Stellar scoops, features offset by slights, biases

Originally Published: January 2, 2007
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

Game Notes
Looking back at 2006, the year was marked by ESPN's growth as a business and reputation as American's No. 1 purveyor of sports. The company -- with its multitude of arms, subsidiaries, events and properties -- attempted, for the most part, to faithfully serve its millions of viewers, listeners and readers.

And while the company's business goals and journalistic ambitions at times conflicted, the people who make most of the key decisions for ESPN tried during the course of the year to maintain standards and practices worthy of its vast audience.

The results of their efforts, of course, were mixed, with many high points, including in-depth reporting on the death by friendly fire of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, solid work by the crew of "Outside The Lines" and generally fine reporting by Jeremy Schaap and other less-heralded reporters covering specific sports.

But for every scoop uncovered by an Andy Katz or a Tim Kurkjian, for every moving feature on an autistic high school basketball manager turned scorer, viewers and readers expressed an equal frustration through their e-mails to me over perceived slights, biases, mistakes, cases of favoritism and unpopular executive decisions.

Given a U.S. television audience of more than 90 million -- plus millions of additional viewers of the ESPN.com Web site, listeners to the ESPN radio network and readers of ESPN The Magazine -- it's obvious you can't please everyone.

The number of slights and missteps can be reduced, in my view, with more careful and thoughtful planning and editing. Consider the decision to have possible presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) kick off the Dec. 11 Monday Night Football game between the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Rams.

Granted, Obama represents Chicago and his putting on a Bears cap in his Washington office and then declaring "I'd like to announce to my hometown of Chicago and all of America for the Bears to go all the way" could hardly be mistaken for a serious political announcement.

Some of the of the 8.5 millions viewers, however, wondered if Obama was getting a free ad and a leg up on his Democratic and Republican rivals. That was my thought, although Obama wasn't the first politician to appear on "MNF." In my view, though, he should be the last.

"Obama is a high-profile face in the news right now, and has an obvious Chicago connection," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news. "At this point, he hasn't declared for the presidency. And I don't believe his appearance had any impact on the 2008 race. We have had politicians from both parties on our air with some frequency, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has regularly come on to discuss issues of steroid use and regulating boxing."

Similarly, the inclusion of "MNF" in-game guests -- including Matthew McConaughey, Spike Lee, James Denton, Christian Slater and Sylvester Stallone, among others -- does not sit well with all viewers. Many feel these guest visits to the TV booth interrupt the flow of the game and make it difficult to embrace the first-year "MNF" voices of Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser.

ESPN executives are delighted with Monday Night Football's ratings, which set records for cable television. But the decision-makers would be wise to pay more attention to those unhappy viewers whose thoughts of Stallone were not his trademark "yo," but simply "go."

More thought required

In a photo collage presenting its annual Page 2 "Ignominous Efforts Awards" last week, ESPN.com showed poor taste by including a picture of New York Knicks Coach/GM Isiah Thomas along with Maurice Clarett, O.J. Simpson and Cincinnati linebacker A.J. Nicholson. Also included in the collage were the Stanford tree mascot and a Brazilian soccer fan.

Kevin Jackson, ESPN.com's VP/Executive Editor for features and site programming, explained that the feature by columnist Patrick Hruby "keeps a close watch throughout the year, chronicling bad behavior both on and off the world's playing fields and courts."

Jackson added, "In no way was the use (on Page 2) of a collage image meant to signify that all of the subjects committed dubious acts of equal seriousness or importance. Some were serious crimes, others were petty acts, others just humorous mishaps. The images selected were meant to convey the full landscape of the Ignominous Effort Awards, which are very wide-ranging. All of the subjects pictured were either charged with crimes or the target of a civil lawsuit in 2006, with the exceptions of Simpson and the Brazilian soccer fan."

I do not agree with Jackson's explanation and believe the collage was sophomoric and unfair in how it generalized the people it portrayed.

Surfing

  • ESPN and the Arena Football League recently announced a partnership that will make it essential for the network to separate its corporate relationship from its coverage of the league -- and to make sure viewers are aware of the relationship.

  • ESPN's coverage of Texas Tech's Bob Knight setting a new record with his 880th career coaching victory, surpassing Dean Smith in Division I men's college basketball, was solid. A few viewers wondered if Tennessee's women's coach, Pat Summitt, with 917 wins, might have gotten a few more mentions. Also, Dick Vitale might have kept to himself his suggestion that Indiana name its arena for Knight.

  • Been down this road before: When the network, because of contractual obligations, leaves an unfinished game for another game, it drives some fans nuts. Further explanations to viewers might help.

  • Viewers are looking for more "classic" sports events of yesteryear. The fans cannot get enough of Muhammad Ali's fights, or Vince Lombardi's Packers, or Michael Jordan's Bulls.

  • The NFL Network believes ESPN did not give it credit for what the NFL Network feels was its scoop on Denver switching starting quarterbacks from Jake Plummer to Jay Cutler. ESPN said it did its own reporting. The NFL Network said it had the story first.

  • ESPN's Dan Patrick, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon all wondered why Terrell Owens was featured in a Sunday Conversation on SportsCenter last month. Good question. I was told the request for the interview was months in the making. Still, too much Owens. And his personal relationship with Michael Irvin should give ESPN reason to consider another interviewer next time (and there will be a next time).

  • Steve Young's suggestion that the Miami Dolphins' Daunte Culpepper was not attending team meetings during his rehab regimen and an ESPN report that H. Wayne Huizenga was considering selling the team were both erroneous.

    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.