The Poynter Institute, currently serving as ESPN's ombudsman, yesterday released its analysis of the World Wide Leader's role in reshaping the landscape of college athletics and the effect on its news coverage, a critique hotly anticipated by passionate sports fans and media wonks.
As one would expect when dealing with such complicated subject matter, author Kelly McBride's report is broad and winding, touching on a number of moving parts involved in realignment. Early on in the article, however, she lays out the heart of the matter:
After interviewing executives who negotiate these growing contracts for ESPN, key officials of athletic conferences, NCAA officials and outside analysts, this much is clear: ESPN is acting like the big business it is, strategically locking up its market whenever it makes financial sense. Could that be a problem for the network's credibility as its reporters independently gather information about schools and conferences? Yes.
In other words, one side of ESPN's house – the business side seeking to maximize its profits through broadcasting relationships with colleges and the conferences – is creating a problem for the news side charged with practicing objective journalism. So, here comes a lesson in ethics and reporting in the face of a glaring conflict of interest, right?
Before delving into the journalistic bugaboos presented by realignment, McBride takes great pains to not only rehash the events that led up to the current situations, but to assess ESPN's involvement. McBride seemingly goes above and beyond the call of duty in attempting to absolve ESPN of blame in all the conference-swapping and bitter break-ups witnessed in the last two years.
Rightfully so. The truth is that while ESPN gives bitter fans a convenient bogeyman when their favorite team ends up on the short end of the realignment stick, ESPN's role in the neverending realignment drama wouldn't exist if the universities themselves weren't tripping over themselves to mine every dollar possible out of college athletics. ESPN may act as a catalyst in realignment, but as McBride notes:
The increasingly huge amounts of money the network spends on college rights are a primary driver of the domino effect in conference realignment. Is that inappropriate? Only if you think ESPN should be responsible for preserving the traditional values of collegiate athletics.
We'd suggest there should be a lot of other defenders of student athletes in line to do this work before ESPN, starting with college presidents.
So, in some way, shape or fashion, ESPN is helping fuel realignment. I think we can all agree on that to some degree. Not really news, but it's great that we're on the same page.
Now about that credibility issue you mentioned?
The last word of the quote above is the 1,058th of a 2,300-word article. What's mind-boggling is that McBride spends the next – 1, 2, 3, 4... – 830 words further pontificating about the whys and wherefores of realignment.
We get Larry Scott discussing the decision to keep his conference at 12 teams instead of 16. We get an accountant talking about the profitability of college athletics. What we don't get is anything about how ESPN's role in the conference shuffle impacts its credibility as a news source. Until the paragraph below, that is, which starts at word 1,988:
But the dangerous conflict of interest is not that ESPN is inappropriately throwing around its money and weight.
So we've meandered all this way to find out that everything up to this point has nothing to do with the objective of the article. McBride continues:
It's that while journalists at ESPN are ferreting out the latest tip about conference realignment, the network's programming people are sitting in another part of the Bristol campus with inside information -- details of which they must keep to themselves in order to honor the business relationships.
So that is the biggest conflict of interest for ESPN's journalists? Sounds like more of a best practices issue for the programming department, as opposed to anything the news division has to worry about.
McBride dedicates the final five paragraphs – out of a total of 52 in the entire article – to the actual subject of how ESPN's financial stake in college sports impacts its credibility as a news organizations. She notes that ESPN does cover stories to which its business partners object, such as a recent investigation into sexual harrassment allegations at the University of Texas.
The Poynter critique falls woefully short, though, in addressing any internal mechanisms or policies in place at ESPN intended to assure its audience that its employees are encouraged to do their jobs in an objective or unbiased manner, let alone that they're free to do so. Additionally, she offers no thoughts on the transparency with which ESPN's news arm operates. For example, when is it incumbent upon the journalism function to note the parent company's interests on a specific matter, such as the survival of a conference?
Instead, McBride vaguely counsels the World Wide Leader to "(maintain) its journalistic standards and (increase) reporting resources devoted to college sports."
What McBride apparently doesn't realize is that simply putting more money into reporting on college sports can't quell the overriding sense of suspicion held among at least a segment of ESPN's audience towards its college coverage in general. Likewise, a token nod to amorphous "standards" does little to kill off such skepticism.
Then again, maybe McBride just gave up when she realized that so long as ESPN remains bent on maximizing its already lucrative haul from college sports programming, the idea that it could ever practice journalism ethically is a farce.
I see the Apologudsman hard at work again. Scheiber was great as the ESPN ombud; since it's been a steady decline. Poynter's been full-fledged PR. I agree that ESPN isn't a journalistic institute, it's a business venture. But it certainly couches itself in the former, and McBride came off as making excuses; not as blatantly as the Feldman suspension, but nevertheless we have a pattern.
Unfortunately ESPN is reshaping the college landscape in a way that makes no sense. We will regret the realignment in 10-15 years. As far as ESPN.com goes, I avoid it now. I prefer to read what's being done at places like cbssports.com, Yahoo Sports, and of course sites like this one.