Reflections on ESPN's apologies, actions

The rise of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ Asian-American star, has been one of 2012’s feel-good sports stories. But it’s come with an unwelcome undercurrent: racial references by fans, columnists and TV personalities that have ranged from innocent-but-cringe-worthy to openly offensive.

Last week, ESPN went from the sidelines of this spectacle to center stage, issuing three apologies within 24 hours for “offensive and inappropriate comments” that led to one employee’s dismissal and another’s suspension for 30 days.

The first incident to garner widespread attention involved a headline on ESPN’s mobile website early Saturday morning. As ESPN dealt with the fallout from that mistake, its attention was drawn to another incident, on ESPNEWS on Wednesday night, then to a third on ESPN Radio on Friday night. All three involved the phrase “chink in the armor,” which has no racial connotations in itself but was an unfortunate choice -- to say the least -- when used in discussing Lin’s on-court performance.

After looking into the incidents, The Poynter Review Project sees one as a lapse in judgment by an editor working without a net and the other two as terribly timed slips of the tongue. One of the punishments imposed strikes us as too severe. And we note that the phrase that got ESPN in so much trouble is awfully shopworn and lazy. Whether they can be misinterpreted or not, clichés are signs of a writer or speaker on cruise control – which increases the chance of a crash.

Let’s look at the headline first. According to ESPN, it appeared on the mobile website around 2:30 a.m. Saturday and was taken down about 35 minutes later. The headline linked to a story by Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com about whether the Knicks’ loss to the New Orleans Hornets had exposed weaknesses in Lin’s game.

Anthony Mormile, vice president for mobile content at ESPN, said the Bristol-based editorial team for the mobile sites consists of eight people who usually work two per shift. After 2 a.m., one editor is often catching up on the “back end,” updating content for sports that aren’t in season and taking care of other editorial loose ends. The other editor is generally handling the “front end” of the site, loading up “experience carousels” with headlines, summaries and links to articles. (Because cellphones offer less screen real estate than desktop computers, the mobile editors often write different headlines.)

Mormile said that, on Saturday night, the front-end editor -- 28-year-old Anthony Federico, who had six years of experience on the mobile team -- liked Begley’s column and decided to spotlight it for the mobile site, sensing that the conversation had shifted from the Knicks’ loss to potential holes in Lin’s game. As Mormile noted, Federico “created more work for himself” in doing so, and, by deciding to feature the Lin story on the mobile home page, “in theory, he did absolutely 100 percent the right thing.”

Unfortunately, his choice of headlines unraveled all that. Said Mormile, “Anthony had no concept, no awareness that could be construed as a potentially explosive headline.”

Rob King, senior vice president for editorial, print and digital, said that, as things now stand, the Web and mobile sides of ESPN’s house are technologically different and generally work in parallel, not together. On the Web side, King said, lead content packages and headlines go through a copy desk before they’re pushed live, and a copy editor is always there when a home page editor is working. But the mobile team doesn’t have “that level of oversight … you had one person making a move that a lot of people could see.”

Mormile says the mobile editors generally double-check each other’s work, providing at least an informal safety net. But the other editor on Federico’s shift was busy supporting ESPN’s Bracket Bound app, which is getting a lot of usage in the run-up to March Madness. Federico pushed the headline out himself -- and, when Mormile was alerted a little after 3 a.m., Twitter “was blowing up with people putting up screen shots and condemnations.”

The next morning, ESPN issued a prepared statement saying that “we are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.” Linking to that statement via Twitter, King wrote that “there’s no defense for the indefensible. All we can offer are our apologies, sincere though incalculably inadequate.”

By then, though, ESPN was dealing with another unfortunate use of the phrase: ESPNEWS anchor Max Bretos had used it Wednesday night while interviewing Knicks analyst Walt Frazier. That brought another apology, one also made on the air Saturday. The third use of the phrase in connection with Lin came to light after that: On Friday night, Knicks play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes had said it on ESPN Radio New York.

On Sunday, Federico was dismissed and Bretos suspended for 30 days. (Dedes is employed by MSG Network, which produces the Knicks' radio broadcasts.) John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, said that the two decisions were reached after “a number of conversations” and that, although “the subject matter was the same, we looked at each incident on its own.”

Mormile said Federico “was devastated, but understood” the company’s decision. On Twitter, Bretos apologized, said his comment was “not done with any racial reference,” acknowledged that the phrase had been inappropriate in that context and pledged to “make every effort to avoid something similar happening again.” Asked about Dedes, an MSG spokesman said Monday that “we are evaluating and will have no additional comment at this time.”

One potential factor in the severity of the punishments: Earlier in the week, racial sensitivity regarding the Lin storyline was a topic in the company’s monthly editorial board meeting, and ESPN issued a memo to all its content groups urging staffers to be cognizant of how Lin was discussed -- a directive that was revisited in a Friday staff meeting.

Anyone who had followed other media outlets’ Lin coverage understood the need for caution: MSG had shown a fan-made graphic of Lin emerging from a fortune cookie; the New York Post celebrated a Lin buzzer-beater with the back-page headline “AMASIAN!”; and Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock had apologized for a sophomoric, racially tinged tweet about Lin. Not long after discussing the need to avoid such missteps, however, ESPN had a flurry of its own to deal with.

Mormile praised Federico as “a good, good kid,” and called the mistake “a momentary lapse of judgment that ended up being an egregious error.” Many journalists have been saved by the sharp eyes of others and some luck; sadly, Federico had neither on his side. But, even at mobile speed, a headline writer has time to deliberate, and learning how to step back and assess one’s work is a critical skill. (We reached out to Federico, who didn't want to comment at this time.)

The 30-day suspension of Bretos -- who has been with ESPN for two years -- strikes us as too harsh, though. Looking at the clip of Bretos’ comments, we see no sign he was trying to be snarky or clever, and an on-air reporter must think, listen and talk in real time, with no chance to review his or her words. Flubs and slips of the tongue are a hazard of the trade, and an unfortunate choice of words at the wrong time can be devastating. Reconsidering Bretos’ sentence would neither undermine ESPN's speedy and forthright response to these incidents nor damage its efforts to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again.

One step we would suggest is for ESPN to demand that its writers and on-air talent find richer language and fresher turns of phrase. We’d be happy never to read or hear “chink in the armor” again on ESPN. That has nothing to do with political correctness or the possibility of an innocent phrase being misconstrued. Rather, it’s that the descriptive power of that phrase was leached away by overuse decades ago, and it’s now just clichéd noise -- and a sign of someone on cruise control. (Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless discussed the issue of racial sensitivity and ESPN's missteps on “First Take” on Monday morning.)

Technological help also might be on the way. King said that ESPN is “right in the middle of building a better process” that allows editors to publish to all platforms, which would align the mobile team’s efforts better with those of its Web counterparts and give its employees more of a safety net.

Technological fixes aren’t everything, of course: In its prepared statement, ESPN promised other measures, including self-examination and response to constructive criticism.

“It’s a teaching moment and a learning moment for the entire organization,” Wildhack said. “And that’s what we’re going to use it as.”