Probing the gray areas of ESPN's journalism

My 18-month hitch as ESPN ombudsman ends later this year, so this column begins my goodbye tour. Some observations are here, and some suggestions in the upcoming Part II. There’s time and space for your feedback.


In the early days of my ombudsmanship, a senior ESPN executive suggested I stay away from “conflict of interest” as a topic in my upcoming columns; it was an irrelevant issue, he said, and nothing more than a way for lazy critics to attack ESPN.

Just the other day, a different senior ESPN executive told me the “conflict-of-interest” topic was just too complex to explicate. He said, “There are no black-and-white areas at ESPN. Everything is gray.”

These were two smart and important executives, a generation apart in age and service, reflecting what I found to be the prevailing mindset of a company that has been enormously successful at making it up as it goes along -- shuffling personnel, sports and shows with a gambler’s pragmatism as it tries to balance the demands of the leagues that are its principal business partners with the journalistic obligations to cover them honestly.

It’s often a crapshoot. What seems like inconsistency in standards can as easily be described as an openness to innovation. A sometimes hesitant approach to newsgathering is explained as prudence. A sometimes confusing morality on issues of race, gender and religion might merely reflect larger society. A prevailing jockish sensibility might be an understanding of the audience.

One high-level ESPN decision has stuck with me as a clue to the ESPN mindset. In December 2013, abiding by its stated prohibition against “political or religious advocacy,” ESPN rejected a 30-second TV commercial for a St. Louis Catholic children’s hospital that included the phrase “help us reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly all but declared the decision anti-Christian, and hundreds of protesting emails descended on ESPN. Another ESPN leader, Ed Durso, the executive vice president for administration, told me at the time that he had made “a business decision” by reversing the rejection and accepting the original spot because “this was not worth all this trouble.”

Recently, Durso told me that after some intense meetings, ESPN decided -- based on current media customs and common sense -- to drop its blanket prohibition against “political or religious advocacy” ads. From now on, he said, commercials would be accepted or rejected “case by case,” without specific rules.

Case-by-case sounds like making it up as you go and pragmatically avoiding trouble. When I told Durso about my previous conversations regarding conflicts of interest and gray areas, he nodded and smiled.

If there is one show that best captures how ESPN maneuvers through those very same conflicts of interest and gray areas, it is “College GameDay.”

From professional and symbolic points of view, “College GameDay” is my favorite ESPN show. It is superbly produced and comes close to perfection in fulfilling its apparent mission to entertain us while it promotes a live event, even if the best matchups are on other networks. The game -- that unscripted drama that is so valuable on TV because we have to watch it in real time, right through the commercials -- is the heart of ESPN’s appeal; all the news, debate, context, betting information, speculation and fanboy chitchat that make up much of the networks’ programming is the support that keeps the heart beating.

For college football, at least, no one does that better than “GameDay.”

As a miniature of ESPN, “GameDay” seems like a good way of taking a snapshot of the strengths and weaknesses of the empire. The show is appealing in a nonthreatening way that allows the audience to relax, confident there will be no jarring surprises. The two main hosts, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, are likable, knowledgeable and easy to watch. They are bona fide members of the jock fraternity, with clowns, roughnecks and X-and-O analysts passing through and around their floating desk in whichever over-jacked college town the Saturday morning fixture happens to land.

“GameDay” was recently in Tallahassee, Florida, with the best college quarterback in the country, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, having been accused at various times of sexual assault, robbery, autograph peddling and inappropriate campus conduct. Fowler and Herbstreit smoothly affirmed our right to enjoy the show without the angst of moral judgment on college sports.

Hey, it’s “GameDay.” Leave the heavy breathing to “Outside the Lines” (if you can find it).

As is custom, the “GameDay” desk was in front of a crowd of Florida State students who held up signs (“What would Jameis Do?” and “Witch Hunt”). The boisterous crowd drowned out ESPN reporter Heather Cox’s questions of FSU coach Jimbo Fisher but hushed for his answers. Reporter Tom Rinaldi offered up something less than one of his usually first-rate pieces; he talked about “the uncertain trajectory” of Winston’s career with “criticism mounting.” David Pollack, an ESPN analyst, not surprisingly, wondered how the controversy around Winston (a further investigation is looming) would affect the team.

This approach -- discussing the impact on the team when a player comes under unusual scrutiny -- tends to be a default wonderment at ESPN, whether it’s about openly gay Michael Sam showering with teammates or Adrian Peterson briefly leaving the Vikings to visit a toddler he had just learned was his son or later beating an older son with a small tree branch.

The game between Florida State and Notre Dame was on network television -- ESPN on ABC. Did that weaken any journalistic resolve to dig a little deeper on a three-hour program built around that game? Was “GameDay’s” function to be celebratory no matter what? Did it reflect the flabby reporting job -- for whatever reason -- ESPN has done of late on the Winston story, which involves the way the university and Tallahassee have protected star athletes and the implications for all major football schools and their local police?

Did it reflect, according to a leading ESPN broadcaster speaking off the record, the routine “self-censorship” on stories that “balance the news and business consideration … the fact is everyone internalizes it, and factors it in”?

I think the answer to all those questions has to do with what I sense is ESPN’s ambivalence toward its role as the putative leader of sports journalism in that gray area.


People at ESPN are justifiably proud of their journalism and justifiably defensive when it is questioned. It can be prize-winning … and it can be an embarrassment. When I recently asked John Walsh, the network’s executive vice president and executive editor, about the well-chronicled removal of ESPN’s imprimatur from the PBS "Frontline" show on concussions, he replied, “Did it affect the product? It didn’t affect our journalism. We doubled down.”

The flap over that show was the most challenging to the idea of ESPN journalism, though not necessarily to the execution of it, in my time as ombudsman.

Walsh was right. The guts of the “Frontline” show were based on ESPN journalism, and ESPN continued to cover the story -- including airing two lengthy excerpts of the PBS show on “Outside the Lines” and running a series of on-air and online contributions from “League of Denial” authors and ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada -- though three questions I asked in that column a year ago have yet to be satisfactorily answered.

“Exactly how much did the league know about the dangers of head trauma, and when did it know? How much was actively concealed by, among other tactics, the attempted subversion of scientific inquiry? Just how was that settlement with players arrived at, and how will the plaintiffs ultimately be affected?”

(To be fair, ESPN has not ignored these questions entirely, but I have been disappointed they have not gotten the full-bore attacks of, say, the affairs of Donald Sterling, a far less important story and one that put a business partner -- the NBA -- in a good light.)

These are big, tough questions that require a media company with deep resources, talented reporters and the will to antagonize important business partners. ESPN certainly has the first two, but it seems mostly unwilling to go into its conflict-of-interest zone with the kind of rigor so many of its critics -- including many correspondents to the ombudsman’s mailbag -- demand.

So what should ESPN do? I recently asked several dozen people inside and outside ESPN to discuss journalism’s role at the company.

Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director of ESPN Digital & Print Media, represented the company loyalist consensus. Said Stiegman: “Journalism is vital to our credibility with fans and drives viewership and traffic between live events. I believe our news division operates independently with great rigor, and it's not so much that journalistic standards vary between shows as the recognition that not all shows are pure journalism -- they may contain journalistic elements and segments but may also be entertainment driven, and fans understand that.”

Fans might understand that too well. Stephen Gessner, an educator and psychologist who played college football and frequently reads and watches ESPN, represents an older, outsider consensus that tends to see the network as “all entertainment,” which I find disappointing but common. Gessner wrote: “Even programs like ‘SportsCenter’ are not legitimate news programs. They are full of gimmicks -- Top 10 plays (we are in David Letterman territory here), Web Gems, etc. I think the ethos of the ESPN style compromises the announcers. Further, with the conflicts of interest in reporting on something you own, you are no longer legitimate. I think when they started the [Longhorn] and SEC networks, they lost any chance of being journalists.”

Pointing out, as Stiegman does, that those college networks are considered “partner projects” and “not core ESPN journalism” is a distinction mostly lost on the audience.

Taking strenuous issue with the naysayers is Dwayne Bray, senior coordinating producer of enterprise reporting and a veteran of almost 20 years of newspapering, including editing at The Dallas Morning News. Said Bray: “Journalism distinguishes ESPN from some of the other players in the broadcast media landscape, such as the league-run networks. ESPN has been out front in the coverage of domestic violence in sports.”

Bray noted that earlier this year, “It was ESPN’s interview with former Tar Heel basketball player Rashad McCants that reignited the debate over academics in major college sports” and said ESPN reporters Peter Keating, Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada have “comprehensively covered the NFL brain-injury story dating back to 2009.” Bray also highlighted the coverage of the Biogenesis scandal in MLB by reporters Mike Fish, TJ Quinn and Pedro Gomez and noted that in the past year, OTL won Peabody, Murrow and duPont awards for covering the ills of youth sports.

“I’m not aware of any conflicts of interest that have bled into our news coverage,” he said. “We have a church-and-state mindset. I deal with some of our most sensitive and prickly stories and some of our deepest and widest investigations, and never once has anyone from a non-journalism position dictated coverage to me. No one has ever said ‘Don’t turn over that rock’ or ‘Don’t look behind that curtain.’”

Jeremy Schaap, a go-to ace of ESPN’s reporting corps, said, “In just the last few years, we at 'E:60' have concentrated our resources reporting on human rights issues in Qatar, India, South Africa, Israel, Bahrain and Thailand; we’ve reported stories about sexual violence against women in our military and the mentally disabled; we spent months working on a story about the hundreds of thousands of high school athletes in this country who are uncovered by insurance and what happens to them when they suffer catastrophic injuries. Those are the kinds of stories my colleagues and I spend most of our time reporting -- but they are rarely mentioned when ESPN’s journalistic bona fides are discussed.”

Not everyone agrees. Sandy Padwe, a former editor at The New York Times and Sports Illustrated who has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism since 1989, takes a hard-eyed view. (He was also a consultant at ESPN for 19 years.)

“Journalism is important to ESPN when it needs it,” he said, “meaning when critics look at the whole product and wonder why it seems 99 percent of the daily report is devoted to noise and the current name of the moment. Then the network points to 'Outside the Lines' or some of the recent reporting on Roger Goodell.

“ESPN will mature when it starts bringing in people, from the newest production assistant to the glitziest commentators, who know how to diagram a courthouse as well as diagram the latest offense or defense. You can't get by anymore with a handful of people who know journalism and literally thousands who have no idea about it. What does it say when Bill Simmons doesn't even understand that he needs proof before calling Roger Goodell a liar?”

On any given moment of any day, somewhere in the vast ESPN TV, radio, digital empire, any of the above opinions is true. The acceptance of conflict of interest as an acceptable climate and gray as a moral position on most matters makes it impossible to state what ESPN as a company actually stands for, beyond entertainment and the bottom line, which is what major sports stand for -- making the fans happy and putting points on the scoreboard.


After ESPN suspended Simmons for three weeks, my mailbag throbbed with outrage at the punishment and at my defense of it; I supported the company’s official grounds that the Grantland founder and editor-in-chief had not met “journalistic obligations” by calling the NFL commissioner a “liar” in his response to the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. (There was also the charge of “insubordination” in Simmons’ implicit challenge to ESPN management to respond to his accusatory tirade against Goodell.)

Those aspects of the saga have been well covered. What continues to trouble me is the disconnect between those “journalistic obligations” ESPN claims to be straining to maintain and what the audience expects from the company -- or at least from that celebrated corner of ESPN under Simmons’ banner. That includes freewheeling podcasts.

But now that Simmons is back, let’s look at the basis for the mailbag outrage, which I think is wrong-headed but understandable given the way ESPN has presented Simmons. The mailbag consensus is Simmons is not a journalist and thus can express his opinion as freely on ESPN as he might in salon or saloon -- just one of the boys, only smarter and funnier. This is immediately tricky because Simmons sometimes acts like a journalist, or at least seems to want to be taken seriously. If he were starring on BillSimmons.com or his own version of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” that split personality might work. But the site is owned by ESPN, and house rules always apply. If you call a subject a liar on ESPN, you better have definitive proof.

It’s that simple to me. But not to Simmons’ audience. Curtis Shields of Charlotte, North Carolina, gives us a typical sample of the Simmons fans I’ve heard from on this. He writes: “I don't know how people 40 and up view this, but post-moderns don't want to be lied to. That's a big reason Bill Simmons is so popular with 28-year-olds like me. He doesn't [B.S.] people. He's wrong a lot, but he's humble about it and laughs at himself. The only place that I can hear someone talk about how the NFL is amoral, or maybe I should say money moral, is from him.”

OK, Curtis, but does that approach make up for Simmons' offering as a declared fact an opinion that is simply not nailed down? Simmons is a columnist paid for opinions, not a reporter paid to dig up facts. But don’t you think even a pundit’s speculations need a trail we can follow?

Throughout history, screaming accusations have destroyed lives. Simmons, correspondents imply, is a strong antidote to the weasel words and outright lies we so often get from major institutions, including the NFL (remember concussions?) and, of course, the media. But calling Goodell a liar without definitive proof is no antidote; it's just more of what we don’t need. That Goodell represents an important ESPN business partner might complicate the issue (gray, conflict of interest), but it doesn’t make a wrong right.

Here is Seth L. from Portland, Oregon, on the topic: “I would submit to you that, despite Mr. Simmons’ obviously immature rant, it is exactly that attitude of his -- the irreverence, the questioning of authority, etc. -- which makes him ‘relatable’ and therefore popular. To the extent that ESPN wants him to ‘grow’ out of that, it will diminish … [the] view of the world where nothing is what it appears on its face, in his commentary. That is the true dilemma.”

That is certainly one of the dilemmas. The audience loves Simmons just the way he seems to be -- unfettered and willing to speak his version of truth to power. But Simmons is speaking from a somewhat protected place. It’s a little like being at home and shouting out the window.

As a rising son in ESPN’s booming growth this past decade, Simmons was allowed to find the reach of his talents by testing the boundaries of his gilded cage. His audience was aware of his backstory, which included tussles with ESPN executives who alternately tried to spread and clip his wings. This was part of Simmons’ appeal. Young men could -- and based on my mailbag, still do -- identify with the corporate Oedipal struggle. ESPN might seem to be keeping him in line by the occasional hand slap, but actually it is promoting his faux bad-boy appeal. Other prominent ESPN commentators such as Tony Kornheiser and Dan Le Batard also get that tough-love treatment reserved for superstars.

There’s blame to share here: Simmons, of course, for continuing to straddle the line between taking a stronger editorial grip on himself and playing leader of the pack with little to lose (even though he was actually unhappy, he had told me after the suspension, about the interruption just before the start of the NBA season -- one of his signature platforms).

ESPN wasn’t happy about it, either, but the company is certainly culpable, too. We’ve recently been over ESPN’s inconsistent approach to discipline, which helps to create an uncertain atmosphere. Just how far can a contributor go before hitting that invisible electric dog fence? That, combined with guidelines for standards and practices that are not as clear as they need to be, can provoke risky behavior.

The third target for blame is Simmons’ fan base, which is younger, more male and less conservative than ESPN’s overall audience, at least based on my mail. It’s an audience that can imagine itself hanging out with Simmons and arguing hoops and best “Game of Thrones” lines. It’s an audience that puts pressure on Simmons to fulfill its fantasy of him as an older brother role model, a rebel in the benign father-knows-best world of ESPN. So every so often he gets grounded, they seem to say? Big deal.

I think it’s time everyone involved -- Simmons, ESPN and the audience -- evolves. Simmons can start by using his resources, smarts and connections to find some smoking video bearing the commissioner’s fingerprints. He might even investigate whether Goodell was lying in the life-and-death concussion stories. The audience needs to understand that, though refusing to kowtow to authority and rejecting lies is brave and praiseworthy, it’s just as important to demand accountability from anyone claiming to tell you the truth.

As for ESPN, it needs to be clearer about which rules of journalism it is going to enforce and why they need to be enforced equally in print and on pod, Grantland, “SportsCenter,” “GameDay” and perhaps even on “partner projects.” ESPN needs to be more transparent about the role of journalism in its business model, the purpose behind it and how committed it is to supporting it.

There should be nothing gray about that.