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We’ve Lost The Ombudsman

We’ve been closely following the Bruce Feldman suspension ”timeout” due to his involvement in Mike Leach’s autobiography. Matt had a great piece last week and things have moved fast since the story broke, as ESPN has scrambled to try to save face. Today, they got some good air cover, as the Poynter Institute, who serves as ESPN’s Ombudsman, jumped in with a thinly veiled defense of ESPN’s handling of the situation. The piece included feedback from only ESPN personnel and failed on many levels to have an honest conversation about the incident, the fallout, and ESPN’s continued involvement with Feldman or Craig James.

AA editor, Matt Yoder, sent me this note when I asked him for his thoughts, as he can be the voice of reason whenever some of us at AA get a little riled up:

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“Read the Poynter piece and all I can say is that it only leaves more questions.  Without word from Feldman or Brooks, are we just supposed to believe ESPN’s word passed down to Poynter that Bruce wasn’t suspended?  That seems baseless and does nothing to fix the credibility gap at hand.  The Poynter piece is so nuanced and muddied that it really ends up saying nothing.  It also never speaks of the elephant in the room – if Feldman suffered a conflict of interest, what was ESPN thinking with Craig James?”

Matt’s take was one of many in disbelief that the Ombudsman piece seemed like an extension of ESPN PR and damage control. In fact, here are some tweets that caught my eye in the hours after the article went live and a takedown of Poynter’s disappointing article…

Looking at our peers’ tweets assessing the Ombudsman piece, I liked Allen Kenney’s take from Blatant Homerism. It’s low hanging fruit to find beefs with ESPN. There is just too many channels, platforms, personalities, and opportunities to piss off a viewer, a fan-base, or a segment of the population. It’s difficult for us at AA to not get locked into that mindset, but I think we’ve shown the ability to give positive coverage to ESPN when deserved. 

We were clamoring for a good explanation and update to what was going on behind the scenes from the Ombudsman. Instead, Kelly McBride rushed out her piece, which left us all wanting more or, at the very least, scratching our heads.

ESPN doesn’t have to have an Ombudsman and I applaud them for making it a priority. In fact, I’ve gained some personal satisfaction from having someone to turn to in assisting with issues at the leader. In 2008, after a handful of incidents in which ESPN conveniently forgot to attribute quotes to athlete blogs on Yardbarker (where I was working at the time), I emailed acting Ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber about the reoccurring issue. The incident in question was a quote on NFL Live by Vernon Davis that they attributed to the “ESPN Magazine Morning Roundup of Athlete Blogs” a feature that doesn’t actually exist. 

Within 12 hours, producers at ESPN emailed back saying there was some confusion and Le Anne had made it clear to them that they failed to adhere to the internal policies at ESPN. Confusion was the scapegoat, but a more telling explanation came later when an on-air personality, who read the quote sent me a personal apology saying it was bush league, he had no idea, and that it was “the typical bullshit.”

I felt like I had an ally. Someone who investigated, cracked skulls, made a stink, shook out an apology, and even a subtle admission of guilt. 

Le Anne would leave soon after and her replacement didn’t stay around too long either. After yesterday’s piece, it’s clear we’ve lost the Ombudsman that was long an ally for sports fans who clamor for higher standards from the media giant.

Below are some of the many issues we found with McBride’s piece on the Feldman situation…

“To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we’ve tackled at the Poynter Review Project.”

Well, that’s accurate because Poynter has only written two other articles for ESPN since being named Ombudsman in March despite claiming they’d write an article a month.  Blog entries have been just as sporadic.  One of their feature articles has “Grantland Must Stress Great Writing” in the title. That’s a juicy story right there.

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

Which only includes feedback from ESPN and not any principals in the matter. Why not sit on this a bit more? I know this was a time sensitive story, but why not give Feldman and Brooks until midweek and continue to pester them for a comment? How about Feldman’s agent? A follow up within a week would have been reasonable. Why was this rushed out the door? Also, why not say “we’ll update the story as more details become available.” This isn’t a newspaper. This story tries to end the conversation when clearly it’s ongoing.

“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.”

Poynter states this as fact when it seems to be more of a gray area issue. Doesn’t it bother McBride that this meeting with Feldman had a full handful of high-up ESPN people? If it was just a “chill out for a day” type thing, couldn’t that be conveyed by 1-3 people and not the five acting capos of the Bristol mafia?  ”Figured things out” is also strangely vague.  What would need “figured out” and why is the reasoning behind whatever happened to Feldman still a mystery?

“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.”

Let’s just insultingly drop the word “gossip” into that sentence and not mention that SBB comes from traditional media or has broken and nailed DOZENS of stories accurately. Erroneously again implies that SBB fibbed and ESPN is telling the truth based only on ESPN’s word.

“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.”

More like mangers saw they were getting pummeled by the public and opted to call off the timeout/suspension. Also, don’t you think it’s pretty damn telling that Feldman hasn’t said anything since? Given he could EASILY make this whole controversy blow over by tweeting something, it’s insane to point out he hasn’t made a statement but then continue with ESPN’s side of the story.

“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.”

As previously stated in this article, Feldman had been given approval and was in a contract to do the book. Is it his responsibility to raise the issue a second time now that circumstances change? Why does Feldman have to engage with ESPN on the same issue again. I’m sure someone in Bristol could have called him or his agent just as easily.

“Texas Tech fired Leach. Leach sued ESPN. Fresh details of that time period emerged in Leach’s book, “Swing My 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.”

Even though an ESPN personality is heavily implicated and the whole thing is a mess, ESPN can’t comment on the new allegations, but rest assured they’re hamstrung to tell their side of the story. As if in the history of litigation, nobody has ever released a statement or told their side ahead of a court date. Very easy to hide behind that and all too convenient.

“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.”

Let’s just keep characterizing his post as erroneous and while we’re at it let’s name drop Yardbarker and Fox Sports when they really have no role in the matter because, hey, maybe someone will think Fox Sports or Yardbarker have editorial pull with Brooks and it’s part of an organized conspiracy to discredit ESPN.

“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.”

Just for clarification Brooks’ post was an ERROR and this needs to be mentioned 10x so we’re clear on that. We’re then given an official explanation of suspended vs. “lying low.” FYI, suspensions usually come in steps. First being told to stay away, then having lawyers make sure there is proper cause, then a formal notification. Still though the fact that Feldman wasn’t officially suspended yet, but had to talk to all of the brass, and that he remains missing is a huge red flag that there may be more to the story than what ESPN lets on. 

“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.”

The whole spin of why Feldman is radio silent makes it sound like writing a tweet or two is like penning a novel and it takes a huge amount of time, thought, and will power. It’s standard operating procedure to tweet something or release a statement. In this case the silence is deafening. Not only are we supposed to believe one side of the story, now we’re supposed to believe the spin of why there only is one side of the story. When there is conflict and you sell me on there being a resolution, I need to hear it from both sides. That’s how it works. 

“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.”

ESPN runs stories all the time with unnamed sources. Clearly Brooks had the goods, but the only issue is whether or not Feldman was actually suspended. The majority of the story has been confirmed with the “suspension” detail being debated. Even though it’s clear Brooks didn’t conjure up a source and that his source was someone in the know, his reporting is now called into question based on a practice that is very common for ESPN themselves. What if his source is Feldman? 

“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.”

Shame on you for believing a story. Innocent until proven guilty always applies to our image at ESPN. When we do investigative reporting with anonymous sources, you can definitely be outraged and take it as fact.

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

There is no defined position at this conglomerate to deal with shit storms. We’re really busy and who would actually want that job? Instead, we hope it goes away before pulling straws on who has to clean it up.

“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.”

When Craig James hired the PR firm who repped the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth for a personal hit job on behalf of his son, ESPN should have known there were TOO many complications in the Leach saga.

“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.’ “

Seems like foreshadowing to me. This guy blatantly insinuates bad stuff at ESPN will happen if you keep going forward and still McBride doesn’t have any doubts that Feldman was in danger at ESPN of being fired or suspended.  ”This could really harm your career at ESPN” seems to be an ominous threat, does it not?  And yet, McBride treats it like a gentle reminder.  Unreal.

“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.”

Feldman decreased his public involvement due to prodding from ESPN. He recieved approval and also distanced himself. Sounds like he made efforts to accommodate ESPN’s trepidation about his role.

“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.”

ESPN executives only pick up the phone apparently. They can’t make outgoing calls (dial 9 to get out then 1 and the area code) to Feldman although with all these quotes to McBride it’s clear they were 10x more proactive in reaching out to her than they were to Feldman. In a nutshell, the above quote is “Feldman should have called us and walked off the project. We didn’t want to call him or inform him of our opinion”.

“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.”

Basically Feldman did his job correctly, but he was wrong to assume that ESPN would see how idiotic their role in the James-Leach saga was. ESPN doesn’t hide from mistakes, they ignore them and bury them.

“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.”

Shouldn’t Craig James be getting the journalistic ethics pep talk and not Feldman? After all, Feldman was the one that dealt with truth while James was feeding slime to Joe Schad.  Hiring a PR firm to slander the coach of your son could use a bit more scrutiny.

“Feldman and his supporters take on the giant ESPN with Twitter as their slingshot”

Maybe we wouldn’t need to if there was a legitimate Ombudsman.

“We realize no one will be happy with our conclusions”

Yes, because you wrote a one-sided story pimping ESPN and rushed it out the door with a multitide of issues at the root of the matter that are still unclear. But you’re wrong about one thing, ESPN has a shit-eating grin about your conclusions.

“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.”

ESPN is guilty but aren’t we all to some degree? All of you #FreeBrucers take a moment for a nice guilt trip.  Rest assured the Poynter Institute has joined us, though, as we’ve lost the Ombudsman. What’s the point of having one if we’re only going to get this type of coverage?  I know this is harsh and I am not even asserting that the information presented is not factual. I just expect more from the Ombudsman than restating ESPN PR in a grand fashion and attaching the Ombudsman label to it. A lot more. 

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - CEO of @Bloguin, GM at @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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