Putting ESPN under a microscope

The old friend I ran into in the elevator at The Washington Post last week had heard ESPN had hired me to be its first ombudsman. He was impressed but curious about why the largest and most prestigious sports television network in the world would hire me for such a job.

"What do you know about television?" he asked.

It was a good question, the answer to which had to be "nothing," except I've had one since 1950, when I was a 10-year-old living in Miami Beach, Fla., and promising my parents I would not watch too much sports on that 12-inch Magnavox TV at the expense of a more normal preteen growth process. It was a promise I did not keep.

So, 55 years before "The Rick" became one of the advertising faces of ESPN -- a one-dimensional, unshaven Neanderthal interested only in sports on television -- I was clearly a Rick in training. But with a face for radio to go along with a weak voice, bypassing the electronic world for print journalism was an easy choice for me.

A five-year jog through the University of Florida's School of Journalism set me up for a newspaper career in sports that has spanned the past 42 years, including a 28-year run as sports editor of The Washington Post from 1975-2003, and continues with a "riveting" Sunday sports column that I write under contract even though I officially retired from the newspaper on the last day of 2003.

A year later, with the column in full swing, attracting an audience newspaper advertisers crave (men over 65, napping at least two hours a day, not interested in moving from their easy chairs or spending a dime) and beginning my third semester teaching sports journalism at the University of Maryland, several ESPN executives asked if I would be interested in becoming the network's first ombudsman.

Hmmm. The definition of ombudsman in Webster's New World Dictionary states: "A deputy: a public official appointed to investigate citizens' complaints." It's a role I know well, after watching more than a dozen ombudsmen (men and women) do the job at The Washington Post in the 33 years I've been associated with the newspaper.

Their tours usually have lasted between two and four years, each of them operating on contracts that give them independence to do their jobs without interference from management. Ombudsmen not only represent the readers, they also point out errors they believe the newspaper has made, as well as stories missed, slights, blunders, examples of bias and poor taste. Ombudsmen also can compliment, congratulate and celebrate. But that's really not the role, as I learned decades ago when the late Richard Harwood, a Post ombudsman with a sharp eye and tongue, came to me with a complaint that there was no coverage of a particular high school tennis tournament.

"But there are so many high school conferences in the area," I explained defensively.

"Bull crap," he replied.

Well, I thought, we won't be trying to soft-sell Mr. Harwood, will we.

The current ombudsman at The Washington Post, Michael Getler, has been my friend for more than 30 years. Our families socialize. But a week or so after he'd begun his tour in 2000, I was the subject of his internal memo and weekly newspaper column, which pointed out a number of what he perceived to be transgressions -- from an unflattering photo of a tennis player, to not recycling box scores in the newspaper two days after the game had been played, to being scooped by The Washington Times on a story we did not think was important.

Of course, I immediately bolted into his office, wearing a hang-dog look of disappointment. "Mike," I said, "What's this?"

He never looked up, his demeanor clearly radiating the view that our personal relationship would not deter him from his job -- trying to make The Washington Post a better newspaper. I hope to carry that spirit and professionalism into my 18-month tour at ESPN, during which I'll be looking at the television and radio networks. I'll be taking Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president, programming and production, at his word when he said in a network press release that he hopes I will be able to "validate and enhance our process while representing our audience."

It's a responsibility I take seriously, especially since there are so few ombudsmen operating in the world of television and radio (I'm told there are some TV sports columnists), and not all news organizations want to be critiqued (the great New York Times has had an ombudsman only for the past several years) from within.

Representing the audience is an important part of this job, and elsewhere in this space you'll find ways to reach me to share your views of how ESPN is performing, to tell me what you like and don't like, and to suggest ideas and issues for me to pursue in my columns, which will appear on this site at least once a month. I also will try to explain how ESPN works and why key personnel and programming decisions are made. I understand the passions involved in being a sports fan, but ask that civility prevail in our exchanges and that lobbying for teams be kept to a minimum.

Some things you should know:

While I'm a big Norman Chad fan, I don't understand the poker phenomenon and probably won't be hanging out with Kid Poker, Phenom, Lady Luck and the Brat. I appreciate the kids in the X Games and like the shoes they wear in The Great Outdoor Games. Also, in my younger days I might have been able to play in the league with the great hot-dog gulper Takeru Kobayashi at Nathan's Famous, but I'll try to accept the fact that the same network that seriously competes in the Edward R. Murrow competition for broadcast excellence also covers eating competitions.

You also should know that my oldest son, Aaron, 35, is the producer of "Around The Horn" and had the opportunity to veto my taking this job for that reason, as did Mark Shapiro. I've told Aaron from his show's inception two years ago, that some of the sportswriters on his panel might want to turn down the volume, but he's ignored my advice, as will many of his colleagues throughout the network. No one has to listen to, or respond to, an ombudsman. I also find myself in the position of critiquing the work of "PTI" stars Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, both of whom worked for me at The Washington Post for nearly 25 years and whose abilities and accomplishments I respect, as well as those of former Post staffers Rachel Nichols and Ric Bucher. But, as they say in Las Vegas, let the chips fall. ...

Down to business

The day (June 29) Texas Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers bullied and assaulted television cameramen David Mammell and Larry Rodriguez in Arlington, Texas, I counted seven replays of the incident within the first five minutes of that night's "SportsCenter." Rogers' actions clearly deserved to be the lead of the show, but you have to wonder if there might have been a measure of overkill that night, and over the next week, a criticism also leveled against the network for its coverage of the brawl in Detroit involving fans and members of the Pacers and Pistons. "That was a concern," said Mark Gross, senior coordinating producer of "SportsCenter." "We spent a lot of time discussing that issue. One factor is that our heavy viewer only watches 'SportsCenter' 12 to 15 minutes, three times a week, so you have to make sure they see it." Still, I thought it was too much, although Rogers' apology the next week was tendered appropriate play.

Another decision I questioned was leading "SportsCenter" July 3 with the NASCAR Pepsi 400 over Venus Williams' surprising victory over Lindsay Davenport for the Wimbledon ladies championship. "SportsCenter" led with Williams, whom no one expected to win, for at least two shows. Though the NASCAR race ended around midnight Saturday and was clearly more timely for the Sunday morning show, significance should have prevailed over timeliness here. The Williams story, in my view, was more important than the NASCAR race for every cycle.

Kudos to reporter Tom Rinaldi and producer Greg Jewell for their series on the death of Beethavean Scottland at the hands of George Khalid Jones. Also, reporter Greg Garber and producer Kory Kozak for their piece on Dartmouth lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein's saying he was gay and the reaction of his teammates. Marlo Klain's reporting on Danica Patrick's efforts on the IRL circuit has been first-rate, as was the Wimbledon broadcast team, despite some complaints from viewers who prefer more traditional commentary. However, some viewers, including me, couldn't quite figure out the juggling between ESPN and NBC and what was taped and what was live and when it actually was raining. ... San Francisco Giants General Manager Brian Sabean was off-base complaining about ESPN assigning a full-time reporter, Pedro Gomez, to cover Barry Bonds. Bonds is baseball's biggest name; his rehab, legal issues and efforts to surpass Henry Aaron's home-run record are worthy of daily coverage. Nor do I agree with St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa's complaint that ESPN was wrong airing the Cardinals-Giants game on Sunday night before the All-Star gathering began in Detroit on Monday. What's so terrible about that?

However, ESPN needs a better method of informing viewers of corrections, particularly when a breaking news story (the reported end of the hockey work stoppage in February and, more recently, Larry Brown to Cleveland) fails to materialize. Also, Philadelphia Flyer Jeremy Roenick had a legitimate beef with ESPN for selectively airing less than two minutes of a 14-minute news conference after a celebrity golf tournament the weekend of June 25. The two-minute clip from Pittsburgh's KDKA shown by ESPN had Roenick highly critical -- including some words bleeped -- of fans critical of him and other players. But in an interview with Dan Patrick on June 28, Roenick said that while he could have chosen his words better, "you [ESPN] took away what I said." ESPN's Vince Doria, vice president/director of news, said Roenick's complaint had some justification, because, "we were remiss in not running the original question asked of Roenick and airing more of his response."

That's enough for now.