Friday, September 2, 2011
Responding to Feldman's allegations
By Kelly McBride
Poynter Review Project
Former ESPN college football columnist Bruce Feldman debuted his new column at CBSSports.com Thursday. In addition to sharing his picks for this weekend's games, Feldman separately shared with other sports journalists a host of accusations about his departure from ESPN and the company's alleged lies to the Poynter Review Project and the public.
Feldman's story and ESPN's story do not match up.
We spoke with ESPN officials for the previous Poynter Review column on this situation, but not with Feldman, whom we spoke with twice this week - a 12-minute phone call on Thursday and a 35-minute call on Monday. Based on those conversations as well as interviews Feldman gave to Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch and radio host Dan Patrick, we've identified two main criticisms of us that merit responses:
- Feldman says that ESPN Executive Vice President John Skipper instructed him not to participate in an interview with Poynter for a July column on the controversy around Feldman's role in writing a book with former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
This is the most serious allegation Feldman makes, because if it's true, it undermines the foundation of Poynter's role in reviewing and publicly commenting on ESPN's efforts.
"It is categorically inaccurate that I told him not to talk to you guys. I am a little displeased with his actions," Skipper said Thursday night on the phone. He said that he called Feldman in July to encourage him to "relax." Feldman responded to that advice by saying, "the Poynter Institute called, I'm going to tell them you're all a bunch of liars," Skipper said.
"I suggested that getting into a public fight with your employer and calling them liars was not wise," he said.
As our column neared its publication in July, Skipper said, "I called Bruce and said, 'If you feel that you need to go on the record with The Poynter Institute, you should do so. I will confess that I said, 'You need to remain careful.' "
Feldman told us during a phone call Thursday evening that his wife was listening back in July when Skipper warned him not to talk to us. We asked if we could talk to her. That's when Feldman hung up the phone, saying he was needed in makeup, and then on air at CBS. He promised to call back but never did, nor did he respond to a text message late in the evening.
- Whether or not it was a formal "suspension," Feldman said that Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, never really let him come back to work, preventing him from attending the SEC's media days, enforcing a "do not book" status and insisting on unreasonable editing policies.
Millman told us the same thing on Thursday that he said back in July. He said Feldman was very concerned about showing up at the Southeastern Conference media event and having other reporters focus on him.
"I remember he and I having a conversation that he didn't want to be the eye of the storm and he didn't want to be the story," Millman said. "He was scheduled to go to (SEC) media days and I said, 'It's up to you, but you'll get asked about it.' "
He said they brainstormed alternative events in other conferences where there would be fewer journalists likely to turn the questioning on Feldman. He ultimately did a video segment for ESPN.com from the Pac-12 media day.
"That is not true, the SEC is a big deal to me," Feldman said in response Thursday night. "That is complete B.S. I said to him that the least of my concerns coming out of this is press coverage."
On the "do not book" policy, Millman said talent bookers were constantly asking if they could use Feldman on the air and he told them all yes. On Aug. 8, Feldman appeared on an ESPNU show.
Millman said he did request to see Feldman's Insider column before it was published, and that was a change from their earlier arrangement.
"I wanted to make sure there wasn't a blow up, and be aware of ties to Mike Leach and other coaches, that worked with Leach," he said.
Feldman insisted this was unreasonable because it's not the treatment other Insider writers receive. We think extra editing is always a good thing.
Our initial analysis in this dispute faulted ESPN for allowing Feldman to sign a book deal that had him authoring an autobiography for one of the more controversial figures in college football.
While we originally laid the blame on ESPN, we also suggested that Feldman shared a smaller portion of responsibility for the situation because he failed to seek clarity. Feldman told us and others that he repeatedly sought clarity.
The longest conversation we had with Feldman was Monday afternoon, before he announced his departure to CBS. He called to ask about our sourcing and the editing process. We listened to him for approximately 35 minutes, asking for details and evidence to clarify his assertion that he had repeatedly asked his bosses at ESPN for guidance and that Skipper told him not to talk to us in July.
He described one series of conversations in the Spring of 2010 with editors, which we wrote about in July. And he described conversations with ESPN's lawyers six months before his book was released, but said he did not know if his editors knew he was talking to the lawyers. He didn't provide any details about his conversations with Skipper.
He suggested that his conflicts, created by writing the book, are tiny compared to those of Craig James, the ESPN announcer named in Leach's lawsuit. If the allegations in the lawsuit are accurate -- that James hired a PR firm to smear Leach -- then ESPN has an even bigger problem that we'll certainly be writing about.
But that ethical problem that doesn't overshadow or eliminate ESPN's responsibility when facing other ethical issues. The network should have never let Feldman do the book, because it devalued one their best NCAA football insiders.
The primary ethical failure still rests on ESPN's shoulders. It grows out of a bad policy that allows "as told to" books and a failure of leadership to step in and prevent Feldman from going forward with the book when it became clear that the publication would create an impossible tension.
But if your boss won't protect your credibility, you have to do it yourself. Feldman should have recognized that in writing Leach's book, he was becoming too much of an insider on that topic, walling himself off from too many important stories.
Now his conflicts are CBS Sports' problems. And ESPN, and the Poynter Review Project, are left to address the James issue.