Monday, August 26, 2013

ESPN and the pretense of journalistic integrity

Back in December, 2011, The New York Times ran a story about the risk of brain damage for soccer players who frequently head the ball. At the time, I was a contributing writer for -- the female-focused ESPN Web site. So I pitched a story, suggesting we ask Abby Wambach and others about the danger.

After all, there had been so much discussion of concussions among football players. Here was an important news story about brain trauma that could impact female athletes as well. Wasn't that exactly what this fledgling sports site would want? I was certain the story would be approved.

But later that very same day, featured
a pictorial glorifying the art of women heading the ball. Look at how athletic they were! And that was the message espnW wanted to project.

My story pitch was declined.

It was a telling moment about ESPN's commitment to critical analysis of the sports it both covers and broadcasts. There were other head-scratching events in my brief tenure at ESPN that ended in early 2012. Among them was a column critical of Nascar that somehow magically disappeared --not only off the page, but even from the archives.

So I have to admit I was a bit surprised when ESPN's journalistic integrity was questioned last week after it pulled out of a collaboration with PBS's "Frontline" on a critical look at the NFL's handling of concussions. Why was there even a question? I thought most people understood that ESPN's financial connection to sports leagues and dual role of promotion inevitably affected coverage decisions by the network. I even had a conversation about that with an writer. We both agreed that writing for ESPN was not like writing for a newspaper. It was an unspoken truth.

That's not meant as a criticism of the network, merely an observation. And it's one I've made before about all media outlets that have a financial connection to the sports leagues and athletes they cover. It's inevitable that the connection will alter the tone of coverage.

Which is why I was also surprised by ESPN president John Skipper's comment to ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, "I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming." It was my sense in my time with ESPN that everyone there balances that conflict daily and that all editorial decisions were routinely made with an understanding of the business implications.

Look, it was business that trumped journalism when it came to the "Frontline" documentary. And there should be no shame in that. After all, ESPN is a business and its success is inextricably tied to the NFL.

The shame is in misleading the public by trying to maintain a pretense of unfettered journalistic integrity that simply cannot exist.


  1. 1) Where do you have "unfettered journalistic integrity"? Stop with the pretentious nonsense.

    2) What was your role specifically at ESPN? If it is an investigate reporter then sure, your story about concussions in female soccer players would be relevant. If you were hired to provide interesting, feel good stories about successful female athletes and to shine a light on their accomplishments then no, you were not doing what you were supposed to do, and your pitch was rightfully declined.

    3) It is not a matter of ESPN crushing journalism, it is about what people want to read about. They have addressed concussions in sports MORE THAN ENOUGH. They've covered it at nauseating level, despite what moronic detractors like you want to say. I don't watch sports to see sob stories, I watch sports to be entertained. The same applies to websites. I want to read about who might be moved at the trade deadline, or predictions for the weekend's games. I don't want to read about concussions 24/7.

    Get off your high horse.

    1. So, how long have you worked at ESPN?

    2. Funny, your writing is remarkably similar to an editor I used to work with at espnW.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. "it is about what people want to read about."

      So a journalist's job is now to pander? With audiences comprised of folks like yourself, it's not surprising...

  2. You know the business of journalism much better than I, so I will ask you, should/could ESPN the journalism end be put under the ABC News wing? Also which is worse, ESPN stepping their toes into something, then pulling out, or NBC, CBS, or Fox news never approaching the NFL subject?

    1. Not sure it would make much difference; ABC news has lost most of it's edge under the Mouse.

    2. Brian, All networks have financial ties to the sports they "cover." The stories essentially help market the sport to support the broadcasts. ESPN has some of the best journalists I know working for it. But they aren't necessarily paid to be journalists. They are paid to provide good content. Would it matter if ABC News was in charge of ESPN web content? Of course not. It doesn't change the financial connection that plays a role in every coverage decision.

  3. You're 100 percent accurate in your depiction of ESPN's conflicts of interest and the journalistic shortcomings it leads to. I know, I worked there, too.

  4. If ESPN only wants to do feel-good stories, fine. Make that crystal clear and don't assign writers to do investigations. If in the course of your feel-good reporting you find something incriminating, turn it over to another journalism outlet. But if you assign a story, and in the reporting you find that innocent people are being hurt in the name of others making money, "shame" is exactly what you carry if you run away from that story. Bottom line above everything is what's wrong with so many businesses these days. ESPN among them.