Monday, July 16, 2012

2 comments It's Okay, This Column was Written by a Freelance Contributor

ESPN is an easy target for a lot of people. I include myself in that category of "people," in case you were wondering. I tend to focus more on ESPN's writers rather than ESPN as a whole, but the point remains the same in many ways when I am focusing on a specific writer for writing a column I thought was bad or very much disagreed with. Mark Cuban and Bill Simmons got in a Twitter fight, well it wasn't quite a "fight" since at this point Simmons had not responded to what Mark Cuban had said about him on Twitter. A Mark Cuban/Bill Simmons Twitter fight isn't quite a huge ESPN issue, especially since Simmons is only tangentially related to ESPN through Grantland at this point. I what caused a lot of Mark Cuban's frustration with Bill Simmons' Twitter comment (which I will get to in a minute) is his frustration with ESPN's coverage of LeBron and the discussion he had with Skip Bayless after the Finals were over.

There seems to be an overwhelming attitude at ESPN of "We are ESPN, we are big, so we are going to do whatever the fuck we want to do." When one of their employees is caught in a somewhat-scandal over using Wikipedia, ESPN comes back with a sort of "boys will be boys" type response. If it isn't a "boys will be boys" response, it certainly doesn't seem like a response that shows any type of concern for what was discussed about Lynn Hoppes copying and re-wording Wikipedia entries.

The exact statement by ESPN in that situation consisted basically of saying "it was an example of journalistic laziness and we've addressed it." This wasn't simply AN example of journalistic laziness, it was a pattern of journalistic laziness. There were repeated examples of Wikipedia entries copied and re-worded. Just look at how often Lynn Hoppes re-worded or copies a Wikipedia entry over the last few years. That's a pattern, not a single example, of journalistic laziness. It's not even laziness, that's outright copying. Laziness is doing this once or twice over a year or two, while re-wording or copying Wikipedia entries repeatedly is a pattern that shows Hoppes relied on this information to help write his columns.

No one wants to see Hoppes publicly executed or his body hung by a cross in the hot sun for an entire week to show his contrition, but to downplay this as a sort of incident that could result in a slap on the wrist or that it doesn't concern ESPN that other writers may be doing this is concerning to me. That's a pretty big deal to re-word Wikipedia entries or copy them like Lynn Hoppes did. Yet, ESPN doesn't seem to have a sense of urgency or concern in the statement they released. It's a "we've dealt with this already, so please stop talking about it" type of statement. ESPN wants us to continue watching and reading, but they seem displeased when having to give us a reason to believe that what we are watching or reading is an original thought. I feel like they want the public to trust them because they are ESPN.

It's a pattern that can be seen in other ESPN employees as well. I received an email recently from someone who stumbled across this blog and he linked a passage about Fred Jackson that Gregg Easterbrook wrote in TMQ. It was a passage where Gregg was showing the type of criticism that Fred Jackson had gotten and why he had not started at running back in high school. Gregg said Jackson was "too small" and "too slow." I wanted Gregg to cite exactly where he got this specific criticism of Fred Jackson. Gregg seems to do this all the time, quote certain articles that aren't linked. He did it when he called Julio Jones a diva last year and he did it when discussing why Fred Jackson didn't start at running back in high school. I searched at the time I wrote the TMQ post, but couldn't find anything. I didn't look in the most obvious place perhaps.

I didn't come up with much of the following the research, so all the credit goes to the kind gentleman who emailed me about this. I didn't ask if I could use his name, so I won't. Either way, he seemed to show me Gregg Easterbrook makes use of Wikipedia as well in this instance and I would bet this isn't the first or only time Gregg has used completely uncited criticism from Wikipedia in TMQ. It's one thing to use Wikipedia for facts, but Gregg used Wikipedia to cite an opinion as if it were fact from an actual scouting report of Fred Jackson out of high school, which I completely disagree with doing.

The TMQ post I wrote is here.

Gregg wrote the following:

Runner-up: Fred Jackson, tailback, Buffalo. Jackson never started a game in high school, being "too small" and "too slow."

I wrote the following:

Usually when a writer puts words in quotation marks he is actually quoting something that exists in literature. I'd love to see Gregg provide proof that Jackson didn't start a game in high school because he was "too small" and "too slow." This may be true, and I'm not English teacher, but I'm pretty sure if you put words in quotes they need to be an actual quote that exists and not the figment of the writer imagining what was said. Mostly likely Gregg did here what he usually does, which is deceive his readers into believing these were words used on an actual evaluation of Jackson's skill set in high school. He attempts to deceive his readers by putting "too small" and "too slow" in quotes as if this came from a specific evaluation of Jackson in high school.

It turns out I was wrong, Gregg did have a citation, he just didn't tell us about it. He seemed to have directly copied this evaluation of Jackson directly from Fred Jackson's Wikipedia page, which states:

Jackson attended Lamar High School (Arlington, Texas) and although he was a member of the powerful Lamar Vikings teams of the late 1990s, he never started a game in his two years on the varsity. Back then he was considered too small (5-8, 160 pounds) and too slow. He began his senior year as a third-string running back, and only after a knee injury to starter Justin Faust (headed to Stanford), was he elevated to second-string behind Tommicus Walker (headed to TCU).

The emphasis in red is mine from the Wikipedia entry on Fred Jackson that was emailed to me. So it appears Gregg Easterbrook enjoys the use of Wikipedia as well. The issue I have with this is Gregg isn't discussing a fact. It isn't a fact that Fred Jackson was considered too small or too slow. This is an opinion. Yet, it seems Gregg uses the opinion of Fred Jackson's Wikipedia page writer as empirical proof for why Jackson didn't start in high school. That's a bit shady to me. It's fine to use Wikipedia to research facts, but I'm not sure we can trust a Wikipedia entry to provide opinion-based information like whether a player was "too small" or "too slow" to start in high school. If this were from an official or scouting report I think it has much more credibility...but not an evaluation of Fred Jackson on Wikipedia. Yet, that's the information Gregg Easterbrook relied upon. Who knew such a lofty and well-known writer like Gregg Easterbrook did his research in Wikipedia? Now I know why he doesn't cite or provide a link to a lot of the criticism he uses in TMQ. Most likely he's just looking for some sort of comment on the Internet which agrees with his point of view and he doesn't want us to know where he got the information from. I don't know what other conclusion I can come to.

So we know about the journalists of ESPN and their propensity to use Wikipedia. There have also been instances of ESPN freelancers doing whatever the hell it was that Sarah Phillips was doing and even making up interviews that were done with an athlete, even though the athlete denies there was ever an interview. In both instances ESPN hid behind the idea these interviews were done by freelancers, as if in some way they weren't responsible for content that was put on or any affiliates. That's the good thing about freelancers. You can blame them when something goes wrong, but also take the credit (by having the freelancer's story on your site) when the story is done very well.

ESPN said, in response to Awful Announcing questioning what had happened in the case of fake interview,:

"The story was written by a freelance contributor. We removed the story as soon as we discovered sourcing questions and are looking into those."

ESPN, much like in the Sarah Phillips case, is very quick to point out this was done by a freelance contributor and doesn't reflect on the journalistic standard ESPN wants to be held to. I'm sure you can excuse the audience's confusion since this article appeared on an site. This incident with a freelance contributor, which ESPN is in no way affiliated with outside of publishing his material on their website, had "sourcing issues" which I commonly refer to as "making shit up." I don't know what type of "sourcing issue" an interview published detailing an interview that never actually took place might be, but it sounds a lot less like a sourcing problem and more like an honesty problem.

It was clear from the Sarah Phillips incident(s) that ESPN doesn't hold their freelance contributors to as high of a standard as their ESPN-employed writers. It seems in their excuse-filled apologies ESPN treats their freelance contributors like the weird uncle-by-marriage of the company's online presence.

"Uncle Dave always drinks too much at weddings. He isn't our uncle by blood though, purely through marriage."

I understand that things go wrong and with all of the articles that get published on and their affiliates sometimes things go really wrong. I don't want ESPN to lay their soul bare in apologizing, but the excuse a person was a freelance contributor and some vague promise to look into "sourcing issues" with the interview doesn't feel right to me. You want your audience to believe the content on your site is informational and original, then don't you owe to your audience to not separate yourself from your contributor and then provide no promise of doing better the next time?

I can talk around this all day, but ESPN can get away with it. The reason they can get away with it is because they have no competition. That day will end though. ESPN will get competition and they will have to compete for their share of the sports market. Let's all keep waiting for that day. It will come.

So back to the Mark Cuban-Bill Simmons one-sided Twitter war. It's not even a war because in typical Simmons fashion, he hasn't responded. This is the same reason Bill doesn't allow comments on his columns. He doesn't want feedback and he ignores any criticism he gets because it discourages his own held point of view that many of the things he says and does are absolutely correct simply because he says and does them. That recent article on "The Onion" hit the nail on the head.

I think much of Mark Cuban's frustration stemmed from his appearance on "First Take" when he eviscerated Skip Bayless and others like him. He's tired of being second-guessed by those who don't have experience running an NBA team. I'm not going to defend the Maverick's moves this offseason, that's not the point, nor will I say the whole "he doesn't have experience on a championship team" statement is persuasive either. We all know Bill Simmons wants to be an NBA GM. He did nothing short of beg-without-begging to be the Bucks and Timberwolves GM over the last 4-5 years. This non-exchange with Cuban is part of the reason in my opinion Bill's being a GM of an NBA team can't happen. It's the major divide between being a journalist with an opinion and believing you can run an NBA team. Bill is great at documenting what happens in the NBA and his original Tweet I thought was funny and accurate.

Put it this way: I wasn't crazy about Elton Brand and Chris Kaman playing together in 2006 when they were still good.

But Bill is the guy who documents and writes the book of basketball. He isn't the type of person who creates and is responsible for the events in the book of basketball. There's a difference in a how a GM/owner wants to run an NBA team and how a GM/owner is able to run an NBA team. Bill is a writer. His ideas are sometimes good, but reality doesn't give a shit about great ideas. That's why I make fun of his "Who says no?" comments. A good idea is great, but the implementation of that great idea is hard to do. There are more than just two people with an opinion involved. Bill does a (generally) good job of documenting (and dissecting) what happens in the NBA. Bill has no idea what he would have done other than not sign Elton Brand or Chris Kaman. If he had an idea, I'm sure we would have heard it by now.

There is a divide between those who know NBA basketball and those who run NBA basketball teams. I think the divide is clear here. Mark Cuban responded to Bill:

. They next smart personnel comment you mae will be your first

Mark Cuban deleted that Tweet eventually for some reason. Bill is a know-it-all type guy. It rubs people the wrong way. Dan Gilbert, the owner (I originally had Gilbert as the GM of the Cavs. As a commenter noted, that wouldn't probably end well) of the Cavs, actually Retweeted this comment by Mark Cuban at Bill Simmons. I wouldn't rank Dan Gilbert as one of the top 5 owners in the NBA by any means, but I find it interesting we have two of the most Twitter-active NBA owners showing ESPN's top NBA guy (he is ESPN's top NBA guy when it comes to opinions and least in my opinion) he doesn't have their respect. Maybe it is two owners being bitter or angry, but do we really believe Bill could be an NBA GM and deal with personalities like Mark Cuban and Dan Gilbert on a regular basis? I'm not sure he could. Running an NBA team is a different world from pretending you can run an NBA team because you think you have great ideas.

Of course then the one-sided conversation went downhill and Mark Cuban ruined his point when responding to someone defending Simmons...a guy named Mufasa-7000 (maybe he is a big "Lion King" fan?).

Well to be fair, Simmons also didn't let an entire championship team minus the superstar walk away for nothing.

Followed by Mark Cuban's silly response...

possibly because he has never had any involvement with a championship team.

That's just silly. It puts Mark Cuban in a position to never be criticized by anyone who hasn't won a title. My point, and I think I do have one, is that Bill Simmons can't be an NBA GM/VP of Common Sense. He's good at what he does, which is get people to read his columns and NBA opinions. Bill Simmons did have a point. Elton Brand and Chris Kaman isn't a great combination power forward-center for the Mavericks. I think his debate after the NBA Finals win by the Heat still has Mark Cuban in a fit and he is overly-sensitive to criticism from anyone at ESPN at this point.

If Bill Simmons was a freelance contributor he could create an entire interview he had with Mark Cuban where Cuban admits he was wrong and try to pass this off on Grantland as a real interview that occurred. Or Bill could base all of his Chris Kaman or Elton Brand-related criticism on something written in Wikipedia. It seems that's the safer way for him to go.


Anonymous said...

I liked the article, but I have noticed some accidental word omissions in your posts (e.g. "ESPN will get away *with* it)
Also, Dan Gilbert is the owner of the Cavaliers, not the GM. That would presumably not end well.

Bengoodfella said...

Anon, thanks for liking it and sorry for the mistakes. That's what I get for being inspired about writing a post, writing it, and then only proofreading it once. I'll update the post with the corrections.

God, if Dan Gilbert was the GM of the Cavs that wouldn't end well.