ESPN needs more journalism, less sensationalism

Originally Published: May 26, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

The ombudsman gets hundreds of e-mails a month from viewers with complaints, suggestions and praise for ESPN. But a recent visit to Bristol generated opinions, comments and questions from staffers who help make ESPN America's No. 1 sports network.

Some of the comments (names withheld, to protect the innocent families), followed by my responses:

  • Would love to see more journalism and text-driven stories.

    ESPN has the resources do more of "Outside The Lines"-type journalism, but much of that work doesn't translate into exciting television. Still, ESPN has the responsibility and a staff capable of doing more than it currently does.

  • Covering the big-name stars and doing the sensational story vs. reporting the hard news and simply telling a good story.

    ESPNEWS and SportsCenter should consider scaling back a "send out all the troops" philosophy in their coverage of some big stories and stars, such as Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds. Overplay is often worse than underplay.

  • Too much on-air use of former athletes over more experienced sports reporters and commentators.

    Former athletes add depth to analysis, because they actually played the games. But too often the athletes pull their punches -- often to avoid offending former colleagues -- and do not share their full knowledge or real feelings with viewers. However, some -- Tom Jackson, Harold Reynolds, Tim Legler, Michael Irvin, Steve Young and Mark Schlereth, to name several -- have figured it out.

  • Too many mistakes made during the course of a day's news cycle without an appropriate and sufficiently visible method of making corrections.

    ESPN needs to find a better way to correct mistakes. Its Web site, ESPN.com, is a possibility, or the company could wait until the end of a show, as "PTI" does, and point out earlier mistakes. Newspapers make mistakes all the time, but they correct them, usually in the same location each day.

  • The network is too driven by ratings.

    Even an old newspaper guy can understand that motive.

  • The Sunday Conversations on SportsCenter, as well as other interviews, should be sharper, with more edge.

    That would mean asking tougher questions. And I would add a personal plea for additional post-game interviews on SportsCenter with players and coaches, as ESPNEWS does so well.

  • Why so many promotional ads?

    I can understand ESPN's need to inform and promote, but the network sometimes goes too far. For example, most everyone by now is fully aware that "Monday Night Football" will be on ESPN this fall.

    Bonds on hold

    ESPN announced May 24 that it was putting the "Bonds on Bonds" series -- which has run weekly since April 4 -- on hold. While the production by the Tollin/Robbins company was often creative, and seeing Bonds in different situations was sometimes interesting, the ethics of having the network's original entertainment division in a business relationship with someone so prominent in the news was not worth the conflicts.

    The episode scheduled to be shown May 29 will conclude the run, and begin what ESPN has called a "hiatus."

    ESPN spokesman Rob Tobias said in a statement: "We anticipate that Barry Bonds will surpass Babe Ruth's 714 home runs by our Memorial Day special. The decision is based on Bonds' health and his home run pace. The series will then take a hiatus and come back with a special edition at some point during the season, perhaps the All-Star Break, or at the end of the season."

    ESPN's decision to air the series caused some resentment inside and outside the network's Bristol headquarters. Some viewers even expressed unhappiness over ESPN's cut-in shots of Bonds' at-bats in his efforts to tie and surpass Ruth's 714 career mark. It put the news division, including reporter Pedro Gomez, in a difficult position.

    Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news, said Gomez and his team would be given other assignments after covering Bonds full-time since 2005.

    "The appetite for this story has waned and become less compelling since the start of the 2005 season," Doria said. "After he hits 715, we'll stop the day-to-day coverage and cover him from time-to-time, as news dictates."

    Lest all the attention be focused on Bonds, it should be noted ESPN also erred in doing a series with controversial Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight. I also wonder why ESPN encourages stars such as LeBron James and Maria Sharapova to do promotional "drop-ins" in Bristol -- giving the impression they are part of the "ESPN Family."

    Surfing

  • ESPN continues to do well covering the Duke lacrosse story, in which three players were indicted last month on charges of sexually assaulting a woman who had been hired as an exotic dancer for a team party in March. The coverage has been balanced; the commentary mostly even-handed.

    "In our efforts to be fair and cautious, we haven't put some people on the air in hopes of avoiding trying this case in the media," Doria said.

  • Baseball fans get out of sorts when "Baseball Tonight" is trimmed to 20 minutes (when it is slotted with "Outside The Lines" and "NBA Fast Break.") That's likely to occur less in the coming months, especially after the end of the NBA playoffs.

  • Darren Rovell's Weblog about Gatorade -- done independent of the Gatorade company and ESPN -- still looks very commercial, and raises questions from viewers about its propriety. Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com and appears on ESPN's networks, also wrote a book on Gatorade that ESPN.com Executive Editor Patrick Stiegman said was "independent of his role with ESPN," as is his work with the Gatorade blog.

    Stiegman added that Rovell's work on Gatorade, both on the book and the blog, is "unauthorized (by Gatorade) and offers a balanced view on developments in the sports drink niche. Darren has been both forthright and careful in his handling of this project." Rovell's coverage of sports business has been aggressive, clever and generally admired. His association, in my view, with the Gatorade site, on top of a writing a book on the subject, isn't helping his reputation, or that of ESPN.

  • Let me declare that I believe NO ombudsman, or sports editor, has ever been asked to pose for GQ, the classy monthly men's magazine. Still, I was surprised, and not so pleased, to see the GQ promotion this month featuring SportsCenter anchors Steve Levy, Trey Wingo, Mike Greenberg, John Anderson, Chris Berman, Kenny Mayne and Jay Harris modeling clothing for LYCRA, NYNE, CoolMax and Macy's.

    Al Jaffe, ESPN vice president for talent and production recruitment, said permission for such outside activities would be withheld if "the commercial or service was done by an announcer who might be asked to comment on the product he or she has endorsed." I know I'm out of touch, but I still view these guys as news anchors and reporters.

    Finally

    Good reporting by Jeannine Edwards after the breakdown of Barbaro one furlong into the Preakness. It's a story that has the interest of many sports fans and merits additional reporting. ... Rick Sutcliffe's word-slurring performance from San Diego in a guest appearance in a local broadcast booth could have been avoided by a simple "no thank you" when asked to appear. Embarrassing. . . . ESPN Radio made two foolish mistakes recently. A tape making light of the Army women's basketball team and its late coach, Maggie Dixon, was recently played by Erik Kuselias on SportsBash. The tape was made during the season, before Ms. Dixon's death. And NBA commentator Ric Bucher, appearing on "Game Night" on May 20, said after Barbaro's injury in the Preakness that the horse could expect a future either as a stallion or the "glue factory." That remark upset some listeners and prompted ESPN Radio GM Bruce Gilbert to say Bucher "should have used the term 'put down' instead of 'glue factory.' "

    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.