Commentary

Breaking bad

From murky guidance to inaccurate reporting, Feldman saga marked by bad decisions

Originally Published: July 18, 2011
By Kelly McBride | Poynter Review Project

The recent flap over Bruce Feldman's non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (A) a Twitter revolution, (B) an ESPN house of cards, (C) Twitterati gone wild.

In fact, it's all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we've tackled at the Poynter Review Project.

Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:

• ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.

• The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.

• Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he's not saying anything.

• ESPN officials approved Feldman's authoring then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach's autobiography, long before Leach was fired by the university and sued ESPN.

• The previous ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer did a very good job detailing ESPN's shortcomings in reporting on the Leach controversy, which involved disciplining of player Adam James, son of ESPN commentator Craig James. (Thank you, Don, otherwise this column would be a book too.)

• When Leach filed the lawsuit against ESPN, it's clear to us that Feldman's involvement with the book became an impossible conflict. But Feldman failed to seek and the network failed to provide clear guidance.

• We believe if ESPN had better guidelines on who can write as-told-to books, this whole thing could have been avoided. But there little consensus among top managers on the topic. Instead we see a culture of optimistically searching for a middle pathway, when at times someone just needs to say no.

The background

Bruce Feldman covers the college football beat for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. He appears on air occasionally, does a weekly online chat and tweets often. He has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.

In 2007, Feldman signed on to author Leach's autobiography. At the time, Leach was considered one of the most innovative offensive coaches in college ball. ESPN management granted Feldman permission to do this, Gary Hoenig, general manager of ESPN publishing, told us during a phone interview over the weekend.

In December 2009, Leach and his staff came under criticism from Adam James, who claimed Leach ordered him locked in a closet during practice while he recovered from a concussion. ESPN had assigned Adam James' father, Craig James, to call Tech games. The network's reporting on the controversy was highly critical of Leach and out of step with other newsrooms, Ohlmeyer documented.

Texas Tech fired Leach. Leach sued ESPN. Fresh details of that time period emerged in Leach's book, "Swing Your Sword," which was released last week and widely excerpted, offering a fresh look into ESPN's shortcomings, which ESPN is hamstrung to address because of the pending lawsuit.

A Twitter wildfire

Brooks Melchior first posted the erroneous news of Feldman's suspension on his blog Sports by Brooks, Thursday afternoon, just hours after ESPN brass, prompted by the book's publication, met by conference call with Feldman to discuss his involvement. For the past decade, Melchior has been the primary writer and editor on the site, which is now part of the Yardbarker network now owned by Fox Sports.

ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no.

Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.

Feldman did not respond to several emails, text messages and phones calls from us. He has not tweeted or published any stories or appeared on the air, fueling rumors that ESPN is lying and that he really is suspended.

At this point, Feldman's silence is self-imposed, according to Rob King, ESPN senior vice president of editorial for digital and print media, and Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine.

"He's paralyzed," King said. "He doesn't want to go out to an event and become the subject of the story. But he doesn't know what to say or how to say it, in order to put the story to bed."

"He's pretty anxious about this whole thing," Millman concurred.

Melchior also refused to comment for this column when we reached him on the phone Sunday. He does not offer his readers any information about his source or how the source came by the knowledge. But ESPN sources said no one in the company got a call from Melchior asking to confirm Feldman's suspension.

By Thursday night Twitter was buzzing. By Friday #freebruce was trending and dozens of sports bloggers and radio talk show hosts were repeating the information. Our reader mailbag was exploding, as were our personal email accounts, as well as tweets to Poynter.org.

Although many at ESPN were shaking their heads at the Twitterverse, King had a different reaction. "I can't for one second feel this is a bad thing. People take what they believe and they act," he said. "Some people would call it a free-for-all. I call it fairly democratic. I just wish that reactions like that would be based on fact."

Repetition without verification

As news of Feldman's alleged suspension traveled far and wide, his silence on Twitter made the allegation seem credible. That was all the confirmation most bloggers and tweeters needed. Professional journalists should have a higher standard. However, ESPN has hundreds of people fully engaged in the virtual space and did nothing to immediately correct the inaccuracy.

Part of the problem was time, and part of the problem was communication. ESPN has lots of layers of management.

The book "Swing Your Sword" officially hits the shelves next week. Several news sites excerpted it last week, including Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports.

Most of the excerpts posted late in the day July 12 referenced the chapter in the book that explains Leach's side of the Adam and Craig James controversy. It was the first hint that ESPN might have yet another complication in the Leach saga.

That meant that July 13, the day of the ESPYs award show, several executives at ESPN saw the excerpts on other sites and started asking questions, including: Who gave Feldman permission to write this book? (Answer: Hoenig, head of ESPN publications, along with the previous editor of ESPN the Magazine.) Did he actually write the book? (Yes, although he is listed as editor.) Did he write that chapter about ESPN? (Yes.) When the controversy between Leach and James arose, what instruction did Feldman receive from ESPN management? (Not very clear instructions, it turns out. We'll explain.) When Leach sued ESPN, did Feldman reach out to his bosses for further guidance? (No.)

At a company as big as ESPN, with dozens of vice presidents, it's not surprising that communication is complicated. King, who was recently promoted to a position that includes editorial supervision of the magazine, learned last week for the first time that Feldman was writing the book. Hoenig, head of publications, said he knew all along but had to refresh his memory on what decisions were made. Millman is new to his title, as well, and is still transitioning into the magazine's lead editorial role.

Bad decisions

There were two opportunities to make decisions that ESPN missed: before the contract was signed and when Leach filed the lawsuit.

The first decision was whether to let Feldman participate at all in the book. Even though this decision was made before the Leach-James controversy, we can't overstate what a bad idea we think as-told-to books are for independent journalists. Feldman covers NCAA football. By all accounts he is one of the best reporters on the beat. Leach was arguably one of the most innovative coaches on the job. In order to write the book, Feldman had to assume Leach's point of view, right down to the cadence of the coach's speech. How do you do that for a side job, then go back to the independent, more distant point of view for your day job?

Hoenig agrees with us on this. "I don't think we should let people do as-told-to books in the future," he said. But King said he doesn't want to eliminate the possibility. Such books give reporters a chance to deepen their subject-matter expertise, he said.

"It's complicated," Millman explained. "You don't want to limit people's opportunities. But you don't want to limit their ability to cover their sport either."

You can't have it both ways, as much as ESPN tried. Feldman sought clarity in the spring of 2010, after Leach had been fired but before he filed suit against ESPN. At that point, Hoenig recalls telling Feldman he needed to "distance himself" from material about the company.

"We told him, short of getting out of the book, you need to remove your name from the book and distance yourself from the book," Hoenig said. "I said, 'Are you sure you want to do this? This could really harm your career at ESPN.' "

"He has a stubborn and somewhat admirable, moral streak," Hoenig continued. "I don't think he took our message the way we intended, which was, 'This might impair your ability to do your job.' "

It was bad advice, unclear and too easily dismissed as a challenge rather than a solution. As a result of that conversation, Feldman and the book publisher changed Feldman's title from co-author to editor, moving his name off the jacket and onto the title page. That changed the appearance of a conflict but not necessarily the actual conflict.

At the point that Leach filed suit, Feldman should have again sought clarification, but he did not, ESPN executives said. For its part, ESPN should have insisted Feldman walk away from the book and offered him the financial and legal help to do so. The publisher could have brought in another writer/editor to finish the work. Of course, Feldman would have been upset; he'd already put months of work into it and the book was mostly complete. But the conflict was untenable, and it was ESPN's responsibility to recognize that.

Feldman did what reporters do: He assumed that truth would keep him safe and that by the time the book was published, everyone at ESPN would agree that the network itself had failed in reporting the Leach-James controversy. And perhaps if "Swing Your Sword" were an independently reported biography instead of an autobiography with a distinct bias, it could have provided the definitive chapter. As it is, the book is merely one more point of view in a muddled narrative that many individuals and institutions failed to live up to their ideals.

As the college football season heats up, ESPN must still figure out what Feldman can report on independently. When a reporter has a clear conflict, it's standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach's voice, Feldman clearly can't cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach's former staffers, who are now spread far and wide -- some of them now head coaches -- make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman's bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman's self-imposed silence.

The Feldman-Leach-James-ESPN chronicles cannot be reduced to a simple point where things went wrong. Some want to spin this story into a David and Goliath tale. Feldman and his supporters take on the giant ESPN with Twitter as their slingshot. Others want it to be a cautionary tale of inaccuracy exploding across the virtual space.

"Everyone wants to portray this as either a staff writer went renegade or Twitter overreacted," King said Sunday night during a phone interview. "Neither of those are completely accurate and it's a lot more complex than that."

Instead, this recent online fracas is a result of cascading decisions that were made with good intentions but without the proper attention to core values and loyalties. Had ESPN put its obligation to bring fans the best independently reported information first, everyone would have recognized that Feldman's involvement in the book itself was a bad idea -- a conflict of interest in the making. That first bad decision was compounded by additional conflicts that surfaced as ESPN reported on the controversy between Leach and a player who was also the son of a powerful ESPN commentator, material that ultimately became a chapter in the book. Feldman's authorship of the book became untenable when Leach sued ESPN.

We realize no one will be happy with our conclusions, because nearly everyone involved -- ESPN the company, individual managers, Bruce Feldman, Brooks Melchior and every journalist who repeated the word "suspension" without verifying the facts -- bears some responsibility. ESPN, of course, bears the largest, but not the only, burden.