Time to go off-topic to a media criticism.
In July, Bruce Feldman was a cause for the college blogosphere. A symbol of ESPN tyranny. Of the ongoing injustice of a college football landscape without Mike Leach on a sideline. Of the continued bad judgment of allowing Craig James anywhere near a microphone and camera.
ESPN denied that Feldman was suspended, and within a few days, the Poynter Review Project — ESPN’s indedpendent ombudsman thingy — put together a story that was not well-received.
Now, before I go any further, I should get some of my own biases out of the way.
I don’t really care for ombudsmen. I think they tend to be more about appearances than anything else. A PR move by many companies to show how much they care when they screw-up something that makes them look bad. All while not changing a thing. At best, they help resolve the matter, while stressing the issue was an aberration, and not part of the policy
In media companies, the ombudsman often do little but repeat the allegations and dismiss them. All too often it comes off as merely defending and explaining the decisionmaking process; and little more than acknowledging that someone, maybe made a mistake. The only time they get interesting is if the person filling the ombudsman role injects any of their personality and opinions/thoughts into the work.
Some of the people who have filled the role of ombudsman at ESPN have done good work. They have shown some inner-workings of how things happened, and offered very good critiques of events. That is all they have done. Have there been any changes? Improvements? Not that I’ve noticed.
I’m also biased towards the Bruce Feldman narrative of events. It fits more with past stories of ESPN management, and my own experiences with company bureaucracies.
The first piece by Kelly McBride essentially went off the rails. Ostensibly covering the (non-)suspension of Bruce Feldman, Ms. McBride had no communication with Mr. Feldman.
Feldman did not respond to several emails, text messages and phones calls from us. He has not tweeted or published any stories or appeared on the air, fueling rumors that ESPN is lying and that he really is suspended.
The only source of information was from ESPN powers that all denied any suspension and characterized Feldman’s silence as self-imposed.
At this point, Feldman’s silence is self-imposed, according to Rob King, ESPN senior vice president of editorial for digital and print media, and Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine.
“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.
Without anything to dispute regarding the suspension, Ms. McBride affirmatively states early in the piece that “ESPN did not suspend Feldman.”
Ms. McBride then turned her attention to the issue of a reporter working with a subject on a book. Something she finds a complete no-no, “…we can’t overstate what a bad idea we think as-told-to books are for independent journalists.”
So Ms. McBride meanders through the ESPN bureaucracy that led to the decision to allow Mr. Feldman to do the book. While she criticizes ESPN for the decisionmaking, she essentially declares that Feldman should no longer be able to cover a good chunk of college football for conflict of interest.
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. Having authored a book in Leach’s voice, Feldman clearly can’t cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach’s former staffers, who are now spread far and wide — some of them now head coaches — make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman’s bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman’s self-imposed silence.
The abstract stupidity of ethics. In Ms. McBride’s views, working with a figure involved in an area you cover, forever taints your coverage of that person, an institution — and by extension any other figures with whom you interacted during the time of that collaboration. It is part of the lie that reporters/journalists are some sort of Heinlein-esque “fair witness” that must and do act without bias. Transparency is insufficient in this view.
The other silliness with this approach, is presuming that other forms of writing where people are interviewed don’t create biases or issues. A beat reporter forms relationships with coaches and players. There are trust and judgments made all the time. A political reporter who crafts the book about a contemporary event or time has to rely on the interviews and access he gets. Same with a sports writer. Biases are formed and everyone knows that will come into play later in their dealings. Interaction between people creates biases.
The only difference between a collaborative book and other books where a writer conducts the interviews and forms relationships with the subject(s). Money. In a collaborative book, there is a direct economic relationship between the subject and the writer. This direct relationship is the taint. And according to Ms. McBride prevents Bruce Feldman from doing any fair news reporting regarding Mike Leach and other people he interviewed for the book.
A book, like the recently published, “Confidence Men,” by Ron Suskind, has no direct economic benefit between the people in the book and the author. Instead, the benefits are indirect. Suskind gets access and a chance to put together the narrative. The people in the interviews are given a chance to explain their actions and views — or at least their perspective. It gives them a chance to try and put their story out there — and presumably give them later opportunities at employment, shaping policy and more. Yet this is not a taint if Suskind were to later do a report that involve any of the people he interviewed — even though their previous access allowed him to write the book that economically benefited him.
Presumably realizing that she has essentially tried to blame Feldman for the mess by agreeing to the book in the first place; she attempts to share the blame on ESPN for letting Feldman do the book, and not being clear about issues to him. In this way, she can see it as fair because, “we realize no one will be happy with our conclusions.”
The initial piece began to look even worse, as Bruce Feldman remained quiet and unpublished. For a man not suspended, he was unseen. Not even making an appearance at SEC Media Days. For a guy not suspended by ESPN, his non-presence for weeks suggested something far different.
Finally, on September 1, Bruce Feldman resurfaced — as an employee at CBS Sports. He did a radio interview with Dan Patrick, talked to SI.com’s Richard Deistch and put out his own column. Remarkably, by September 2, Kelly McBride was able to get a response finished.
It came off as a touch defensive and raised questions for me about McBride’s own impartiality.
The post states that she was finally able to speak with Bruce Feldman twice in the week leading up to his return to college sports writing for a total of 47 minutes. Feldman’s assertions are challenged and mentioned to lack evidence, while statements from ESPN authority figures are simply put out there in response and without comment.
Ms. McBride starts with the assertions from Bruce Feldman that ESPN Executive VP John Skipper told him not to talk to Ms. McBride and Poynter back in July. There’s denial of telling him not to do it, but there sure looked like an implied threat:
“It is categorically inaccurate that I told him not to talk to you guys. I am a little displeased with his actions,” Skipper said Thursday night on the phone. He said that he called Feldman in July to encourage him to “relax.” Feldman responded to that advice by saying, “the Poynter Institute called, I’m going to tell them you’re all a bunch of liars,” Skipper said.
“I suggested that getting into a public fight with your employer and calling them liars was not wise,” he said.
As our column neared its publication in July, Skipper said, “I called Bruce and said, ‘If you feel that you need to go on the record with The Poynter Institute, you should do so. I will confess that I said, ‘You need to remain careful.’ “
To which Ms. McBride has zero comment or any thoughts to add to this sort of statement. Does she think it was even unintentionally suggesting to Feldman that talking to Poynter was not the right play? We don’t know. There is no opinion or thoughts offered.
As for what Mr. Feldman had to say:
Feldman told us during a phone call Thursday evening that his wife was listening back in July when Skipper warned him not to talk to us. We asked if we could talk to her. That’s when Feldman hung up the phone, saying he was needed in makeup, and then on air at CBS. He promised to call back but never did, nor did he respond to a text message late in the evening.
No direct quote from Feldman in a conversation, but an implication that Feldman my be making it up and not backing up his statements. In part because he didn’t call-back as he promised, or let Ms. McBride speak to his wife. Nowhere in this post or the previous column, does she indicate that she ever asked to see the communications from ESPN authority figures to back up some of their claims. No e-mails about their discussions. Nothing.
The most disturbing thing, is that Ms. McBride calls the allegation very serious because of its potential to undermine “the foundation of Poynter’s role in reviewing and publicly commenting on ESPN’s efforts.” Yet, she offers no thoughts on the matter. No further digging. Nothing. A lot like an NCAA investigation.
Her other issue was a hodge-podge of his non-suspension and missing SEC Media Days, having a “do not book” block placed on him, and being subject to extra editing.
Again ESPN sticks to denying that he was suspended, that Feldman chose not to go, that he was allowed to go on other ESPN programming and minimizing any extra editing.
“That is not true, the SEC is a big deal to me,” Feldman said in response Thursday night. “That is complete B.S. I said to him that the least of my concerns coming out of this is press coverage.”
On the “do not book” policy, [ESPN the Magazine, Chad] Millman said talent bookers were constantly asking if they could use Feldman on the air and he told them all yes. On Aug. 8, Feldman appeared on an ESPNU show.
So he had one appearance in six weeks, but there was no block. The co-author/editor of a New York Times Bestseller, working for the same company, makes no appearances in support of the book. The only appearance was on a heavily scripted, controlled show only about previewing the upcoming college football season. Again, no comments or observations about the situation from the dispassionate observer.
Millman said he did request to see Feldman’s Insider column before it was published, and that was a change from their earlier arrangement.
“I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a blow up, and be aware of ties to Mike Leach and other coaches, that worked with Leach,” he said.
Feldman insisted this was unreasonable because it’s not the treatment other Insider writers receive. We think extra editing is always a good thing.
Unreasonable might be too strong a word, but when you couple it with the rest of the treatment, it would look like extra paranoia about anything Feldman was writing. On that topic, Ms. McBride finally found something where she could offer a comment: editing is good.
On the matter involving Craig James and Mike Leach, she punts.
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.
When? Who knows. My guess is that there will be no discussion of the allegations by Poynter until after the lawsuit is run, and an actual judgment is rendered. The Poynter Institute’s contract with ESPN is up in August 2012. The odds that the lawsuit will be complete by then and there will be a chance to comment? Not promising.
Unsurprisingly, Ms. McBride continues to emphasize that the problem with this whole affair was that Bruce Feldman wrote the book with Mike Leach, and ESPN didn’t stop it from happening.
Feldman should have recognized that in writing Leach’s book, he was becoming too much of an insider on that topic, walling himself off from too many important stories.
Now his conflicts are CBS Sports’ problems.
I look forward to her next article detailing the faults of Pat Forde (Rick Pitino), Mark Schlabach (Bobby Bowden, Urban Meyer and Frank Beamer), Buster Olney (Don Meyer), Peter Gammons (Roger Clemens), Jayson Stark (Phillies) and that was just a cursory search.
Since that post on September 2, the Poynter Review Project has not done anything. Yet the questions that a supposed ombudsman should be addressing only increase. There was nothing on the titillating book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.” The whole coverage by ESPN of realignment and expansiopocolypse, which the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted is consistently trying to ignore its own role. Not to mention the continued employment of Craig James in light of the details from the Mike Leach lawsuit.
The Poynter Institute holds itself out as a bastion that promotes excellence in journalism. How their work with ESPN furthers that goal, looked shaky from the beginning. After the Bruce Feldman-ESPN incident, it looks like they no longer know their own mission.