Commentary

ESPN guilty of teller becoming the tale

Updated: January 13, 2009, 11:45 AM ET
By Le Anne Schreiber | ESPN Ombudsman

On at least four separate occasions in recent weeks, ESPN reporters, analysts and announcers became part of the stories they were covering, reinforcing the common perception that ESPN often draws more attention to itself than to the sports it covers.

The fact that, on three of those occasions, the attention was unwanted did little to dispel the impression that ESPN has become a league of its own, stocked with talent (anchors, reporters and analysts) who steal the spotlight better reserved for those on the field.

Since there is little prospect of ESPN's retreating to the shadows, or of its critics letting it do so, the issue for ESPN is how to handle the glare.  The three cases of unwanted attention, presented here in reverse chronological order, all suggest it could be handled better.

  • Case 1: Denial

  • On Sunday, Jan. 4, on "NFL Countdown" and later on ESPN.com, senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen reported that the Oakland Raiders were negotiating to sell a controlling interest in the team to a billionaire investor with a known hankering to move an NFL franchise to Los Angeles.

    Raiders chief executive Amy Trask issued a heated denial of Mortensen's report, saying, among other scalding things, "Chris contacted no one with the Raiders to ascertain if there was any truth to his report. There is not."

    When asked for a response to Trask's statement,  Mortensen sent The Associated Press an e-mail, noting "The Raiders have lost the privilege with me of running stories past them for comment. This stems from their history of denials to most stories I have reported -- as well as others in the media -- when those stories have eventually proven to be true."

    My first thought upon learning of this from my usual and best source -- my mailbag -- was that it couldn't be true. Chris Mortensen wouldn't say that. He knows perfectly well that a reporter must always give the subject of his story a chance to respond, no matter how frustrating and predictably unfruitful that response is likely to be.

    A quick check of ESPN.com showed that Mortensen had issued a second statement, noting that he regretted invoking the notion of it being "a privilege" to communicate with him, but he referred again to the Raiders' history of denials. It was not clear to me whether he -- and by extension, ESPN -- was scuttling the basic journalistic principle of allowing subjects the opportunity to respond.

    When I e-mailed my concern to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, he promptly wrote back: "A call should have been made to Raiders."

    Later, I talked directly to Mortensen, who said even before I could ask, "I was wrong on both counts: one, for not soliciting comment, and two, for daring to label it a privilege.  I called Amy Trask and apologized."

    Whew. A one-time lapse.

    But here is my unanswered question: Why didn't someone at either ESPN's television or online news desk remind Mortensen of that basic journalistic principle when he needed reminding? And just as importantly, after failing to do that, why didn't someone at ESPN elicit that straightforward "I was wrong" statement that Mortensen handed me on a platter?

    It would have reduced the glare considerably.

  • Case 2: BAM!

  • I had another "this can't be true" moment when I first read this message from an ESPN Radio listener:

    "It is Dec. 29 and I was driving back from visiting my folks for the holidays and was listening to ESPN Radio Shows in the morning/afternoon and I heard Cris Carter not once but incredibly TWICE describe how he would take care of the Cowboys' problems next season by SHOOTING T.O. ... and he even added a BOOM both times. Now I understand that the first time (during Mike & Mike in the Morning) probably came as a surprise, but no way should he have been able to go on the air during the Tirico and Van Pelt show and use the EXACT same language again. ... Someone should've been talking to him as soon as he got off the air after the first time."

    The listener got it right, except perhaps for the "boom," which some media reports transcribed as "bam," as in, "If it was me, I'd get rid of T.O. ... I'd take one bullet and put it right in him. Bam!"

    Carter later issued this clarification: "Obviously, I did not mean this literally. It was not the right choice of words. I was simply recommending a personnel decision to improve the Cowboys."

    That statement prompts me to offer this rule of thumb: When an apology is issued for a gross overstatement (i.e., put a bullet in him), the apology should not be worded as a gross understatement (i.e. not the right choice of words).

    To get out of the glare, better just to say, "I'm sorry. That was a really stupid thing to say."

    And there might have been no glare at all if anyone at ESPN Radio had said, "Please don't say that again."

  • Case 3: Liar, liar

  • On Thursday,  Dec. 11, ESPN's Dallas-based NFL reporter, Ed Werder, filed a story about conflicts in the Cowboys' locker room centered on the team's loquacious wide receiver, Terrell Owens.

    The gist of the story, built upon quotes from several unnamed players as well as linebacker and team captain Bradie James, was that Owens was sowing dissension in the locker room by expressing resentment toward quarterback Tony Romo, whom he felt was throwing too many passes to tight end Jason Witten -- who happens to be Romo's close friend and roommate on the road.

    Werder asked Owens for comment before the story was posted, but Owens preferred not to respond -- until the following Sunday, when he used his nationally televised postgame interview and news conference to repeatedly call Werder a "liar" who "made that stuff up."

    That is precisely the kind of trash talk which, if directed at another player, fits the bill for the week's opinion cycle at ESPN and every other sports media outlet. What was ESPN to do? It couldn't feed one of its own to the ritual mauling of the opinion cycle, but neither could it miss out on what everyone else was jawing about.

    First, ESPN issued a standard and, in this case, warranted, "We stand behind our reporting." Then, because Owens was still not speaking to Werder, ESPN arranged an exclusive sit-down interview between Owens and someone more agreeable to him -- Stephen A. Smith.

    The interview, prominently played on Dec. 16 "SportsCenters," featured a composed, congenial Owens seated in front of a glowing Christmas tree, upholding his reputation as a fine teammate, spectacular player and good person, who gets fewer commercial endorsements than he should because of stories such as Werder's.

    Smith's questions were far from hardball, but he did get Owens to concede that Werder was not a liar, but rather a conduit for lying sources. Follow-up questions that might have underscored the inconsistencies in Owens' statements were not asked.

    As soon as the interview aired, my mailbag started filling with messages asking, why ESPN threw Ed Werder under the bus? Or, as one Utah viewer phrased it, "Why has ESPN abandoned Werder and filmed what appeared to be The Terrell Owens Christmas Special with Special Guest Stephen A. Smith?"

    Werder said he did not feel abandoned but told me, "I wish I had been allowed to sit in that chair opposite T.O." Since Owens wouldn't sit for that, the best Werder could do was wait in a Dallas studio while the interview was being conducted.

    "I was prepared to rebut him on air after the interview if he continued to attack me personally and claim I had concocted the whole story," Werder said. "But the producers thought he had toned it down, acknowledging I had sources who told me what I had reported, so there was no need for me to go on TV and rebut."

    Mixed agendas

    There is no doubt that if Werder had conducted that interview, there would have been many follow-up questions put to Owens that served to validate Werder's original story; after being publicly called a liar, that validation would have been at the top of Werder's agenda. Many viewers assumed that would be ESPN's top priority as well, and so they were dumfounded by the infomercial aura of its visual style and substance.

    As I see it, the confusion sown by that interview was the product of unacknowledged, mixed and conflicting agendas. Yes, ESPN wanted the liar label publicly removed from Werder, and that was achieved. ESPN also wanted a highly promotable exclusive "SportsCenter" interview with Owens, simply because he is what is called "a good get."

    Owens was available to be gotten, but only on his own terms, which did not include Werder, because after a week's worth of T.O. the troublemaker stories, Owens needed some image rehab.

    Enter Smith, who has indicated in several subsequent interviews that he is more sympathetic to Owens than many in the media, and so he had no particular desire to pin the liar tag removed from Werder onto Owens. Viewers who expected Smith to act as a stand-in for Werder were disappointed he didn't place more lumps of coal in Owens' Christmas stocking, but that was not Smith's agenda.

    In the end, neither Werder nor Smith nor viewers were well served by the interview. Werder's own integrity was upheld, but the reliability of his sources -- a matter almost as important to a reporter as his own integrity -- was called into question. Smith's sympathy for T.O., the quality that gained him the interview, was put to use in a circumstance that undermined his credibility as a journalist.

    And fans were short-changed, because between Werder and Smith, they got the hard cop/soft cop versions of Owens, but they never got anywhere near the breakthrough moment of clarity about disputed events that hard cop/soft cop techniques are meant to elicit.

    ESPN would have been better off if it had stopped at, "We stand behind our reporting." If it wants to use Smith's better rapport with Owens as the starting point for an in-depth interview of an athlete with an apparently huge capacity to both charm and infuriate, fine, as long as it is not cast as the follow-up to a feud between Owens and one of its reporters.

    The opinion cycle, of course, does not stand still long enough to allow for that separation.

    Voracious as always, it got served hearty portions of Werder, Smith and that staple, Owens.

    If the cycle ever stopped spinning, too many of us would have time to ponder the basic question: Does any of this matter? Perhaps it does, but plenty of viewers, like this one from Illinois, were left wondering:

    "Why is this T.O./Romo/Witten thing even a story? ... Do we not believe that in an NFL locker room, full of 53 passionate, aggressive, competitive men there are not disagreements and arguments? This happens in all 32 locker rooms, multiple times, every year. Especially after a tough loss. This is only a story because it's T.O. and the Cowboys."

    Asking for it

    In the above three cases, ESPN did not intend to pull the spotlight off the field and onto its own talent. It accidentally stepped or was thrust into the spotlight, becoming the story when it meant to be the teller or interpreter.

    On a fourth occasion, ESPN asked for the attention. In an attempt to spice up its Wednesday evening fare on Jan. 7, ESPN decided to have its NBA and college basketball announcing teams switch roles for a  basketball doubleheader -- with the NBA trio of Mike Tirico, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson working the Davidson-Duke college game while the college duo, Dick Vitale and Dan Schulman, worked a Heats-Nuggets game.

    I received no complaints about the switch, but I was deluged with complaints about the ESPN-aggrandizing inflation of the "Announcer Swap" into a news event worthy of coverage on several "SportsCenters," and even of booth discussion during a college football bowl game.

    "I'm sure a couple thousand people have already e-mailed about this," wrote a viewer from Madison, Wis., "but that 'Announcer Swap' ESPN  did last night set a new low. I can't ever think of a sporting event that was more heavily billed for its announcing teams than the games themselves. You always hear from journalists that you never want to make yourself part of the story but here ESPN made themselves the entire story."

    A more plaintive note was struck by this viewer from Syracuse, N.Y.: "Why does ESPN insist on making itself and its personalities into the story?"

    The fact that all four incidents, disparate as they are, drew the same fundamental complaint -- all echoing the viewer from Syracuse -- is telling. It suggests that every time ESPN becomes its own story, intentionally or not, fans feel the kingdom of sports is in ever greater danger of being usurped by its messenger.

    To temper that resentment, I recommend that whenever ESPN accidentally steps into the spotlight, it find a way to get out as quickly and deftly as possible. When out of the spotlight, don't ask for it -- at least for a while. Let fans get over their ESPN fatigue.

    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.