ESPN must monitor itself, more openly

By · Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

When ESPN came along, no one was happier than me, a “sports nut” all my life. It was definitely a “pinch me” moment. “A network just for sports? Are you kidding me?” What’s happened in the more than quarter-century since then has been surreal.

Screen-shot-ESPN

It takes a keen eye to find the Poynter Review Project and the handful of mistakes that ESPN acknowledges.

I’ve watched the network become so much more than game broadcasts: It’s been the leading edge of the cultural and business phenomenon of sports all day, every day. It’s spawned multiple networks, and made stars and celebrities out of broadcasters. It’s encouraged a young generation of sports junkies to “major” in sports at journalism schools. It’s created its own events such as the ESPY Awards, and put its influence to great good by getting behind mega-fundraisers such as the “Jimmy V” extravaganza to raise money for cancer. The “E” in ESPN has gotten bigger and bigger; there is just so much of the “S” out there that you can broadcast, after all, even with a much-expanded and mangled definition of what qualifies as sport. ESPN also does much with all-day reruns and regular refreshers of the news; programming such as “Outside The Lines;” its “30 for 30” series; stories such as the one it broke about Syracuse University’s own assistant basketball coach, Bernie Fine; and discussions it’s kept alive and explored about important issues, such as in-depth examination of sports concussions.

This week, ESPN’s own creation, the X Games, wrapped up. It’s an event that represents how the network has smartly built its estimated $8 billion brand. The gravity-defying X circus is scary to the earth-bound and thrilling to those who aspire to defy gravity. We have come a long way since the iconic opening on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Every time the skier swept off the edge of the ramp, we gasped, no matter how often we saw it.

These evermore extreme and death-defying X acts have certainly attracted lots of viewers and no doubt made the network millions. And there is nothing wrong with making money. It’s essential to survival, and as those of us “newspaper people” well know, our business has not made nearly enough of it, or made it nearly the priority it needed to be. But, unfortunately, the “death defying” descriptor is no longer so apt for the X Games, with the death of Caleb Moore, 25, whose snowmobile flipped and landed on him. He walked away from the crash, but was dead within the week. He suffered a bruised heart and brain damage. His brother broke his pelvis while competing minutes later.

It raises with me a question I mull every now and then about the so-called “worldwide leader,” and how good it does — or doesn’t do — at policing itself and its own coverage. This weekend, I am wondering who, if anyone at the network, will even raise the question of how these games have evolved, their clear dangers (and related thrills), and the network’s complicity in them. Will any ESPN journalist takes this one on, aggressively and independently? How does the news, entertainment, thrill-providing mashup that is ESPN see that this happens? How, indeed, does it insist on it? For now, ESPN has promised a “thorough review,” but no details of how it will do it. It will be interesting to see what that is, and if we are ever told how it is conducted, by whom, and what is concluded. One can easily imagine the death of an auto racer on the track or a football player on the field, and the thorough inquiry that would quickly follow in Bristol, Conn., ESPN headquarters.

I do not suggest I am a student of ESPN ethics. Indeed, I am not. Some things do give me pause, though. The Poynter Review Project, an initiative where that well-respected group reviewed and commented on some of ESPN’s practices, tackled some meaty issues. Kudos goes to both parties, the reviewed and reviewer. But ESPN sounds quite comfortable, even smug, in characterizations of its operation as a “walking conflict of interest.” At some point, indeed, acknowledgment should lead to action — or at least honest reflection — in the face of such conflicts.

Look at something as comparatively benign as ESPN’s “Corrections” and you might be surprised. Is this it? Three in January — one of which was an apology for leaving the final score on the screen for the women’s replay of the Australian Open Women’s final. (“We regret the impact on fans,” ESPN wrote.) One in December? None in November?

Good luck to you, ESPN reader, in finding the Poynter Project and the Corrections on the website. (They are the tiniest of links, left side, very bottom of the homepage.)

ESPN tells us on its website that it’s looking for an ombudsman — it has had one before — the independent employee who will be watching over its journalism and practices. It will be a near-impossible job at such a behemoth as ESPN; we all recognize that, and we empathize. But just as important, if not more important, will be the profile this new watchdog is afforded.

Frankly, there is so much I love about sports and what the ESPN network does that I will not change my viewing and listening habits based on what happens. I celebrated getting Sirius Radio in my new car, but it’s ESPN for me, every driving moment. I’d search for alternate sports channels while driving, but I’d hate to miss my favorite show, “The Herd.” At home, I sometimes wonder if I need any other buttons on my remote.

Here’s hoping that whoever is chosen for this important job will do work that is quite prominently displayed and promoted. ESPN, after all, is an expert at that — when it wants to be.

Steve Davis

 

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