ESPN got beat on its own in-house story this week when a Detroit television station broke the news that basketball analyst Jalen Rose was recently cited for DUI.
Rose, already in the spotlight for controversial comments on his Fab Five documentary, apparently didn’t tell anyone at the network about his run-in with the police for almost three weeks.
ESPN encourages its "talent" -- those employees and contractors who are paid to appear on the air or write for the Web or magazine -- to tell their bosses about potentially embarrassing personal issues that might become public. But no written policy explicitly requires them to come forward.
ESPN officials say they learned about Rose’s arrest when his agent called Laurie Orlando, senior vice president for talent development, Tuesday afternoon, as WDIV in Detroit was preparing to air the story and publish it on its site, ClickonDetroit.
"We’ve been pretty clear since last year when we had a pretty long meeting with all the talent," Orlando said in a phone conversation. "We said to them we need you to disclose your situations. I know Jalen was here in house for those conversations."
Orlando, whose team negotiates the contracts for ESPN’s talent, says she is thinking about protecting the company’s reputation when she urges folks to step up with any dirty laundry. After all, it would look bad for ESPN if Rose was on the air while a competitor broke news that he was facing criminal charges.
It looks even worse on the journalism front, with the perception that ESPN is willing to report on the failings of current athletes but sweeps the failings of its own staff under the rug. In fact, a number of fans have already questioned ESPN’s loyalties on this issue in letters to the Poynter Project mailbag.
"If ESPN did cover this up, heads need to roll and people need to be fired," wrote David Miller of Warner Robbins, Ga. "That's not journalism, that’s favoritism."
Jay Vivian of Kansas City wrote, "There is a perception that ESPN hypes its interests over real reporting. The hyping of ESPN-produced items such as the LeBron James announcement and the (admittedly very interesting) documentary about the Fab Five seem to conflict with 'real' reporting. It breeds a little cynicism to the average sports fan."
ESPN apparently didn’t cover up Rose’s DUI, but critics arrive at their own conclusions. When it comes to criminal charges -- part of the public record -- it’s only a matter of time before the story gets out.
In fact, it’s surprising it took this long for another news organization to stumble over Rose’s citation. A tipster alerted a reporter at WDIV television in Detroit on Tuesday that West Bloomfield Township Police had cited Rose after an accident in the early morning of March 11. WDIV pulled the documents, aired the story on its 6 p.m. evening news Tuesday, and simultaneously posted it to its Web site. TMZ picked up the story an hour later.
Meanwhile, ESPN was trying to confirm the story through Rose’s agent and its own reporting.
"Some of the story the agent was telling us was inconsistent with our reporting," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news.
Once that was sorted out, ESPN.com posted the news of Rose’s DUI around 8:45 p.m., using a combination of its own reporting and information from the Associated Press. In that same hour, the story hit the ESPN News network. It was on the 11:30 p.m. broadcast of "SportsCenter."
This was obviously a story ESPN should have reported first. The network pays analysts such as Rose to offer insight regarding athletes -- including those involved in off-the-field incidents -- which raises the question: Why didn’t Rose tell anyone at ESPN immediately after the accident? Through his agent, Rose declined comment. Orlando said she asked the same question of Rose’s agent, but didn’t get a satisfying answer.
However, there’s nothing in the contracts for Rose or anyone else on air at ESPN explicitly requiring them to notify management when their personal life is likely to become a news story. And although ESPN’s written policies address when the criminal activity of those they cover becomes a story, there’s nothing to suggest how and when the network will cover similar issues for its own.
Until there’s clarity in contracts and policies, this likely will happen again, given the number of on-air and online talent that ESPN employs.
Rose has admitted his blood alcohol content tested over the legal limit and apologized, explaining that he did not recognize that he was legally impaired. Orlando said she wasn’t sure how management was going to discipline Rose. He’s off the air for now, while the network awaits the outcome of his April 20 court appearance.
In addition to creating policy, ESPN’s response to Rose’s concealment of the DUI citation will go a long way in communicating to other ESPN personalities what the network’s expectations really are.