When Did ESPN Lose Its Journalistic Integrity?

ESPNWhen exactly did ESPN lose its journalistic integrity?  It’s a difficult question to answer, but one that certainly needs to be asked in light of the Bruce Feldman fiasco.  Granted, trying to sort through the answer to this question is an exercise more suited for an educated journalism professor or the Poynter Institute instead of a sports fan who’s a grad student in chemistry.  Although, I will spare you ten minutes reading Poynter’s response to the situation by summing it up in one word… weak.   Our own Ben Koo took down Poynter’s lame response in grand style yesterday.

In fact, any critique of ESPN, either by bloggers or their own ombudsman, may be entirely fruitless.  Attempting any criticism of ESPN at this point is like attacking a battleship with a BB Gun.  Quite simply, ESPN is a monopoly sports fans can’t live without.  Many are of the mindset that we as fans should just accept ESPN’s faults and learn to live with them, no matter how glaring they grow by the day.

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But, stop to consider what we’ve been through the last several days.  Even though the #FreeBruce revolution on Twitter will quickly be forgotten, ESPN sat (we can play semantics all we want) a man with supreme journalistic integrity for merely doing a job he’d already been approved to do.  So why the “enforced period of inactivity?”  Apparently because writer Bruce Feldman helped confirm the worst fears about fellow ESPNer Craig James and shed light on the shady practices of supposed straight news reporter Joe Schad.  As if the “suspension” alone weren’t bad enough though, ESPN’s lame PR statement failed to hide their mistakes throughout the Mike Leach story.  

Apparently, ESPN and Poynter would like all of us to get caught up in the semantics of the word suspension and feel guilty for being bad bloggers by spreading mean, nasty rumors.  And while no amount of blog posts, boycotts, and hashtags will make a sizable dent in what’s left of the mothership’s appearance of integrity, we as sports fans have a right to examine the credibility gap now present at ESPN.  Ask yourself, how long will it take to fully believe ESPN again when it reports the news?  How long should your skepticism last?  If the lessons of #FreeBruce aren’t forgotten within our ADHD 24-hour news cycle, the credibility gap between ESPN and its viewers should be permanently at the forefront of fans’ minds…

Perhaps ironically, one of the most striking portions of “Those Guys Have All The Fun,” (hear the AA podcast with author Jim Miller here) was the impact John Walsh had on SportsCenter when he joined ESPN.  The former print editor successfully brought journalistic credibility to the forefront of ESPN’s mission.  The way ESPN handled hard news stories throughout the mid-90’s such as the O.J. trial and the Atlanta Olympic Bombing served as a journalistic model for any news organization to follow, let alone a sports and entertainment network.  One might see the mid-90s as the journalistic high water mark for ESPN The News Source.

But, somewhere between that long ago time and now, ESPN lost its way as a top notch news organization.  After all, the initials of the network stand for entertainment first and sports second, with news nowhere to be found in the famous acronym.   However, it would be naive to think that ESPN lost all of their journalistic credibility in one fell swoop that resulted in the #FreeBruce movement. 

ESPN has actually been slowly marching to this point for the last several years, inch-by-inch sacrificing their reputation amongst fans as a legitimate news source for the sake of entertainment, profit, and access.  Perhaps there is no better example of this phenomenon than the ESPY’s. Thankfully, the pathetic spectacle the ESPY’s have become just hit their lowest ratings in years.  Everyone remembers Jimmy V’s speech at the first ESPY’s in 1993 as a poignant moment showcasing the inspiring power of sports.  Since then, the ESPY’s have devolved into a quagmire of self-congratulation by ESPN and for ESPN, mixed with an unseemly marathon of worshiping at the feet of athletes and celebrities.

But it’s not just the ESPY’s that have cost ESPN most of its journalistic integrity.  Another key figure in “Those Guys” was the young firebrand executive Mark Shapiro.  Even though he was only in charge of programming for a brief tenure, Shapiro’s fingerprints are still all over ESPN, and not in a good way.  His push for ESPN Original Entertainment may have been a forerunner for the well-done 30 for 30 series.  But, it also spawned the likes of Tilt, Playmakers, and Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight. 

The larger impact Shapiro had on ESPN’s journalistic integrity though was the spawn of shows like Pardon the Interruption and its red-headed stepchildren, Around the Horn and 1st and 10.  While PTI might be the best show on ESPN, the need to manufacture debate to fill content on shows like ATH or create daily controversy for Skip Bayless has brought sports discussion to an all-time low.  If nothing juicy is happening in the news, then ESPN’s attitude seems to be to make up some controversial angle just to fill their endless hours of debate between talking heads.  In recent years, ESPN has found themselves in the position of creating news as much as they were reporting it in the mid-90s.

While ESPN has made no bones about their emphasis on entertainment and debate in recent years, they’ve also been increasingly sketchy on their impartiality as a news source, with both athletes and larger institutions seeing ESPN’s favor.  If sacrificing some of their journalistic ethics for entertainment wasn’t bad enough, the loss of impartiality over the years by the mothership has been appalling.   Perhaps the most vivid example of ESPN crossing the line from journalistic enterprise to bloodthirsty money-making machine is their partnership with the University of Texas to form the Longhorn Network.

The ethics of ESPN funding the Longhorn Network are very complex, but suffice to say anyone with half a brain can see the conflict of interest.  If Texas were to be under NCAA investigation, would Mark May be foaming at the mouth to bring them down in the same way ESPN has been crusading against Ohio State?  Will ESPN’s College Gameday try to inflate Texas’s resume to get into the BCS, even if they don’t truly deserve it?  After all, BCS money means money for Texas, money for the Longhorn Network, and money for ESPN.  The same could be said for ESPN’s partnership with the SEC and their “SEC on ESPN” agreement which blurs the line between normal rights fees and network cheerleading. 

Events like the ESPY’s and ventures like the Longhorn Network are bad enough in terms of ESPN blurring the lines between the athletes they are in business with and the athletes they are supposed to cover objectively.  But controversies like their “reporting” of sexual assault allegations against Ben Roethlisberger have shown a favoribility in ESPN’s coverage that would be revolutionary if it wasn’t so disturbing.   In Big Ben’s case, ESPN deliberately delayed reporting serious allegations against a star QB with whom they had a cozy relationship.  They claimed their motivation was that the events weren’t “news.”  But somehow, T.O. doing situps in his driveway was treated as the story of the decade.

Of course, the true watershed moment where ESPN gave away their journalism card was The Decision.  Needless to say the consequences are still being felt today.  The Decision was the single worst thing ESPN has ever put on their air and severely hurt their journalistic integrity.  Perhaps the failure of Bonds on Bonds should have been fair warning against ESPN craving access and ratings above keeping any shred of journalistic integrity in their future, but evidently that lesson wasn’t learned.

Whatever really happened to Bruce Feldman wasn’t actually the final straw for journalistic ethics at ESPN, it was another chance for the network to show its true colors.  The entire episode has only shone a brighter light on the inner workings of ESPN in their calling to not let the truth get in the way of an entertaining story to fill hours of air time and drive ratings.  As excerpts from Texas Tech’s former coach Mike Leach point out, Craig James helped peddle false stories to make Leach look bad at the expense of his lying weasel of a son Adam.  Not only did ESPN have their martyr in the son of an on-air perssonality, but they had weeks of debates and stories ready to transform Mike Leach from football coach to punching bag.

But the more damning allegations from the book’s legal documents center around reporter Joe Schad.  According to Leach, Schad was taking direction from Craig James’s PR firm without caring to hear Leach’s side of the story.  Reporters are supposed to deal with facts and finding the truth.  And yet, Leach’s book alleges that Schad was merely a stooge for an ex-jock who held sway at the WWL.  How do we know other ESPN reporters aren’t taking similar talking points for whatever interests they’re trying to protect?  How do we know ESPN isn’t quashing stories that would make their favorite athlete, team, or conference look bad?  Fifteen years ago, these questions would be ludicrous.  Now, after the journalistic path ESPN has taken since, these questions have to be foremost in viewers’ minds.

Even if you believe ESPN and Poynter as the Gospel truth, there are still way too many questions for the integrity of the mothership.  Why does Bruce Feldman suffer from a conflict of interest and not Craig James?  Why wasn’t James “sidelined” during the initial reporting of the Leach controversy? Why did ESPN lose out on Leach’s side of the story to other media companies in favor of exalting Craig James?  Was every ESPN exec in upper management too busy with the ESPY’s to properly respond directly to #FreeBruce before nearly a full day had passed?  Is ESPN so mismanaged that the company can’t craft a quick, concise denial to a supposedly “erroneous report?”  Is the Poynter Institute really drinking ESPN’s Kool-Aid as their latest article suggests?

The entire #FreeBruce episode is in some ways ESPN’s journalistic Waterloo.  But I see ESPN’s slow march to their journalistic ruin, crystalized by their actions regarding Bruce Feldman, as more akin to Caesar boldly crossing the Rubicon to bring civil war upon Rome.  ESPN is a defiant Caesar, making the firm decision to leave behind its reputation as a credible news source.  The die that was cast with The Decision has now been confirmed to the masses with the James/Leach/Feldman saga.

While many, including those at ESPN, want to compartmentalize and separate Bristol’s journalistic duty from their live sports and entertainment, the task is impossible.  ESPN The Brand can’t be separated from ESPN The News Source as long as the two live at the same network, under the same umbrella.

If anything, the Feldman situation has taught us all a valuable lesson.  ESPN values entertainment and big names in sports more than truth, journalism, and transparency.  It’s all well and good that ESPN has their sports and entertainment empire to dominate the world and it’s all well and good that ESPN finds it more important to protect the jocks, ex-jocks, and celebrities that are highest on the Bristol food chain.  At least now fans know the internal battle between ESPN The Brand and ESPN The News Source has been decided.  But will it have been worth it for ESPN to lose journalistic credibility with fans in the process?  After all, even Caesar’s empire didn’t last forever… 

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