ESPN has been through the ringer over the past year after the emergence of blogs and even mainstream media not always buying what the “Leader” was selling. There were multiple on-air, print and “roast” instances and there was even a Power Point sent around that tried to deter advertisers from working with the network. It’s tough when you’re at the top, whether the criticism is justified or not.

Well you can add the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch to the list of critics and they don’t seem to be pulling any punches….

It’s one thing for a journalist to see a quip fall flat, but it’s another when people feel abused. To ESPN’s shame, some of its employees have insulted the audience on several occasions with lowbrow or boorish behavior.

(Lists Jacobson, Jemele Hill and Bonnie Bernstein as examples)

John Walsh, executive editor of ESPN, cautioned me to “consider the volume (of content that) our company produces” and said: “I don’t think it’s a cause for a pattern or trend.” ESPN’s staff shouldn’t try so hard to be controversial. The network would have fewer embarrassments.

“We’d rather the scoreboard says none,” Walsh said. “But if the scoreboard says three (examples), we endure.” He called them “three separate instances” and added: “Trying to group them together, I think, would not be a wise thing for you.”

Then call me unwise, Mr. Walsh. I’m not buying your argument.

In the news business, journalists will chalk up something out of the ordinary as an aberration. But when it happens twice, we wonder if it is a pattern. By the third time, it can reasonably be called a trend.

ESPN rejects the idea that there is a pattern of recklessness in its ranks, but I’m not so sure.

The whole thing is really a fascinating read and even looks back at what ESPN used to do well and how it has changed over the years. The interesting thing to note for the future is, as more and more mainstream publications continue to lambaste the network, how will they respond? It seems like the network will take a couple steps forward (new Sports Center format, V Foundation work, Euro 2008, changing S.A.S’ role) and then just leap back (NBA/NFL Draft, Titletown, continuing to employ Joe Morgan), so much so that they seem worse off than they were before.

I do somewhat agree with Mr. Walsh that incidents will undoubtedly take place with all the coverage that the network has. The issue though is the degree to which those incidents have hurt individuals or groups in the past. Up until recently most hadn’t been punished and probably weren’t even addressed. The question now is whether ESPN listens to its critics or just ignores them and plows ahead for that almighty dollar ultimately turning the network into Sports’ version of MTV.

No entity, company, or medium is perfect. Not TV, newspapers, radio, or blogs. But if you’re going to claim to be the “Leader” of anything… should try and come as close to that level as possible.

ESPN: The sports leader in embarrassment (Market Watch)