Commentary

Written guidance necessary to establish boundaries of comment

Updated: July 14, 2008, 11:10 PM ET
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

Several incidents over the past few weeks suggest that ESPN is exposing itself to an unnecessary amount of public embarrassment and internal dissension by its lack of an official guidebook to ESPN's values, standards and practices. Such documents are commonplace at most newspapers and many networks, but ESPN operates without an over-arching guide, which too often strands its employees in a trial-and-error wilderness where standards are discovered by the accidental violation of them.

Twice last month, ESPN employees delivered public apologies for serious errors of judgment that revealed, among other things, a confusion about the boundaries of acceptable commentary that goes far beyond those two incidents.

On June 14, ESPN.com posted a column by Jemele Hill that indulged in some misguided comic hyperbole about how traitorous it was for Detroit Pistons fans to root for the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. As originally posted, the column contained a line that should not have made it past any editor: "Rooting for the Celtics is like calling Hitler a victim." The trivializing comparison, when called to the attention of a top editor, was cut from the article a few hours later, but the damage had already been done.

Judging from my mail, few people actually read that line on ESPN.com, but Boston radio and the blogosphere did a fast, effective job of disseminating news of the offense. On the following Monday, ESPN and Hill issued formal apologies, and following a week's suspension, Hill wrote a self-chastising column apologizing at greater length.

"I'm sorry," she wrote. "I'm sorry for being thoughtless and insensitive. I'm sorry for making a casual reference to something that should never be construed as casual."

Hill learned a lesson, but why did she have to learn it the hard way? How did the offending line ever make it through an editing process that is supposed, among other things, to save writers from their lapses of judgment?

"The worst offense was that no senior editor read the piece, and lesser editors let the phrasing go," said Rob King, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com. "We are treating the systemic breakdown of the editing process as seriously as the offensive reference itself."

Posting a column without its being read by a senior editor was a rare violation of ESPN.com's standard editing procedure that is easily remedied by a strongly worded reminder. Much harder to remedy is the failure of three junior editors, as well as Hill, to recognize that comparing Celtic fans in Detroit to Nazi sympathizers, even as a form of comic exaggeration, was outside the bounds of acceptable commentary on ESPN.com.

The Wrong Lesson

Before addressing the thorny question of remedies, I want to bring the second of last month's apologies into the discussion. On June 25, on ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" radio show, ESPN television reporter Bonnie Bernstein drew a convoluted analogy between young basketball players pressured by adults to regard the NBA as their destiny and young Palestinians pressured by adults to regard suicide-bombing as their destiny.

Acknowledging she was headed into murky waters but heading there anyway, Bernstein said, "I remember being struck by the notion that from the time of birth, people in Palestine are taught to think that dying in the name of God is a good thing. They grow up wanting to be suicide bombers. So bringing it back to sports ..."

Later that same day, Bernstein recorded an apology and the audio file was posted on ESPN.com. The concluding words of the apology were: "Lesson learned: Religion and politics have no place on public airwaves at a sports network. That's definitely a credo I will live by from this point forward."

Live radio is a terrain strewn with landmines for running mouths. Live radio is also an editor-free zone, so there is no one else to share blame for Bernstein's on-air lapse. Unlike Hill's misfire, this self-inflicted wound might have been just one of those unfortunate slips that does not imply any larger systemic failing on ESPN's part -- except for that articulation of the lesson learned. Bernstein spoke those words, but they were approved by ESPN Radio and ESPN Communications.

Religion and politics have no place on public airwaves at a sports network.

Is that really the lesson ESPN wants its employees to learn? If so, everyone on the staff of "Outside the Lines" will have to be fired.

The problem is not the discussion of religion and politics, nor of race, gender, sexual orientation or any other topic as it relates to sports. The problem is off-handed, ill-considered bandying of references to matters that deserve more careful thought and expression.

The Question of Latitude

Given the vast and increasing number of voices that have access to ESPN's airwaves and cyberspace, what written guidance does ESPN gives it employees about the boundaries of comment?

"In the past, we have discussed the notion of putting some guidelines for commentary on paper," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, "but, for a variety of reasons, have decided against it. By word of mouth, the parameters of keeping criticism civil, providing a fair accounting of the facts when offering criticism, and avoiding criticism of a personal nature are transmitted to people. All of this, of course, presents plenty of gray areas.

"The two incidents cited here are examples of extreme lack of judgment, which, in retrospect, are obvious to everyone. The most definitive of documents probably wouldn't have prevented this. I believe in giving people wide latitude in terms of voicing their opinion on appropriate platforms. Written guidelines -- still open to interpretation -- would, I fear, tend to limit that latitude. When we've had problems with commentary, it has happened because people have had a temporary lapse of common sense."

Mo Davenport, senior VP and general manager of ESPN Radio, echoed Doria.

"There is not a formal written policy for what would appear to be common sense," Davenport said. "But the question of whether there should be is worth raising again."

The problem with relying on common sense to govern commentary is that it seems to be in progressively short supply, not because people at ESPN lack sense, but because, like the rest of the country, they lack common perspectives, values, frames of reference, sensibilities and verbal manners. That variety of voices is one of ESPN's strengths, but it also requires shepherding by means other than suspension and PR-vetted public apologies that more often than not miss the mark, failing both to appease the offended and to teach the right lessons to potential offenders.

If ESPN's talent construes, as some writers and commentators have, that the lessons learned from Hill's and Bernstein's public abasements are that "Hitler" is a banned word, religion and politics banned topics, then latitude of commentary will be far more constrained than it would be by thoughtful written guidelines. I am not talking about inflexible, censorious rules and regulations, but guidelines that might help ESPN's talent better understand the potential effects of their spoken and written words.

Guidelines such as:

• Do not presume that what is ancient history to you is ancient history to the next person; the wound of World War II may be as fresh to others as 9/11 is to you.

• Or, a good generalization is hard to find, especially when applied to cultures, races, genders and nations.

• Or, analogies are likely to be imperfect; extreme analogies are likely to be extremely imperfect.

Several readers and listeners wrote to ask me whether I thought Hill's suspension was fair, long enough, whether her editors should receive a comparable or greater penalty, if Bernstein should have been suspended. The ombudsman is not an arbiter or dispenser of penalties other than verbal ones, but if I were advising ESPN on disciplinary actions, I would suggest they consider a moratorium on suspensions until they can clarify to their editors, producers, writers and talkers what is or is not an offense.

There is, predictably, a wide variety of opinion at ESPN on the wisdom of creating an official guidebook of journalistic policy. Patrick Stiegman, VP and executive editor of ESPN.com, told me, "We have grown so quickly over the last 10-12 years, and with our diversity of platforms, we need to enhance the policies that guide us. I think there is a much greater appetite for that now than ever."

Not on the Same Page

Three incidents in recent event programming on television also indicate ESPN might profit from a book of explicit standards, and not just guidelines but clear rules, unmistakably known to all producers and on-air talent.

Donaghy:

On June 10, several hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Tim Donaghy, the former NBA referee convicted on federal gambling charges, surfaced in the news with court-filed allegations that in years past other referees had manipulated the outcomes of NBA games, including playoff games. The timing could not have been worse for the NBA, which was enjoying the ratings bonanza of a Finals with two star-studded, big-market, big-name teams with a much-vaunted historic rivalry. The other major beneficiary of the ratings bonanza was ESPN/ABC, broadcaster of the Celtic-Lakers Finals.

The Donaghy story was given major breaking news treatment on the 6 p.m. ET "SportsCenter." ESPN.com writers went into immediate swarm mode. From 8:30-9 p.m., though, on the live ESPN/ABC pregame show, there was not a single word on the Donaghy allegations. That curious silence seemed to roar with conflict of interest between ESPN, the news organization, and ESPN, the event broadcaster.

"We should have reported the latest Donaghy news in the pregame show," Doria says. "Our NBA team did a thorough job at halftime, including getting a response from game analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who had been the Rockets' coach in one of the playoff games Donaghy cited. There were some planned elements for the pregame show that made getting the Donaghy news in difficult, but it could, and should, have been briefly detailed at that time, with the message that there would be more coverage on the issue at halftime."

I agree. The appearance of conflict of interest is too damaging to ESPN to let logistics trump news credibility in event programming.

Selling T-shirts:

Several stunned viewers wrote me after seeing anchor Stuart Scott selling Celtic T-shirts during an NBA Finals Recap that was re-aired on SportsCenter the morning of June 18. As one viewer forcefully put it, "A 'news anchor' holding up a T-shirt and proclaiming, 'Check out all the Celtics championship gear exclusively at NBAShop.com' while sitting in the anchor chair not only blurs the line of journalistic ethics ... it obliterates it."

When I asked Doria about an anchor pitching NBA merchandise, he said, "It should not have been in the show."

Euro 2008:

Soccer fans, long-timers and neophytes alike heaped extraordinary praise on ESPN for its telecasts of Euro 2008 -- all 31 matches shown on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic or ABC. They particularly appreciated the expert, exuberant announcing team led by Scotsman Andy Gray, who proved you don't need to dumb down play-by-play or analysis of a sport to engage a fledgling fan. The team also proved you can do a surprisingly fine job announcing an event in Austria or Switzerland while sitting before monitors in a Bristol, Conn., studio.

In fact, they were so good at conveying the immediacy of the event that many viewers, myself included, had no idea they were not at the matches. When I learned of their whereabouts, I felt not only uninformed (my problem) but tricked (ESPN's problem).

The impression of trickery emanated primarily from the use of one word -- "here." During the matches I saw, there was no disclosure of the announcers' location, and they repeatedly used phrases like "here in Basel" and "here in Switzerland" and "here at Euro 2008."

When lightning strikes caused repeated blackouts during crucial periods of the dramatic semifinal match between Germany and Turkey, the announcers were as much in the dark as we were about what was happening on the field in Switzerland. That was the giveaway they were not where they seemed to be. Saying "here" when you are in fact not there induces the sports equivalent of the skepticism that made some people doubt that men had landed on the moon.

Tim Scanlan, VP for event production, agrees the "here" phrasing was a mistake.

"The viewer should never be misled," Scanlan said. "When we call games off monitor, we instruct our talent to only call the game and never make a reference to their location."

The false impression was limited to viewers like me, who only watched the matches. Anyone who watched the studio shows before, after and between matches, would have known the announcers were in Bristol.

The Upshot

In all the cases discussed above, from Hill's column to the Euro 2008 announcers' misuse of "here," the executives responsible for setting and enforcing policy agree that obvious mistakes were made. But those making the mistakes were not intentionally trying to violate a guideline or policy known to them. Presumably, they were relying on their own common sense, which did not coincide with that of their bosses.

Clearly, ESPN's many layers of editors and producers are not all on the same page, not even about some basic principles that define the nature of a journalistic enterprise. Without a formal, written handbook of guidance and policy, there is not much chance they ever will be, and the price for that will be paid in avoidable suspensions, apologies and erosion of credibility.

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.