New-and-improved "SportsCenter" throws ombudsman curveball

In a column last summer, posted in response to the insipid, monthlong Who's Now competition on "SportsCenter," I broached the notion of ESPN's
producing a crisp, clean half-hour evening edition of "SportsCenter," focused on news and highlights, minus cross-promotions, gimmicks and
miscellaneous fluff.

The chorus of amens that I received from readers was one of the year's largest outpourings, exceeded only in volume by the precolumn mail from viewers who felt Who's Now represented the final step in the devolution of "SportsCenter" from must-see to can't-watch TV.

Six months have passed, and I recently noticed something I am hesitant to write about for fear of jinxing it. "SportsCenter" has changed.

While on vacation last month, I recorded 10 day's worth of 9 a.m.
"SportsCenters," beginning Feb. 15, so I could catch up on the sports
news upon my return. I approached the task of review reluctantly,
regarding it as punishment for taking time off. Once I plunged in,
though, I was amazed to find myself enjoying hour after hour of

They were not crisp, clean half-hours, but far more often than not, they
were crisp, clean hours dominated by highlights and news, with remarkably few gimmicks, sponsored segments, cross-promotions or padding
of any kind.

Prominent credit was given to other news sources for breaking stories
when appropriate. Most surprisingly, there were almost no opinion
segments, even after news updates on the kind of off-the-field scandals
that normally become occasions for commentator overkill. Analyst
segments were few and short, usually a single analyst giving a pithy
30-second answer to a single focused question rather than a whole crew
of studio analysts repeating each other for several minutes, or pairs
getting into snarly dogfights for our presumed entertainment.

The time saved went to more highlights of more teams and more sports,
including hockey and NASCAR, as well as to more interviews and reporting.
Relatively speaking, especially compared to my first months in this job
last spring and summer, these "SportsCenters" seemed too good to be true.
Perhaps I had soaked up too much sun on vacation. Perhaps it was some
kind of seasonal fluke.

I checked my mailbag for complaints about "SportsCenter," but the only
steady drumbeat I found for the second half of February was directed at
the month's gimmick, The Greatest Highlight competition, in which
viewers chose "the best all-time highlight" from a tournament-style
bracket of 16. Viewers actually liked the concept, but they wished the
archival footage had been played with the original audio instead of
voice-overs by Chris Berman. As one wise viewer put it, "The original
emotion of the moment is integral to the highlight."

Even those complaints represented progress. Viewers who thought the
Who's Now competition was all wrong thought "SportsCenter" had gotten The
Greatest Highlight competition at least half-right.

After extending my scrutiny of the 9 a.m. "SportsCenter" for another week,
it was time to ask ESPN if the changes I noticed were real, intentional,
a sign of things to come or a temporary aberration. I called senior
coordinating producer Craig Bengtson, who came to ESPN from ABC News in
August 2006 and who in August 2007 was charged with overseeing all
editions of "SportsCenter."

Were the faster, crisper, newsier "SportsCenters" with reduced use of
analysts and shorter sponsored segments a fluke? "No," Bengtson said.
"it is deliberate."

"We are always looking to make segments more concise," Bengtson said,
identifying the "we" as himself; Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating
producer for the 6 p.m. and weekend morning "SportsCenters"; and
Michael Shiffman, coordinating producer for the 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.
editions that are re-aired from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next day.

"We certainly are hitting news stories hard," Bengtson said. "We have cut back on the use
of analysts and try to use them only when it makes sense to use them. We
have also made sponsored segments shorter, sometimes split them in half.
When I first got here, they used to have 5-6 minute sponsored segments.
Now we've cut them into maybe a 2-minute segment in the first half of
the show and a 2-minute or less segment in the second half of the
show. The point in all of this is to have more and shorter segments. And
smarter ones.

"We are also making a concerted effort right now to give anchors a
little more time to develop chemistry and to engage viewers."

A little alarm bell went off at that last point about anchors, but I
focused my next questions on analysts, because more selective use of
them had seemed the key aspect of the changed "SportsCenter" to me, making
other enhancements possible. What was Bengtson's take on the role of analysts?

"My expectation is, if they are the so-called experts, they should tell me something I would
not have thought of on my own," he said. "When we don't get that, it is usually not
their fault. It's the questions we ask them. We need to be smarter with
our questions, and we should only offer analysis when it is needed.
Sports fans are smart. They don't need analysis after every story."

Reassured by that, I asked Bengtson what he meant by giving anchors more

"The shows have not been personality-driven," he said. "In fact,
we often cover up our anchors with video. A viewer can watch an entire
segment sometimes without knowing who is talking to them. So we are
looking to do less of that, and give our anchors opportunities to
display a little more personality on air."

I know many readers of this column will fear, as I do, that more
"personality" will mean more schtick, more imposition of anchor ego onto
the news. Perhaps, though, it will mean anchor teams who have more of a
stake in guiding us reliably though the news, providing context,
perspective and the tone that best matches the content. Bengtson, who spent 12 years of working with the Peter Jennings at
ABC News, surely knows the difference.

"A lot of this is just common sense," Bengtson said of the recent efforts to improve 'SportsCenter.' Yes, and the consistent exercise
of common sense is all that most of those who write me ask of ESPN.

I understand that 1,000 words of praise for "SportsCenter" is going to
make some readers think their ombudsman has jumped the shark. All I can
say is that I still recognize what drives viewers crazy even in the best
of "SportsCenter" months.

I too groaned at the overplay of Yankees owner Hank Steinbrenner's disparaging comments about "Red Sox Nation," taking
it as the opening salvo in the annual hyping of the great East Coast
rivalry. I, too, was appalled at the shameless cross-promotion that is
ESPN The Weekend, especially when athletes were asked to name their
favorite Disney rides. And I don't understand how a sponsored segment
called Coors Light Cold Hard Facts can feature anchors asking analysts
to be fortune tellers on such questions as, "Are you convinced Brett
Favre will stay retired?"

Old School

Once upon a time in journalism, there were reporters who gathered facts
and stuck to them; analysts who drew on their expertise to provide
context and perspective for those facts as objectively and impersonally
as possible; and commentators who after long experience were granted
the privilege of offering their personal opinions on the facts.

There are still viewers and readers who expect ESPN to respect those
categories, and they are extremely frustrated by the blurring of
boundaries, particularly by the infiltration of personal opinion into
reporting and analysis.

This frustration was perfectly expressed in a message I received from
Mike Swanander of Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Who is a journalist on ESPN? Who is a
commentator? Who deserves my trust? Who is who? ... I don't need
anybody's opinion unless I ask for it. If I tune into "PTI," that's me
asking for it. Maybe I'm asking for too much. Am I too old school for the 24-hour news
cycle? Please encourage ESPN to lead the charge and draw the line
between hype, B.S. and news."

The truth is, barring a revolution among consumers of information, those
lines are unlikely to be restored. The question is no longer who is a
reporter, but when is a reporter reporting? When is he analyzing? And when
is he offering personal opinion?

Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, a veteran
of old-school print journalism, says of the blurring, "It's an
occupational hazard. It is out of the bottle now, and the way I have
come to feel about it is, if you don't give reporters a little rein, you
are going to lose out on the special insights they have to offer, and if
you do give them rein, you are going to have some missteps, and you are
going to have to do damage control when that happens. The best you can
hope for is that there is a controllable amount of this."

Outside the enterprise unit, is anyone at ESPN charged with being a
traditional objective reporter? "Right now," Doria said, "that is
primarily our [TV] bureau reporters, like Jeremy Schaap, Rachel Nichols, Ed
Werder, Kelly Naqi. They are the last pure specimens, and sometimes they
are not pure either, but we are trying to keep them that way.

"We have attempted to pass on plenty of traditional journalistic
principles here, but when my generation and yours is gone, I don't know if the discipline is going to exist. The landscape is

I am not quite so fatalistic about the future of the discipline, not
even at ESPN. There are still reporters, analysts, producers and editors
trying their best to establish new boundaries within the changed
landscape. More selective use of analysts at "SportsCenter" is one sign.
A new enterprise unit is another. And although not much prevents an
individual from blurring the lines on air, I am told that if someone
wants to hold the line, those wishes are respected.

T.J. Quinn, one of the new "old school" reporters on ESPN's block, says
that occasionally, especially on radio, he has had to remind an anchor
or host not to ask him for his personal opinion. But, he adds,
"everybody I have dealt with here on every platform has respected my
standards as a reporter. I have never been pressured to blur the line."

Quinn has had to adjust, though, to fewer safeguards on TV.

"At newspapers, we had a rigorous system of vetting information long before
it ever showed up in print," he said. "Here, because it is a live medium, there is
nothing to stop somebody who wanted to venture off and say whatever they
wanted unless they had their own set of standards, or unless it had been
made very clear to them what their role is."

"When you are on a live medium, being asked about your reporting, it's
easy to be drawn to a conclusion. It's a seductive and a natural
direction for a conversation ('So this looks bad for Roger Clemens...'),
and it takes an effort to avoid it. My mantra is 'I don't know what I
don't know,' and I try to remind myself to live by that."

Holding the line is trickier for Buster Olney, who, as an ESPN the
Magazine senior writer and ESPN.com columnist, is called upon to serve as a baseball reporter,
analyst and commentator on all platforms.

"I try to be cognizant all the time to separate the roles," Olney says. "If I am doing a breaking news
story on Major League Baseball and steroids, I step back and try to
carve myself and my opinions out of it entirely. Then there are times
when an anchor will come back and ask what I think, and I will give my
opinion. When I switch caps, I try to preface it with, 'Well, my opinion
is ...' but there are probably some viewers who don't know we just made
the switch from reporter to analyst."

There are certain sensitive topics on which Olney will not give any
opinion -- such as whether or not Roger Clemens is telling the truth
about performance enhancing drugs -- because it might later compromise
him as a reporter. Producers have been asked not to box him in with that

"There is a chance with Clemens that I will be asked to be a pure
news-gatherer," he says, "and it is important to stay out of that

In old-school journalism, staying out of the corner did not just mean
not expressing an opinion, it meant not forming an opinion until all the
facts were in, lest it leak into and color one's reporting. Maintaining
that mental discipline becomes harder when one exercises it in some
situations, but not in others. For Olney, that means no opinions on
Clemens while at the same time writing a baseball blog, of which he
says, "there is probably not a day that goes by that I don't issue five
billion proclamations and opinions."

ESPN analysts drawn from the ranks of former athletes and coaches face
entirely different boundary issues, which are identity issues of sorts.
Are they part of the media or part of their sport, and whose best
interests are they serving when those two conflict?

ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips, a former New York Mets general
manager, says, "There are a lot of people who come into broadcasting
from the sports industry with their foot still halfway into their sport,
thinking they would like to have another job in their sport again, and
they hold back on what they say.

"I don't have that aspiration. Still, as I think back on the
day of the Mitchell report's release, I was defensive for Brian Sabean
and Peter MacGowan, the San Francisco Giants front office people
mentioned in the report, because I have that front office

On a recent "Outside the Lines" report, Phillips seemed to take a giant
step onto the media side of the fence when he acknowledged that, as
general manager of the Mets, he had signed a player whose performance
declined upon joining the team. When Phillips learned the cause was
the player's going off amphetamines, he thought, "Well, dear God, will
somebody please get him back on those? That's the truth, and I say it
with some sense of shame and responsibility."

After that show, Phillips says, "I got a lot of reaction from people at
ESPN, pats on the back, and I wondered if I had opened up too much about

Such disclosure may not be in the best interest of baseball, but it is
essential for an ESPN baseball analyst who is asked to comment on others'
complicity in the steroids era. To me, it seemed Phillips had chosen the
media side of the line, but I also noticed that when asked later in that
same show what baseball management should do now to clean up the game,
he began talking about what "they should do" and then shifted to what
"we should do."

"I wasn't aware of switching from 'they' to 'we,'" Phillips says. "But I
do believe that we as broadcasters are part of the game. We still have
an impact on the game. I don't know whether this crosses the line in
broadcasting or not. I don't know if writers like Buster Olney and Peter
Gammons consider themselves part of the game, but as a GM I always
thought of the media covering the game as part of the game."

I knew what Olney's answer would be, but still I asked him whether he thought he was part of the game.

"No," Olney said. "There is definitely a hard line there for me. I don't think of myself as part of
the institution of baseball."

Quinn, Olney, Phillips -- all drawing different lines or trying to locate
them within the shifting landscape of journalism. Old-school straight
lines may have toppled to the ground like a pile of overlapping pick-up
sticks, but I think ESPN should make sure all its reporters, analysts,
producers and editors know where the old lines are so they can recognize
when it is in everyone's best interest to pick them up again.