Ombudsman: Ombudsman

Winning ugly: ESPN journalism prevails

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
11:43
AM ET
By the end of the show, after all the questioning, the carping and the confusion over credits, it was clear that serious journalism had won. ESPN could be proud of its contributions to the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

However, questions remained unanswered about both ESPN and the NFL.

Exactly how much did the league know about the dangers of head trauma and when did it know? How much was actively concealed by, among other tactics, the attempted subversion of scientific inquiry? Just how was that settlement with players arrived at and how will the plaintiffs ultimately be affected?

More pertinently for the ombudsman, will ESPN’s powerhouse investigative unit go after those stories? Why didn’t it produce such a documentary in the first place? How far can ESPN go reporting on the NFL, the network’s most important sports partner? What will be the ultimate fate of “Outside the Lines,” ESPN’s most prestigious TV outlet for journalism, after its Sunday show was demoted to a lesser time slot on a lesser channel? OTL was home for much of the network’s concussion coverage.

Outside the network, the Ombud mailbag throbbed with concern as well. Correspondents praised “League of Denial” while attacking ESPN for taking its name off the show, ending a 15-month relationship with PBS. Jay McMillian of Goose Creek, S.C., charged that “ESPN basically took a dive at the behest of the NFL. Stick to showing games at this point because now your journalistic integrity is somewhere between TMZ and Mad Magazine.”

From the spring of 2012 until this past August, journalists from ESPN and Frontline worked in collaboration on the concussion story which was, in the words of one of the ESPN reporters involved, about the NFL’s “disservice” to players, parents and fans by “burying” information critical to public health. The collaboration produced nine TV and digital stories as it worked toward a two-hour documentary that aired Oct. 8.

Seven weeks before air, ESPN president John Skipper decided to remove the network’s name and logo from the PBS project. The New York Times reported at the time that ESPN had been pressured by the NFL, which Skipper denied. He said it was because ESPN did not have final editorial control, which he said he learned belatedly.

ESPN distanced itself from a documentary highly critical of the NFL just when the league didn’t need any more bad publicity. It was moving toward the trial of a reported $2 billion class-action suit representing more than 4,500 former players who claimed they sustained brain damage from playing pro football.

The league, one might assume, did not want fans, football moms and a prospective jury pool watching a show that could damage its case. In the documentary, the league was going to be charged with using its own doctors to disparage mounting evidence that head traumas in games and practices led to early dementia, Alzheimer’s and ALS, among other catastrophes. The show would portray the heartbreaking travails of revered football heroes such as Hall of Fame Pittsburgh center Mike Webster, who descended into madness, and former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself. A congresswoman compared the NFL to big tobacco in its refusal to acknowledge the dangers of its product.

It would be bad enough for the NFL that the respected PBS logo would be on the show. But the ESPN imprimatur, presumably, would give the damning accusations a seal of sports world approval, not to mention a far larger audience.

The reaction to ESPN’s debranding was mostly negative. The network was accused by the media -- and even by some inside ESPN -- of knuckling under to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Skipper has shown himself to be supportive of solid journalism as well as of Disney shareholders, but he and Goodell have a serious collaboration of their own, with billions at stake. Skipper’s job, among other tricky matters, is balancing ESPN’s built-in conflict between serious journalism and programming, which includes the demands of business partners.

At the time, Skipper told me that his decision came after seeing the Frontline trailer for the show, which had been OK’d by senior news producers. Skipper screened it and found it “sensational.” He particularly objected to its tagline -- “Get ready to change the way you see the game” -- and to the final sound bite, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, Dr. McKee said, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper told me he found that comment to be “over the top.”

And then the game suddenly changed. On Aug. 29, the NFL announced a $765 million settlement to be divided not only among the 4,500 named plaintiffs, but among some 18,000 former players or their surviving family members. A portion of the amount would be paid out over 20 years. They would be awarded specified amounts for different maladies. At least for now, there would be no trial, no legal exposure of possible wrongdoing by the new national pastime.

The media and fan consensus was that the league had won by playing on the desperation of the plaintiffs, many of whom were seriously ill and burdened by health care debt. The NFL, a tax-exempt corporation that drew an estimated $9.5 billion in revenue last year, would not be thrown into default. And the league’s critics would lose the platform of a trial.

At around the same time, it was learned that OTL’s regular Sunday show at 9 a.m. on ESPN’s prime channel would be bumped down to 8 a.m. on ESPN2. Its replacement was a new football show hosted by Colin Cowherd. The OTL time change, according to ESPN executives, had been long planned, but the mood among some disheartened journalists was that the network was trying to keep the NFL happy (especially as the Sunday OTL audience dropped by more than 50 percent from August to September).

THE VICTORY LAP

And yet the documentary “League of Denial” was still on track, without the ESPN imprimatur but featuring lead reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who work for ESPN, and Peter Keating of ESPN The Magazine, who had been on the story for a decade.

To the surprise of some, during the week leading up to the Oct. 8 debut of the Frontline show, “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines” and “Olbermann,” as well as various ESPN radio programs and ESPN.com, promoted the documentary and the Fainaru brothers’ simultaneous book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” Strong, extended clips from the documentary were shown. An excerpt from the book appeared in ESPN The Magazine and was the top story on ESPN.com. This all clearly happened with Skipper’s support.

"I have every confidence in Mark and Steve and take pride in the work they have done," Skipper told me last week. "That is confirmed by our continuing to feature their reporting on OTL and online, as well as their appearances across a number of ESPN shows discussing their book and the PBS documentary. I was kept aware of the coverage and fully in support."

Cynics claimed ESPN’s promotion of the book and documentary were merely attempts to salvage its journalistic integrity. Whatever the motive, it buoyed internal journalistic spirits and drummed up interest in the book and show.

There was also some smart accompanying journalism. Don Van Natta Jr. recapped the book’s myriad findings on ESPN.com, and Tania Ganguli, one of nearly two dozen reporters recently added to ESPN’s NFL Nation staff, interviewed players on the team she covers, the Houston Texans. One of them, Ed Reed, a 12-year veteran, told her that “the business of football is shady.” Another, Arian Foster, said, “It is what it is. It’s not good for you. That’s the risk I take to provide for my family.” That was hardly NFL puffery.

In the ESPN churn cycle, Ganguli’s piece became the subject for discussion with other players and Skip Bayless on “First Take.” Scott Van Pelt, in his signature “One Big Thing” essay on the “SVP and Russillo” show, called the documentary “haunting.” But he thought it would have little impact, especially among NFL players. Former players now working as analysts for ESPN told him, he said, that they still would have played; they knew they weren’t getting into “a pillow fight.”

The Frontline show itself was a triumph -- compelling and beautifully crafted. The NFL’s silence -- it had refused to have an official presence on the show after stonewalling the Fainarus and other reporters for months -- was very loud. Credit was given to Alan Schwarz, the New York Times reporter whose relentless coverage alerted a national audience to the issue several years ago.

As much as Bob Ley, the longtime host of OTL, liked the Frontline piece, he found the moment “bittersweet” because ESPN’s name wasn’t on it. He said, “The main points were all from original OTL reporting. We’ve been on the story for a decade.”

The PBS ombudsman, the distinguished journalist Michael Getler, said, “ESPN came off well. The Fainarus and Keating upheld journalism.”

“League of Denial” was also a ratings success. According to Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of Frontline, it drew 2.2 million viewers. The program averages approximately 1.5 million viewers. And Frontline’s web traffic, which includes streaming video, broke the site’s record by 64 percent.

The controversy worked out well for Frontline, Aronson-Rath told me, although she regretted the disrupted collaboration. “It was a great think tank. [ESPN news executives] Vince Doria and Dwayne Bray and the ESPN team made it as good a collaboration for us as with The New York Times or ProPublica.” (The latter is a six-year-old independent nonprofit newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism with what it calls “moral force.”)

Some ESPN journalists, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were thrilled by the results of ESPN’s participation in the project, but felt a certain foreboding, even “weirdness.” Despite recent pep talks by newsroom leaders, they wondered about the future of investigative journalism on a network in which pro football is a 12-month sport and a football talk show prompted the Sunday time slot switch for OTL.

Ley also worries about “concussion fatigue” among the audience even as the topic takes on a greater importance. Scientific studies seem to indicate that the “insults” to the brain that begin in childhood football and gather impact through high school and college may be the starting points for the ravages in the brains of the Websters and Seaus. These are OTL-style stories.

“We’ve been working unfettered,” said Ley. “No one has tried to dial us back. We’ve got a piece coming up on college concussions. We’ve been assured, but we’ll watch the action.”

The Ombudsman and the Ombuddies will be watching to see what happens, too. Clara Showalter of Austin, Texas, wrote: “THIS is what I loved about ESPN. I loved ESPN that put out well done, hard hitting investigative reports. I'm blown away by the quality of Mark and Steve's work and can't help but ask ... ESPN, why did you take your name off this?”

Maybe a more important question is why didn’t ESPN do this show by itself in the first place? The short answer is that ESPN hasn’t done it before. Here’s the long answer, from Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news.

“The majority of documentaries here are done by ESPN Films, i.e. the 30-for-30 project,” he said. “By and large they are terrific story-telling vehicles, but they are director-driven films, not typically executed by investigative reporters, nor do they purport to be investigative in nature. On the news side, we’ve taken the approach that we will execute stories in a report-the-news-as-we-learn-it approach, hence the notion of doing lengthy pieces, 10-14 minutes, as the reporting occurs, rather than gather string for a one-hour or two-hour show.

“Much of the reporting in the documentary had appeared in shorter form on our air. Doesn’t mean that at times we couldn’t do those as-they-occur reports, and then compile them eventually in a documentary. But, in this case, Frontline came to us with the idea ... No more complicated than that.”

Actually, just a little more complicated. Here’s a quick recap of how the collaboration came about.

After reporting several concussion pieces for ESPN and contracting for a book on the subject, the Fainarus were asked by Phil Bennett, then managing editor of Frontline, to work on a documentary. Bennett had been an editor of Steve Fainaru’s at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. Doria and Bray gave the brothers permission to proceed, so long as they brought any breaking stories to ESPN, according to all involved. The ESPN supervisors eventually discussed more involvement, quickly agreed to by Aronson-Rath. There would be a book leave for the Fainarus, who would be paid by Frontline for the show. When I suggested to several involved that this sounded slightly seat of the pants, they sheepishly agreed; journalistic enthusiasm was way ahead of partnership paperwork.

There was plenty of enthusiasm. The Fainarus were relentless on the story (I recommend their book as well as the doc) in that outraged spirit common to cops and investigative reporters. They are not reformers. They are hard-core football fans. Mark told Jeremy Schaap, guest-hosting on “Olbermann,” that, “football is a brutal, violent sport. We know that and love it about the sport.”

Older brother Steve, who played high school football, agreed. “We love football,” he said. “The NFL did a disservice by trying to bury this information for so long because people -- especially players and parents -- need information to make informed decisions. But at the NFL level we don't want it to change. I like it raw and brutal."

They both felt that in youth and high school football, where the athletes are not grown men paid to absorb punishment, as many measures as possible should be taken to protect them. Given ESPN’s interest in youth sports, a start might be to “gather string” for a long-form documentary on the passions and pitfalls of the new world of high school football, money, concussions and all.

ESPN, in this triumphant yet bittersweet moment, has something to prove, and the means to prove it. It can continue to turn loose the Fainarus and Keating and Van Natta, and its stable of hard-nosed reporters such as T.J. Quinn, Tom Farrey, Mike Fish and Shaun Assael. There is no end of stories out there, not least the ramifications of the settlement and the sequestered information that the ESPN audience needs as parents, players and fans, to make their emotional, physical and moral choices.

Ultimately, the proof in journalism is not in good intentions or future promises. As in sports, it’s the current score. Despite what at times seemed like sloppiness or naivete or compromise, ESPN journalism won. It may have won ugly, but it won.

So what if ESPN refused to use the R-word?

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
4:25
PM ET
Let’s talk about the R-word.

Monday night, on ESPN, the Washington franchise of the National Football League will open its season. The broadcasters will call the team by its 80-year-old nickname in an offhand way they would never use in public with the more recognized racial slur that has come to be referred to as the N-word.

We’ll get to that one later when we review the contrasting ways in which ESPN covered incidents involving a current NFL player, Riley Cooper, who used the N-word in public, and a former player, Hugh Douglas, who lost his job at ESPN in the wake of a more complex situation.

Because the Washington franchise of the NFL has a hot quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and Super Bowl dreams, it will get increased scrutiny this season. This will likely include continued attempts by commentators, civil rights groups and even members of Congress to persuade it to change its nickname. The current owner, Daniel Snyder, has said: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps.”

He was probably not amused when a local alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, began calling his team “the Pigskins.” Or when Slate, The New Republic and Mother Jones also announced they would no longer refer to the team with what is considered by many to be a Native American slur. These are obviously not hard-core sports publications, and one suspects their readerships were predisposed to such action.

Of more concern to Snyder, perhaps, was the announcement by a writer for TheMMQB.com, the new website of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, that this major source of pro football information was also considering banning the name. King has yet to officially confirm, but his column on Griffin posted Thursday referred to the team only as Washington.

Jeff Bercovici of Forbes.com, in reporting this week that The Associated Press and The New York Times have no plans to ban the nickname, notes that "it would take a broad-based boycott that included at least some of the biggest American media outlets [to prompt change]. Don’t expect the television networks, all of whom have to deal with the league as a corporate partner, to lead the charge, either."

A similar point of view has been offered on ESPN’s airwaves. After acknowledging that "the will of the people in Washington is strong for the Redskins" last week on "Pardon the Interruption," ESPN's Tony Kornheiser suggested media companies could be catalysts. "I don't think writers and bloggers and websites can make this happen," he said, "I do think television networks can make this happen. ... To pick two: If ESPN and Fox said 'We're not going to use Redskins anymore' and the NFL tacitly went along with that and didn't say anything, that would put pressure on CBS and NBC. I think it has to come from the larger institutions."

So what if ESPN refused to use the R-word?

That quixotic thought has been bubbling for a while in ESPN’s 150-person Stats & Information Group, where vice presidents Edmundo Macedo and Noel Nash collected information on the history of the team and opposition toward the name and then distributed it to network news managers. It was the start of a campaign to have ESPN stop using the name. Macedo told me that he thought the chances of actually succeeding were currently slim and none, but that it was worth the effort to get people thinking about it.

“Think about the name,” he wrote to me in an email. “Think about the stereotypical connotations around color. We would not accept anything similar as a team nickname if it were associated with any other ethnicity or any other race.

“Over the years, the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became using it. I’m not sure other Americans have stopped to hear the voices of Native Americans. I can only imagine how painful it must be to hear or see that word over and over, referenced so casually every day.”

Imagination becomes reality on the website of Indian Country Today a leading location for Native American news. The “pejorative” name is extensively examined, including coverage of a federal trademark lawsuit against the NFL team and of a congressional call for renaming.

NAME CHANGER, GAME CHANGER

Within ESPN, there were three main responses to Macedo’s recommendation, providing interesting insights into the thinking and workings of the network.

1) ESPN should be covering the news, not making it. Fair enough. The action Macedo proposed would be newsworthy enough to make ESPN a player in a controversy. We’ve been through this before in ESPN’s coverage of NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out. In one case, on “Outside the Lines,” instead of an in-depth look at the implications of Collins’ action, we got a debate on the varieties of religious experience.

But the argument to keep using the R-word for journalistic reasons alone runs up against ESPN’s role as a purveyor of commercial entertainment, which is then covered by ESPN’s news side. I have retired the routine use of the phrase “conflict of interest” when it comes to ESPN – it’s simply inadequate to the nuances of the, um, conflicts of interest. See The New York Times’ recent series on how ESPN creates bowl games it can then air and promotes leagues, teams, athletes for its own commercial purposes.

2) ESPN should consider how the consequences of an "adversarial environment" could limit "access" in covering the team. This is a solid practical point. Snyder would clearly not be happy at such a slap in his face and might make it more difficult for ESPN reporters to cover the team and its star quarterback, whose profile is so high he is known merely by what looks like a model number -- RG3. It could put ESPN at a journalistic disadvantage in the current frenetic competition among newsslingers for shards of information, not to mention interviews and documentaries such as “The Will to Win,” a one-hour film about Griffin that aired on ESPN, co-produced by NFL Films and offered up by Gatorade Productions. ‘Nuff said. Refer to my non-use of “conflict of interest.”

3) A gesture as aggressive as attacking a famous, long-standing team is antithetical to the ESPN business model. Snyder is a business associate (his Washington radio station is an ESPN affiliate), and the NFL is an important partner. ESPN is a major media corporation with a parent company (Disney) and shareholders. I am still in the early process of exploring the depths and facets of ESPN, but one thing is clear -- it is an entertainment company trying to maintain a vigorous journalistic presence. This is no simple matter. This so-called “bifurcation” -- business side and journalism side -- requires respect and mindfulness.

“I’m from the D.C. area and a fan all my life,” says Rob King, senior vice president of content for ESPN print and digital media, “and I’ve thought about the Generals and the Statesmen as names, even George Washington replacing the Indian on the logo.

“At ESPN, the only thing that really matters is serving fans. NFL fans think of the Washington, D.C.-area franchise as the Redskins. So that informs how we'll serve them across news, commentary, scores and fantasy coverage. We will use the term Redskins so long as fans expect this to be the nomenclature that drives their rooting experience.

“So hail to 'em.”

The most sensible ongoing strategy I’ve heard is from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, who said: “To simply ignore the nickname in our coverage seems like nothing more than grandstanding. We can use the name of the team, but our best service to fans is to report the hell out of the story, draw attention to the issue and cover all aspects of the controversy.”

Macedo said he wanted to “generate greater long-term discussion and awareness.” The discussion waxes on, within the content group, and on ESPN shows. “OTL” plans a piece on the issue in mid-September. There have been a number of pieces on ESPN’s platforms that were critical of the nickname. For example, Grantland recently ran a strong open letter to Snyder by Dave Zirin.

I liked a piece by ESPN.com reporter Dan Graziano that covered the story superbly and included this fine paragraph: “The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago -- the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place.

“The word ‘Redskin’ has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team. Simple as that, and it has nothing to do with tradition or fan pride or whether anyone's still offended by the name today.

“If the word has ever been used to ridicule or belittle human beings on the grounds of race, what's the good reason to keep it alive in a glorifying context? Changing it would harm literally no one. It would be an act with no motive but basic human courtesy.”

AND YET ANOTHER WORD

I started thinking seriously about the R-word some 30 years ago while covering lacrosse on Iroquois reservations. I have an even older personal relationship with the N-word.

In 1964, the black comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory published his autobiography with this dedication: “Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

What a pipe dream that was. Nearly 50 years later, the book (which I co-wrote) is still in print and has sold more than a million copies, yet its title is as virulent as ever. If the word didn’t pack such a vicious punch, Riley Cooper, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, would not have reached for it in a moment of anger in late July … and Hugh Douglas, a former Eagles lineman who was working as an ESPN co-host, might not have been accused -- apparently incorrectly -- of using it in an incident with a colleague.

My correspondents, the ombuddies, have criticized the disparity in ESPN’s coverage of the two incidents. Here are two typical messages:

• Joe Smith of Baltimore wrote: “After a week of wall-to-wall coverage of Riley Cooper, I haven't heard or seen anything on ESPN about one if its own.”

• Arusha Stanislaus of Rockville, Md., wrote: “This is another example of a 'holier than thou' hypocrisy that I have been seeing for a long time. If an athlete gets stopped for speeding, its 'breaking news', but internal embarrassments are not? Not a good standard sir.”

The incidents were very different. Cooper, who is white, was frustrated by a black security guard who blocked his access at a concert – and was videotaped using the slur. With witnesses and pictures, it was an easy story to cover and chew on, which ESPN did incessantly, although sometimes interestingly. Skip Bayless, who is white, thought Cooper should be cut immediately for using the N-word. Stephen A. Smith, who is black, thought Cooper’s teammates, particularly the black ones, should decide whether his future contributions to winning were worth forgiving him. (Cooper is currently on the Eagles’ 53-man roster.)

The Douglas incident occurred during the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual conference, at a get-together to raise money for the group’s Sports Task Force Scholarship Fund.

A member of NABJ called me right after the incident, embarrassed and outraged. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the organization. A day later, in an email, he wrote: “One of the attractions the Sports Task Force uses to lure attendees is the presence of ESPN on-air talent. The sports people advertise the ESPN media stars expected to be there. In other words, come to the NABJ scholarship party and you can meet Stephen A. Smith. Jemele Hill, Hugh Douglas, Michael Smith, J.A. Adande, Jay Harris, Stan Verrett, Jalen Rose, Stuart Scott, etc, etc. The scholarship party is open to more than just sports journalists; NABJ people in news departments, features, entertainment, business, Internet, etc., are all welcome.” ‘

Douglas reportedly interrupted a presentation to rant at his “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith. Both men are black. Although early reports claimed use of the N-word, there has been no audio or video, and witnesses, as well as Douglas and Smith, said the word was not used. Some reports indicated that Douglas used another pejorative toward Smith.

ESPN originally acknowledged it was looking into “a disagreement between Hugh Douglas and Michael Smith” and then more than a week later said in a statement referring to Douglas: “He no longer works for us effective today.”

The NABJ incident seemed at least as important as a wide receiver’s outburst. Douglas and Smith were representing a network that offers news and commentary; don’t fans have a right to know as much about them as about a 25-year-old backup player caught in what seems to have been a moment of alcohol-fueled frustration? An airing out of why corporate decisions were made in the NABJ case was in order – or at least some discussion by the likes of Skip and Stephen A.

So just why was there little or no coverage or commentary about Douglas on ESPN? When I asked Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, if it could be attributed to the network’s longtime avoidance of media coverage (including itself), he said, “Yes, we generally have avoided covering our personnel matters. With higher-profile talent, we have made exceptions when we felt the story has resonated at a certain level. While the Riley Cooper story brought some attention to the Douglas story because of some perceived similarities, we didn't feel it merited coverage in ‘SportsCenter.’”

I disagree. The media’s role is a critical and ongoing aspect of sports coverage. Whether it’s the media’s choices of coverage (Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow, as well as teams and games the various outlets favor), its opinions (most proclaimed the NFL the winner in the recent concussions settlement) or its business decisions (getting into bed with a soccer league or creating a channel for a college football conference), the media shapes the audience’s perception. Sometimes we need to know as much about the media as we do about the sports it covers if we want to fully understand the sports.

I think ESPN’s formal editorial guidelines for “dealing with ESPN or other media in the news” might sometimes act as a deterrent to the kind of journalism allowed in its other sports coverage. Regard this: “Finally, we insist that communication take place prior to any public discussion in any ESPN medium. We ask that you let the top person in your department know what you plan to do. Engage in a dialogue over the topic and the format and come to a resolution to accomplish everyone’s goals.”

This gives us another reason to welcome the return of the talent once known at ESPN as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Keith Olbermann opened the debut broadcast of his ESPN2 show on Aug. 26 with a bravura tirade on useless, meaningless and pervasive journalistic churn. In this case, he blistered the New York Daily News writer who used his own tweet about the New York Jets’ coach and quarterback as the source for his next story, which led to more commentary by himself and others.

Raged Olbermann: “Reporting is dead; long live making something out of nothing.”

He followed that up at the end of the week with more than seven minutes of contained fury -- illustrating a CBSSports.com column that dismissed the NFL players' concussion suit as an unjustified "money grab" with a series of clips of the broken men who had played the game.

In execution, both Olbermann segments were vintage, but in content they were even better, especially if they herald a welcome push for ESPN toward pertinent, timely, sharp media criticism.

Was ESPN sloppy, naive or compromised?

August, 25, 2013
8/25/13
1:13
PM ET
So what’s more damaging to a corporate image: to be considered sloppy, na´ve or compromised? Or all three? You get to pick in the wake of ESPN’s announcement Thursday that it was removing its brand from an upcoming two-part documentary by PBS’s “Frontline” that “reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries” (or so it claims in a controversial trailer).

The ESPN action drew immediate media and mailbag accusations that the NFL had pressured the network into severing ties to the PBS films. I thought the best and briefest characterization came from Ombuddy Philip Berenbroick of Arlington, Va., who saw ESPN’s decision as an example of “the dueling journalism and profit motives [via protecting valued partners] at the network.”

It’s hard to argue with that depiction. That duel also turns out to be the major ongoing conflict that the ombudsman deals with. This column is a first response to the current issue; there may be more columns to come as we learn more on the topic.

The background: For the past 15 months, ESPN’s enterprise/investigative unit has been working “in collaboration” with “Frontline” on two shows scheduled to air in October. They are titled “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth,” and are in parallel with a forthcoming book of the same name by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada -- brothers and investigative reporters for ESPN.

By all accounts, it has been a close and happy collaboration between elite news teams, producers and writers. Results of that collaboration have already appeared on ESPN.com and “Outside the Lines,” the ESPN show that most closely resembles the PBS show in serious intent, as well as on the “Frontline” site. Indeed, ESPN has done extensive reporting on the NFL and concussions, from its “Football at a Crossroads” series to revealing reports by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada on concussion controversies involving Mike Webster and Junior Seau.

There were mutual corporate benefits. PBS would draw new viewers from the crowds in the ESPN grandstand, and ESPN would derive a dash of PBS prestige from its association with one of the nation’s most respected documentary broadcasts. Both sides trumpeted the relationship. In July 2012 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on a panel with PBS president Paula Kerger, ESPN president John Skipper said: “We're not the public trust that PBS is, but we do a certain amount of programming that is a bit of the public trust.”

That attitude was a point of pride among ESPN journalists, including Dwayne Bray, a senior news producer who was working closely with “Frontline.” On Aug. 6, on a joint media panel with “Frontline” in Los Angeles to promote the documentary, Bray took on the question of ESPN reporting on the toughest topic bedeviling its most important business partner. Pro football is the most popular sport on ESPN and generates the most income. But the NFL is also dealing with more than 4,200 named player-plaintiffs in lawsuits over concussion-linked injuries.

At a news conference on the tour, Bray boasted of ESPN’s “bifurcated” structure in which journalism and business remained separate. He pointed out that ESPN has been reporting on football concussions since 1994, and that “the NFL is just going to have to understand” the nature of the ESPN-“Frontline” partnership.

That event, Skipper told me, was for him “the catalyst or starting episode” of what ultimately resulted in ESPN’s decision to part ways with “Frontline.” Skipper didn’t attend the event, and said he was “startled” when he read about a promotional trailer for the documentary which was screened at the news conference. He hadn’t seen the trailer or approved its content, which included the ESPN logo and a collaboration credit. He thought it was “odd for me not to get a heads up,” and said it made him “quite unhappy” to discover that ESPN had no editorial control over the trailer.

Upon screening it, Skipper said he found the trailer to be “sensational.” He particularly objected to the tagline -- “Get ready to change the way you see the game” -- and to the final sound bite in the piece, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, she says, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper said he found that comment to be “over the top.”

Eight days after the catalytic news conference, on Aug. 14, Skipper and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had lunch in New York City. It’s not hard to assume, as many have, that Goodell raised issues about the “Frontline” documentary and demanded that Skipper take some action to protect the NFL brand.

Commissioners are always trying to strong-arm or sweet-talk ESPN executives, especially Skipper. How well they succeed is a matter of constant speculation, both among Ombuddies and from some inside ESPN. Right or wrong, there is a perception that the company’s decisions -- both long-term and moment-by-moment -- are often made to promote, or at least not provoke, important “partners.”

When I spoke to Skipper on Friday and told him that my sources indicated he had discussed the “Frontline” partnership with Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, as well as lawyers at both Disney and ESPN, he confirmed that was true. Skipper noted, however, that he had made the calls to advise those parties of his decision to “remove the brand because we did not control the content.” He denied that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the action.

Said Skipper, “I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.”

ESPN’s public reasoning for separating from “Frontline” was tied to oversight, with the network saying “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials.” On Friday, Skipper released a statement of editorial support, saying “I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at ‘Frontline.’ ”

Which takes us back to the challenge of ESPN’s “dueling journalism and profit motives.” What exactly happened here, and how should we feel about it?

If, as Skipper told me, the ESPN-“Frontline” association was “a loose arrangement,” it seems an unusually sloppy execution for ESPN, an organization that is usually much more buttoned-up. (Raney Aronson, the deputy executive producer for “Frontline,” told me the arrangement was more of an “editorial exchange” and that “we were working on a piece of paper” -- meaning some legal memorialization of the partnership.)

Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism?

Was ESPN na´ve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also na´ve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with “Frontline” (no league footage, no Goodell interview, limited access to doctors who advise the NFL on concussions)? The league was not happy with a recent OTL report on one of its main doctors -- which ran on ESPN’s platforms just last weekend -- so why would it support “League of Denial”?

Or did ESPN cave in to pressure from the NFL or Disney or both? And if so, really, what was the point? It couldn’t have been to stifle interest in the project. The media coverage of ESPN’s decision to remove its imprimatur from the “Frontline” films will probably result in both a sales and ratings boost for the book and documentaries, respectively.

So what just happened? Beats me. At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.

This is a dicey time for the journalism side of the ESPN bifurcation. For all the current fuss, an even stronger message than ESPN’s disassociation from the “Frontline” project was the network’s recent decision to reschedule the Sunday morning OTL show from 9 a.m. on ESPN to 8 a.m. on ESPN 2 during the fall. A justifiably proud show is being demoted … for more football talk!

I’ll be staying on this story, as circumstances warrant, but will leave you for now with both foreboding and optimism.

“It’s sad because it sounds like a terrible blow for journalism at ESPN,” Sandy Padwe, a Columbia journalism professor, said of ESPN’s breakup with “Frontline.” Padwe, who recently ended a hitch of almost 19 years as a consultant to OTL, added that many journalists inside of ESPN are “demoralized by the capitulation and so much fine work is being marginalized.”

But Bray, the producer who has been among several in the forefront of the concussion investigations for ESPN, told me, “This issue is about branding, not about journalism. We will still get to do the stories, and no one will interfere with that.”

Let’s hope so.

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