Monday, February 13, 2012

6 comments Should We Get the Ombudsman an Ombudsman?

I tend to be critical of ESPN. Yes, that makes me one of two billion people. It is a very select group I am a part of. I applaud ESPN for hiring an ombudsman, but I think the Poynter Institute is doing the audience of ESPN a disservice in their role as ombudsman. I am not one of those people who think the ombudsman needs to thrash ESPN for everything they do wrong and speak to people's frustrations about ESPN through excessive criticism of ESPN. I do expect the ombudsman to represent ESPN's audience and have an outsider point of view representing what ESPN does well and can improve upon.

Look at the Poynter Review archive for ESPN. They cover a 24 hour entertainment and sports network with a column about once or twice a month. They often cover topics a month after the topic was discussed in the media. July 29 they did wrote first column on ESPN's lockout coverage. The lockout was over at that point. I am all for having time to digest a topic so it can be sufficiently discussed, but ESPN had covered the lockout for nearly four to five months prior to that date. Why wait that long to write a column on ESPN's lockout coverage? What can ESPN learn tp improve upon at that point concerning their coverage of the lockout?

They covered Tebowmania and ESPN's effect on Tebowmania on January 26. The season was over at that point. That's crazy. The ombudsman for ESPN needs to write at least once a week and choose relevant topics so it doesn't feel like they are rushing to put out a fire after the building has burnt down. The column on Tebowmania was a great example of what I find ineffective about the Poynter Institute's reign as ombudsman. It is as if they are enablers of ESPN. I don't expect them to go off all half-cocked about what a shit organization ESPN is, but at least be honest with your audience so they don't feel like you are treating them like idiots.

With the Super Bowl upcoming and the NFL playoffs in the rearview mirror, we have the time and distance necessary to examine the phenomenon of Tebowmania and, specifically, to scrutinize ESPN's role in spreading the craze during the 2011 season.

ESPN's role in spreading the craze? ESPN created, facilitated, and propagated the craze. Nearly every single day the most successful troll in the history of television, Skip Bayless, discussed Tim Tebow on Cold Pizza/First Take/Whatever the hell it is called now. ESPN filled their airwaves with discussion of Tebow. When the Patriots mercifully eliminated the Broncos from the playoffs, ESPN did a retrospective on Tebow's season as if he had retired or deceased. It was saturated coverage. You couldn't watch a show on ESPN without hearing about Tebow.

Tebowmania was the national obsession with the Denver Broncos' quarterback. But it could also be described as an affliction besetting the media.

What is the largest media entity in terms of entertainment? ESPN. You can't just ignore ESPN's role in creating and continuing Tebowmania by acting as if they were just following the example of other media outlets.

Then the ombudsman points out the entire media was fascinated by Tim Tebow, which is very true, but it reeks of "well if another media outlet has to cover it then so do we" type reasoning that ESPN has avoided using when it is convenient for them. The ombudsman is making excuses for ESPN, as if ESPN doesn't have the power to set their own agenda for what stories they will cover and how much they will cover that story.

Tebow coverage took off for ESPN in 2011. Among the highlights:

Actually these are the lowlights.

  • Long before the NFL season opened, ESPN opened its Year of the Quarterback with an hourlong documentary on Tebow, which aired several times throughout the year.
  • Commentator Skip Bayless spent an inordinate amount of time on "First Take" offering up praise for Tebow.
  • Bayless' advocacy became the primary material for DJ Steve Porter's catchy Auto-Tune mashup, "All he does is win" used on "First Take."
  • Tebow was the cover of the Oct. 31 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
  • "SportsCenter" dedicated not one, but two special shows to Tebow.
It's hard to judge any of this as excessive.
What? Perhaps I misread this last sentence because I know no ombudsman in his/her right mind would call two special shows, a documentary, putting him on the cover of their magazine and spending an inordinate amount of time praising Tebow as non-excessive. If so, the Poynter Institute and ESPN are the only ones who feel this way. Let's try to read this sentence again.

It's hard to judge any of this as excessive.

Ridiculous. What I find most depressing is this supposed neutral entity, the Poynter Institute, is essentially excusing Skip Bayless' clown antics when discussing Tim Tebow. They call Bayless a "commentator" when he is a short skirt, a few lessons on how to be the top of the pyramid, and some dark eye makeup away from being a cheerleader for Tim Tebow. Not only do they not find Bayless' antics non-excessive, his antics don't even merit a comment about how a supposed neutral journalist became the number one advocate for an athlete he is supposed to cover. It is stupid to not call the ESPN coverage non-excessive, but to fail to comment on an ESPN analyst becoming the biggest advocate for an athlete is atrocious.

He holds the record for most tweets per second on Twitter. He is a genuine social phenomenon, even without ESPN.

No one is arguing this point. No one is arguing ESPN should not cover Tim Tebow. No one is arguing he wasn't a relevant and important story. What is being argued is HOW ESPN covered Tebow and the extent to which they made an interesting story into social phenomenon and managed to get employees paid by ESPN inserted into the narrative and national discussion.

Thus came the messiah metaphors. ESPN The Magazine writer Tim Keown wrote his October story as a loose retelling of Jesus among the crowds. He described Tebow as a vessel of hope. It fit in nicely with the Plan B theme of that issue. (It was supposed to be the NBA preview issue, changed by the lockout.)

And this isn't excessive. Using an athlete as a loose retelling of Jesus among the crowds, that's not excessive or inappropriate in any way?

And suddenly Tebow really was a god.

No, he was not really a god. He was still a football player who was very religious. What kind of ombudsman writes the sentence "And suddenly Player X really was a god?" Is this a report by an ombudsman or simply a way to excuse ESPN's coverage of Tebow coming from a well-respected journalistic entity?

ESPN's success comes not from its coverage of games but from its ability to extend those games into a story and tell that story from different angles.

It is the constant need to create a narrative rather than focus on the games. This is such an excuse-making column from Poynter Institute that completely confuses or ignores the issue. The issue wasn't the coverage of Tebow, it was the saturation of coverage of Tebow. THAT is the issue and it was excessive.

Everyone we talked to at the network was unapologetic about the coverage. Whenever Tebow plays, fans watch. When sports anchors and radio hosts are talking about Tebow, the ratings go up. Every time Tebow does something unexpected or new, there will be a story.

Of course they were unapologetic about the coverage. It made them money. Whether the network is apologetic or not is irrelevant. It isn't the job of Poynter Institute to determine if ESPN has high ratings and then use that as the basis to support whatever ESPN chooses to show on their network. I can start selling prescription drugs to school kids and be unapologetic about it because it makes me money. My income flow and lack of apology for my actions doesn't mean I wasn't in the wrong for my decision. Of course, I am treating ESPN like a company that cares about sports journalism. Not true. They care about entertainment over all else.

So who objects to all this? As far as we can tell, the resentment comes from two places. When ESPN binges on a single story, viewers who value variety are offended.

Again, Poynter frames this very incorrectly. It wasn't the lack of variety that irritated viewers, it was the singular focus and over-saturation of coverage. As viewers we don't necessarily need variety, but we don't want a story shoved down our throat to the point there is no escaping it. It creates resentment.

Some fans even accuse the network of fanning the flames of Tebowmania to ensure the story lives on. On that point, there is certainly a disconnect. Coverage of individual athletes is not a meritocracy at ESPN; it is based on what the crowd wants.

Bullshit. Very disappointing. This is complete bullshit Poynter Institute is trying to sell us. Are we really to believe Skip Bayless talked about Tim Tebow on a daily basis because we wanted to hear him discuss Tebow? What the Poynter Institute fails to address is how ESPN creates a story and essentially decides on their own what the crowd wants. It's a chicken or the egg idea. Did ESPN cover Tebow because he was popular or did he become popular because ESPN covered him constantly? This is pathetic on the part of Poynter to not even consider the idea an entity as large as ESPN is able to dictate to the audience what stories they are interested in hearing.

When being an independent voice about ESPN's coverage doesn't Poynter have an obligation to the audience to discuss the role of ESPN in deciding what the audience wants to hear. Even if I conceded the point that Tebowmania had to be covered, how was the coverage not excessive?

"If you think interest is going down, the ratings show you otherwise," Shiffman said.

So the coverage wasn't excessive because the ratings were up? I get it. Ratings means interest which means there isn't any problem with the coverage. So if I post a different Photoshopped picture everyday of Aaron Rodgers having sex with an animal and then begin to write a series of posts suggesting he is a closeted homosexual who was molested at a young age by his parents and this results in a pageviews increase, would that be fine? After all, if pageviews are increasing then interest is up, which can only mean people want to read and see more of what I am writing. People are interested after all, so I am only giving the audience what it wants. Right? Who cares if I am manipulating the audience? I am getting a reaction and that's all that matters.

That is the moment of disconnect. When a story gets bigger than the sport itself, and ESPN leans into that narrative rather than turning away, some fans throw up their hands and cry, "excess."

No. When the story is forced by ESPN to become bigger than the sport itself, that means the coverage has been excessive. A documentary, two specials and mentioning an athlete excessively on a television program is excessive coverage.

But an all-sports network is the very definition of excess. We're not inclined to fault folks for doing the very thing that's made them successful.

This type of coverage is not what I grew up watching on ESPN. I grew up on 30 minute SportsCenter and highlights of games. I didn't grow up with trolling, viewer-baiting "journalists" who have managed to confuse entertaining the audience with reporting and commenting on stories. ESPN was made successful because there hasn't been a competitor for the market they currently are the worldwide leader...sports. If Poynter isn't interested in actually examining ESPN's coverage and will simply chalk whether coverage was appropriate or not based on ratings then they are the perfect independent authority for ESPN to have hired and are doing ESPN's viewers a disservice.

Fresh off their excusing Tebowmania, Poynter decided it may be time to actually watch the programming that is on ESPN. They come to the conclusion ESPN has too much variety and needs to focus on single topics for longer periods of time. Given the Poynter's clear disconnect with what ESPN's audience wants these findings aren't shocking.

I suspect most ESPN viewers (or at least the gainfully employed ones) watch a show or two, rather than sit down for six hours at a stretch. But a weeklong immersion was a good way to gather impressions about what works, what doesn't, and how ESPN's choice of formats shapes the conversations that make these shows soar or struggle.

Why even take the time to watch the shows? Check the ratings and that should tell you whether a show is any good or not, shouldn't it? If there is viewer interest then there is no need for criticism or change.

ESPN has an enviable amount of talent at its disposal, from veteran interviewers to interesting guests.

I'm guessing this sentence wasn't supposed to be sarcastic. I personally read it in a sarcastic voice in my head.

Before the Super Bowl I was watching a show on ESPN and Hugh Douglas called Wayne Rooney "Wayne Brady" twice and repeatedly assured viewers he knew who Wayne Rooney was even though he admitted he didn't watch soccer. I think we are confusing "talent" and "interesting guests" with "people who can read cue cards on a good day" in regard to some ESPN analysts.

Nearly everyone on the air had an impressive knowledge of sports, good points to make, and proved entertaining company.

ESPN is perfect. Why do they even have an ombudsman?

But too often it felt like conversations were cut short or dumbed down.

The conversations weren't dumbed down. That's how ESPN discusses sports topics on many of their shows with a few exceptions. It's all pretty much dumbed down for the fewer who wants to react and not have to think.

Over and over, I saw interesting discussions abandoned because a show was charging hard to the next segment, or intriguing conversations that failed to develop because panelists and viewers alike were focused on countdown clocks or scorekeeping. Such devices discourage real conversation in favor of sports bromides and manufactured disagreements.

I'm pretty sure the thesaurus lists one of the synonyms for "manufactured disagreements" as "ESPN."

The week's best conversations came when the pace was less frantic. "Outside the Lines" was consistently smart and informative, whether the topic was Joe Paterno, how things go awry for place-kickers, or stem-cell therapy for athletes. It helps that host Bob Ley is a superb interviewer, with a sure-handed way of nudging conversations in the desired direction and a sense of when an apparent tangent is actually a more interesting topic. Take Tuesday's show, when Ley patiently steered former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart away from clich├ęs about taking it to the next level, then followed writer Stefan Fatsis's lead into a good conversation about kickers' preparations.

"OTL" is a pretty good show. Of course ESPN buries it on Sunday mornings and mid-afternoons because it moves slower. Also, please know Kordell Stewart is part of the enviable talent ESPN has on staff and he was speaking in all good on-air talent should apparently do.

Part of the reason each afternoon show on ESPN talks about a variety of topics is because nearly every ESPN show mentions said topic. If each ESPN show talked about the Peyton Manning situation for 15 minutes it would quickly become tiresome, so that is why each show keeps the conversation on each topic short. I have no issue with shorter discussions of certain topics. I don't need a topic discussed into the ground on every ESPN show.

Wednesday's show was particularly aggravating: Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders used a relatively simple stat called "points prevented per drive" to demonstrate that the Patriots' defense bends but doesn't break. But fellow panelists Michael Smith and Hugh Douglas (another former pro) repeatedly cut him off with complaints such as "here we go with the decimals" and "you are making this game way too hard." It was pretend stupidity meant for comic effect, but by stifling any real conversation, it gave an uncomfortably convincing impression of the real thing.

I saw this show and Douglas and Smith were stifling the conversation because they didn't know what Schatz was talking about. It wasn't pretend stupidity. I really got the feeling Douglas and Smith were more comfortable talking in cliches, feelings and generalities rather than understanding what Schatz was attempting to show.

By boiling the talk down to scoring points, even in jest, "Around the Horn" encourages quick hits and contrived arguments, with nuance rare and insight hard to discover.

If the writer of this, Jason Fry, had time to read the writtenb articles Woody Paige, Bill Plaschke, and others on this show publish on a weekly basis he would find if you gave them 10-15 minutes each they possibly couldn't come up with a nuanced or insightful discussion on too many topics. If you give Woody Paige ten minutes to discuss a topic it will quickly delve into Dr. Seuss-like rhyming and bad puns.

panelist Woody Paige noted how former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes' secretary recalled the great coach's sadness after he was forced into retirement. It was a nice moment, but Reali cut him off because it was Tim Cowlishaw's turn. Later, Smith offered an evocative line about Paterno's legacy: "There's a 'but' with everybody. ... We're all going to leave with regrets." That could have been the start of a great conversation, but it was off to someone else.

That's the format of the show. There are four people talking about one topic. I, for one, don't want to hear 3-4 topics per show and would rather hear a variety of topics which forces these analysts to get to their point quickly.

Sometimes shows rise above these limitations. "Pardon the Interruption" is also thick with segments, but it has fewer moving parts, and co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are so well-matched that you feel like you've dropped in on a years-long conversation.

I don't always agree with these two people's opinion, but you get the feeling they are giving their opinion and not simply trying to reach for ratings. It is a discussion on sports topics that doesn't feel put-on or like a gimmick designed to illicit an audience reaction. That's why I like "PTI." They obviously care about ratings, but you get the feeling it is a discussion between two people who want to have an honest discussion about a sports topic.

Still, I found myself wishing I could watch them without timers and incessant reminders of upcoming topics.

This keeps them on-topic though. I often go away wanting to hear more, but the lack of time to make a point causes the argument to stay on point.

In too many other cases, I found myself wishing the panelists had more time to address fewer subjects.

It seems like the Poynter Institute is all about focusing on a small number of topics and saturating the network with coverage of that topic. I am guessing if they had their way then SportsCenter would show five minutes of highlights followed by 55 minutes of a discussion on three different topics.

That would let them make better use of the knowledge and passion that got them on ESPN in the first place.

I don't understand how these panelists can't use the knowledge and passion they have that got them on ESPN to talk about different topics in smaller increments of time. Of course, as long as these shows draw ratings I am guessing the Poynter Institute doesn't really care whether ESPN makes any changes or not.


j-dub said...

Ben, i'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed the bullshit this Poynter Institute is writing every 6 weeks. When i read their article about "tebowmania," i couldn't help but feel like they were brown-nosing for some reason. Like you said, they're not there to bash ESPN, but reinforcing ESPN's strategy of "we cover stories because our audience demands it" is pure b.s. because of their ability to manufacture a story and then proceed to cover it endlessly.

I do applaud ESPN for having an ombudsman, but I feel like the Poynter Institute is a downgrade in comparison to the guy who was doing it before. If Poynter is only going to present mild arguments and passive complaints w/ regard to ESPN's journalistic ways, then why even bother?

rich said...

I think the coverage of Jeremy Lin proves that ESPN creates and perpetuates this excessive coverage. They're like a pop band, they find something that works and then completely overdo it until people just get tired of it, then they'll find something new to over expose.

The fact that Tebow played god awful this year and had two SportsCenter specials is absolutely absurd. Then you combine that with the coverage an NBA player is getting after playing an incredible five games... The obsudsman is full of it.

I mean for crying out loud had a poll asking if Lin is the best PG in the league... It's excessive and it's not going to change.

Martin F. said...

The Poynter Review pieces have been just absolute crap. if they aren't kissing ESPN's ass, they are writing some of the stupidest non-sensical shit ever. When they do go after ESPN it's for the dumbest shit ever.

The bitched about ESPN's coverage of the Penn St./Sandusky episode because Espn didn't "take the lead" as one "would expect the largest sporting news company in the world" or some such horseshit. They were shocked that the local paper had sources and leads that ESPN didn't. Well no shit Sherlock, it's the local paper! They've been working these sources for 20+ years I bet in some cases. Do they think ESPN has inside sources at every single Div-1 school? Sources who would talk to them before their own local guy who they know and trust?

They had a fit because ESPN didn't come out "hard enough" against Joe Pa and Sandusky from the very beginning. Well, from 2 weeks later one can say that, but at the time it was happening I'm willing to wager the words "Duke Fucking Lacrosse" was uttered at least a dozen times. I thought for a national media reporting on what was essentially a small town sex abuse scandal with national implications, they had very good restraint. Yet the Poynter Review was bitching that they ESPN wasn't at the front of what might have been a witch hunt *cough Duke Lacrosse cough Jemelle Hill cough*

They are easily the worst of all the Ombudsmen that ESPN has had over the years, and they fucking pale in comparison to Le Ann Schreiber. For a "noted" journalistic group, they pretty much suck.

Bengoodfella said...

J-dub, I am glad ESPN has an ombudsman as well, but they aren't doing their audience any favors by nuzzling up to ESPN. If they aren't going to make actual efforts to improve ESPN, what is the point? Their articles usually involves them stating a problem with ESPN's coverage, asking ESPN why they do that and then saying "well that makes sense, carry on." The excuse for the Tebow coverage was simply that it got ratings and other news outlets did it as well. Apparently, ESPN decides when they do and do not take their cue from other news organizations.

Rich, I think you nailed it. The idea Lin could be the best PG in the NBA after five games is insulting to the audience's intelligence and is simply just a way to overexpose Lin even more. I am sure if the ombudsman can find their way back to a keyboard to write about it in the next couple of months, they will simply say it was a unique story and then move on.

Martin, what Poynter Review misses on the coverage of Sandusky is that Penn State is essentially a city to itself. Of all the things to criticize ESPN for, I wouldn't criticize them for that. Like you said, PSU is a city which is very self-contained, so naturally a local reporter would have a better scoop.

I didn't hate ESPN's coverage of the Sandusky affair. I didn't really watch ESPN much, but what little I watched seemed subdued, which was a nice change of pace. I think this is one of the worst ombudsman as well. They don't seem to have a pulse on what the audience wants and wants ESPN to hover and sensationalize every story possible.

Justin Zeth said...

I wasn't aware anyone paid any attention to the ombudsman at all. Isn't it patently obvious the ombudsman is a sham?

Bengoodfella said...

Justin, I'm not sure how many people pay attention to them. You are right it is a sham, or at least the ombudsman is just there for ESPN to act like they care.

I stumbled across the Ombudsman while looking for articles on ESPN and bookmarked it. We'll see if they ever write anything interesting again. Probably not.