Photo: AP Images
Not to be outdone by the attention surrounding the LeBron James debacle earlier this month, ESPN nearly matched James for controversy, countering his decision to sign with the Heat with its own decision to air “The Decision.”It’s sometimes easy to forget that ESPN considers itself a journalism entity, but no one let it forget that fact the night of July 8, when viewers far and wide decried the network for its lack of integrity.
Today, with the benefit of nearly two weeks’ hindsight, ESPN’s ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, who previously served as a network television executive for ABC and NBC, chimed in.
I think ESPN made some major mistakes handling the entire affair. In fact, in many ways, the network’s decisions in airing the James’ special — and its justification for making them — are a metaphor for what ails the media today.
…No single issue resonated as the reason for the negative comments. Instead, it was the intersection of multiple miscues that elicited the vehement diatribes — a fast-food menu of issues that boiled over into a cauldron of criticism. You could get heartburn from any one, or try them all.”
Interestingly, Ohlmeyer writes that when he asked people within the network about the special he discovered a distinct dichotomoy in the operation. On one side the business staff felt it could accommodate most of LeBron’s requests while maintaining the network’s integrity. The newsgathering staff, on the other hand, felt airing the special inherently compromised that integrity.
The business side won out, and Ohlmeyer argues that it was a triumph of paper over principles. He believes ESPN failed to uphold its code of ethics in the following ways:
- ESPN essentially sunk to the level of tabloid news and paid for the scoop.
- ESPN allowed the newsmaker and not the news outlet to take editorial control. James chose the unaffiliated Jim grey to interview him, in turn grey ignored the network’s request that the announcement come within the first 10 minutes of the telecast and made viewers endure 28 minutes of mundane questioning before we all got the news we came for.
- The network needed to be more transparent with the viewer during the actual special. ESPN should have announced that they were forgoing ad revenue to air the special and that the reporter asking the questions was hired by the newsmaker.
- ESPN devoted much more coverage for the news than it probably deserved. Not only did it interrupt regular programming for “The Decision,” but five hours of SportsCenter previewing and recapping the event surrounded the 90 minute special.
This last point seems to be a consistent issue with ESPN. The network laced their telecast of “The Decision” with dramatic hyperbole reminding viewers how “historic” James’s decision would be. It’s certainly not the first time they’ve done that with their telecasts. Prior to their widely lauded World Cup coverage, ESPN kept referring to the U.S. National Team’s opening match as “the most anticipated match in U.S. soccer history.” Why was this match more anticipated than any of the previous World Cup openers, particularly the one in 1994 played in the U.S? Maybe because ESPN invested so much into the coverage in the first place.
That’s the rub. “The Worldwide Leader” is such a powerful entity in sports media that it can dictate the importance of events based on how much coverage it dedicates to that event. That is, ESPN can fulfil its own prophecy. But with this power comes the responsibility to integrity; the responsibility to allot coverage based on true significance and not based on the network’s ratings.
With that being said, ESPN deserves credit not only for running Ohlmeyer’s sharp critique, but also for featuring it as a main story on ESPN.com. That’s transparency. This time, it seems, the newsgathering side won out.
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