ESPN journalism: The ups and downs of coloring outside the lines

Over the past six months, I have given repeated support in this column to ESPN's various efforts to enhance its stature as a news organization -- through its creation of a new enterprise reporting unit, its launching of the news magazine show "E:60," its impressive venturing into documentary films, four of which aired on ESPN2 between April 16 and May 13, and the recently detected morphing of "SportsCenter" into a crisper, newsier show.

The team at "Outside the Lines," facing the prospect of losing its lone status as the show any network might be proud of, seems to have responded to that competitive pressure by getting better. It capped a long streak of excellent centerpiece features on Sunday, May 11, by devoting its air time to the results of Kelly Naqi's four-month investigation into allegations of illicit payments to USC freshman basketball star O.J. Mayo by an agent's representative.

It was a breakthrough report, impeccably researched, and it is likely to provoke further inquiry into the too-cozy relationship between NCAA basketball programs and the rogue agents chomping to get an early hold on players expected to reap hefty pro contracts after they reach the NBA-mandated age requirement. The report also helps answer a question that has existed in some minds: Would ESPN's rights contracts with conferences and leagues hamper the enterprise unit from breaking investigative stories jarring to its business partners, as opposed to advancing such stories already broken elsewhere by pursuing new aspects of them? The answer, based on this report, is that the enterprise unit is free to investigate where it sees fit.

All this has been so heartening that I sometimes entertain the giddy hope it heralds the beginning of the end of opinion's dominance at ESPN. In my headier moments, I even imagine a cable universe that realizes the blogosphere provides all the outlets anyone could want for the venting of both informed and uninformed opinion, and that what news organizations can best do is provide information that cannot be found elsewhere, instead of opinion that can be found everywhere.

The walk-off interview

So I take it hard when serious missteps are taken in any of these new endeavors -- as happened in a recent "E:60" profile of Astro shortstop Miguel Tejada, in which he was confronted on air with evidence he had lied for years about his age, a fact "E:60" thought might have an impact on the FBI investigation into whether he lied to federal investigators about steroid use in baseball.

Many viewers also took it hard, objecting not to ESPN's uncovering the lie, but to the way it was exposed in a face-to-face interview, with cameras rolling as Tejada, after being asked to state his age, was presented with a birth certificate from the Dominican Republic proving he was two years older than he had just claimed. "Can't you ...?" asked a flustered Tejada, looking at the camera and making a scissors gesture with his fingers. When the questions kept coming, he disentangled himself from the microphone wires and walked out of the interview.

Viewers who wrote me called the interview "sleazy," "sneaky" and "distasteful."

"Sometimes watching ESPN is like watching two different TV channels -- one a classy, honest and fun sports news network with impeccable integrity, and the other a low-brow FOX-network, trashy, shock-TV program," wrote a viewer from Seattle. "Outing him about his age in the most publicly humiliating fashion possible is beyond any comprehension."

The offense was compounded for many viewers by ESPN's running the clip of that interview on "SportsCenter" five days in advance of its airing on "E:60," making it seem they were exploiting Tejada's humiliation as a tease to draw viewers to "E:60."

Why, I wondered along with these viewers, would ESPN shoot itself in the foot like that, risking the still-fragile reputation of a new program that was billed as a signature journalism show on a par with "Outside the Lines"?

That, in effect, is the question I asked Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news; "E:60" coordinating producer Robert Abbott; and "E:60" reporter Tom Farrey, who as a two-time Emmy winner for earlier reporting on "Outside the Lines," also has a reputation to safeguard.

The Tejada trainwreck

"It certainly wasn't our wish to have Tejada walk out of the interview," Doria said. "We hoped, after seeing the birth certificate, he would explain the background. Tom Farrey's approach in the interview was understated, not confrontational, and done in a manner where I think it was clear he was seeking an explanation."

Doria also said ESPN did not intend to run the interview as a news story on "SportsCenter," but in the week-long interval between E:60's taping of the interview and its scheduled airing, Tejada made his true age public without acknowledging why he was doing so.

"At that point," Doria said, "we thought it was newsworthy to provide the background on what had prompted Tejada to come forth with the information."

The early airing of the interview on "SportsCenter" in turn forced a crucial change in the profile that aired on "E:60" five days later.

"Originally, the Miguel Tejada interview clip was going to appear in the middle of our 11-minute piece," Abbott said. "Once the piece was aired by 'SportsCenter' and picked up by numerous Web sites, the management of E:60 decided to start our piece with the clip and spend the next 10 minutes of the piece providing the context of why it was important."

What aired was a profile that opened with an embarrassed Tejada fleeing the interview room, followed later by footage of the shack without running water that was Tejada's childhood home in the Dominican Republic. We learned that in 1993, when Tejada was 19, he let an agent persuade him to shave two years off his stated age, because without that lie, he would not have received the $2,000 minor league contract with the Oakland A's that beckoned as his best, perhaps only, route out of that shack.

That information made the "gotcha" feel of the opening interview feel even more discordant than it did when seen out of context on "SportsCenter." The end product was a profile so at odds with itself that many viewers were left shaking either their heads or their fists at the screen.

The explanations for why Tejada's aborted interview received more prominent play than was intended make sense, but they do not change the result, which was a train wreck. To my way of thinking, the bump on the track that started the derailment was the opening series of questions that lured Tejada into an on-air lie before he was confronted with the birth certificate. That on-camera humiliation doomed the interview.

What if?

If Tejada had simply been presented with the information, given a chance to regain his composure, perhaps consult with advisors, he might well have resumed the interview and offered ESPN the information he and the Astros provided to The Houston Chronicle two days later. "E:60" might have ended up with a more complete profile and a more intact reputation.

Farrey disagrees.

"I wanted to give him an opportunity to tell the truth," Farrey told me. "I prefaced my questions by saying, 'I have a simple but important and serious question to ask you,' implying I really want you to think about this, don't just give the usual answer. Instead, he threw out the lie.

"If Tejada doesn't get out of the chair and rip off his microphone, there is no big embarrassing TV moment. He just explains. And we thought there was a chance he would do just that."

Bottom line: The interview didn't unfold like that, and producers were left to decide what to do with the footage. The decisions resulted in information wrenched out of context, and in long-form journalism, context is crucial. In this case, we needed context to clarify the extent and significance of Tejada's lie, which would, among other things, allow viewers to judge whether the lie warranted the kind of big embarrassing TV moment it was given.

Where's the context?

In more conventional news magazine shows, an anchor provides context when he introduces a segment. "E:60" has scrapped that introductory convention in favor of the story conference, in which reporters chime in about the story's potential when it is still a work in progress. That device works well enough on simpler stories, but for the Tejada profile, a complex story with uncertain legal ramifications, it proved a liability.

In the meeting, filmed before the the birth certificate was obtained, "E:60" reporters speculated about the possible implications of a possible Tejada age lie: If he lied about his age on immigration documents, perhaps he could be deported, or threatened with deportation by the Justice Department's investigators looking into his steroids testimony. If he lied to the Astros when signing his 6-year, $72 million contract last spring, perhaps he could be sued for fraud.

Those ominous ifs hovered over the profile, implying serious import to Tejada's age lie, but by profile's end, they still hovered as unanswered what ifs.

Two days after walking out on ESPN, Tejada told The Houston Chronicle the correct birth date is listed on his green card and driver's license. "E:60" reported their saying so, but did not confirm it. We still do not know if Tejada lied about his age on any immigration documents or to the Astros. One of the unanswered questions arising from this report is whether or not teams ask to see noncitizens' green cards before they sign them to multimillion dollar contracts?

The viewer is left to wonder -- if Tejada's lie about his age existed only in media guides, long home to scores of such lies -- what was the justification for treating it like a federal offense?

When "E:60: segments, "Outside the Lines" reports or ESPN Film documentaries work, it is because the weaving of individual cases within the larger context of issues that surround them is tight. Several segments in the latest round of "E:60" reports accomplished that. Several did not. It is crucial that E:60's management team place as much emphasis on perspective and thoroughness of reporting as they do on packaging.

The enterprise unit that worked on the "Outside the Lines" report on O.J. Mayo faced the opposite challenge. The density of reporting and research that went into the piece made it difficult to shoehorn so much complicated information into a lucid, compelling TV story. More emphasis was placed on core evidence and its corroboration than on context or dramatic storytelling.

I don't fault that decision, but I recognize the problem ESPN faces in trying to find appropriate TV vehicles for long-form investigative reporting. The problem was partly addressed by the use of ESPN.com for supplementary material. I highly recommend Naqi's online piece as the best way to get a bead on that story.

Too much of what was added initially on ESPN.com, though, was opinion that rushed far ahead of the evidence presented on "Outside the Lines." What I am waiting for is a thorough analysis, based on reporting, about the many effects the one-and-done rule has had on college basketball. Andy Katz started that ball rolling with a solidly reported piece on Tuesday about the impact one-and-done is having on academic standards for athletic programs.

I am also waiting to read a piece about how noncitizen baseball players face a different and more difficult dilemma in dealing with steroid investigations than citizen players do, since either lying to federal authorities or admitting illegal drug use can result in the threat of deportation.

Refining and extending the coordination between ESPN TV and ESPN.com could be the solution to providing more context and tucking in more loose ends than is possible with limited TV air time.