Sometimes in this column, I call out ESPN for journalistic practices or problems unique to it, such as the conflict of interest issues arising from rights ownership and other business ties to the leagues it covers. Other times, I call out ESPN for practices common to its cable news peers, such as bloated coverage of the moment's hot-topic stories and the mad dash from scant information to voluminous opinion. Often, the questions I pose ESPN executives can be, and often are, answered with a version of "That's just the way the 24/7 media is today."
But I am not ombudsman for CNN or Fox News. I am charged with monitoring ESPN, looking at how its coverage affects sports and sports journalism, and in some ways I hold ESPN to a higher standard than its media peers. ESPN is, after all, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports," with a niche dominance that gives it an opportunity to set new standards.
Sean Taylor Coverage: Wait for the facts
When news broke Nov. 26 that Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, 24, was in critical condition after being shot by an intruder in his home, virtually all news outlets chose to follow The Associated Press' lead and include information about his past misdeeds on and off the field as part of the story. The dirty laundry list included a 2005 felony assault charge for brandishing a gun (later reduced to a misdemeanor), a drunk-driving charge (later dismissed), NFL fines for missing a rookie symposium and spitting at an opposing player.
Those incidents, along with his exceptional on-the-field accomplishments for the University of Miami and the Redskins, were part of Taylor's public profile, which was a lower, facts-only profile than many NFL stars enjoy because Taylor actively avoided the media. So, if one didn't know anything else about Taylor, anyone who followed the Redskins knew about his past public troubles -- and after the AP ran its story about the shooting, everyone else did, too. They also knew that Taylor was black.
"I don't know how you could have ignored them," said Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, of the blots on Taylor's public record. "But the directive to shows was to take steps not to link that behavior to this incident."
In ESPN's news reporting about the shooting, on "SportsCenter" and on ESPN.com, that directive was followed and the network presented the facts without interpretation, showing more restraint than much of the mainstream media.
Still, the mere mixture of dry facts -- the shooting, the priors -- was too combustible to contain.
"After the initial AP report, we heard from readers who disliked the straightforward recitation of facts," said Robert King, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com. "These readers viewed the juxtaposition of facts surrounding Taylor's shooting, his football career and his off-the-field episodes, as a de-facto editorial statement that he somehow 'had this coming.' I'm aware of similar dissatisfaction among some fans concerning the choices of video and still images used to depict Sean Taylor on and off the field. Every editorial choice, it seems, became symbolic of a broader mindset.
"Some of this I attribute to the broader news narrative of 2007 in which athletes of color have played starring roles: the murder of Darrent Williams in January, the arrests and suspensions of Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones; the confession of Marion Jones; Barry Bonds; and Michael Vick. In this environment, it's hardly surprising that even the most fact-pure, analysis-free report could earn negative reaction."
From the beginning, though, it was clear that media coverage would not remain fact-pure, analysis-free. In a media world with limitless cyberspace and hours of daily opinion programming to fill, whatever aspect of a story lends itself to provocative stance-taking and speculation will receive disproportionate attention. So, as Taylor lay dying in the hospital from blood loss too extensive to survive, the opinion media began spinning its wheels in a frenzy of race-tinged speculation about how to connect the dots of present and past, of deathbed and rap sheet.
Until the police could provide perpetrators to hold accountable, the question was: To blame or not to blame the victim?
With the notable exception of ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd, ESPN's commentators did better than many in the mainstream media at reining in the impulse to speculate, pontificate and prematurely assign responsibility for Taylor's death. Cowherd, however, trusted his "gut feeling" to guide him to "the truth." His gut told him that Taylor's "history of really, really bad judgment, really really bad judgment" had caught up with him, and even if the emerging reports that Taylor had "cleaned up his act" were true, "Well, yeah, just because you clean the rug doesn't mean you got everything out. Sometimes you've got stains, stuff so deep it never ever leaves."
Most other ESPN commentators seemed to understand that when it comes to race, crime and sports, the last source to be trusted is one's gut, which tends to be lined with bilious stereotypes and prejudices. Some commentators, including Michael Wilbon of "Pardon The Interruption," admitted to not being surprised by the shooting, of suspecting a link to Taylor's past associates or enemies, but they aired their presumptions tentatively, with sadness or anger at the "senseless death" of yet another young black man, not in the gloating, know-it-all voice that many of Cowherd's listeners called "appalling" and "indecent" in their e-mails to me.
On Nov. 28, two days after the shooting, one day after Taylor's death, "Outside the Lines" devoted a segment to a panel discussion on the media's handling of the Taylor story. Dan Le Batard, columnist for The Miami Herald and ESPN The Magazine, voiced his disgust, including self-disgust, at what happens when the media is faced with "a lot of airtime and few facts," saying "We end up cloaking gossip in journalism. We get up on our soapbox and say we're doing journalism. Oh no, we're not. We're speculating. ... What's the girlfriend's role in this? ... And it's not fair."
The simple solution, urged by OTL panelist Shaun Powell of Newsday, was "to wait for the facts." OTL anchor Bob Ley responded to Powell by asking the crucial question: "Can the marketplace allow that, with the hours, the Web pages to fill?" The question implied its own answer, which was made explicit by Le Batard, who said, "That's utopian." The self-criticism was sober, sincere, welcome, but also defeatist in tone.
Thanks less to media restraint than to fast police work, the speculation about Taylor's responsibility for his own violent end came to a quick halt when police arrested four suspects, three of them teenagers, who provided details of an armed burglary gone tragically wrong when they were startled to find Taylor at home. Any links to Taylor's past seem to be by those degrees of separation that can haunt any of us.
The best antidote to a week of speculating about Taylor's life and character was the live telecast of his funeral on ESPNEWS on Monday, Dec. 3. Those who knew and loved Taylor got to speak of him and for him, publicly, directly, unmediated. That was probably the first time some viewers learned that the "girlfriend" of news reports, who huddled under the covers with their 18-month-old daughter while Taylor went to fight off intruders at their bedroom door, was the prep school sweetheart, fiancé and now single mother who had shared her life with Taylor for six years.
If you haven't already, please connect those dots with the ones you gathered here and there from news reports and punditry.
Barry Bonds Indictment: Method behind the madness
About 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, I happened to turn on the television and catch the breaking news of Barry Bonds' indictment on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. ESPN had preempted its regularly scheduled show, PTI, and was launching a "SportsCenter Special: BONDS INDICTED." For that first half hour, I was fully engaged as co-anchors Jay Harris and Chris McKendry presented the details of the indictment and elicited expert analysis in a series of phone interviews that began with Mark Fainaru-Wada -- recently hired by ESPN from the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was half of an investigative team that broke and had owned the BALCO/Bonds steroids scandal for four years -- and ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack, who can always be counted on to translate legal niceties into clear layman's language.
My initial reaction was to be impressed by how quickly and well ESPN had mobilized its resources to handle major breaking news. By the second half-hour, though, when SportsCenter had also been preempted to continue the special, it was becoming clear that quantitatively, there was very little hard news to this story -- about two minutes' worth. The indictment was specific about charges but mum about evidence, so the legal experts, all surprised by the timing of the indictment, could only speculate about why the government was bringing charges now and how it might make its case.
The baseball experts, also caught off guard by the news, could only speculate about how Major League Baseball, the San Francisco Giants, other teams and the Hall of Fame would react to the indictment. Everyone thought everyone else would say that they had to await further legal developments.
Though briefly enlivened by the companion piece of breaking news that the New York Yankees and Alex Rodriguez had agreed, as expected, on the outlines of a new contract, the special had run out of steam. It was past the 90-minute mark. The same analysts were being brought back for the second and third time. Viewers were writing me. "Everyone is saying the same exact thing. What is the point of doing that?" one asked.
Anchor Jay Harris lapsed into an awkward silence while interviewing Buster Olney about Rodriguez and then, looking both sheepish and panicked, said, "I'm trying to think of an excellent question. We have been talking about this for so long ... help me out here." It was one of those rare, honest moments of live television, and I liked Harris the better for it. There really was nothing new to say.
Then came the announcement that ESPN was preempting that night's college football pregame show so it could continue with the special until 9 p.m. ET. I was dumfounded, as I was the next day, when ESPN ran another two-hour special from noon to 2 p.m. on the same subject. I truly did not understand the thinking. The disproportion of it seemed like the news judgment equivalent of Alabama coach Nick Saban's recent, much-roasted comparison of his team's football losses to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.
I asked Doria to explain, and he did, in a way that makes complete sense if you are thinking not primarily of news decisions, as I was, but of programming decisions, as ESPN was.
"First of all," Doria said, "nobody is watching it like you are. Maybe somebody is sitting home saying, 'Boy, I'm really captivated by this' for three hours. I doubt it. But suppose you got home at 8 p.m. and you wanted to hear about this story, and we had on a college football pregame show that you may not be interested in. Yes, it was a lot, but new people kept coming in and the ratings kept rising and holding hour by hour. And the next day, was there anything new that wasn't in the original six hours or whatever it was? Probably not.
"I'm not telling you there was a demand that we had to do this from a news standpoint, but we think it is more interesting than what it is replacing, which from 12 to 2 p.m. on the second day was a one-hour 'SportsCenter' re-air and the 'Best of Mike and Mike.' Better for us to have live TV on a big story than re-airs, and the numbers again bear that out."
I find no fault in that reasoning about programming, if all that matters is how many eyeballs you can draw to your channel over a given period of time. But when you package that programming as a "SportsCenter Special," with the tone and graphic aura of breaking-news gravitas, you run the risk of seeming to have lost all sense of proportion and perspective. And by asking your on-air staff to spin a few nuggets of hard news into several hours of expert analysis, you also force them into the outer ranges of speculation where credibility is at risk.
Pressed to answer questions they had no opportunity to prepare for with reporting, ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips offered up the view that Bonds' indictment would be received with "some sort of satisfaction in Major League Baseball and the commissioner's office"; ESPN legal analyst David Cornwell guessed, wrongly according to later information, that "the other charge of obstruction of justice probably doesn't relate to perjury" and could indicate "they have evidence Barry did something else to hamper the investigation ... up to and including tampering with witnesses"; ESPN.com legal analyst Lester Munson overemphatically declared that at the arraignment several weeks hence, "Barry Bonds will not plead guilty." And those are just a few examples of analysts stretching to speak for others.
For news credibility, I think ESPN should have stopped when it was ahead, updated as news warranted and re-aired the best segments for latecomers.
Les Miles: Reporting the future
On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 1, Louisiana State University's football team was readying itself for the Southeastern Conference title game against Tennessee, a game that would determine whether LSU went on to play for the BCS national championship. Rumors that LSU coach Les Miles might leave to take the coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, had been widely circulating since the day, two weeks earlier, when Michigan coach Lloyd Carr had announced his retirement. To avoid distraction before the title game, all directly concerned parties at LSU and Michigan had reportedly agreed to avoid any job-change maneuvering until the week after the game.
But early that Saturday, on ESPN and ESPNEWS and later ESPN.com, the word was out: "Sources have told ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit that, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Michigan will announce early next week it has reached an agreement with LSU coach Les Miles to be its next head football coach." As Herbstreit's later remarks would make clear, that information came not from "sources," but from a single, anonymous, uncorroborated source. Miles called a short news conference two hours before the game to angrily label the report "misinformation."
Herbstreit stood by his source, despite Miles' continued emphatic assertion that he was staying at LSU, until the ESPN college football analyst finally was forced by circumstances to concede his error the next day. By the end of the week, LSU, the SEC champion, announced that Miles had signed an amended contract that extends his stay at LSU through 2012.
Given an anonymous source, who to judge by repeated on-the-record denials was not Miles, his agent or Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, and given the degree of at least slight doubt implied by "barring any unforeseen circumstances," why did ESPN go with a story that risked affecting outcomes -- the championship game and the job negotiations -- by itself becoming an unforeseen circumstance?
"As to how breaking a story might impact events," Doria said, "unless those events are life-threatening or equally monumental -- we don't consider coaching job negotiations or preparation for a football game in either category -- we wouldn't withhold information."
That is fine, but only if ESPN consistently holds its sports journalism to the same standards applied in good non-sports journalism when using anonymous sources. To my mind, Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback and not an experienced reporter, was less to blame for this ill-founded scoop than the senior College GameDay producers who should have advised him against going on air with such shaky information instead of convincing him it was his journalistic obligation to share with viewers what "a source" had told him.
"Given that no deal is done until an agreement is signed, we could have tempered this one more than it was," Doria said. "In hindsight, we should have said something like, 'A source has told ESPN that Miles and Michigan have agreed on money and length of term, but no contract is signed, and Miles has to go to Michigan for a face-to-face interview with AD Bill Martin.' "
That would have been better, but we have been given no reason to believe it would have been any more true. All we know for sure is that ESPN's reputation as a reliable source of "scoops" has taken another blow. When viewers respond to the phrase "a source has told ESPN" with a "we'll see" attitude, as many who write me say they now do, it undermines the efforts of ESPN's entire staff of producers, editors and reporters.
While working on this column, I happened upon this passage in a book I was reading, and thought the old world of Sicily sounds a lot like the new world of media:
"Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily; a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, squashed, annihilated by imagination and self-interest; shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves onto the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether." -- from "The Leopard," by Giuseppe di Lampedusa