Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ESPN ombudsman drops the ball

Many of you may not even know who Don Ohlmeyer is, but he is the the ESPN ombudsman. What this means is that his job is to convey the public response to what ESPN does to ESPN, and kind of be a voice for their displeasure. Here is his profile page.

He just wrote his first analysis for ESPN. After a lengthy introduction he specifically focuses on ESPN's handling of the Ben Roethlisberger rape incident and ESPN's decision to not report it (see older posts for more info). He quotes many followers who were upset by ESPN's decision. Then he proceeds to interrogate Senior Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria on the subject. Here's an excerpt:

Q: Do you feel you are consistent? One reader specifically asked about Marvin Harrison.

"With Marvin Harrison, we reported on a civil suit that related to a prior criminal investigation. It fit our criteria, so we went with it. In another instance, there were civil claims made against Mike Tyson for reportedly groping a woman in a bar -- because he had spent time in jail for rape, we felt there was a pattern, so ESPN reported it. In 2005, a woman filed a civil suit against Michael Vick, alleging that under the pseudonym 'Ron Mexico' he had unprotected sex with her, then revealed to her that he had herpes. We did not report the story, based on the same reasoning we used in the Roethlisberger situation -- no criminal component, no previous history on the part of Vick, it happened during the offseason. Vick never did respond publicly, the suit was settled, and we never reported on it. While many other media outlets reported the story, we faced no scrutiny, no criticism, virtually no attention to how we covered it. Times evidently have changed."

This is all fine and dandy but to me so far it just seems like a platform where it can seem like an ESPN rep can give reasons that sound legitimate, but really to me sounds like bullshit. Because of someone at ESPN who determined a pattern of actions they decide what to cover and what not to when it's a civil suit? What kind of standards are that? This Ron Mexico story sounds like news to me. Duh Vick didn't respond publicly, what is he gonna say? Of course the suit was settled so that Vick didn't have his name dragged through the mud for being a rapist. This most definitely is news that ESPN should have reported.

Ohlmeyer then goes on to some other complaints, namely ESPN protecting relationships it has with star players. Here's an excerpt:

Q: ESPN's motives have been questioned. One of the charges is being soft on the NFL and its players for business reasons. Your response?

"We've done a number of tough stories on the NFL over the years. We did a series questioning the league's handling of the concussion issue. More stories on the lack of funding on the retired players experiencing physical and emotional difficulties. The Pacman Jones situation, Michael Vick, Brandon Marshall, Spygate. None of these stories put the individuals or the NFL in a good light. Anyone who contends we shy away from stories that are critical of the NFL isn't paying attention."

This response does not answer the real question, and I think the problem is that the question is terrible because it is written by an ombudsman 'claiming' to be conveying the public sentiment. However, I don't think anyone is questioning ESPN's ability to objectively critique the NFL. The problem is the consistency. Pacman Jones is a complete scumbag who ESPN probably never wants to work with. They have no problem covering his off the field problems. However, Roethlisberger is a charismatic leader and 2 time Super Bowl winner. He's someone they'd love to have a good relationship with. THAT is why they didn't report on him, and THAT question was not asked. Why couldn't Ohlmeyer ask Doria: Were you afraid reporting on the Roethlisberger story would make him less accessable to your reporters? Doria's answer just says 'hey don't hate us we've covered the NFL in a negative light before!' But that's not a justification for not covering the Roethlisberger story.

Ohlmeyer then gives ESPN the defense it needs:

...the more I thought about it, the more that mantra rang in my ears: "Serve the audience." Even if ESPN judged that it should not report the Roethlisberger suit, not acknowledging a sports story that's blanketing the airways requires an explanation to your viewers, listeners and readers. And in today's world they are owed that explanation right away -- to do otherwise is just plain irresponsible. It forces your audience to ask why the story was omitted. It forces them to manufacture a motive. And it ultimately forces them to question your credibility.

I agree with Ohlmeyer here that they should have reported the story, but he has suggested that people have manufactured a motive for why ESPN omitted reporting on it. I don't think so. I think ESPN loves the access it has to Roethlisberger and showed what a friend does to help another out.

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