It takes a lot to galvanize ESPN's diverse viewership. But if anyone can do this, it's Terrell Owens. The enigmatic wide receiver, suspended this week by the Philadelphia Eagles for conduct detrimental to the team, has received the kind of blanket coverage by ESPN network news shows usually reserved for the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice or the indictment of a high government official.
But this is Terrell Owens -- and if his apology and news conference Tuesday with agent Drew Rosenhaus seemed better suited for the Rose Garden than Owens' house in Moorestown, N.J., viewers were hardly presidential in their reaction to Owens and ESPN's coverage. Many believe the Nov. 3 interview with Owens by Graham Bensinger, an ambitious Syracuse University broadcast journalism student who does occasional freelance work for ESPN.com, ignited the latest controversy that finally led to Owens' suspension.
Owens, in response to questions from Bensinger, said the Eagles would be better served if Green Bay's Brett Favre was quarterbacking the Eagles instead of Donovan McNabb (whom Owens had previously alienated) and that the organization showed a lack of class by not recognizing Owens' 100th career touchdown reception. That interview, in the wake of ESPN commentator Michael Irvin's saying that the Eagles would be undefeated with Favre at quarterback, was followed by moment-by-moment coverage of the situation beginning Saturday night.
And it drew a number of viewer protests. A few typical e-mails to the ombudsman:
"It sure seems like ESPN has crossed the line from reporting to creating news." - DH, Philadelphia
"None of this coverage looks good for ESPN as an objective news agency." - GK, Bloomington, Ind.
"Is there any possibility ESPN can report a story that doesn't involve Terrell Owens?" - DS, Norfolk, Va.
"I have been disturbed by ESPN's accountability." - RC, Hawthorne, N.J.
The use of a freelancer to interview such a high-profile athlete such as Owens surprised many viewers -- including me. But Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, said Bensinger previously had done work for ESPN.com as a contributor and had arranged the interview himself on behalf of ESPN.com. The questions he posed to Owens seemed perfectly legitimate, and I had no problem with the production. In fact, Bensinger certainly punched up his résumé, possibly to the envy of some staffers who wished they had landed the interview.
What followed, starting Saturday after the Eagles announced they were suspending Owens for Sunday night's game against the Washington Redskins, was a frantically intense coverage that seems to reserve for this one player. This included solid reporting of developments on Sunday by Suzy Kolber that continued through the game -- including her noting a midweek scuffle, first reported by the Trenton Times, involving Owens and former player Hugh Douglas, now a front-office employee. There also was lots of commentary (mostly Owens bashing) from Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire in the booth.
By Monday, the whole network was on Full Metal Terrell Alert, with Sal Paolantonio, who is well-versed in the inner workings of the Eagles, leading ESPN's NFL staff in the coverage of Philadelphia's banishing Owens for the rest of the season. The network commentators and talking heads on the panel shows weighed in -- most echoing the belief Owens had earned his sentence. Doria's reasoning for the intensity of coverage was that Owens is one of the best and most controversial players in the league, which is similar to the rationale he used for the network's performance last summer when Eagles coach Andy Reid booted Owens from camp.
The Owens-Rosenhaus news conference Tuesday from Moorestown featured a chastised Owens apologizing personally to everyone, it seemed, and a combative Rosenhaus screaming his responses to questions. Paolantonio, meanwhile, was quick to report after Rosenhaus' exit that, as far as the Eagles were concerned, Owens' apology had come too late and he would not be playing for them this season.
I thought ESPN did a solid job of reporting the story, but went over the edge in volume, with the number of stories on "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS, as well as allowing too much commentary on the subject. I know Owens is a lightning rod and everyone has an opinion, but between Sean Salisbury's calling the man "garbage," Tom Jackson's saying the Eagles should have done this last August and Mike Ditka's throwing him to the wolves, the suddenly shy Irvin's silence on the matter was welcomed.
"The ratings are a indication of what interests our viewers, and they are an accurate barometer, as opposed to some e-mailers who may or may not have an agenda," Doria said. "The ratings strongly affirm that our viewers have a great interest in the story."
Still, I'm not buying into the criticism by some respected journalists that ESPN manufactured the story. What I am buying is Bensinger's ambition and further proof of an old cliché: "You never know what you'll hear unless you ask the question." That's true whether you're ESPN or the Philadelphia Daily News.
Blaming the Messenger
Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville expressed unhappiness with ESPN last month. According to an Oct. 27 story in the Birmingham News, Tuberville said at a luncheon in Montgomery, Ala., that ESPN's "GameDay" commentators had too much influence in college football, promoted specific teams for a national championship game and pushed certain players for the Heisman Trophy.
"If you've got the microphone, you can sway people's votes," Tuberville told The News.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, in response to a question on a media conference call, said he wished commentators would be more "even-handed," aware that ESPN's Lee Corso said last spring Spurrier would never win at South Carolina. Said Spurrier, "Just give us a chance."
ESPN commentators reacted to both coaches. On his radio show, Dan Patrick defended ESPN commentators Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lou Holtz and Corso, saying Tuberville was "biting the hand that feeds it. ESPN does more for college football than any other entity."
Meanwhile, Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg, on their radio show "Mike and Mike in the Morning," gave Spurrier their "Just Shut Up" award (voted on by radio listeners). Spurrier countered with, "What did I say?"
Tuberville, whose Tigers went unbeaten last year but finished third in the BCS poll and could only watch as USC defeated Oklahoma in the national championship game, might have reason to feel slighted. But his real problem is with college presidents who refuse to adopt a playoff format in Division 1-A football.
Still, ESPN -- Patrick, Golic and Greenberg in particular -- should be less defensive about criticism from people they cover. The "GameDay" crew did not need Patrick to defend them; and unless Golic and Greenberg followed up with additional questions to Spurrier, they were out of line nominating him for their sophomoric award, even given the unusual latitude of sports radio.
Who Knows What's Real?
Standing at the kitchen counter Monday morning, drinking a cup of coffee, I was startled to hear a tease for an upcoming news conference involving the Boston Red Sox. My first thought was that Red Sox management had made peace with whiz kid Theo Epstein and that Boston's former GM would be returning to The Nation.
That is, until I read the crawl on the bottom of the screen ("Simulated news conference") and saw ESPN's Steve Phillips, a former general manager for the New York Mets, at the lectern, acting the part of Red Sox GM. I also thought I saw ESPN reporters Buster Olney and Jeremy Schaap, among others, asking questions. And before breakfast?
I'd been had. And so were many other viewers who, like me, simply could not understand why ESPN, a news-gathering organization of stature, would simulate a news conference.
"We wanted to present the traditional offseason hot stove speculation in a platform that would deliver the same information in a more entertaining way," Doria said. "We hoped that might get our viewers' attention, as opposed to the conventional piece or discussion."
Phillips was to spend the rest of the week pretending to be the GM of the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros, providing viewers information on these clubs in what ESPN hoped would be a weeklong series of offbeat features.
I know, I'm past the age of the target audience. And I also know my limited sense of humor disappears quickly when the news-gathering process is spoofed, even when the goal is to entertain. I also know that ESPN attempted to make its intent clear.
In this instance, though, I missed the joke and ESPN missed its mark.
The ombudsman's regularly scheduled notebook and comments about ESPN radio and PrimeTime have been interrupted by T.O., but will appear later this month.