Latest Terrell Owens media binge 'just too much'

Originally Published: October 2, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

ESPN's coverage -- television, radio and on its Web site -- of the Terrell Owens situation last Wednesday was a "Category 5" media binge worthy of a national leader at death's door. The day began with a police report detailing an apparent attempt by the celebrated Dallas wide receiver to take his life with an overdose of painkillers. Eight hours later, Owens held a press conference to announce that he "made no suicide attempt" and wanted to play against Tennessee on Sunday.

The scenario began Tuesday night when a 911 call was placed and the 32-year-old wide receiver was taken to the Baylor University Medical Center, where he spent the night. Late Wednesday morning, he was released from the hospital and by early afternoon was at the Cowboys' training facility, working out and addressing media.

By the end of his news conference, the story had taken on a life of its own. That's life in the world of 24-hour immediate news and sports: A story breaks and reporters report, whether they really know anything or not. Many of ESPN's networks, shows and resources were devoted to this story for more than 24 hours, with anchor Bob Ley doing a solid job in the lead role.

"We had an obligation to cover this story live from the time it broke," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "We felt the need to track its twists and turns and stay with it. Our concern was not how much we did, but to be careful not to speculate over Owens' state of mind."

My gripe was that, in hindsight, some of the information that got on the air proved to be inaccurate. In general, the network's producers and editors need to be more restrained. It's better to be right -- even if it means being second to the competition. Meanwhile, many ESPN viewers, via e-mail, said the coverage of Owens this past week on ESPN was just too much -- a belief that had merit.

Monday Night Football

If ESPN was looking to return "Monday Night Football" to a special place in sports prominence, it has succeeded -- at least that's what the ratings show through the first month of the season. Pregame and postgame shows positioned around the game work well, although you often get the feeling the network is seeking to turn every Monday night into the Super Bowl. The "MNF" announcing team of Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser seems to be settling in, with solid support from sideline reporters Suzy Kolber and Michele Tafoya.

A number of viewers complain that Kornheiser's comments aren't sufficiently game-related and Theismann talks too much. Very few complaints about Tirico.

Many viewers, however, were adamant in their belief that the coverage last Monday of the NFL's return to the Louisiana Superdome was politically slanted to make the Bush administration look bad. Others felt that too much of New Orleans' post-Katrina problems were injected into a football production, and not enough attention paid to the game; that Mississippi's ravaged gulf coast was ignored; and that by interviewing filmmaker Spike Lee, ESPN was making a political statement.

"There was no political leaning in our coverage," Williamson said. "We felt the reopening of the Louisiana Superdome was a huge news and cultural event. For this night, that's how we covered it -- rather than our normal coverage of a game."

Of Lee's presence and the notion that some viewers believed it to be anti-President Bush, Williamson said, "He's been in the news with his documentary of Katrina and New Orleans. We felt his appearance was reasonable and responsible."

Still, a moratorium on celebrity guests in the MNF booth might be in order.

But I'll let Kornheiser's words from his column in Wednesday's Washington Post speak for the more than 500 ESPN staffers who worked the game: "It will take years and years for it (New Orleans) to come back whole again. But the great elixir of sports, the great shot of adrenaline that sports gives you, is in those few hours when you can lose yourself -- and put your worries aside -- and if you get lucky your team wins and you go home happy. The problem in New Orleans, of course, is that not everybody has a home to go to. Still, nobody walking out of that Superdome on Monday night felt anything but hope. It's a script that was perfectly written and a moment that was perfectly lived."

Whitlock's departure

Last week, ESPN cut its ties with Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock, largely over derogatory and highly personal remarks Whitlock made about former ESPN colleagues Mike Lupica (panelist on "Sports Reporters") and Scoop Jackson (ESPN.com columnist). Whitlock, who recently left his role as a columnist for ESPN.com's Page 2, had been a regular panelist on "Sports Reporters" and a guest host on "PTI". He made the remarks about Lupica and Jackson in an interview that appeared on the Web site thebiglead.com.

The comments were pointed and offensive and won't be repeated in this space. Last week, Whitlock told me, "I have no hard feelings towards ESPN. I don't feel I should work where I'm not wanted. My ability to state my opinions is too important to me. I still have TV aspirations, but not with restrictions. I enjoyed my time doing 'PTI' and on 'The Jim Rome Is Burning' show. But it's time to move on. More than anything else, I'm a sports columnist."

Said Williamson, "ESPN has no problem with being criticized. We think that's healthy. But we're not going to tolerate personal attacks against specific individuals."

Added ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz, "There are numerous examples of allowing people to voice diverse, critical opinions of our company, including from Jason himself over the years. These were personal attacks that went too far."

I've admired some of Whitlock's work over the years. But I also noticed that he, and some of his former ESPN colleagues, were unable to make a distinction between fair commentary and personal attacks or irresponsible generalizations. And I don't see enough tough editing and direction from people directly responsible for what gets on the air and on the Web site. Attack journalism is not acceptable journalism in any form. Commentators, panelists and so-called "star talent" need to be held to the same standards as everyone else at ESPN and other media.

ESPN should make certain its guidelines and standards are known and followed by everyone taking its paychecks.

Surfing

  • I understand the reason announcer Brent Musburger had to explain to the University of Southern California why he shared with viewers the meaning of quarterback John David Booty's hand-signals to wide receivers. But like Trojans Coach Pete Carroll, I don't see why such a fuss was made over the incident. Booty shared the information with Musburger at a regular Friday pregame television meeting with coaches and players that allegedly is off-the-record. Off-the-record sessions, in my view, cause more problems than they're worth.

  • Embarrassing moment: Seattle's MVP running back Shaun Alexander falling down in an advertisement for Mobile ESPN that ran on the same day Alexander broke a bone in his foot. Days later, ESPN announced it would end its phone project.

  • Many viewers continue to get emotional when "College GameDay" site choices do not include their favorite campus. My suggestion to ESPN is to keep moving the sites around as much as possible, unless two top-five teams are playing, regardless of which network is televising that game. Also, I'm delighted that Lee Corso, one of my favorite commentators, has stopped referring to his colleagues as "sweetheart" as though he was in a Boynton Beach, Fla., diner.

  • ESPN could have done more reporting on the steroid story involving the Carolina Panthers. It should also remember the attention it devoted last February to an alleged NHL gambling probe in New Jersey. Both stories need callbacks.

  • ESPN's Boston reporter, Wendi Nix, is married to an executive with the Boston Red Sox -- an apparent conflict of interest in the making. I raised this with Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news, who said the couple can separate personal from professional and that "she was the best person for the job." That's fine, except I would not assign her to any stories involving the Red Sox.

  • Some viewers wonder why "Sports Reporters" moderator John Saunders ends the weekly show with a personalized "parting shot" just like his three panelists. "In the structure of the first three segments, I do not share my opinions," Saunders said. "My role there is to provoke conflicting and opposing sides. The closing format allows me to share my opinions. Sports is hugely different from news; it's about sharing your opinions. People want to know what you think." The show's producers, since the days of the late Dick Schaap, have encouraged the moderator to express opinions. Personally, I'd be happier if the moderator simply moderated, as happens on most of the Sunday morning news/discussion shows. "Sports Reporters" is a serious sports show about serious topics.

  • There were more than a few pleas that ESPN not repeat the "Full Circle Coverage" it tried during the Sept. 4 Florida State-Miami game. The experiment of multiple screens and multiple outlets was confusing to many viewers.

  • And one viewer from Anchorage, Alaska, while watching a football game on ESPN with his children, seemed taken aback by a suggestive promo for ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

    Enough for now. Next time we'll tackle sideline reporters, as well as ESPN's boxing coverage.

    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.