ombudsmanone that investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints

It’s no secret we’ve been criticial of the Poynter Institute as ESPN Ombudsman.  Poynter is a respected entity, but their tenure as ESPN Ombudsman has been shocking.  Article after article has appeared as if it has come straight from the mouths of ESPN’s Public Relations department instead of an ombudsman.  Take their defense of the Longhorn Network or their mind-boggling role in #FreeBruce.  Their “investigating” has consisted of giving ESPN’s side of the story while dismissing complaints.  Meanwhile, legitimate criticisms of ESPN continue to go unanswered from their own ombudsman.  Only this article about ESPN’s stumbles in covering the breaking Penn State story really hits the mark.

September 2nd, 2011 Poynter said about Bruce Feldman, “He suggested that his conflicts, created by writing the book, are tiny compared to those of Craig James, the ESPN announcer named in Leach’s lawsuit. If the allegations in the lawsuit are accurate — that James hired a PR firm to smear Leach — then ESPN has an even bigger problem that we’ll certainly be writing about.”

That was 147 days ago!  What else does Poynter need?  An ESPN analyst is running for United States Senate and there is e-mail documentation from months ago that confirms the “allegations” Poynter speaks of and yet they continue to remain silent.  As that day counter continues to rise, the legitimacy and impact of Poynter’s role as ESPN Ombudsman becomes an even bigger letdown.  Poynter took six weeks between posts on their ESPN blog from December-January, so we know time wasn’t a factor.  

And as ESPN’s ombudsman release more articles like this stunning piece on Tim Tebow yesterday, the disappointment rises exponentially.

Yesterday, Poynter came out with a lengthy article dissecting the one thing ESPN has taken the most criticism for in the last three months – Tebowmania.  And perhaps to nobody’s surprise, the Poynter Institute found nothing wrong with ESPN’s obsession over Tim Tebow.  Let’s dive in and see Poynter becoming a champion to the cause of ESPN and Tebowmania and why it’s just as baffling as Tebowmania itself…

“Tebowmania was the national obsession with the Denver Broncos’ quarterback. But it could also be described as an affliction besetting the media.

As watchers of all media, not just ESPN, we at the Poynter Review Project can verify that Tebowmania was in full force across all media, not just ESPN. New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni wrote about Tebow. National Public Radio did numerous stories, including an “All Things Considered” piece examining the mystery of Tebow’s success…”

By this logic, if everyone else does it, it must be ok!  Nobody in their right mind would criticize ESPN for covering Tim Tebow or treating Tim Tebow like the biggest story in the NFL this past season.  His run with the Broncos in the last two months of the regular season was some of the most compelling sports television you will find.   Tebow became a national crossover phenomenon.  But pointing to NPR doing a few segments on Tim Tebow as an argument for two hour long TebowCenter specials seems like a bridge too far.  The amount and saturation is the issue, not Tebow himself.  That is and always has been the disconnect with Tebowmania.

“Tebow coverage took off for ESPN in 2011. Among the highlights:

  • Long before the NFL season opened, ESPN opened its Year of the Quarterback with an hourlong documentary on Tebow, which aired several times throughout the year.
  • Commentator Skip Bayless spent an inordinate amount of time on “First Take” offering up praise for Tebow.
  • Bayless’ advocacy became the primary material for DJ Steve Porter’s catchy Auto-Tune mashup, “All he does is win” used on “First Take.”
  • Tebow was the cover of the Oct. 31 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
  • “SportsCenter” dedicated not one, but two special shows to Tebow.”

To call these highlights is simply incredible.  It’s interesting that Poynter is all well and good calling Skip Bayless a “commentator” and just accepting his delusional antics.  Seriously, how does an entity like Poynter, a nationally respected voice on journalism have nothing to say about how Skip Bayless has poisoned the national sports conversation with his pom poms and demagoguery?  How does Poynter say nothing about a man that will say ANYTHING to gain ratings whether he believes it or not?  How does Poynter say nothing about ESPN, a company that is always fighting for its journalistic reputation, freely promoting and hyping an ADVOCATE instead of a JOURNALIST?  

Instead, the only comment Poynter has about Skip Bayless exploiting Tim Tebow’s popularity… the only comment Poynter makes about Skip Bayless and ESPN turning two hours a day into a torturous circus of preposterous shouting that makes viewers want to jam flaming icepicks into their eyesockets… the only comment Poynter makes is that Skip Bayless’ advocacy made a “catchy” autotune mashup.  

I’m speechless.

“It’s hard to judge any of this as excessive.”

Oh.  My.  God.  DPSOIFDOSIPJ:FSLKFSJOPI!!!  It’s hard to judge any of this as excessive?!?!  Of course.  THREE TIMES as many mentions as any other athlete over 11 days of SportsCenter isn’t excessive!  Commissioning a fellow Disney subsidiary to make a flipping superhero out of Tim Tebow isn’t excessive!  Two hour long specials dedicated to Tim Tebow isn’t excessive!  Give me a second while I wipe bits of brain matter off my keyboard.  

“And suddenly Tebow really was a god. And he kept on winning, at least for a while, ultimately leading the Broncos to the playoffs, and prompting lots and lots of chatter along the way.”

Did Skip Bayless write this?  The frightening thing is, I think this sentence is meant to be taken seriously.  So from November-December it was Tebow that made the earth revolve around the sun to keep it from hurtling into deep outer space.  I’m glad someone picked up the slack there.  Thankfully Poynter cleared that up for us so the endless Jesus jokes about Tebow weren’t just justified, they really were true!  If this was meant to be in jest, someone needs to help Poynter with their comedic delivery.

“ESPN’s success comes not from its coverage of games but from its ability to extend those games into a story and tell that story from different angles. Stories need main characters. Tebow is undoubtedly a main character, an epic hero to some, an unexposed great pretender to others.”

This may be the most troubling part of Poynter’s lengthy defense of ESPN.  If ESPN’s success doesn’t come from its coverage of games, why does new President John Skipper have a history of bringing more and more live events to the leader?  ESPN doesn’t pay a billion dollars for debate shows.  It pays a billion dollars for Monday Night Football.  Sports has, is, and always will be about the games.  Stories, hype, and false prophecies will come and go.  The games will remain.  If ESPN fully loses that perspective, its empire will fall.  

“Everyone we talked to at the network was unapologetic about the coverage. Whenever Tebow plays, fans watch. When sports anchors and radio hosts are talking about Tebow, the ratings go up. Every time Tebow does something unexpected or new, there will be a story. And you can expect someone, somewhere at ESPN to cover it.”

It’s shocking that a journalistic superpower like Poynter would use ratings as a crutch for Tebowmania.  You know what else brought in ratings?  The Decision.  That’s the type of entertainment/ratings/money over journalism/perspective/quality decision ESPN made here with Tebow.  Of course it’s a business and ESPN is trying to get ratings and money.  Nobody sane would argue otherwise.  But is there no line between a bloodthirsty hunt for ratings and serving your millions of consumers with integrity?  If not, let’s just bring the Kardashians to ESPN and call it a day.

“That is the moment of disconnect. When a story gets bigger than the sport itself, and ESPN leans into that narrative rather than turning away, some fans throw up their hands and cry, “excess.” But an all-sports network is the very definition of excess. We’re not inclined to fault folks for doing the very thing that’s made them successful.”

The moment of disconnect is blindly accepting ESPN riding Tim Tebow like no other athlete ever before seen.  What does ESPN and Poynter have to say to a National Hockey League fan that sees Tim Tebow mentioned more than their entire sport?  “It’s ok, we know ESPN doesn’t treat hockey like a sport because hockey doesn’t appear on the family of networks.  It’s not personal, just business.”  What does ESPN have to say to the seven other fanbases that made the Divisional Playoffs about getting less coverage combined than Tim Tebow?  Why are these questions continuing to go unchallenged?

The advocacy and arguing and grandstanding is not what made ESPN successful.  ESPN was built on the hard work of professional journalists, anchors, reporters, broadcasters and visionairies that met the needs of sports fans everywhere.  That’s not found in Disney crossbranding promotional cartoonish nonsense.  And that’s why Tebowmania is so disappointing to me as a fan of ESPN.  I know Tebowmania is not what ESPN was built on.  Tebowmania is not what I watched for 15 years on ESPN as I grew up with the network.  And I hope Tebowmania and #WhenSkipMeetsTebow isn’t the future of ESPN.