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September 28, 2011

Poynter Damages Its Credibility for ESPN

Filed under: Internet,Media — Chas @ 1:22 pm

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.

[Emphasis added.]

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.’ “

[Emphasis added.]

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.





ESPN worrying about journalistic integrity. LOL
Them posing as some sort of unbiased sports news bureau reporting on Conference Expansion is akin to NBC doing an investigative piece on General Electric.

Just Stop it ESPN, we’ve had enough of your BS.

Comment by EMel 09.28.11 @ 2:52 pm

Thanks for linking that Columbia Journal Review piece Chas. Your whole article is very thought provoking and comes at very good time after the role ESPN played in all of this. I found the comments after the CJR piece very poignant such as this:

There is also strong suspicion that ESPN encouraged the ACC to grab Pitt and Syracuse from the Big East by promising to boost their contract behind the scenes. ESPN has been angry at the Big East for several months because that league rejected an undervalued offer to renew its contract early. The Big East wants to go to the open market next year, instead, and get a contract reflecting its true value.

NBC is interested in transforming Versus into a full fledged NBC Sports Network. The possibility of Big East football and basketball joining the NHL in anchoring a legitimate competitor might just be too much for ESPN to bear, so executives there could have decided to ruin the Big East now, preventing those schools from getting a big contract while bringing their BCS bid into question just like a few years ago.

#31 Posted by Reiko on Tue 27 Sep 2011 at 04:20 PM

Comment by EMel 09.28.11 @ 3:21 pm

Chas,

This is a better piece of journalism than I have ever seen from ESPN. Well done.

Comment by Bowling Green Panther 09.28.11 @ 5:26 pm

What did you say, Charles? Hey, isn’t Pitt playing tomorrow nite? Any lineup changes? In short, gentlemen of the press, Most of us out here in the “real world” could care Less about Mr. Feldman and ESPN. Please leave the “inside remarks” alone and get back to the BASICS. (i.e. on the field football) Rev. George of Columbus

Comment by Rev. George Mehaffey 09.28.11 @ 6:15 pm

Well, if ESPN encouraged the ACC to grab Pitt and Syracuse, tell me where to send the thank you fruit basket!!!

Allthough calmed down, if you even take a look around, at any teams blogs or sites, that have not found a safe harbor in the storm, it’s a sad situation. “why won’t they take us?”, “why did they take them?” “maybe the **** conference will take us”, “man, I can’t believe we’re gonna be left out of this”.

WVU, UCONN, Rutgers, Louisville, Cincy, UCF, ECU, Kansas, Kansas St., Iowa St. etc. etc.

Am I making fun??? Absolutely not, not one iota!!!!!!!! And seriously, not even making fun of WVU. For real.

It could have easily been us. It’s been bad enough the past 20 years to be looked down on and mocked in the BE football conference.

When you look around, I really can feel their anxiety, sadness, bitterness and fear of the unknown, knowing your beloved team could be looked at as some second class citizen and hardly given the time of day on any of the sports networks, on the net, or even in the papers.

I loved the decision two weeks ago, after seeing what school administrators, alumni and fans are going through right now, the ones that may be left out, it is even more clear of what a brilliant move, the move to the ACC was.

Kudos to all, and if ESPN pushed for it, kudos to them!!!

Comment by Dan 09.28.11 @ 8:45 pm

As for your article Chas, obviously a subject you have passion for, very well written, and obvious you know what you’re talking about.

I read the whole thing, but, still not totally clear. In layman’s terms, it seems it boils down to the sports writer getting shafted and losing his job???

For doing something, his superiors not only encouraged but condoned??

Then, they got sued by subject of condoned book, so they let the writer hang out to dry???

I really don’t know enough to comment on these two, but, I will anyhow!! lol

1. Mike Leach….ya, some issues, I also read reports that a lot of it was overblown, and other coaches have done worse. It wasn’t an electrical closet at all.

A. My overall feeling about Mike Leach, if you asked for a quick, on the spot reply? Probably no worse than any other coach, trying to win like hell, and after a few years out of coaching, I hope he gets a job. One thing for sure, he had some awesome Texas Tech teams, and they were certainly fun to watch.

2. Craig James. Never liked him. Way before this. I can’t pick any out now, but, I know, many times I would listen to him, and he really seemed to be telling a lot of viewers, look, I played big time college football, so, “I know”.
I remember him walking over colleagues comments with (paraphrasing) “no, no, the linebacker should not have been out there, no way, he has got to stay at home!!!”

Almost frothing at the mouth to let people know, that he was right.

A. On the spot, I would say, he has always been very full of himself, and because of this, I would not put it past him to have used every power possible, to get Leach fired, because it was his kid, and “I’m Craig James of ESPN, you fooled with the wrong dude Leach”.

Hey Chas, I could be wrong about everything (ha ha), maybe I’ll go by the book.

Anyhow, felt you were due a comment, as you put a lot into this article.

Comment by Dan 09.28.11 @ 9:01 pm

I think some of you suggested how could Sal Sunseri influence Todd Graham. One only need to look at the Craig James fiasco at Texas Tech to get a sense of how former players & coaches (former & current) expect their sons to be given Carte Blanche at where ever they attend college.

Did Craig James son attend the college he went to (SMU),,….NO…..he attended Texas Tech(no matter). Did Craig James expect …..’special treatment’ for his son…..most certainly.

So please knock off the 3 Monkey Wise Men routine concerning Tino. It’s insulting!

Comment by EMel 09.28.11 @ 9:44 pm

I would hope that PITT alum/fans/people would not be so naive.

Comment by EMel 09.28.11 @ 9:50 pm

You’ve gotta be kidding to think that Sal Sunseri has any influence on Tino’s playing time.

Comment by sweet caroline 09.28.11 @ 9:52 pm

I hate Craig James, but I think being PO’d because your son was locked in a dark closet because he had a concussion is not asking for special treatment. I’m pretty sure any parent would be ticked off about that….
Special treatment. Wow.

Sal has zero influence, espcially with a new coach.

Comment by OntartioLett'sGoPitt 09.28.11 @ 10:07 pm

You must watch this:

link to youtube.com

Comment by steve 09.28.11 @ 10:19 pm

Steve – Thanks for the video link. I’m not a fan of rap but that was pretty well done.

Comment by dinosaur 71 09.28.11 @ 10:48 pm

The Pointer Sisters? Never liked them much. I prefer Chaka Khan when I’m in the mood for some 80s R&B.

Comment by maguro 09.28.11 @ 11:50 pm

No I’m not kidding Sweet Caroline.

Craig James was influential in getting Mike Leach fired due to his belief that his son wasn’t getting enough playing time and Leach was mistreating him.

Why do you think Pitt is any different.

Comment by EMel 09.29.11 @ 1:11 am

Which one are you, See know evil, hear no evil or speak no evil??

Comment by EMel 09.29.11 @ 1:14 am

On a football note, here’s a list of all the starting QB’s in FBS and the States they come from:
(note PA. only has two and neither are very good, can you guess who one is? haha)

link to collegefootball.rivals.com

Comment by EMel 09.29.11 @ 3:39 am

That reminds me of when I was working at Coast Guard HQ on a very crucial and expensive piece of Federal regulation. When it got close to the “go/no go” decision making on my part I went to work on a Monday morning to find a very negative piece written by a reporter for a national newspaper.

In the article it stated that I “had refused to comment” and was “not open to critical opinions” on the legislation when in reality the reporter had emailed me once and left a message on my phone – both at 6:30 pm on the previous Friday evening. Friday evening in DC! A 0% chance of actually talking with someone.

I would have welcomed the chance to discuss the subject and get, basically, a free venue to get our point across so I called and asked him why he didn’t call me at home when my phone number was public and he said “Why take the chance you’d ruin my article, I had a Saturday morning deadline”.

Comment by Reed 09.29.11 @ 5:01 am

Great summary of the issue. I’ve tried contacting ESPN, included references to the Feldman/James/TT issues on multiple occasions(not surprisingly never posted) and contacted the poynter institute.

It is becoming more and more obvious how influential ESPN is and how that is not always beneficial. I always thought we had an interesting position in the Big East. Often not enough respect in football and likely too much in basketball at other times.

Comment by Dan 09.29.11 @ 10:47 am

My thoughts are, should a father have any influence over playing time in college, absolutely not. Actually nor in high school either.

Could they. I would like to think that a coach has enough balls to tell a father to “eff off”, if he tried that directly, so, I would doubt that.

Subtley though, calls to the coach, “hey how ya doin?”, “hey, I was just talking to Danny Marino and Mark May, they were asking how things are at Pitt”.

Same calls to the A.D.. You’ve got to kiss alumni a**, but, I would still think, my job is to win, I’m gonna play who I want. Even if the a.d. and chancellor called me and said, “give Tino the best chance you can.”

Eventually, any man, would say, “screw that”, “I gotta win”.

Which makes me wonder why he’s still in there.

Again, ad nauseum, I know the other kid is a freshman, but, with two losses, what’s the worst the new kid could do?? Lose a game???

Hey, as for the kid being locked in a cupboard, I’ve heard the other side too, that it was not a cupboard, it was a small weight room, and it wasn’t a concussion either.

I feel bad for the kid, if his Dad did intervene, he’ll have that tag for a long while.

Admittedly, I’m biased, can’t stand Craig James, never could, even before the incident.

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Comment by stasera in tv 10.18.11 @ 1:02 pm

[...] last wrote about the role of the Poynter Institute in acting as the ESPN ombudsman, back in September. Specifically, about how badly they were doing in that role. I have tried to [...]


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