Commentary

'SportsCenter Specials' too often just hot air on hot topics

Updated: June 12, 2008, 11:38 AM ET
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

The big news from ESPN last month was the announcement that the network would begin televising live "SportsCenters" from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning in August. Ending the long practice of re-airing the previous night's "SportsCenters" during those hours has many potential advantages, but the one that most intrigues me is the prospect of saying goodbye to the "SportsCenter Special" as we have known it.

With certain exemplary exceptions, such as the day-long special devoted to the release of the Mitchell Commission report last December, the "SportsCenter" Special has been an unwieldy, artificially bloated, overused mechanism for handling major and not-so-major breaking news. When criticized as such by me or others, the bottom-line defense has been that a live-if-overblown Special is better than re-airs.

With that rationale removed, ESPN will lose its best excuse for asking its on-air talent to fill five gallons of airtime with a half-pint of breaking news. The liabilities of that practice were evident most recently in the "SportCenter Special" of May 13, the day NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with Matt Walsh, the former New England Patriots videographer who at long last was to tell what he knew about the Pats' rule-breaking practice of spying on other teams.

The Spygate special, which began at 11 a.m., was handled by the "NFL Live" desk, anchored by Trey Wingo and flanked by NFL analysts Mark Schlereth and Cris Carter, both former players. Wingo's quick-witted grasp of fast-breaking news served ESPN well during previous specials, but on this occasion, the news broke slowly. When the Goodell/Walsh meeting lasted two hours longer than expected, delaying Goodell's planned news conference, there was a dangerous amount of air time to fill, live and unscripted.

Inevitably, talk among Wingo, Carter and Schlereth focused on the handiest new Spygate topic, the eight tapes from 2000-02 that Walsh had turned over to the NFL, and which the NFL had released to the media that morning while Goodell was still in his meeting. The question immediately put up for grabs was: What benefit might the Patriots have derived from these tapes?

As Wingo later told me, "We all, not only Mark and Cris but myself included, had a real visceral reaction to seeing those tapes for the first time, and their opinions were driven by their emotions. Before seeing the tapes, they weren't sure what benefit they might have, but when they saw the way it matched up -- with down and distance on the scoreboard, the coaches' signals and the formation all matched up -- they both were thinking, 'Holy Cow!'"

Fueled by that emotion, Schlereth imagined how such tapes might affect the outcome if film was shot, edited and utilized "during the course of a game" -- a practice Patriots coach Bill Belichick had consistently denied since last September, and for which there was no evidence. Never mind. The mere possibility that tapes could have been shot and used during a given game, with likely "amazing" effect on game outcome, got Schlereth and then Carter so riled up that pretty soon they had convinced themselves of the virtual certainty of their speculation.

"If it's not helping you during the course of the game, then why are you videotaping teams [like the 2002 Chargers] that don't play within your division?" Schlereth asked, before providing his own answer. "Because you are using it during the course of the game. You are making adjustments during halftime."

Carter noted that the situation most likely to provide the opportunity for editing tapes for in-game use was the extra-long halftime of a Super Bowl.

"To think that a Super Bowl might be slanted in a team's favor!" Carter fumed.

For an hour and 15 minutes preceding the Goodell news conference, this "SportsCenter Special" was a runaway train of inflammatory speculation that had Schlereth and Carter placing asterisks on all the Patriots' Super Bowl wins under Belichick.

Several times, Wingo tried to remind viewers this was simply the analysts' personal opinion, but Schlereth resisted the notion that his opinion was debatable. Nothing short of a flashing red "speculation" sign filling half the screen for a full 75 minutes would have had any chance of counteracting the effect Schlereth and Carter were having.

Where were the calm heads?

Even normally calm heads like John Clayton and Sal Paolantonio, ESPN reporters put on screen to comment from their remote locations, caught the fever. Clayton in Seattle offered the information that, with current technology, you could now burn CDs from videotapes at halftime and use them during the game.

"They obviously had some value within the game," said Paolantonio, in Manhattan at the still-delayed news conference.

Wingo succumbed as well, echoing Carter's Super Bowl theory: "We would be naive to think [Belichick] did not tape the Super Bowl."

In the realm of speculation, however, it is an anchor's job to remain neutral, even at the expense of seeming naive. When the Goodell news conference finally, mercifully started, the first question posed was whether Walsh had said anything about the Patriots' use of tapes during games.

"He was very specific that the tape remained in his possession the entire game," Goodell said, "and that they were not used during games."

Never mind.

When the special continued after the news conference, Carter and Schlereth still spoke with impassioned conviction about the game-changing, Super Bowl-changing use of tapes during games. On the 4 p.m. "NFL Live" show, Schlereth's last words on the subject were, "There is an asterisk by this football team for the rest of history."

At 5:30 p.m. on "PTI," hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser had 90 seconds to sum up their reactions to the day's Spygate news. Wilbon called it "the final and bogus chapter" of the "absurdly hyped" Spygate story. Kornheiser said, "This was nothing!"

Ninety minutes of one opinion, 90 seconds of another. That was the balance.

Whose job is it?

"That's not on them," Wingo said of Schlereth and Carter. "That's on me. Their job is to give opinions, and if there is a perception by more than Pats fans that we went too far, then I didn't do my job as well as I should have."

I agree that you can't blame Schlereth and Carter for offering their honest opinions, however impassioned and precipitate. And I don't blame Wingo either. The fault lies with the misuse of the "SportsCenter Special" to fill a vacuum of airtime by pumping it with hot air on a hot topic.

When I described the Spygate special to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, as a runaway train of one-sided speculation, he said, "I can't tell you your characterization is incorrect. That is just the nature of us sometime, in an unscripted, we-don't-know-how-substantive-the-news-is-going-to-be, we-don't-know-when-the-news-is-coming situation. It is hard in our format to come in and out."

In theory, live 6 a.m.-3 p.m. "SportsCenters" will allow ESPN the flexibility to find a better fit between the size of the news and the size of the special. But will ESPN take advantage of that?

"We'll have to wait and see how it all plays out," Doria said, "but it's still going to be the same people planning these shows. Will we have the discipline? Should we have the discipline? You say, 'Yes,' but we are still driven very much by how we think the media works, which is that viewers come and go, and on a day major news is expected, they want to be able to come in at any time and see something about it."

One of the people planning these shows is senior coordinating producer Glenn Jacobs, who will oversee the new block of live "SportsCenters." If the morning "SportsCenters" had been live on May 13, would he have stayed with regular programming on other topics when he learned of the news conference delay?

"Yes," Jacobs said.

Asked if he thought live "SportsCenters" would relieve anchors of responsibility for filling excessive airtime with analyst speculation, Wingo said, "I think that is one of the driving forces behind it."

Shoot self in foot

The excess of that Spygate special reinforced a belief held by the legion of Patriots fans who have been writing me for months. As one fan politely put it, "Many in New England now view ESPN with a great deal of mistrust and feel that the organization embellished the scandal far beyond what was merited by the facts of the case."

Inflaming that mistrust was an act of self-sabotage, because during the prolonged Matt Walsh chapter of Spygate, which began well before his name first surfaced in a New York Times story during Super Bowl week, ESPN had taken unusual steps not to go beyond what was merited by the facts of the case.

"We had been talking to Matt Walsh since September," Doria said, "and we had heard about the Rams' walk-through rumor, as had every other media outlet, but we didn't air it or write it because Walsh wouldn't confirm it and nobody could come up with a source that sounded solid."

When The New York Times put out Matt Walsh's name and when the Boston Herald followed by publishing the Rams' walk-through rumor, ESPN reported those reports, but as far as ESPN knew, that did not suddenly make either Matt Walsh or the Rams' rumor any more reliable. ESPN analysts and ESPN.com columnists were instructed not to speculate about what Matt Walsh knew or would say.

"What we told columnists," said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com vice president and executive editor, "was, 'Don't jump to any conclusions that we cannot support with facts.' We wanted to make sure all commentary was based on new information, not new speculation."

And new information was hard to find.

"There was a lot of rumor and innuendo coming into us," Stiegman said, "and we were filtering that through the enterprise unit, and through [reporter] Mike Fish, who spent a lot of time reporting on things that didn't pan out. There wasn't much new to report after the Super Bowl beyond the status of Matt Walsh's negotiations with the league and whatever [Senator Arlen] Specter was saying."

Stiegman said they were vigilant about a common temptation: "It's a dangerous thing when reporters hear a lot of rumor but can't report it, and then they try to hint at it. It's the worst thing you can do."

I think ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook succumbed to that temptation last fall, but during the Walsh chapter of Spygate, he and other columnists kept their rumor-based suspicions publicly in check. Many readers were outraged by the May 17 Easterbrook column that called for Belichick's suspension. They found it a judgment unwarranted by the known facts. I found it more significant that this time Easterbrook did not go beyond the known facts in building his argument.

This time, reader and commentator shared a level playing field of fact, which makes for a fair fight of opinion. That is very different from a commentator's adopting a there-are-things-I-know-that-you-don't stance toward his audience. A commentator is most likely to adopt that stance when he is dealing with a source who adopts that stance, i.e., Matt Walsh.

Crossfire is not balance

Some readers and viewers were also bothered by the play given to an interview with Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, a former Steeler who happens to share the Schlereth/Carter perspective.

"They [the Patriots] cheated, there should be an asterisk," said Porter, whose remarks, made on the May 23 "NFL Live," gained further mileage on "SportsCenter" and ESPN.com.

Why treat one player's angry personal opinion on a league-wide matter as news? Why not solicit a wider range of opinion? Those were the questions those who wrote me wanted answered.

"On the day the tapes were released, we contacted every opposing team affected and not a single team would comment," Stiegman said. "So one reason we ran the Porter story is that to this day, not a lot of people in the league -- front office, coaches or players -- will talk about it publicly."

In that case, I think the blanket public silence at all levels of the league is more of a story than Joey Porter's sounding off, and his remarks should have been placed explicitly in that context.

One final recommendation: When a studio crew like that of "Baseball Tonight" or "NFL Live" is given the responsibility of managing major breaking news, whether the coverage is called a "SportsCenter Special" or not, ESPN should make sure the anchor always has a reporter sitting at the desk, as well as insider analysts.

As Wingo said of the Spygate special, "I can't just say to somebody, 'OK, pretend you are on the other side.'"

No, he can't, and in this case, the need was not to counter anti-Patriot opinion with pro-Patriot opinion, which would not be balance but crossfire. Balance required the presence of a reporter ready to uphold the importance of sticking to the known facts. An anchor cannot fill the hold-your-horses role by himself when he is charged with eliciting opinion for hours on end.

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.