Fed fast food of opinion, ESPN audience starves for reported fact

Warning: This is perhaps the longest column I will write in this space, and probably the most quixotic.

On Friday night, Sept. 21, during and after the University of Oklahoma/Tulsa football game on ESPN2, I received a fireball of messages calling the game coverage "horrible," "completely disgusting," "utter nonsense," "worst of all time," "ridiculous," "pathetic," "horrific," "crap," and "deplorable" from viewers who claimed to be "shocked and appalled," "damn mad" or "blown away" by announcers who were "fools," "idiots" or "clowns." Why? Because attention was diverted from Oklahoma's eventual 62-21 rout of Tulsa to discuss Notre Dame's disastrous season start for a period of time variously described as 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, the entire second quarter, the whole first half or the whole game. A review of the game on DVD showed a 4-minute discussion of Notre Dame early in the second quarter.

I concluded two things from these messages: (1) Viewers really don't like it, as I have said in this column before, when announcers take their eyes off the ball; (2) a lot of people have learned to express themselves to the media with disproportionate rage, unbridled contempt and questionable respect for facts.

The next day, at his now notorious news conference after the Oklahoma State-Texas Tech football game, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy launched into his extended high-decibel personal attack on a female reporter for The Oklahoman, who had written a front-page piece criticizing a benched quarterback for, among other things, being an injury-averse mama's boy. Gundy called the column and the editor who allowed it to be published "garbage."

For the next week, we saw Gundy's videotaped rage play a dozen times a day on any ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNEWS program for which its repetition could be rationalized. On air, online, in print, at ESPN and elsewhere, commentators dumped on Gundy for going berserk on the reporter. It was not just the squall of the day but the perfect storm for the entire week's opinion cycle, allowing the media to mount personal attacks on the coach for mounting a personal attack on the reporter who had mounted a personal attack on the college quarterback, who, as far as I can tell, was the only one who had enough class to keep quiet.

One might conclude that there is something about the state of Oklahoma or college football, or the combination of the two, that brings out the extremism in people. But from my ombudsman's perch, I see something else. The rage is general all over the land of sport. Fans, not to mention coaches and athletes, are sick and tired of being subjected to a relentless media onslaught of opinion that is simultaneously overheated and half-baked. Unfortunately, in a kind of sports Stockholm syndrome, many of them have learned to imitate the rhetorical belligerence of the media masters they resent.

The instigator of the Friday Night Firestorm in my mailbox was opinion about Notre Dame, inserted into a game fans simply wanted to watch for its own sake. The instigator of Gundy's Saturday rage was an opinion column couching itself as fact. I am not ombudsman for the Oklahoman, but through a week's ridicule of Gundy on ESPN, I never heard or read a clear account of the column that ticked him off. In what was supposed to be a balanced, give-both-sides-of-the-story report on ESPNEWS, I saw the full three-minute, 20-second videotape of Gundy's news conference for the umpteenth time, followed by a videotape of reporter Jenni Carlson's response on "Good Morning America," in which she says, calmly, "I stand firmly on the facts of the column." He looked bad. She looked good.

"What facts?" somebody at ESPN should have asked before ridiculing the coach while giving the columnist a pass. In building her case against the benched quarterback, Carlson introduces her evidence of his no-can-do attitude with these phrases: "If you believe the rumors and the rumblings …", "Tile up the back stories told on the sly over the past few years …", "Word is …" and "Insiders say …". In my book, those are not phrases from the realm of fact; they barely count even as speculation by anonymous sources.

Several commentators faulted Carlson for criticizing an amateur athlete so harshly, and ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski raised questions about the accuracy of her observations. But why did I hear no one at ESPN explicitly note that the column that so enraged Gundy was based on rumors and rumblings and the sayings of "insiders"? Because they want to be allowed to take those same liberties? Because they didn't bother to read the column? Because all that mattered was milking that videotape for a week's worth of commentary? Because the boundaries between fact, opinion and rumor have become so porous that nobody noticed rumor crossing the border with a fake passport?

Those are all genuine questions to which I do not have the answers. Too many people are involved to attribute motivation, which at any rate is a dangerous activity. All I can say for sure is that factuality has been devalued in 24/7 sports media. If you look at the proportion of airtime and cyberspace devoted to reporting fact versus delivering opinion on ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio, it is clear that the main function of sports news is to serve as the molehill on which mountains of opinion are built. We don't have news cycles anymore. We have opinion cycles.

The Patriots' spy game cycle

The fact, as first reported by NFL Insider Chris Mortensen on Sept. 10, was that NFL security had confiscated a camera and videotape from a New England Patriots employee suspected of trying to steal the opposition's signals during the previous day's game against the New York Jets.

Even before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ruled Sept. 13 that the Patriots had indeed violated league rules against the use of video recording devices on the field during games, the mountain of opinion began to build. Analysts, commentators, reporters and guests were asked to weigh in on whether signal taping tarnished the legacy of the Patriots and the glory of their three Super Bowl victories under coach Bill Belichick.

Extremes of opinion varied from Sean Salisbury's "the media is making way too big a deal of it," voiced on both ESPN TV and ESPN Radio, to columnist Gregg Easterbrook's inflammatory piece, prominently played on the front page of ESPN.com, claiming "the situation with the National Football League is a lot worse than people realize" and forecasting the demise not only of Belichick but the entire NFL. "Belichick's head might be necessary to preserve the integrity of the game," Easterbrook concluded.

The amount of opinion was so vast, its range so wide and contradictory, that it was beyond hard for readers and viewers to get their bearings within it. It was clear Belichick had violated a league rule, but what kind of "cheating" did that amount to, what kind of unfair competitive advantage could it bestow? Reporting might have answered that crucial question, but the question was tossed to the realm of opinion. If you search the archives of ESPN.com, if you remember the scores of opinions voiced on dozens of different programs, you are free to conclude: (A) It bestowed no competitive advantage whatsoever; (B) it might have provided the winning edge for those Super Bowls, which would then warrant a Bondsian asterisk in the record books; or (C) nobody knows, but you shouldn't let that stop you from choosing option A or B because having an opinion about it is all that matters.

And feel free to custom design the opinion of your choice out of rumor, speculation and twisted logic, as Tuesday Morning Quarterback Easterbrook did, not once, but twice, in manufacturing extended false analogies between Richard Nixon's Watergate and Bill Belichick's tapegate, as if stonewalling to the press is the same as stonewalling to congressional investigators, as if violating a league rule is the same as violating federal law, as if he didn't promptly hand over to the commissioner all the material that was asked of him and accept his punishment.

Easterbrook is entitled to his opinion, to his logic, to his analogies, however strained I think they are, but what is not OK is cloaking opinion in the camouflage of reporting. In his Sept. 18 piece, "Dark days for NFL," Easterbrook indulges in several speculations about Belichick's spying, couching his imaginings in "perhaps" and "might have beens" and "the rumor mill says," which leads him to suggest "the Patriots' cheating might have been more extensive than so far confirmed." That "so far confirmed" is sneaky, implying there is only a small gap between his imagination and fact. Well, all right, sneaky implications are within bounds for a column. It is when he vaults from speculation to posing this question -- "What else is there about New England cheating that the team or league isn't telling us?" -- that he goes out of bounds. Not what might there be, but what else is there. That's where the line is -- the line between the grammar of speculation and the grammar of implied fact -- and he crossed it.

Ironically, in his next piece, written after commissioner Goodell had demanded not Belichick's head but $500,000 from the coach and a draft pick from the Patriots, Easterbrook accuses NFL spokesman Greg Aiello of trying to pull off a sneaky Nixonian "non-denial denial" by using the verb "is." "There is no such evidence," Aiello had written in response to Easterbrook's asking whether the Patriots' material had shown evidence of Super Bowl cheating. "But wait," Easterbrook writes, "three days earlier, the NFL destroyed the evidence." Because the NFL had shredded the tapes and notes Belichick surrendered, of course they could say there is no such evidence, but maybe there was evidence. This loophole of tense allows Easterbrook to continue speculating about the Patriots' cheating during the Super Bowl.

Asked to explain his attitude toward the use of speculation and rumor, Easterbrook said, "I'm uncomfortable with dropping the barrier about rumor mills about purely private behavior, but in this case, the rumors were relevant to something that was on the league's plate, that was in the sports news. The way I approach it is to ask if there is some reasonable reason to believe the parties involved would be lying to avoid public disclosure, thus forcing people who want to talk to reporters onto the rumor mill.

"I had a reasonable reason to think that the parties involved were trying to keep something off the public record that should be on it. Since I can't get them to answer the questions, I don't know whether they are hiding something or just being weird and evasive. Believe me, I'm working on it, I know some things that are not in that column, but I don't have them on the record yet. I hope to be publishing proof of all those things in great detail."

My attitude is that you get the proof, or at least sources whose reliability you are willing to characterize and vouch for, before you publish. Until then, you keep your rumor-based speculations to yourself.

Coach Gundy screams in rage about published speculation and rumor and gets ridiculed. Coach Belichick keeps his mouth shut about published speculation and rumor and gets labeled Nixonian. It's all grist for the next turning of the opinion mill.

My concern, though, is less for Gundy or Belichick than for viewers and readers who grow fat on the fast food of opinion while starving for reported fact. "ESPN used to be a place where sports news was reported," wrote one of the many readers who complained about the two Easterbrook articles on Belichick. "Now it's just a factory for controversy. I guess in that way it's just a microcosm of America media in general, but that does not make it any less distasteful."

For an informed, albeit personal, perspective on the competitive advantage of taping signals, I recommend a search of the ESPN.com archives for "Advance scouting makes spying unnecessary," by Jeremy Green, director of pro scouting for ESPN's Scouts Inc. (Although it originally was posted as an Insider piece for paid subscribers, ESPN.com has agreed to free it.) I also recommend NFL columnist Mike Sando's piece, "What's legal, what's illegal in NFL spy game."

The McNabb cycle

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb sat for a long, thoughtful interview that aired on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" on Sept. 18. The interview started with questions about what it had been like to grow up in Dolton, Ill., where his family, on moving day, walked into its new home in a previously all-white neighborhood to find it grossly vandalized. It moved on to questions about how he responded to being told repeatedly from a young age that quarterback was not a suitable position for a black athlete.

McNabb's answers were mostly variants on saying he followed his parents' example of quiet, calm persistence. In that context came questions about being a black quarterback in the NFL, and he said, "There's not that many African-American quarterbacks, so we have to do a little bit extra." And of white quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer, he said, "Let me start by saying I love those guys, but they don't get criticized as much as we do."

Even before the interview aired, the opinion cycle swept up the last clause of that last comment, wrenched out of context from an HBO press release, and turned McNabb's commonsense observations into a "controversy," thus arguably proving his point. In a week of stormy news conferences, he was accused of playing "the race card," asked to defend or retract his statements.

Inevitably, the McNabb "controversy" was discussed by ESPN's fleet of analysts, commentators and announcers on opinion shows, news shows and event programming. On "PTI," Michael Wilbon twice tried to put the "controversy" back into context, saying, "He [McNabb] said something he would say a thousand times again, and any black quarterback not 22 years old would say the same thing." But opinion cycles feed on sound bites, and larger contexts are too cumbersome to digest.

ESPN did not create the McNabb controversy, not directly, but it fed on it, and as the Worldwide Leader in Sports, it is the prime mover in setting the agenda for what is talked about in sports and how it is talked about. Through its emphasis on opinion programming, ESPN has contributed enormously to the tendency to frame sports issues and nonissues alike as controversies. Within the constraints of its allotted half-hour, "Outside the Lines" routinely does its best to provide context through reporting, but that's not enough.

The loss for fans is that there is progressively less reason for any athlete to speak thoughtfully, candidly or at length about anything because his or her words, like McNabb's, will only be mined for nuggets of controversy potential.

The Manning mini-cycle

On Sept. 9, Giants quarterback Eli Manning suffered a shoulder injury in the last quarter of the season opener against the Cowboys. The next day on "Monday Night Countdown," Chris Mortensen reported on the severity of the injury, saying, "There are two sides to this story." The Giants and Eli Manning were saying that the injury was minor, a contusion, and that Eli was likely to start the next Sunday. Mortensen's sources, however, said that it was a separated shoulder and that Manning would be out for at least a month. Mortensen stood behind his unnamed sources. ESPN stood behind Mortensen. Manning's medical status became "a controversy" in news stories throughout the week.

Mortensen, a veteran reporter with an impressive track record of being first and being right, had fallen into the opinion trap. Rather than reporting a divergence of medical opinion, which time and further assessment would clarify, Mortensen created a controversy with two sides that required stance taking. To his credit, when Manning was back in the pocket within a week, Mortensen went back on "Monday Night Countdown" to discuss how he had gotten it wrong. ESPN.com acknowledged the mistake forthrightly. Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, issued a memo on how to handle injury reports properly in the future. A lesson was learned or, more exactly, remembered.

There are a lot of prices to pay for opinion-driven sports journalism -- capriciously tarnished reputations and careers, close-mouthed athletes and coaches protecting themselves by letting only the occasional bland cliché slip past their lips, fan rage at the media and, last but not least, the diversion of resources and reward from news reporting, which gradually undermines the very practice of journalism at its best.


With these concerns in mind, I spoke with Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of production, about two new ESPN initiatives -- the launch of "E:60," a weekly prime-time one-hour newsmagazine that will air for the first time Oct. 16, and the recently announced formation of an enterprise unit to coordinate investigative and long-form reporting projects across all ESPN's platforms.

Did this, I asked, represent a course correction?

"It's a refocusing of resources," Williamson said, "but it would be a mischaracterization for anyone to say ESPN feels like they have a journalism problem so now they are going to refocus. I think of it as the next evolution of the brand."

He talked about two previous evolutions.

"One was in the late '80s, when 'SportsCenter' evolved from scores and highlights to a news-gathering operation with reporting," Williamson said. "Then, in the early 2000s, we evolved 'SportsCenter' and news overall to inject debate, informed opinion, the things you have concern over. And I think if you look at our growth -- in terms of households, ratings, digital, radio -- we hit on something there. The challenge for us now is not to say the model we have now will be the model that continues to fuel us for the next two, three, five, 10 years.

"Opinion/debate will always be a key element," Williamson continued, "because it's sports, and I believe at the heart that's what people want and demand. But the question I have now is how dominant is that going to continue to be in driving the business? I don't know the answer to that, to be honest with you."

That puts the burden back on viewers and readers, who can vote with their remotes and clicks. My vote on opinion-driven journalism is in. If anyone thinks the point of this column is that we should all be nicer, that is not it. I hope ESPN hits the issues hard with reporting. Let opinion, however heated, arise from that.