Answering questions about Cox interview

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
10:48
AM ET
In college football, the postgame on-field TV interview is too often a crime against journalism; a sycophantic “reporter” asks a star athlete who is impatient to celebrate something such as, “Could you talk about how wonderful you felt at the moment in which all your dreams came true?”

Ombuddies are so disdainful of such cringe-worthy questions that they frequently suggest “firing” the offending sideline interviewer.

Within hours of Jameis Winston leading Florida State to a 45-7 victory over Duke in the recent ACC championship game, a No. 1 ranking and a place in the national championship game, ombuddies were seeking to “fire” ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox despite one of the more appropriate and professional interviews of the season.

Go figure.

Cox was rude, they said. She intruded on Winston’s celebratory moment, they said, and brought the “real world” crashing into sports -- the place they go to briefly forget that the real world exists.

“Just watched Heather Cox embarrass herself and your Network by badgering a 19-year-old after he had just won the ACC Championship,” wrote Bill Griffith of Miami. “Unprofessional would be too kind of a term. Inexcusable would be a better description .”

Steve Snee of Baltimore wrote: “This is just another example of your network trying to be more like TMZ and less about sports.”

To recap: Cox asked the young quarterback about the investigation into an alleged sexual assault of a fellow student almost a year earlier. Two days before the game, it was announced that no charges would be brought against Winston – keeping the QB on the field for the title game, and clearing the way for Winston to win the Heisman Trophy.

ESPN’s coverage of the “Famous Jameis” circus leading up to the Duke game, including a live feed of a news conference and follow-up one-on-one interview with Willie Meggs, Florida state attorney, was suitably restrained. ESPN analysts went out of their way to remind the audience that issues more serious than X’s, O’s and trophies were involved, although they did move right on to the X’s, O’s and trophies after the announcement. ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Jemele Hill offered particularly thoughtful commentary.

The night before the ACC title game and again that Saturday morning, Cox told me, she and the production crew went over the questions she would ask Winston. The plan was to concentrate on the investigation, unless the game was so dramatic and complex it required a debriefing. At that point, despite the national attention, Winston had not submitted to any interviews, in person, online or phone or Twitter, concerning the allegations. The postgame interview would be the first chance any media member would have to ask Winston about the allegations and the decision not to charge him.

According to Cox, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and the school’s sports information staff were given a heads-up on the interview plan and were still amenable to producing Winston. They seemed comfortable with the line of questioning. Had they objected, Cox said, ESPN would have passed on the interview; in effect, ESPN would not allow questions to be dictated.

NO X’s AND O’s, JUST Y’s

As it turned out, the lopsided game required little explication from the winning quarterback. After an opening setup question about getting to the national championship game, Cox asked how Winston had fared as “news of the investigation was sharing headlines with your on-the-field performance." She continued in that open-ended, diplomatic fashion with the somewhat repetitive “What did you learn?” and then asked about the importance of having his coach’s trust.

Winston seemed comfortable, even bubbly, during the interview as he praised the support of school and coach. He was smiling.

“His demeanor made me confident,” Cox said. She was confident enough, she said, to structure the end of the interview while she was conducting it. She planned to bring it back around to a positive finale about the looming Heisman. Her next-to-last question was "Jameis, how come you decided not to talk during the process, and on Thursday?"

As she finished the question, Winston turned toward someone who seemed to be pulling him away -- apparently a Florida State staffer had intervened – and the QB walked off. The interview was over.

Perplexed by the sudden-death ending of the interview, Cox said she later sought out Fisher, with whom she had always had good relations. Fisher said he did not remember agreeing to the line of questioning, according to Cox, but he quickly understood that it had been a minor glitch of communication. The interview was no ambush.

Cox, 43, a former college volleyball star, is an experienced broadcaster who has never seemed to be a “rogue” interrogator. She has stayed steady in the face of coach outrage (see Nick Saban).

ESPN supported Cox through the ensuing criticism. In response to an email inquiry, John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, wrote: “I thought Heather did an excellent job. Given this was the first time Jameis spoke since the announcement, we felt an obligation to ask questions which pertained to the case. We were also up front with FSU athletic communication [department] regarding this matter. The interview also addressed the just completed game. Last, given the game was a blowout, we felt comfortable with the entire body of the interview. In short, I was pleased and support Heather’s work.”

Laurie Orlando, ESPN’s senior vice president for talent development & planning, also supported Cox. No small matter, as Wildhack and Orlando are family TV guardians -- only days before, they had issued a stern joint memo advising ESPN broadcasters to stop using the word “sucks” on air.

TOO CONSIDERATE?

At risk of biting the hand that feeds my mailbag, I was disappointed at the narrow perspective of most of the ombuddies who addressed the issue; they seemed to expect a practiced ESPN broadcaster to act like a fan rather than a newsperson behaving in a considerate manner. Maybe too considerate.

I wonder whether they had been misled by the lack of aggression in the media -- including ESPN -- in pursuing the darker elements of the story. Questions were raised but never resolved about the performance of the Tallahassee Police Department: Had it dragged its feet in the investigation to protect the college football program? What about Winston’s teammates who told a detective that the “sexual event” (as Meggs termed it) was consensual? More light on those elements would have created a jock culture context and an ombuddy feeling closer to mine that Cox’s question might even have been too considerate.

I would make a case that Cox’s questions could justifiably have been more pointed and that the unanswered question about Winston’s prior silence could have been asked sooner. Too bad if he walked off at that point -- nothing of any value would have been lost. Also, his declaration to Cox that “I’ve got to get more mature, I’ve got to get better in everything I do,” demands the kind of analysis mostly reserved for his passing style.

Cox and Florida State will meet again. She is assigned to the Auburn sideline for ESPN’s broadcast of the Jan. 6 BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif. Tom Rinaldi will patrol the Florida State side. Cox said the decision on team assignments was purely a case of “scheduling” because Rinaldi will be covering the Seminoles leading up to the game. Wildhack confirmed as much, writing to me, “There is no other sub plot here.”

If Florida State should win the game, according to current plans, Rinaldi will interview Fisher and Cox will interview the game’s top player. It could be Famous Jameis again, and by then there might be even more unanswered questions. News takes funny bounces.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

Now it’s my turn to ask a few sideline questions. It’s a different kind of football, but the answers are still going to be less than satisfying.

In late November, ESPNFC.com published a soccer story headlined “Inside Doha: Give Qatar a Chance to Shine,” by Phil Ball, a 56-year-old British writer. Here is the opening of the piece, which pretty much lays out the issues.

“DOHA, Qatar -- It's kind of difficult to write about Qatar 2022 at the moment because whatever you say, you'll annoy somebody. The issues are so wide-ranging that if you focus only on the football, you'll be accused of political naivety. If you focus only on the workers' conditions and the alleged corruption of FIFA officials, you'll get the bird from those who want a full analysis of the summer-winter debate. Nevertheless, I'll have a go, given that I just got back from four days in the capital, Doha -- revisiting the country where I lived in 2009 -- as one of a handful of journalists invited on an all-expenses paid trip to see the inner workings.”

By the next day, the story had been removed from the site. The public explanation was in this Nov. 22 tweet from ESPN FC: “Carefully re-evaluated our recent Qatar story and decided to remove it. It did not meet our journalistic standards. We apologize.”

The response to the piece had been quick and negative from media sites and ombuddies alike. This one from Daniel Hodge of Charlotte, N.C., was typical: “He accepted an all-expenses paid trip from Qatar officials to look at preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and then wrote a massive puff piece praising the country while barely acknowledging the documented human rights abuses of construction workers in that country and not touching at all on the medieval laws in place there. Of course, Phil is welcome to his opinion. However, he accepted a free trip and was feted for four days by Qatari bigwigs before publishing a glowing review of the country's preparations on ESPN's wide-reaching platform. To me, this article appears to be a paid-for travel advertisement masquerading as journalism.”

So here are my three sideline questions.

1) Why did ESPN give Ball permission to take the junket?

2) Why did ESPN run the piece – after heavily editing it, writing the headline and inserting the line “as one of a handful of journalists invited on an all-expenses paid trip”?

3) Why is Ball no longer contributing to ESPNFC?

According to Ball’s account, which no one disputes, this report was one of more than 400 he has written for ESPN since 2002 -- mostly blog postings about La Liga, the Spanish pro soccer league. Ball, it should be noted, was at the bottom of the ESPN word chain, a freelancer who writes “at will,” receiving and asking for specific assignments. He was neither an employee nor a contractor, yet was a regular freelance contributor to the beat.

In late October, Ball sent a request to ESPNFC’s UK-based editorial team asking to make an expenses-paid trip to write two pieces on Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. It was a valid story -- Qatar, a natural gas-rich monarchy on a desert peninsula the size of Connecticut, would be the first Muslim nation to host the World Cup, continuing its bid to be a global geopolitical player. The request was approved, and, in late November, Ball filed two pieces much like his blogs -- long and chatty, with asides about his soccer-playing son.

The editors who merged Ball’s two pieces into one did an excellent job of retaining the information and opinions that were important. But Ball objected to an editor’s insertion of the reference to the “all-expenses paid trip” which he felt damaged the piece’s credibility. James Martin, deputy editor for ESPNFC, responded to Ball: “I think it’s important to provide full disclosure on how / why you were there to the reader. You still laid out a very well balanced, and very well written piece. But I always believe it’s best to provide full context to the reader.”

After the story was removed, Martin told Ball -- with direction from his supervisors -- that ESPN would no longer assign him stories. This was confirmed in a later email from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, who told Ball that “at this point” his “freelance contributions to ESPNFC will no longer be required.”

Ball reached out to the ombudsman, sharing his version of events. For most of the 12 years that Ball has written for ESPN.com, the soccer site was called ESPN Soccernet, a holdover from a British soccer news service established in 1996. In 2012, it was rebranded ESPN FC (Football Club) and came directly under Stiegman’s supervision. Although he wouldn’t say it, it seemed to me there was a new sheriff in town.

In a somewhat guarded conversation, Stiegman said that, in taking over the site, he became aware “of practices that were not consistent with ESPN’s U.S. editorial standards.” He attributed that to different customs in reporting in “different markets” and “different cultures.” It sounded to me, although Stiegman would not comment on my speculation, that the soccer site would be operating under somewhat different editorial rules.

So, why did ESPN give Ball permission to take the junket?

The ESPN Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices, which Stiegman was instrumental in writing and disseminating over the past three years, address such potential conflicts of interest as follows: “We should not engage in outside activities or relationships that compromise the credibility or reputation of ESPN, pose a conflict of interest, or a reasonable appearance of such a conflict. We should not accept compensation for any services rendered to entities ESPN regularly covers.”

Stiegman said such all-expense-paid trips for reporters are “not customary or knowingly allowed.” He equated junkets with paying a source for a story, which is also specifically prohibited. “It was clearly a mistake in judgment,” Stiegman said of the approval.

Were the editors disciplined for that error? Stiegman did not provide specifics, but said “They know the mistakes were unacceptable, and this issue was dealt with directly.”

Why did ESPN run Ball’s piece in the first place, including the reference to the all-expenses-paid trip?

“The editor put in the line for the sake of transparency, which is something we always want to stress in our reporting,” Stiegman said. “But in this case, it shouldn’t have even gone that far. Posting the piece was a mistake because, at the minimum, it gave the appearance of conflict of interest. That should have been enough to spike it.”

And why is Ball no longer contributing to ESPNFC?

Stiegman said he considers receiving compensation or significant benefits from a source “a breach of journalistic ethics” and that ESPN’s employee guidelines – for journalists and non-journalists alike – also limit the value of “gifts” provided by outside entities. And, although Ball was not an employee, and ESPN had no contractual obligation, Stiegman said, “Even the appearance of a conflict of interest compromises a reporter’s objectivity -- a fact that can create doubt in readers’ minds and falls short of our editorial standards.”

Having been a sometime freelancer (for ESPN, among other places), I believe freelancers should be able to trust their editors, presumably employees to whom the company does have obligations. I think ESPN needs to be more transparent in this matter. For example, I’d like to know whether Ball was the wrong man for the assignment? Was he was sent only because Qatar was paying for journalists to observe, along with the likes of Shaq and other celebrities, its dog and pony show?

According to Stiegman, the story was an important one for which ESPN would pay expenses, and one it probably will cover more extensively in the future.

At the least, ESPN should reiterate to its staffers the policy on such junkets. In the game of honest journalism, if ESPN isn’t paying, it shouldn’t be playing.

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