Reader reaction: Tom Brady, OJ, The Undefeated and sponsored content

I get email. Lots of it. So I wanted to address some of your notes to the public editor, as most reflect larger concerns I hear about from ESPN’s viewers, listeners and readers. I have slightly edited the original questions for style and clarity, but have changed none of the words.

Let’s get to it.

This note came to me after a tongue-in-cheek feature on ESPN.com, in the wake of the announcement of a new official logo for Texans star J.J. Watt, that created player-specific logos for NFL stars. It included this one for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady:

“I remember when there was a huge article trying to explain how ESPN just made many coincidental mistakes about Deflategate, and that it really doesn’t hate the Patriots. Regardless, if I feel you were being truthful on your defense on ESPN about Deflategate (remember, ESPN was about the last sports entity to admit maybe the NFL had an agenda), how can you explain the blatant trolling from the ESPN logos?”

I receive similar notes via email and social media every time ESPN does anything that is viewed as critical of the Patriots – especially when there are perceived shots referring to Deflategate.

My March 3 column concluded that ESPN had badly fumbled its coverage of Deflategate, first by publishing a story that turned out to be inaccurate, then by inexplicably leaving that story uncorrected for more than a year. That, combined with other missteps that I concluded made ESPN look bad but were not a reflection of a universal ESPN bias against the Patriots, left me sympathetic to New England fans’ distrust of the network.

I stand by that conclusion, and am sympathetic to the argument that the appended correction didn’t go far enough, most notably in its use of “significantly underinflated,” an imprecise term that fueled more debate about ESPN’s coverage rather than quelling it.

And, yes, I admit I cringed when I saw the Brady “logo” (one of three the site featured for the Patriots QB). I do think ESPN should be aware that, when publishing items like the logo – even in a lighthearted fashion – it will almost surely serve to deepen the distrust and resentment many New England fans feel toward the network.

But here’s the other side: Just because you’ve erred in coverage of a major story doesn’t mean that you journalistically walk away from that story. The Washington Post didn’t stop covering the problem of drug addiction in lower-income Washington after Janet Cooke admitted she’d made up her 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning article. NBC didn’t stop producing consumer-focused stories after “Dateline” was caught staging a car explosion in 1992. And I sincerely doubt Rolling Stone will stop looking into issues of sexual assault just because its controversial story about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia has been debunked.

And to be clear, all of those examples cover subjects far more important to our society than Deflategate and include far larger journalistic transgressions.

The idea that, because of its blunders, ESPN would never again criticize the Patriots or continue to cover Deflategate, is utterly naive. It will continue to do both, I’m sure. But Patriots fans have every right to take what’s happened up until now into account when they critique ESPN’s coverage. And, based on the volume of my email in my inbox, they are doing just that.

“I have an account with ESPN. I wanted to know if there if anyway I can remove The Undefeated from the ESPN page when I view it. I, along with others that I know, do not feel The Undefeated page is an appropriate way to discuss racial issues. I have always used ESPN to get sports news coverage but have recently reconsidered using different media outlets. Making ESPN all about race and culture is ruining what was a great product. I don't want to read about how African-Americans relate to sports in a different way every day. It's a noteworthy topic for discussion, but not for a main page on the cover page of the website. In my opinion, it only creates more controversy and feeds the fire of an already heated issue. I want sporting news, sporting stories, and occasional non-biased political and cultural stories. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.”

This broader issue – “when I come to ESPN, I only want to read about sports” – is the single biggest topic I encounter in ESPN fan feedback. Sports is escapism, the argument goes, and anything that prevents escape is something to be avoided.

I get these emails related to FiveThirtyEight, The Undefeated, the Body Issue, stories about off-the-field legal issues, stories about labor negotiations, etc.

In some ways, I find these complaints odd: We live in a world with more consumer choice now than ever before. If you are watching TV and are unhappy with what ESPN is airing, you have countless other options, even within the world of sports. You can go watch Fox Sports, NBC Sports, the NFL Network, the MLB Network, the Golf Channel or one of ESPN’s other seven U.S.-based TV channels.

If you’re on the web, where you’re not forced to watch what’s in front of you, the options are infinite. The web also affords you the easiest option of all: You can choose not to click on what you don’t want to read or watch. If The Undefeated is not for you, don’t click. If you wish there were no political content on ESPN, don’t click on any FiveThirtyEight stories about politics.

Seems simple, right?

But I think the readers who send these kinds of notes are well aware of those options. I think these emails often reflect something deeper: a frustration about what these consumers view as an increasing effort on ESPN’s part to steer into politics and culture, and – based on the majority of feedback on this topic – a feeling that the network stands clearly on one side of the political aisle and is less tolerant of those who do not share those perceived values.

And, while I believe that the line between sports, politics and culture has always been more fantasy than reality, I agree with these readers that ESPN’s deeper push into politics and culture is worthy of exploration. I’ll revisit that topic between now and Election Day.

“While I am mindful that the “E” in ESPN stands for Entertainment, I find myself put off by the somewhat insistent advertising for the O.J. documentary series.

  • Saturday afternoon, with the Belmont Stakes and two exciting results in the Copa America in which not only did the U.S. advance, but won the group thanks to a stunning upset of Colombia – and the featured "story" was a plea to turn on the O.J. doc, "now showing" on ABC.

  • All day Sunday the (Bottom Line) crawl included an "O.J." section imploring us all to watch a TV show on Tuesday.

“As fascinating as the public might find O.J. these days, there's nothing "news" about it – these were advertisements for yet another retread of a decades-old story that happens to be trendy thanks to another network. ESPN is welcome to cash in on the trend, but subverting the lead story and the crawl strikes me as unseemly.”

I have news for you: ESPN is a business. And, as you might have read, that business is undergoing some serious challenges. So, it stands to reason that the network is going to promote the hell out of things that can bring it a lot of viewers and, thus, a lot of revenue.

Based on those factors and some stunningly positive early buzz, “O.J.: Made in America” was a major opportunity for ESPN. And the network took advantage of it. I fault ESPN not one iota for that. Is it annoying to see the same things promoted over and over again? Yes. And, as a consumer, you can channel that frustration by, well, turning the channel. But that’s obviously a risk ESPN was willing to take, based on the audience opportunity for that documentary.

So, did all that promotion work? In the end, it’s impossible to answer definitively because of the various factors that affect viewership. But when ABC broadcast the first installment of the documentary on June 11, it drew 3.4 million total viewers and ranked first in all four half-hour segments of its two-hour running time. Additionally, that broadcast – excluding sporting events and political debates – was the highest-rated Saturday broadcast show among viewers 18-49 over the previous five months. Results like that are the reasons all networks occasionally go all out on promotions, and I can’t fault ESPN for that.

“The OJ documentary has a fatal flaw. Episodes 1 and 2 focus a great deal on the racism of the Los Angeles police and the unfairness of the judicial system perceived by the L.A. African-American community. While all of that is factually accurate, it has absolutely nothing to do with O.J. Simpson. It would only be relevant if you assume that his arrest and trial for murder were the result of the police framing him and fabricating evidence. The documentary assumes that the racism of the LAPD has some connection to O.J. The verdict in the trial of the officers in the Rodney King has nothing to do with the O.J. Simpson trial, other than that the verdict appears to be against the weight of the available evidence. This documentary is typical of what ESPN has become … desperately trying to be socially relevant at all costs.”

I would disagree with the general premise of this note. If you have seen “O.J.: Made in America,” it is indeed the position of the filmmaker – and many interviewed in the documentary – that the verdict in the O.J. trial was absolutely affected by the events laid out in the film. Although the eventual criminal trial verdict was mystifying to many, the film put the trial and verdict in a context that’s often missing from even the best documentaries.

On a side note, I also receive a lot of mail that suggests – some directly, some more obliquely – that ESPN doesn’t produce impactful journalism. For those who believe that to be true, I would urge you to watch “O.J.: Made in America,” which, in my mind, is the finest film in the already impressive 30 for 30 franchise. I’ll address the broader subject of the quality of ESPN’s journalism efforts – and how it promotes its best journalism – in an upcoming column.

“Thanks for fielding our questions! Mine concerns a topic that may not be specifically a journalistic concern, but one that clouds ESPN's journalistic voice. ESPN's use of Outbrain "articles" at the end of their own (on ESPN.com) means I see a steady stream of headlines like "13 female athletes who are only famous for their looks" or "10 gorgeous volleyball players who are still in college." How incredibly degrading. I am a man and I find it very offensive to hear athletes talked about this way. ESPN would not publish articles with such topics, why do they allow ads masquerading as genuine articles to permeate throughout their websites and apps? And is this something ESPN is unwilling to change, despite readers like me considering shifting their daily reading elsewhere?”

For those unaware of what this reader is referring to, it’s the row of paid advertising articles that sits underneath each ESPN.com story, and looks like this:

I get a decent amount of complaints about the Outbrain widget, with the complaints falling into two categories: (1) the sponsored headlines are not sports-related; and (2) they are sometimes inappropriate, such as the examples cited by the reader.

I won’t dwell on the business arrangement, but you’re entitled to know it. Outbrain pays ESPN to place this widget on ESPN digital properties, and third parties buy into the widget to try to grow web traffic and audience. ESPN can (and does) block particularly egregious links or certain subject areas, but the content of the widget still remains a bit unpredictable, even to those inside ESPN headquarters.

I tend to agree that, generally, the Outbrain widget adds very little editorial value for the average ESPN user. And I’m not sure all readers understand that this is sponsored third-party content. ESPN has to accept the fact that anything published in the widget may well be considered ESPN-approved content – and that readers who do not see value in that widget are within their rights to factor that into their overall impressions of ESPN.com.

On the positive side, ESPN does label the widget transparently, as “Sponsored Headlines” rather than as “Related Links,” “Related Content” or “You May Like,” as many sites do when they use Outbrain or Taboola, one of the other major players in the related-links space.

But for those who don’t like Outbrain, here’s the bad news: Based on ESPN.com’s massive traffic, the Outbrain deal surely drives significant revenue for the network. My goal here is to educate because I suspect the Outbrain widget is here to stay.