Bonds show offers more questions than answers

Originally Published: May 3, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

We're five episodes into "Bonds on Bonds," and I'm still looking for a lead for a front-page news story or riveting human drama. Bonds wondering about finishing his career in the American League to become a less-stressed designated hitter, or admitting every ball player, sooner or later, "comes to the end" of his career, is not the kind of material to generate the word "Bulletin."

ESPN executives made a decision that whatever Bonds says on the series, produced by the Tollin/Robbins company for ESPN Original Entertainment, is aired first on the show -- regardless of news value for ESPN's news operation.

While the series has been artfully crafted and holds a fan's attention for the full show, one gets the feeling the producers do not press Bonds sufficiently to react to the developments and turmoil that seem to follow this man 24/7.

What the series does well is take the viewers to the field with Bonds, as it did Tuesday night, reflecting the duel between Bonds and New York Mets relief pitcher Billy Wagner.

"That's as good a drama as you can get," Bonds said.

He was right. There's also a sensitive piece about Bonds showing kindness to a young fan who has been fighting cancer, Bonds restating his love of family and a defense of Bonds by broadcaster and former player Mark Grace. Recent stories about the possibility of Bonds' friend and weight-trainer Greg Anderson being called for further questioning by a grand jury were glossed over in about eight seconds.

As Bonds closes in on Babe Ruth's career total of 714 home runs, these issues dominate the daily sports news: reports by the San Francisco Chronicle and CNN that a federal grand jury is investigating Bonds for possible perjury committed during his grand jury testimony on steroids in 2003; a syringe thrown at him from the stands in San Diego; and subpoenas of training associates. Yet these topics are barely reflected in the series.

Despite Tollin/Robbins' and EOE's stated intent to remain responsible and responsive in this project, to this viewer, Bonds remains in control. Writing in the April 5 edition of the New York Times, media columnist Richard Sandomir said he would have liked Bonds to be asked by Tollin/Robbins questions such as:

"Have you taken steroids?"

"Have you taken human growth hormone?"

"Would you like to clarify or elaborate on the grand-jury testimony that was obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle?"

Actually, Bonds has in recent weeks been asked such questions -- by ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez. He's not associated with the show and is frequently treated with disdain by Bonds, who often gives dismissive responses to Gomez's questions such as, "You have issues, Pedro," and "Is that a baseball question?"

"We're trying to cover Bonds as thoroughly as possible, as we understand he's a figure of great interest," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice-president for news. "We're doing crowd reaction, security and those elements of the story that can be reported, including the perjury charges."

Regarding ESPN's promotion of the Bonds' series, Doria said, "We're not cross-promoting the series from our news shows, as we sometimes would do in similar situations."

That's why this business relationship between Bonds and EOE is so frustrating. ESPN has a first-rate news operation that, if freed to use the time and resources, could have provided a different and perhaps a more balanced view of Bonds than Tollin/Robbins has provided via this series.

Stuart Scott's World

Along with Dick Vitale, anchor/commentator Stuart Scott attracts more viewer e-mails to the Ombudsman than anyone else at ESPN. Scott's often unique style of delivering the news, his distinctively hip use of language, and his occasional forays into poetry drive large numbers of viewers to choose sides -- as is the case with Vitale.

"It's our job to inform, educate and teach the viewers in an entertaining way," Scott said. "We all have that role. People do it in different ways, expressing their own personalities. My personality is my personality, as Neil Everett has his own personality and Chris Berman has his own personality. None of us fakes it; we're all different and diverse -- talking to a diverse audience. You shouldn't be on television to please everyone. I want to see someone who is real, who will entertain and inform me."

If Scott's use of poetry annoys some viewers, his retort is quick and pointed.

"The reading of poetry is an African-American thing -- expressing emotion," he said. "I do it as an ode of respect to the community and an interesting way to do a highlight. It's a way of expressing a passion that's creative and instructive. Sure it's different. That's what we're supposed to do. I want African-Americans to see you can do the job and still be who you are."

I enjoy Scott's work and believe he's someone who attracts viewers with an entertaining and knowledgeable style that appeals to many, even if it is irksome to others. That said, I would suggest he might be less chummy with colleagues who once played professional sports, be more open to hearing out critics in the viewing audience and less prone to put himself in the story, as some viewers complain that he does.

Surfing

  • No one can accuse ESPN of not covering the NFL draft. Wow. For nearly two months, ESPN -- with its deep team of reporters -- has provided viewers what it believed to be every possible story angle, twist and piece of information related to the draft of college players, held last weekend in New York City.

    The Draft Day crew of Chris Berman, Mel Kiper Jr., Tom Jackson, Chris Mortensen and Michael Irvin did a good job of summarizing the winners and losers -- particularly Irvin, who seems to have sharpened his commentary in the offseason.

    But for all the solid reporting by ESPN in the past several weeks, I never got a sense until way late that North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams would surpass Southern California's Reggie Bush to become the No. 1 pick by the Houston Texans. Nor did I ever get a sense that USC quarterback Matt Leinart would drop like a rock -- to the 10th pick -- by the Arizona Cardinals, though there was some suggestion that he might fall as far as No. 7 to Oakland if the Titans opted for Vince Young at No. 3.

    Several commentators, included Merril Hoge and Ron Jaworski, did suggest that Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler might have more pro potential than Leinart.

    Also, I would love to see more reporting -- not commentary -- on whether the supposed relationship of Bush's family with a wannabe marketing agent was a factor in his not being selected No. 1 overall. Or did the Texans see something in Bush's potential, or contract demands, they did not like? And the fall of Leinart requires more in-depth reporting. Both developments took me by surprise -- which should never have happened, considering the strength of ESPN's reporting team.

  • Some viewers wondered if ESPN was spending too much time on the Duke lacrosse story. It's a complaint with which I do not agree. The network has been aggressive, fair and smart in its coverage. Reporters George Smith and Rachel Nichols have done well reporting from Durham, and legal analyst Roger Cossack has provided interesting views well within the bounds of fairness.

    "You want to be fair and accurate, while reporting the story with context," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "We've had people on the ground from the start looking to report the story from all sides, while trying to be as fair and objective as possible, while not over-covering."

    My take: ESPN has done well on this story, although I'm still waiting to hear what Duke's most famous coach, Mike Krzyzewski, has to say.

  • ESPN tennis commentator Mary Joe Fernandez walks a fine line in reporting matches involving clients of her husband, an executive of the sports management firm IMG. But her boss, Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president for remote production, said Fernandez can maintain her standards and be critical of her husband's clients, who include Maria Sharapova.

    "She is an excellent tennis commentator," Drake said of Fernandez.

    My take: ESPN and Fernandez, as well as NBA commentator Bill Walton when covering his son, Luke of the Los Angeles Lakers, need to make viewers aware of their relationships early and often in the telecasts.

  • Many hockey fans are closely watching how ESPN is covering the Stanley Cup playoffs, now that the network no longer carries the games.

    "We're aware people are watching how we do," Williamson said. "I think the quality of our coverage -- what we're doing on SportsCenter, and the placement of [commentator] Barry Melrose -- is the same as when we had the games."

    My take: The NHL's playoff games are too far down in the nightly SportsCenter lineup, particularly in relationship to the coverage of baseball games in April. Also, the live interviews after NHL and NBA playoff games that often brighten ESPNEWS shows would be worthy of SportsCenter, as well.

  • Soccer buffs want more Champions League, World Cup previews, coverage of the U.S. team and MLS recognition.

  • Finally: "Pardon The Interruption" host Tony Kornheiser, once my responsibility at The Washington Post, might have gotten a little too chummy with royalty by recently referring to Queen Elizabeth II as a "babe." Tony, Tony, Tony.

    Ombudsman George Solomon is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's programming. The longtime Washington Post sports editor will critique ESPN's decision-making, coverage and presentation.