ESPN Reflections: The Good, the Bad and the Boo-Yah

The first column in this space 21 months ago listed some of things I hoped to accomplish as ESPN's initial ombudsman: "Represent the viewers/readers; point out errors, stories missed, slights, blunders, examples of bias and poor taste; and compliment, congratulate and celebrate."

Over that span the Worldwide Leader in Sports never left me wanting for something to write.

ESPN's impact, breadth and reach in the sports world -- on television, radio, the Internet and in print with its magazine and book division -- is, of course, huge. The innovative technical skills, ability, intelligence and journalistic efforts of so many ESPN staffers never stopped amazing me. Their work often sets the agenda for sports media around the country and the world.

But, on occasion, those attributes were offset by company decisions and ego-driven actions that ignored and violated basic journalistic standards and ethics, angering many ESPN viewers, listeners and readers. Not to mention the ombudsman.

ESPN's networks draw from a total audience of about 90 million viewers in the U.S., with added millions watching ESPN on ABC, reading ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, and listening to ESPN Radio. The Disney/ESPN partnership also has a stake in the BASS fishing tournament and Arena Football League, as well as providing its own original entertainment company (EOE). All that makes for exciting times when many other media companies are struggling.

In the spirit of an outsider paid to watch ESPN for nearly two years, I'll share some highs and lows that left an impression on me, and perhaps you.

  • ESPN should be proud of reporters such as Bob Ley, Jeremy Schaap, Andy Katz, Tim Kurkjian, Rachel Nichols, Michele Tafoya, Buster Olney, Sal Paolantonio, George Smith, Tom Rinaldi, Mike Fish, Shaun Assael, Chris Mortensen, Jim Gray, Shelley Smith, John Clayton, John Barr, Bob Holtzman, Ric Bucher, Pedro Gomez, Ed Werder and others who subjugate their egos working and breaking news stories. Glib anchors take note: If more ESPN talent performed at the level of the reporting/production team that has been covering the aftermath of Army Ranger Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire, we'd all be better served.

  • ESPN needs to better publicly define its role to its audience regarding its business relationships, including ESPN Books publishing former NBA player John Amaechi's autobiography, "Man in the Middle," and then over-covering on its news outlets; creating a short-lived reality show on EOE featuring Barry Bonds while trying to cover him as a news subject; and providing Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight, another frequent newsmaker, the opportunity for a series on walk-on tryouts. I also have problems with ESPN having a stake in the AFL that seems to have resulted in increased coverage of the league. Same goes for the increased coverage of NASCAR since ESPN landed more races. And do we need ESPN to feature stars such as Carmelo Anthony in ESPN SportsCenter ads, while allegedly covering him? These guys are not family.

  • A nod to ESPN for creating a way to correct errors by asking its audience to submit evidence of mistakes on the "corrections" link on the ESPN Web site. A similar link provides the audience an opportunity to interact with the ombudsman, attracting about 1,000 responses a month.

  • But I wonder why ESPN still doesn't have an independent media reporter -- as many newspapers do -- to cover such stories as Ron Jaworski replacing Joe Theismann in the "Monday Night Football" booth, the dismissal of Harold Reynolds and the departure of Michael Irvin? Such a reporter might have gotten a response from Theismann and his former boothmates, Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser, for the March 26 ESPN.com story, and ESPN TV reports, on Jaworski replacing Theismann.

  • ESPN earns high marks from me on its reporting of racial issues, including coverage of Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears becoming the first African-American coaches to take their NFL teams to the Super Bowl. I also respect the network for trying to attract a more diverse audience -- for example, with ESPN Deportes doing nightly reports on SportsCenter. However, the network might want to go beyond coverage of Latino soccer.

  • I would suggest ESPN.com do more editing of its Page 2 columnists -- some of whom seem to shoot from the hip for the sole purpose of shooting from the hip. In the same vein, ESPN commentators, including some of the network's biggest stars on TV and radio, might be more thoughtful and less outrageous and loud in their opinions. I've always believed just because someone has the title of commentator or columnist, it doesn't mean he or she should not be held to the same journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy as everyone else on the ESPN team. I also wonder why some commentators believe viewers are interested in their political views? Also, ESPN editors should be more careful of their staffers claiming exclusive stories when these stories are not always exclusive.

  • Some surprises: I thought I'd hear more from newsmakers, but aside from football coaches Tommy Tuberville of Auburn and Steve Spurrier of South Carolina, high-profile individuals complaining about ESPN were rare. The NFL did complain last fall about what it perceived to be a one-sided story about concussions in ESPN The Magazine, and the magazine wisely published the NFL's grievances in a letter. Also, the Kansas City Royals were miffed about how ESPN portrayed a dugout disturbance two years ago. Also, I don't agree with ESPN covering some high-profile high school sports events as though they were more than a high school sports events. Nor do I get putting movie stars appearing in Disney films on SportsCenter's "Budweiser Hot Seat" or celebrity appearances on MNF. I also wonder why ESPN allows its talent to do endorsements outside the company?

  • ESPN often does very well on big news stories, such as the impact Hurricane Katrina had in the Gulf Coast region regarding sports and the death of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle in a midtown New York plane crash. However, with time and competitive pressures a factor, the network overreacts to some breaking stories, including the 2005 suspension of Terrell Owens by the Eagles and his so-called "suicide attempt" in Dallas in 2006; Bob Knight tweaking the chin of one of his Texas Tech players this season; and the brawl between the Miami and Florida International college football teams. News executives might consider occasionally slowing down the "on-air" process until more facts become available. They might also want to back off the intensity of ESPN's coverage of Michelle Wie, the Yankees and the Red Sox.

  • Viewers, listeners and readers who want more soccer, hockey, Olympics, horse racing and boxing coverage should be heard. This same audience also deserves to be told when the announcers are not on site of an event they're covering.

  • ESPN analysts and commentators would do well to occasionally reassess their own work -- and how much influence and impact they have on viewers in what they say, how they say it, and how much homework they've done. Viewers hang on every word spoken by Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, Peter Gammons, Lou Holtz, Mark May, Lee Corso, Barry Melrose, Bill Walton, Mike Ditka, Sean Salisbury and many others. I doubt if the pundits on the Sunday morning political news shows generate as much emotion and passion from viewers as these guys.

  • Navigating the choppy waters of trying to critique my own son's work (producer Aaron Solomon's "Around The Horn") and my former Washington Post employees Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon proved tricky at times. But getting ATH panelists to tone down the volume and trying to stop Kornheiser from referring to Queen Elizabeth II as a "babe" and Wilbon from calling his viewers "knuckleheads" proved fruitless. So did having a conversation with Sean Salisbury on how some viewers might misinterpret his inane ramblings, and trying to explain the duties of an ombudsman to a some of the network's biggest stars.

  • What was most rewarding was the response by hundreds and hundreds of E-mailers who appreciated the network creating the position of ombudsman to give them the opportunity to share their views. Most comments were reasonable and civil. I also thought ESPN news executives and producers were generous with their time and showed great patience in dealing with someone who knew so little about their business. My successor, Le Anne Schreiber, takes over in a few days -- armed with all my phone numbers (regrettably, I never called Ditka)and the knowledge so many people care deeply about what she'll be doing for the next two years.

  • Boo-yah!