Commentary

ESPN has minuscule margin on mistakes, apologies

Updated: November 13, 2008, 12:23 PM ET
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

In theory, there is nothing more evanescent than the hastily spoken words that fill the continuum of cable airtime. And in fact, most cable talk does rise and vanish without leaving much trace. Some hasty words, though, get snagged in the lower blogosphere, where they linger like a pestilential fog.

That is what happened to some words spoken last month by Lou Holtz, ESPN college football analyst, when the former Notre Dame coach, in his trademark rapid-fire mumble, invoked the name of Hitler during a discussion of the University of Michigan's lackluster football season.

As far as I can determine from reports in the mainstream media and on dozens of blogs, no one who actually saw the Friday evening "College GameDay" show could recall exactly what Holtz said or what point he was making. But it apparently takes only one viewer posting to a message board his admittedly inexact recollection of what he just heard to set off a firestorm of righteous indignation on the Internet.

The widely reported Holtz words were, "Ya know, Hitler was a great leader, too." The widely presumed context was a comparison of Hitler and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. The widespread public response to those reports was a demand that Holtz be suspended or fired. ESPN's response was to have Holtz deliver an on-air apology the following day during halftime of a Georgia Tech-Clemson football game.

"Last night, while trying to make a point about leadership," Holtz said, "I made an unfortunate reference. It was a mistake and I sincerely apologize. At the time, I tried to clarify my remarks. I'm not sure I adequately did so."

The apology, crafted by the ESPN communications department with input from many besides Holtz, did nothing to clarify what Holtz had said. That failure to clarify, accompanied by the news that Holtz would receive no further discipline, set off a secondary firestorm of indignation, this one among ESPN's employees as well as its audience.

The memory of ESPN.com columnist Jemele Hill's much-publicized suspension in June for making an inappropriate Hitler analogy in her Page 2 column was still fresh, and the discrepancy of treatment led to my receiving many messages such as this: "I can't tell you how much I hate the double standard, especially when ESPN suspends a black female and not a white male for basically doing the same thing."

What did he really say?

If ESPN had done a better job of explaining itself, I would have a slimmer mailbag and a shorter column. As it is, there is still much to clarify.

First, Holtz did not compare the Wolverines' coach to Hitler, as many of the Michigan alums who are still writing me believe. The context into which Hitler was dragged was a discussion of leadership among players in the locker room, during which analyst Mark May asserted that to win games "you have to have leaders in the locker room to get the team and the young players to buy into what the coach is teaching you."

Holtz responded, "Let's remember this, Hitler was a great leader, too. There are good leaders and bad leaders."

In context, his garbled but detectable meaning was beware what you wish for. You wish for a strong leader, you may end up with a Hitler.

Understanding both the context and the danger of misinterpretation, "GameDay" anchor Rece Davis leapt in after Holtz with, "OK, and meaning obviously, that he was a very bad leader."

Later, Davis told me, "It's been very frustrating to read some of the things that have been written. Much of it was a complete mischaracterization of the discussion. There's no way it was implied, nor should it have been inferred, that Lou drew any comparison between Rich Rodriguez and Hitler. He was making a point about establishing leaders in the locker room who lead in the right direction as opposed to the wrong one. Anyone who wrote otherwise either didn't see the discussion or wasn't listening."

I wasn't listening either, but when I started receiving complaints, I asked to see a transcript of the "GameDay" conversation, which ESPN promptly provided. When I asked Josh Krulewitz, vice president in the ESPN communications department, if he had made that transcript available to others who requested it, he said, "I can't recall how each request was handled, but I can tell you that most people who wrote about this never requested a transcript or to view the video."

Margin of error

Finding out why most of the media did not bother to check their facts is not my job. Finding out why ESPN did not bother to correct the record is.

Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president, production, said that he reviewed the "GameDay" video the same night it aired and knew Holtz's words were being mischaracterized.

"Was he comparing Rich Rodriguez to Hitler? Not in a million years," Williamson said. "But at a certain level, it almost doesn't matter, because once other people report it, perception or interpretation becomes fact, and then you are playing catch up."

Does that mean Holtz was apologizing only for what other people mistakenly thought he said?

"No, I think an apology and a clarification was necessary," Williamson said. "I believe that the use of a Hitler reference in the context of a college football show is not appropriate."

Does that mean Hitler is a banned word on ESPN?

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you can never use the word Hitler on ESPN," Williamson said. "Do I think it is smart to? No, not as a passing reference in a college football show. Had we been doing a clinical discussion about leadership on 'Outside the Lines,' I would think the point Lou was trying to make, and the clinical dissection of that point, was appropriate.

"Your margin for error shrinks on certain topics, whether it's politics, religion, race or sex. I think anytime you bring up a controversial topic, you have to make sure you understand your setting, and you have to make sure you have the time and ability to articulate what you want to say. More often than not, these kinds of mistakes happen in quick, offhanded references."

I completely agree with Williamson about the margin of error on certain topics. However, I also think that same slim margin of error applies to apologies. Halftime of a college football game is a setting for quick, offhanded apologies, not for the kind of thoughtful apology and clarification that would have served Holtz, ESPN and its audience better. By not taking the time to articulate what it had to say, ESPN allowed a minor storm to grow into a Category 4 swirl of hot-button issues -- politics, religion, race and gender.

ESPN executives may be satisfied with their own reasons for the disparity of discipline imposed on Hill and Holtz for their respective Hitler references, but there is no public platform on which they can satisfactorily explain those reasons. And to my mind, if ESPN cannot parse the differences publicly, they should not impose the differing penalties publicly.

When employees give offense on-air or online, let them make sincere, thoughtful public apologies, preferably in their own words, as Hill did in her post-suspension column. If on-air settings are used for a quick fix but don't allow the time needed for clarifications, why not let employees use ESPN.com to say more completely what they have to say? If every other kind of content can be supplemented and promoted across platforms, so can apologies.

Perhaps an apology is due Hill for inadvertently making her Hitler reference the gold standard for suspensions in the commentary category. That distinction should belong to someone who knowingly and egregiously violates a clear written guideline that can be publicly defended and consistently applied.

A quick search of ESPN.com uncovers 234 Hitler references since 2000. Many of them are straightforward historical references, but there are also plenty of offhanded Hitler remarks deployed for comic effect.

Election coverage

During the last two and a half months of the presidential campaign, I received bulges of mail whenever ESPN aired features related to either candidate.

ESPN's 2008 campaign coverage

Following are highlights of ESPN's coverage of Barack Obama and John McCain's 2008 presidential campaigns:

• "E:60" aired a feature Aug. 19 on Reggie Love, the former Duke basketball player who serves as Obama's "body man." Producer David Picker wrote a companion story for ESPN.com.

• "E:60" aired a feature Sept. 9 on Cindy McCain, and her involvement with the auto racing sport of "drifting." Producer David Picker wrote a companion story for ESPN.com.

• Both of the above feature stories aired again on "E:60" on election night, Nov. 4.

• Paula Lavigne wrote a package of investigative stories for ESPN.com on athletes and sports organizations contributions to the campaigns. The stories were posted on Sept. 4.

• "SportsCenter" ran video on Thursday, Sept. 11, of both candidates at the World Trade Center site.

• Stuart Scott had a one-on-one interview with Obama, with a basketball playing element, which aired Sept. 2 on "SportsCenter." Bob Ley had a one-on-one interview with McCain at the NASCAR race in Loudon, N.H., which aired Sept. 16 on "SportsCenter." Both pieces also ran on consecutive days on OTL.

• Andy Katz reported a feature on Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, the basketball coach at Oregon State, which aired Sunday, Oct. 26, on OTL, then again on the daily OTL later in the week.

• Sal Paolantonio reported a feature on Sarah Palin's basketball history and short career as a sportscaster, including footage from her state championship-winning basketball game, that aired on the Sunday, Oct. 26, on OTL and again during the week.

• Both of the above pieces aired on "SportsCenter" on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

• Kenny Mayne did a "Mayne Event" parody on "NFL Countdown" in October from the debate at Hofstra, raising issue of NFL players losing their helmets as a national crisis. Had sound from aides to both candidates; Bob Schieffer, who moderated debate; and debate sound from both candidates.

• The "Mike & Mike Show" on ESPN Radio aired live interviews with both candidates in September.

• Rick Reilly wrote a column with Obama for ESPN The Magazine in an October issue, in which Reilly partnered with Obama to select a fantasy football team for ESPN.com's weekly game. McCain was offered a similar opportunity, but declined.

• MSNBC's Luke Russert had a feature and talkback for "College Football GameDay" on Oct. 25, detailing political involvement of college football players, including sound from players around the country.

• "NFL Countdown" aired a parody feature with George Wendt ("Da Bears") on Nov. 2, pondering what might have happened if Mike Ditka had run against Obama for Illinois' U.S. Senate seat in 2004, a move Ditka had considered. Ditka responded to the piece in studio.

• Chris Berman taped interviews with both candidates on Monday, Nov. 3, for use in halftime of "Monday Night Football." The interviews then ran on "SportsCenters," Monday night through Tuesday, and the transcripts and full video interviews appeared on ESPN.com.

Seeing a feature on Cindy McCain's involvement in auto racing, some viewers suspected a pro-Republican bias. Seeing a feature on Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, the first-year basketball coach at Oregon State, some viewers suspected a Democratic bias.

These complaints can be answered easily, because in a rare departure from usual practice, ESPN put policy guidelines for coverage of the 2008 presidential election in a formal written document that was distributed to editors, producers, writers and talkers on all platforms.

The core principle: "As it relates to news assignments, feature stories and profiles for each candidate or their campaigns, all platforms should make every attempt to offer balance in tone, tenor and time/space allowed."

To demonstrate how ESPN executed this principle, Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, offered a list of all ESPN's campaign-related features between the nominating conventions and the Nov. 4 election.

The only lapse of even-handedness I can detect in the list was neglect of Democratic VP-Elect Joe Biden, who was the only one of the final four to receive no coverage.

The guidelines for commentary were crystal clear: "Across all platforms, we should refrain from political editorializing and gratuitous references to the candidates, their campaigns or their political positions. This means no personal attacks or 'drive-by' remarks in columns or on-air segments. Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from both candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However, sarcasm, one-liners, perceived endorsements, attempts at humor or political criticism should be avoided."

This year, as in past presidential election years, ESPN refrained from interviews with candidates until after the nominating conventions. But until written guidelines were distributed in August, that policy had only been communicated informally and spottily.

That is why Sports Guy Bill Simmons, who was unaware of the policy, had reason to be miffed when he was forced to cancel a podcast interview he had scheduled with Obama in April.

There is much more to be said in future columns about the complex, contentious issue of commentary guidelines at ESPN, but for the moment, I will only note that no apologies or suspensions arose from this year's election coverage on ESPN.

Too little Favre

The topic running a close second to Holtz in my mailbag last month was the rare, arguably unprecedented noncoverage of a Brett Favre story by ESPN.

On Sunday, Oct. 19, Jay Glazer of FoxSports.com reported that Favre, in the second week of his season as New York Jets quarterback, had called the Detroit Lions to offer information on the offensive strategies of his former team, the Green Bay Packers, that might help Lions coaches prepare for their upcoming game against the Packers. Later that day, Peter King of SI.com reported that he received a text message from Favre denying the story, calling it "total B.S."

Almost every sports media outlet in the country except ESPN ran news of Glazer's story and Favre's denial. After three days without a peep on the topic from any of ESPN's legion of NFL reporters, analysts, commentators or bloggers, that curious silence became a story in itself, provoking a torrent of criticism in both the sports media and my mailbag.

It looked bad. To some, it looked as if ESPN begrudged Glazer his scoop. To others, like this viewer from Utah, it looked like Favre favoritism: "In marked contrast to the network's 'All Brett All the Time' coverage of the Favre unretirement saga, by putting an embargo on the story for several days, the network has given viewers the impression that the network and its reporters are afraid and/or unwilling to depict Favre in anything other than a flattering light."

Doria, who issued an internal "DO NOT REPORT" memo about this story that was leaked to other news outlets, understands how it looks.

"We can't win the perception game on this," he told me.

OK, but perception game aside, what was his reasoning?

"This wasn't about not respecting or not wanting to credit Jay Glazer," Doria said. "We have credited Glazer on many stories. If this had been a routine trade or injury story broken by another news outlet, we would have run it, attributed it to the other outlet, then tried to confirm and advance the story. But when a story involves criminal allegations or issues that impugn character, and when there is no track record of similar behavior by the individual targeted by the story, we don't report it without further confirmation on our part.

"We felt this story called Favre's character into question, and we couldn't confirm it. Favre had a text exchange with [ESPN senior NFL analyst] Chris Mortensen, saying it wasn't so, and the Lions said they had no knowledge of it. We couldn't go to Glazer's sources, because he didn't name them, and the original lack of detail about what was said suggested to me they were secondary sources. They could have been anybody in the NFL."

Why didn't ESPN just report Favre's denial to Mortensen?

"When allegations are made against somebody," Doria said, "with no confirmation or evidence on our part, and you go to the person and get a denial, and then use the denial to you as justification for putting the allegations out there -- to me, that has always seemed an unethical way to get a story out if it involves a matter of character."

That is old school journalistic ethics, music to any ombudsman's ears, and yet Doria is right about the perception problem. ESPN can't win on this one, because no one can come up with recent precedents.

"Almost never happens that we're asked to hold off on a story that's being widely reported," said Erik Rydholm, executive producer of "Pardon the Interruption" and "Around the Horn." "I didn't have a huge problem with the advisory because, if there was a legitimate concern that the information was false, then ESPN was doing a responsible thing, and we could always comment on it later if the story proved true. Turns out the story was somewhere in between Glazer's report and Favre's initial denial. We did end up discussing it when Favre talked [at his press conference] on Wednesday."

Here's my take: ESPN had a genuine old school moment. If ESPN had them more often, it would have a better chance of winning the perception game.

Monday Night Quiet

Monday nights have become quiet time in my mailbag this fall. There are no booth guests on "Monday Night Football" this season, and so, unlike last year, there is no weekly exodus of viewers from the TV to the computer to share fiery thoughts with their ombudsman while the booth fiddles.

There are also fewer in-game sideline reports, less graphic clutter, less talk of teams other than the ones playing, and fewer camera cuts away from the field. Booth attention has spread beyond the quarterback and his most flamboyant receiver to embrace offensive linemen and entire defensive teams. Even that scourge of diehards, color commentator Tony Kornheiser, has been heard uttering the phrases "defensive end," "West Coast offense" and "What a block!"

The toll that injuries have taken this season on star quarterbacks like the Patriots' Tom Brady and the Cowboys' Tony Romo may have helped break the habit of excessive star-gazing, but that is not the only factor at work.

"We took to heart the criticism that we were focusing too much on stars," said Jay Rothman, executive producer of MNF. "We got back to what we do best, documenting the game. The game's the star."

I have to presume my correspondents are pleased with the changes. They don't say so, but complaints have subsided from flood stage to a trickle.

I can't say the same for college football fans, who are clamoring for the same thing MNF fans wanted and got -- booths more focused on the game they tuned in to watch.

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.