Few sports fans would question ESPN's relevance in broadcasting games and providing commentary. However, some of its decisions and slants of coverage would make many first-semester journalism students cringe.
Much has been made of the network's "coverage" of the Mike Leach-Adam James-Craig James-Bruce Feldman saga, and while it remains a mystery to many how Craig James is still employed (and prominently!) by the station, that is another story for another day. Old news, if you will.
Instead I'd like to look at three incidents that took place over the past few weeks that have gotten varying levels of media coverage to date. They have also made me, someone who grew up glued to ESPN and ESPN.com, question yet again the company's impartiality and decision making.
I'm guessing you've heard, by now that Urban Meyer is the new coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. He was hired on Nov. 28, but it was reported as early as Nov. 17 that he had accepted the job. However on Nov. 19 Meyer, who was employed by ESPN as a broadcaster, called the Nebraska-Michigan game. He was slated to call the Ohio State-Michigan game on Nov. 26 until ESPN first decided he would be better in the studio that day, and finally said that he asked off of the assignment.
When asked on the air during the Nov. 19 telecast about his status with Ohio State he said that there was "no truth" to those Ohio State rumors. And nine days later he is their coach.
When you testify in court you are told to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." If Meyer had been in court he would have perjured himself. Maybe he told the truth--but definitely not the whole truth. Doesn't ESPN's on-air talent owe viewers more than that? After all Meyer was broadcasting a game involving two of Ohio State's chief rivals! Why not pull him off the air until the rumors subsided or he (inevitably) took the job?
Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch wrote a column on just this issue, and in it ESPN's programming folks defend their move--which makes this all the more disturbing.
The Longhorn Network
Like seemingly many others, the house at which I had Thanksgiving dinner was not blessed with the NFL Network, so my nightcap was not Ravens-49ers, but instead Texas-Texas A&M.
As many of you may know, earlier this year ESPN launched the Longhorn Network with a 20-year, $300 million deal. The network's main programming is University of Texas sports.
You may see where I'm going with this...
One of the great things ESPN does do for journalistic integrity is it maintains an ombudsman, who is a third-party employed for a finite period of time who is there to objectively evaluate the integrity of ESPN's coverage (we'll just ignore for now that one former ombudsman had allegedly made lots of money from ESPN prior to his employment). Currently ESPN's ombudsman services are being rendered by the Poynter Institute, a highly-respected journalism non-profit.
In October, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute wrote on ESPN.com about the issue of the Longhorn Network and ESPN coverage and came to this conclusion:
Seems awfully disingenuous for the station to pass itself off as an impartial broadcaster of a game when one team winning helps the broadcasting company more than the other.
But actually, on the face I don't have a huge moral objection to ESPN covering Texas games on its family of networks. What did bother me as I watched the UT-A&M game was that ESPN advertised during breaks in the action for University of Texas basketball coverage on the Longhorn Network! While the announcers seemed to remain unbiased in coverage, I can't imagine being a Texas A&M fan watching that. I would think I was stuck watching Hawk Harrelson call a White Sox-Cubs game as a Cubs fan. No wonder A&M bolted for the SEC (but really, the Longhorn Network is why they absconded).
Yeah, I'm opening this can of worms. As you've likely read, former Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine is accused of molesting at least three young boys.
Since 2003 ESPN has had in its possession a tape in which Fine's wife Laurie discusses with one of the victims the abuse he endured. ESPN freely admits having the tape and said it did not reveal the tape until this week because the story could not be corroborated.
There are a few things seriously wrong here.
1. As a graduate of journalism school myself, I understand that journalists don't tend to work with law enforcement, but instead they work parallel to law enforcement. That being said, this was not an investigation into political corruption or campaign finance violations or something like that. This was about child abuse and a predator that was still on the street. ESPN should not have played judge, jury and executioner with vital evidence.
2. ESPN said it couldn't corroborate the story. This statement in and of itself reeks of arrogance. The implication is that if ESPN can't find corroboration, no one can. Is that not what the police are for?
3. ESPN said that it released the tape only after a voice recognition expert matched the voice on the tape to Laurie Fine. This was done after the story was corroborated. Why not try and match the voice eight years ago? By matching the voice to Laurie Fine ESPN would have its corroboration! ESPN's logic was entirely backwards here, and by hiding the tape under a pillow in Bristol, young boys in the Syracuse area were being put in danger.
So what is my conclusion? Would I like to ask some bigwigs at ESPN some questions? Of course, but I don't think they'd want to talk to little old me. Will I continue to rely on ESPN? Yes, I will. But will I continue to be skeptical of what it disseminates? Absolutely... and you should be too.