Media Circus (cont.)
Don Ohlmeyer's 18-month tenure as ESPN ombudsman came to a close last week with a 5,830-word column that punctuated the value of listening to the audience. The column spent much energy on the work of Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior vice president for research & analytics, who explained that "ESPN is fanatical about listening to the audience."
It is a principle everyone in sports media should follow.
Those who follow me on Twitter know my chief complaint with Ohlmeyer's tenure: a lack of timeliness to his columns and a limited focus beyond the television platform. The digital age forces the newspaper and radio ombudsman to work under a faster metabolism, and those at NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times have been up to the challenge. Too often Ohlmeyer's columns felt dated. On the day of The Decision, a landmark moment for ESPN (and LeBron James) last year, Ohlmeyer examined how vuvuzelas presented a dilemma for ESPN at the World Cup in South Africa. Such a column about buzz, alas, lacked buzz.
The Decision, in fact, is where Ohlmeyer starred, an issue in which he could dive into his legendary career as a sports TV executive and explain incisively how trust had been broken by the network. His column on that program was the best work of his tenure. But criticism is subjective, and my own magazine's Scorecard editors praised Ohlmeyer's tenure in one of the magazine's final issues of 2010.
Ohlmeyer wrote one column after Oct. 21, and in his final piece, he apologized for the spotty presence of his column, citing health issues. This column wishes him only the best of health. It is important for me to note that when I confirmed news of Ohlmeyer's health from a source outside of ESPN after an ESPN employee had told me Ohlmeyer had not been feeling well, I stopped tweaking him on Twitter for his absence. Whether Ohlmeyer should have been transparent earlier to the ESPN audience (or stepped down) is an issue reasonable people can debate.
The next ESPN ombudsman will be named shortly and the hope is that he or she will work in a real-time age. I've long floated the idea that the ombudsman should work in a real-time medium -- be it a blog, mailbag or even a Twitter account -- to react swifter, even if that reaction is to merely inform viewers and readers that their voices have been heard and a longer examination is coming. Plenty of issues that have risen at ESPN in the past six weeks -- such as Will Selva's plagiarizing an Orange County Register sports reporter (and his one-week punishment for it); Ron Franklin's sexist comments to colleague Jeannine Edwards; ESPN's partnership with the University of Texas; reporter Erin Andrews' endorsing Reebok apparel; Mary Carillo's not working the Australian Open -- that have not been addressed by the public's representative to ESPN. The next ombudsman will have much to chew on, including highlighting the excellent work the brand does on a daily basis.
As many of you know, Erin Andrews recently signed with Reebok to endorse ZigTech footwear and apparel, which means she's the only working sports reporter who can call both Chad Johnson and Alex Ovechkin teammates. Last week The Oregonian's Allen Brettman (who covers Nike for the newspaper) posted this piece, which took a hard line on Andrews. Wrote Brettman: "If you cover the sports equipment and apparel industry, like I do, you're slightly agog at the endorsement. Because just about two weeks earlier, Andrews gave an on-air report that delivered a hit on one of Reebok's chief competitors, Nike."
The so-called hit referred to how Andrews reported that TCU football players were slipping in their new Nike cleats during the Rose Bowl. In his story, Brettman quoted the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride, the organization's ethics group leader who often weighs in on ethics in journalism. "Journalists can review products, but they can't take money from a company to endorse them," McBride told the newspaper. "That totally ruins their credibility."
ESPN does not have a formal policy regarding the endorsement of commercial products by its talent. The network has long said that it evaluates each of the requests on an individual basis, and it was quick to respond to Brettman: "It's rare she would cover stories involving shoes in her role," an ESPN spokesman said. "With that said, if something relevant comes up, she would disclose her Reebok connection."
If ESPN is cool with Andrews' promoting Reebok -- or Applebee's and NutriSystem, as Chris Berman once brilliantly juggled concurrently -- she has every right to do so. Let me state unequivocally that I don't believe for a moment that Andrews' reporting at the Rose Bowl was done to curry favor for her about-to-be employer. Such brazenness strikes me as preposterous, especially since ESPN has senior news editors (with distinguished print credentials) on site at remotes to provide checks and balances on everything.
But the key word here is credibility. Andrews can sell the soap for Reebok and get rich doing it if her employer is cool with it. But it reconfirms what I've always said about her: She's a personality who occasionally practices journalism. It's the same way I'd describe Berman, too. ESPN executives, especially those on the newsgathering side, understandably hate hearing charges that the network shows favoritism toward athletes. But its audience gets a mixed message when one of its most well-known talents is hawking Reebok alongside the Manning brothers.
ESPN PR is indeed correct that Andrews doesn't cover the shoe beat. But Reebok does have a ton of athletes on its payroll (John Wall, Sidney Crosby, Tim Lincecum, David Ortiz, etc.). Say Andrews covers the NFL draft, as she did in 2009, and she's interviewing a Reebok athlete: Can I trust her with questions of that athlete? If she found out newsworthy information damaging to a Reebok athlete, would she be willing to report it?
Those are fair questions, and if Andrews is going to take Reebok's cash, then examinations of the issue are going to come, be it from The New York Times, Larry Kramer, the former CEO of CBS Marketwatch.com, or former ESPN employee Keith Olbermann. In the Times piece, Bob Dorfman, the executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, said of Andrews: "She's not a paragon of journalism." ESPN countered otherwise. "We are confident in Erin's reporting ability and journalistic role," a spokesperson said. "If an instance of inherent conflict arises, we would obviously be transparent with the audience."
I've long been impressed by ESPN reporter John Barr, who consistently produces terrific work. His Outside the Lines feature this week on the use of prescription painkillers by retired NFL players was ESPN at its journalistic best. (Producers Dwayne Bray and Ronnie Forchheimer get major props here as well.) The network says it commissioned the first scientific study of prescription painkiller use by retired NFL players, and the results showed an alarming rate of misuse.
The study (made up of 644 former players and commissioned by the network with additional funding by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) marked the first time researchers have explored the extent of the use and misuse of prescription pain medications by former NFL players. ESPN says researchers found more than half of the retired NFL players surveyed reported using prescription painkillers during their career and, of that same group, 71 percent admitted misusing the drugs during their time in the NFL.
It's groundbreaking stuff, and worth your time.
Finally, one quick note about a previous item on Matt Millen. As I stated in an earlier column, SI.com appreciates ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson responding to questions about production judgments made by he and his staff. Last month I asked him why ESPN would assign Millen to call games in Michigan when he is so intensely disliked by the public. Both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press picked up Williamson's answer and readers commented in big numbers on both sites, including 163 comments on the Free Press website. The comments were decidedly in one direction.
If ESPN is fanatical about listening to the audience, as Bulgrin stated, and as I also believe to be true, the audience for this market seems to be saying something.