Tom Rinaldi, Erin Andrews, Matt Millen headline Media Power List
Tom Rinaldi, Steve Bunin showed textbook interviewing in the Paterno scandal
Erin Andrews marks a gamble for Fox, but credit her for leaving her comfort zone
Big Ten Network aired a football replay over the Freeh Report press conference
(Each month SI.com highlights people in the sports media who have proved newsworthy, both for positive and negative achievements. Since we wanted to punch this out before the Olympics, let's call this the first summer media power list.)
1. Tom Rinaldi and Steve Bunin, ESPN: If you watch ESPN daily, you see an ongoing battle between the factions that feast on debate and those aiming for substance beyond the Baylessian claptrap. Rinaldi and Bunin did themselves proud this month in the fight.
Often filling in for Bob Ley on Outside The Lines during the Penn State scandal, Bunin's work has been strong, a thoughtful and direct interviewer whether dealing with the Paterno Family spokesperson or media opining on the Penn State story. Rinaldi's interview with Jay Paterno following the Freeh Report is something ESPN management ought to show to staffers paid to conduct on-camera interviews. His questions were direct, his manner was firm but respectful, and it's really worth watching if you missed it.
I was so struck by Rinaldi's work that I contacted him in England this week (he's covering the British Open) to ask how things came together. He consented to an interview but not before repeatedly making the point that he did not want to capitalize on the Penn State story. (I include that here so the reader knows this was driven by me.)
Rinaldi initially thought he would interview Jay Paterno in-person at State College, Pa., but that timeline moved up after the Freeh Report was released on the morning of July 12. The interview was eventually conducted via satellite by Rinaldi in Bristol and Jay Paterno in State College.
"What we wanted to ask (were) simple and straightforward questions to elicit the reaction of Jay Paterno on the findings of the Freeh Report and not to simply provide a venue -- although that is very important -- but to get some of the questions that we thought would naturally be in viewers' minds," Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi had previously interviewed Jay Paterno a number of times and classified his relationship as "someone I know and have talked with many times through covering Penn State." Asked about his approach to the interviewing Jay Paterno, Rinaldi said, "I think both the viewer and subject understands that the questions will be straightforward, and in their simplicity, they are difficult because the topic is incomprehensibly difficult for everybody involved. To ask questions that are not simple and straightforward and to the point serves no one."
Rinaldi said he texted Jay Paterno after the interview to thank him for his time. "I told him that I hoped he found it fair," Rinaldi said. "That's always what you want. You strive for fairness. Not to placate and please the subject, but to get the subject to know your goal is fairness."
2. Bob Ryan, Boston Globe: Ryan, a sports writing institution in Boston, covered his last Red Sox game on July 17 after three decades as a columnist at the Globe, and will retire as a fulltime employee from the newspaper following the London Olympics. (He'll still write periodic columns for the Sunday paper.) Through it all, even as he clowned it up on Around The Horn and appeared on television more often than Al Roker, Ryan never lost his respect and love of the printed word. I asked Chad Finn, one of his longtime colleagues at the Globe, to pass along some words on what Ryan meant to his paper:
"The best thing for a New England lifer like me about working at The Boston Globe with Bob Ryan is that you get to say, "I work at the Globe with Bob Ryan." There's roughly a 1,968-way tie for the next-best thing, but I'll narrow it to two: his credibility and authenticity. The credibility is obvious; if there was a meaningful sporting event involving a Boston team over the last 40-plus years, he was there
But to me, his authenticity is more impressive because it's so scarce in the business these days. He's in the office more often than one would expect of a columnist of his national profile, tucked away in a corner desk with a window overlooking the roof parking lot rather than, as one might suspect of others of his prominence. Bob's is the voice you hear over the newsroom hum, and it's precisely the same voice you hear when he's on your television on "Around the Horn" or "PTI,'' the same voice you hear in your head when you read his words. That guy on TV is exactly who he is in the office -- an enthusiastic, genuine, passionate reminder that it's OK to be a sportswriter and still love sports."
3. Erin Andrews, Fox Sports: I've always used the same professional description for Andrews, and I'll repeat it once again: She's a television personality who occasionally practices journalism. Her move to Fox Sports is interesting because that network is gambling she can draw and keep an audience for a college football studio show. Her bona fides in the sport are legit. Andrews has covered some of the biggest games in college football's recent history and has a professional relationship with plenty of the top coaches. She also improved as an interviewer during her ESPN tenure, though not to the level of reporters on the sidelines such as Doris Burke, Jeannine Edwards and Pam Oliver.
The question is can Andrews do what great studio hosts must do. Can she lead her analysts into areas that are not comfortable for the sport, for her or the subjects at hand? The best at the position are well-prepared orchestra conductors who can read off a script or ad-lib with equal aplomb. It is not an easy gig to do well, and it's a challenge to morph between being somber and humorous, depending on the tone of the conversation.
Hiring Andrews was an interesting gamble for Fox because it bottomed out last year with Kevin Frazier and Marcus Allen leading a studio show that had zero impact on the college football landscape. She offers a very big name in sports broadcasting for Fox (the network mentioned the number of Twitter followers she has in its official hiring announcement -- a first for that company), and it's a different hire than a Curt Menefee or Chris Fowler because she clearly desires fame beyond sports. Andrews has a Hollywood publicist, she's repped by a major talent agency and has designs on entertainment. She's ambitious and wants to be famous. (This isn't limited to her: The same goes for Chris Berman, Stephen A. Smith, Dick Vitale and dozens of others.) She has her detractors and her supporters, and no doubt you fall in one of those camps.
How will this play out? I have no idea. I'm skeptical of Andrews being a forceful voice against coaches when the situation calls for it, but I give her credit for expanding out of her comfort zone. The one thing that's clear is that ESPN will not lose a single viewer from her departure. The games draw viewers, and the Empire has already moved on by naming Samantha Steele to the role Andrews had on College GameDay.
4. Ed Werder, ESPN: It was terrific to see ESPN extend the contract of the reporter for four additional years, but even better that the network plans to push Werder into a more visible role on multiple programs. Throughout his long history of covering the Cowboys circus, Werder has remained a thoughtful and challenging reporter. Viewers will be well-served with more of him, and ESPN also made a very smart move locking up fellow information gathers John Clayton, Adam Schefter and draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
5. Mark Jones and Brian Boyle, ESPN: Interviewing the President can an intimidating proposition for most reporters, especially those who don't do it regularly. After calling the first half of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team exhibition victory over Brazil last Monday, Jones quickly changed hats to interview Barack Obama at halftime. Poised and thankfully avoiding happy-talk nonsense, Jones and producer Boyle opportunistically got Obama to weigh in on who would win between the 1992 Dream Team and this year's squad. (POTUS correctly said '92). Jones then called the second half of the game. Nice work.
6. Poynter, ESPN ombudsman: Given my professional respect for the two main writers (Jason Fry and Kelly McBride) of the Poynter Review Project, and that I believe Poynter at its core cares deeply about the future of journalism in this country, I've no doubt been softer on ESPN's current ombudsman than previous ones. If one were to judge Poynter on the clarity it's provided ESPN viewers and readers on subjects of interest to viewers and readers, Poynter's tenure has been mixed at best. But that clearly isn't Poynter's main charter, and Poynter president Karen Dunlap acknowledged as such in this interview with SI.com.
Asked if Poynter had addressed the issues ESPN readers and viewers were most interested in, Dunlap said, "I would say sometimes the thing we found most useful were not the things that they were most interested in. And that might be a way that we are differentiated from the others [ombudsmen's] also."
A fair take, but also a frustrating one. Poynter has posted five times since March 28, including two pieces on ESPN's interviewing techniques. I'd argue ESPN consumers deserve more. (Worth noting on this topic were the recent comments to Poynter by former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan, the upcoming public editor of the New York Times. Sullivan said she's planning to provide essentially a daily conversation with readers).
With the Project Review ending in November, Poynter has time to finish strong and produce the kind of solid work for viewers as it did here on Bob Knight. Poynter deserves all of your criticism for the promised-and-much-anticipated-but-never-produced piece on Craig James, but there is still a thoughtful explanation to be done on how and why Sarah Phillips was hired and whether copying from Wikipedia is journalistic laziness (as one ESPN PR staffer remarkably termed it) or something worse. As for the presidential election, the topic of how far staffers are allowed to go with politics seems worthy of examination, and sourcing is always of interest to readers and viewers. Its recent column on the Freeh Report coverage and Matt Millen, no matter where you stood on its thesis, was filed within the same week as the release of the report. That's appreciated.
7. Wimbledon, The Good, ESPN: Roger Federer's win over Andy Murray delivered ESPN its highest-rated and most viewed tennis match ever. The network pulled in a 2.5 rating and 3.925 million viewers, smashing the previous record shared by the 1995 Australian Open Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras final and the 2002 Australian Open women's final. Overall, the network's coverage of Wimbledon on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 981,000 viewers, the best audience for ESPN since it acquired Wimbledon cable rights in 2003. It was a crisp production with solid work from staffers Darren Cahill, Chris Evert, Mary Joe Fernandez, Chris Fowler, Pam Shriver and John and Patrick McEnroe.
8. Wimbledon, The Bad, ESPN: My colleague Jon Wertheim has written about the myriad conflicts in tennis broadcasting, as have others, and last year this column surmised that part of the reason Mary Carillo left ESPN's booth because she was distressed by a culture that frowned on critical analysis of the top players on tour, particularly American stars. Unfortunately, Wimbledon once again took us into the clubby world between announcers and subjects as viewers heard Serena Williams praise Fernandez (her Fed Cup and Olympic coach) for her notes before Fernandez interviewed Williams after winning the ladies title.
That ESPN and CBS executives put Fernandez in such a position -- and it's the same when she interviews Roger Federer, who is represented by her husband -- is nonsense personified. The tennis public deserves better, and I say that enjoying Fernandez's work as an announcer. Brad Gilbert added his own delightful touch of unobjectivity at the Bank of West Classic when he fist-pumped Serena prior to interviewing her post-match. No one expects tennis to be 60 Minutes, but one wishes an adult in the house would occasionally make an attempt to limit this sort of stuff.
9. The Big Ten Network: One of the things to admire about the MLB Network is that despite being a league-owned entity, it has addressed and discussed difficult news about baseball. While viewers don't expect the Big Ten Network to be overtly critical of its schools, they do expect a dose of realism.
That wasn't the case on July 12 when BTN aired a replay of an Ohio State-Purdue football game instead of the Freeh Report press conference. Sports Business Journal reporter John Ourand called it "shameful," and he was dead correct. The Penn State story is the biggest in the history of the conference, and one of the biggest in college football history. The network's statement on why it failed to air the press conference ["While some may be unaware, BTN is not and was never intended to be a news organization. Our focus is to air, discuss and analyze what happens relative to the field of play, which is what our viewers are most interested in. BTN analysts have repeatedly expressed their disappointment with the way in which Penn State football officials handled the Sandusky situation. When our football coverage resumes later this month, it will be a topic of conversation as to how it may affect the Penn State football program and the rest of the Big Ten."] was incredibly unsatisfying.
10. Matt Millen, ESPN: Mythologizing and glorifying false sports gods started long before Millen and will likely continue after his time on television is complete. ESPN viewers are more than familiar with Millen's connection to Penn State as both a famous alum and former honorary board member for The Second Mile charity. His alma mater is clearly an emotional topic for Millen, and his bias for Joe Paterno has long been documented. It's even understandable to a degree.
But rather than pair Millen with multiple voices, ESPN inexplicably opted to use him as its primary analyst after the release of the Freeh Report -- a decision that launched the kind of vitriol in social media usually reserved for Craig James. Millen's initial reaction was something out of a Kafka novel, a jumble of head-shaking statements unchallenged by those asking him questions. He was roundly blasted by mainstream journalists and bloggers, and pretty much anyone watching with a laptop.
Offering Millen up without another analyst -- and one without ties to Happy Valley -- was so puzzling that I wanted to find out from the ESPN executive in charge what the philosophy was. Perhaps I missed something. But when I emailed the ESPN communication department for a request to speak with a producer or executive in charge that morning for a short Q&A, I was told that no one would be available. That was a revealing decision, especially since ESPN has rarely not made someone available when requested. An ESPN spokesperson later emailed me a statement in response to SI's query:
"Matt played at Penn State and was also interviewed for the Freeh report and as a result we thought he had a unique perspective. While he expressed disappointment in his former coach and said Paterno bears responsibility, he also admitted to having a hard time processing the report. That's understandable. In hindsight, having Matt in a featured role put him in a tough spot.
We were diligent on Thursday [July 12] in making sure many voices were heard across our platforms, including those of Brent Musburger, Mark May, Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis, Joe Schad, Rod Gilmore, Lou Holtz, Stephen A. Smith, Roger Cossack, Christine Brennan, Don Van Natta and our reporters, including Jeremy Schaap from Philadelphia and Tom Rinaldi, who conducted the Jay Paterno interview Thursday afternoon. ESPN Radio and ESPNU also had separate, devoted coverage throughout the day."
Poynter used this statement in its piece on Penn State, and it's disappointing Poynter did not demand to speak to a producer, which as an ombudsman, it has both the right and (in theory) authority to do. Yes, ESPN eventually offered up more sensible choices (former Penn State football player and ESPN announcer Todd Blackledge, interestingly, was never heard from that day), but Millen was the analyst of record for a long time at ESPN. Management put him in a position to fail, and that he did.