure about that myself, I e-mailed Gammons to ask what he meant. "My reference was not about the veracity of their testimony, given to avoid prison time," he replied. "I meant that if players end up in the business's sewer -- and both were criminals -- then they have to be prepared for those in the sewer to rat on them."

Clear brows

Perhaps the clearest brow on air that day belonged to investigative reporter Quinn, recently hired from the New York Daily News, where he broke stories related to baseball's steroid scandals. Throughout the long afternoon, his even-toned, straightforward reporting and analysis provided much-needed relief from the tension of more conflicted voices.

Quinn's calm objectivity that day also underscored the importance of ESPN's recent creation of a cross-platform enterprise unit that will use new hires such as Quinn, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Howard Bryant, as well as such existing ESPN, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com reporters as Assael, Kelly Naqi and John Barr. The team now has 15 reporters and producers, none of whom are allied to a specific sport, which is crucial, as the viewer quoted above suspected.

Most beat reporters in sports do not protect players "at all costs," as the viewer alleged, but they do operate under strains unusual in journalism. ESPN senior news editor Dwayne Bray, who heads the new enterprise unit, explained it like this: "Beat reporters are out there every day interacting with the PR people, with the athletes and coaches, and the truth of the matter is that athletes have egos and a high level of sensitivity, so if you are out there with them every day counting on them in this symbiotic relationship to get information, the first time you go on TV or .com with something critical, they will cut you off. That's the fact of life.

"It's tougher for sports reporters, and I say this as someone who spent almost a decade in hard news, because sports guys have far more access to athletes than, say, political reporters, whose access to the people they cover is very limited. Sports reporters go into locker rooms where guys with towels wrapped around their waist are about to shower. There is a different level of trust, a different relationship, and it's much tougher to write these kinds of stories. When you are on an enterprise team, you don't have to worry about that."

And a final observation from Bray: "If someone had done more aggressive reporting on steroids 15 years ago, this era could be over for baseball, and they could be talking about other things."

Addendum

Often, viewers notice the same things I do, and express it as well as, if more vehemently than, I would, so I am going to take the opportunity to let a viewer speak for me. His message concerns the viewer e-mails that ran as crawls during Roger Clemens' live news conference on Jan. 7. One of them read: "Roger Clemens is a criminal and a cheat!! Plain and simple!!"

"ESPN's fairness is severely in question after what ESPN2 did towards the end of the Jan. 7 Roger Clemens press conference," wrote Carlos Holmes of Dover, Del. "To run negative e-mail comments about Clemens at the bottom of the screen during the live coverage of the press conference leaves pretty much indisputable evidence that ESPN has made up its mind on the issue. I personally don't presume to know whether Clemens' denials are the truth, but it would seem if a network is going to afford the athlete the opportunity to hold a live press briefing on the matter, then the network should at least give him the opportunity to do so without distracting the viewers -- some of whom want to have an open mind and hear what the pitcher has to say -- from what he is saying."

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.