Monday, December 24, 2012

1 comments Oh Poynter Review Project, We Hardly Knew Ye

It appears the Poynter Review Project for ESPN is now officially over. In some ways, it feels like it never really started. I'm not entirely sure what I expected, but when being an ombudsman for a 24/7 entertainment entity like ESPN any amount of coverage that isn't updated at the very minimum every week is going to feel insufficient to me. My opinion is bi-monthly discussions of ESPN's right steps and missteps is always going to feel like playing catchup to those who are eager to read these type of columns. ESPN is a train barreling down the tracks and while I understand it isn't the ombudsman job to stop or derail the train, standing by the side of the tracks screaming criticism as the train roars by seems pretty ineffective. By the time Poynter had discussed ESPN's fascination with Tim Tebow, it had been discussed in thousands of other forums and it was simply too late for their criticism to have an effect. Will ESPN review what Poynter says and then make changes accordingly? Possibly, but writing two posts a month about standards and practices issues at ESPN isn't effective to create the kind of change or tweak in ESPN's policies that may be needed. So Poynter has often come off as apologetic to ESPN and like the disappointed parent who can't change his unruly child's behavior.

A scene from "South Park" recently reminded me of the ESPN/Poynter relationship. For those who don't watch the show, in the latest episode "Obama Wins" Cartman was stealing (and then hiding) ballots in order to help President Obama win the election. When Cartman's mom was told by Cartman's friends that he was doing this she said something to the effect of, "Oh no, he's going to be grounded from watching television," and then she went about putting the groceries up. Clearly nothing was going to be done because she has no control over Cartman, but she continues the facade of being an actual parent.

My point is why does ESPN even have an ombudsman when it doesn't seem to take the ombudsman or the criticism seriously? Even Poynter in this very column admits they aren't exactly sure what ESPN has done with some of the feedback and criticism they have gotten. I'm not sure I believe ESPN has changed their editorial, sourcing, or any other policies based on Poynter's advice. Why should they? They are making a shit-ton of money and getting good ratings. The ombudsman is nice to have around in an effort to pretend they care, but the ombudsman doesn't write their columns but every two weeks or so, which means usually when an ESPN mis-step occurs they are playing catchup.

Anyway, so here is the final column by Poynter. I haven't heard word on who will replace Poynter, but it wouldn't shock me if ESPN either (a) went without an ombudsman for a while or (b) just hired another firm who will seemingly stay behind the news cycle.

After nearly 40 columns reviewing ESPN content across all platforms, we’ll close with lessons learned over 18 months of observing the network’s various media outlets, 

Think about that. "Nearly" 40 columns in 18 months. The actual count is 32 columns. If I missed other columns, then I apologize, but I don't think I did. I'm not sure how 32 columns becomes "nearly" 40, but that's not my point. How can they sufficiently be an ombudsman for an 24/7 entertainment entity by publishing a column every other week? That's one column for 336 hours of content across multiple networks. They will always be neglecting certain issues (Craig James) or playing catchup to where they can't affect change in ESPN policies. Often by the time Poynter has given feedback on policies or proceduers ESPN has probably "corrected the problem" internally. The columns by ESPN's ombudsman don't always feel timely to me. Even at 40 columns that comes to 2.2 columns per month and at 32 columns over 18 months that is 1.78 columns per month. I'm sure Poynter would classify this as "nearly" a column per week, which is the minimum volume I would like to see.

This is a relatively new phenomenon for ESPN and other media companies, and ESPNers are of two minds about the torrent of discussion, simultaneously appreciating being the center of so much conversation and worrying about a discourse they can’t control. 

And of course we all know how ESPN likes to control the discourse of a discussion. In fact, I would submit the ombudsman often doesn't do much in regard to creating discourse ESPN couldn't control. Poynter doesn't seem to have an idea of what change they have affected and when ESPN confronts an issue they will often handle it their own way. If the problem is out of the spotlight, it is considered corrected. Once a problem with standards and practices arose and Poynter came around to discussing it, then the news cycle was already on to another topic. ESPN asked for forgiveness not permission when a problem did arise.

We hope what we’ve learned will help readers and viewers understand ESPN better, so they can make more informed judgments -- whatever those judgments may be -- about the network’s decisions.

Perhaps to a certain extent Poynter has done this. Again, nobody knows because ESPN likes to stay so insulated.

ESPN’s television presence includes multiple channels -- ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes and ESPNU stand alongside the likes of the Longhorn Network, the broadband channel ESPN3 and the many flavors of ESPN International. The same could be said for ESPN’s digital operations: gets most of the attention, but there’s also espnW, Grantland, the quintet of powerful local city sites, and overseas, sport-specific outposts such as And we haven’t even mentioned ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, the company’s 30 for 30 documentaries or the unrelenting waves of information ESPN pushes out to mobile subscribers.

Why should readers and viewers keep this startling breadth in mind? Because we all fall into the trap of thinking about ESPN as a monolithic organization with a single point of view, mission and set of values.

The fact ESPN isn't a monolith only better goes to show my point that the company needs a more involved ombudsman than one that writes a column every other week. It is interesting how Poynter makes it clear ESPN doesn't have a single point of view, mission or set of values, yet the same content can be seen on 5-6 of these branches of the ESPN empire at the same time. You can hear about Tim Tebow/LeBron James on ESPN, read an article about them on, see the latest news on these players at ESPNEWS, read a printed article about one of them in ESPN The Magazine, and have a discussion about these players on ESPN Radio. So no, there isn't a single point of view, but magically these branches can all come together to saturate coverage of one topic.

It’s a big family, with different priorities and cultures, and most of the time ESPN maintains an uneasy balance between those competing entities. But sometimes they wind up working at cross-purposes or get eclipsed by each other.

Poynter seems to be arguing that getting eclipsed by each other or working at cross-purposes is a bad thing. I would argue these entities working at cross-purposes isn't entirely a bad thing.

And some of ESPN’s worst moments have come when things fall out of balance, as we would argue they did with Tebowmania

Here's the issue with this argument that things "fell out of balance" in this situation. Tebowmania is a situation where ESPN and it's various branches WEREN'T working at cross-purposes. This is when things were out of balance because there was balance across the competing entities. To argue ESPN entities working at cross-purposes is a bad thing would be to ignore that when ESPN entities aren't working at cross-purposes and working towards one goal, that's when the network can be at its worst. The reason entities need to eclipse each other is because when ESPN has an agenda, they tend to ram it down their viewer's throats.

Repetition is method as well as madness: If you watch large blocks of ESPN, you sometimes feel like you’re being cudgeled, subjected to the same stories and narratives over and over again with only the name of the show and the identities of the hosts changing. But here’s the thing: Most ESPN viewers don’t watch this way. 

I am not saying this isn't a true statement, but is there some sort of data that supports this contention? I don't have data that disproves this, but if the ombudsman does have data to prove it, then this would be a good time to include this data. If not, then this should be an opinion-based statement and not represented as a fact. 

Wall-to-wall ESPN watchers are outliers, with a very different experience from that of mainstream viewers. But they’re also the people most likely to tweet and blog about the company.

Again, what sort of evidence does Poynter have that shows this to be true? Any evidence those who watch more ESPN are more likely to Tweet and blog complaining about the company? Otherwise, again, this could be considered coming to a conclusion based on an opinion instead on fact.

This means vocal megafans (not to mention media critics and ombudsmen) have a big social-media footprint that considerably outweighs their value to ESPN as viewers. 

Sort of like how large entertainment entities and their coverage of a player or event can have a bigger social impact on that player or event than outweighs their value to the viewer? Good examples of this would be anything involving Tim Tebow, any LeBron James debate involving Skip Bayless and Brett Favre's late 2000's annual "to retire or not?" hostage situation.

So much like Poynter can't discount the input of megafans who watch ESPN all day, they can't discount the effect the saturation of overblown stories has on the viewers who watch ESPN either. This is true no matter how much a person watches ESPN. To say, "Well, these people just watch too much ESPN," is a cheap excuse in order to get around ESPN's overblown coverage of certain players and events.

That’s important to keep in mind when criticizing ESPN for putting a story in heavy rotation; the network’s strategy is designed to catch viewers who tune in for a single show or game, or drop in and out even within individual shows.

I can understand that, but isn't this the purpose of ESPNEWS or ESPN's Bottom Line? Isn't the purpose of constant rotating sports updates at bottom of the screen to ensure a viewer who comes in and out of a single show or game can get information quickly and easily? Shows like Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, First Take, and other shows like that repeat the same material that isn't necessarily informational nor breaking news. This claimed strategy to catch viewers in and out doesn't match with the intended purpose of these shows. ESPN already has the Bottom Line and ESPNEWS for those who want to quickly gain information. That's my issue. Those who watch Around the Horn or First Take probably aren't dropping in and out of the show, so the claim ESPN is using these shows for these individuals who want to drop in or out of a program falls short in my opinion. These so-called "debate shows" aren't informative, but are purely for entertainment. So a person wouldn't tune into hear Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser break news about a topic, but would tune in to hear them discuss a previously reported topic.

I don't even have an issue with ESPN repeating stories, but do we need three or four shows that debate one topic during the day? The issue isn't the repeating of the stories, but the issue is what stories ESPN chooses to cover and saturate the airwaves with. Is it necessary to update what Tim Tebow is doing in Jets training camp or try to turn SportsCenter into a debate program? I don't think it is.

This is not to excuse ESPN’s excesses (again, we’re looking at you, Tebowmania).

But it is to sort of excuse it, because ESPN uses the reasoning that viewers want to hear about him, so that's why they have morning, afternoon, and evening debates, along with coverage of Tebow at Jets training camp. It's to make sure they catch those viewers who only tune into a single show or drop in/out of individual shows. This reasoning essentially can cover everything.

And it highlights the fact that ESPN’s reach gives it a critical responsibility as a news organization. Even in today’s universe of websites and blogs, lack of attention from ESPN can starve a story, and repetition by ESPN can amplify one until other stories feel crowded out.

This is true and goes without saying. Does ESPN understand or care about this critical responsibility? I'm not sure. In fact, in this column Poynter basically says, "you can't argue with ratings" and says this is why ESPN starves or amplifies a story. Viewers can vote with their remote, which while true, seemingly ignores the problems many viewers have with ESPN.

ESPN deserves criticism for its excesses, and it must remain aware of its power in creating and shaping the dominant narratives in sports news.

I'm sure the bi-monthly columns by Poynter have really shown ESPN the light. The simple fact is bi-monthly columns where Poynter aren't timely enough nor do they seem to serve a purpose other than to express mild criticism or try to explain what happened on behalf of ESPN. Perhaps that is the point of an ombudsman, not to do media criticism, but I don't believe an explanation of standards and practices does ESPN viewers much good without tangible evidence ESPN takes these standards and practices seriously.

We get the ESPN we deserve: With a few exceptions, during our tenure, we shied away from media criticism except where ESPN’s own standards and practices came into question. Media criticism wasn’t our job, and there’s no shortage of thoughtful critics keeping an eye on ESPN. 

I can understand this. When ESPN fires or suspends an employee for using a slur, but then allows another analyst/debate team member (Stephen A. Smith) to use a slur on-air twice, how is this explained to viewers? Not only did Smith not apologize either time, but the second time he was fairly standoff-ish about his insistence he didn't use that word. This comes as a surprise to the many who heard it when the word was aired live, when it was heard on video throughout the Internet, and when ESPN edited this word that Smith didn't say out of further First Take broadcasts. So I get media criticism isn't Poynter's job, but when there is a clear double standard in standards and practices I would expect the ombudsman to address it at some point. Poynter never commented on this topic, at least that I could find. That's very, very disappointing and if they are paid to be ESPN's ombudsman then the failure to comment on this story seems to be an obvious failure at their job.

And some of what they consistently decried came down to questions of taste -- which, ultimately, are questions about ratings.

I think many of the questions would also have to deal with the line between ESPN making news by how often and with how vigor they report on a story, and ESPN reporting on an existing story. A company as big as ESPN can turn a non-story into a huge story, thereby creating ratings for them. Tim Tebow may get good ratings for ESPN, but they have overblown the Tim Tebow story in an effort to chase ratings. Basically, is it a problem that ESPN will blow up certain stories in an effort to chase ratings? ESPN not only covers sports news, but they decide what is and is not sports news. So doesn't ESPN have an obligation to not saturate coverage on a story that isn't really pertinent sports news in favor of reporting on pertinent sports news?

We once called “Numbers Never Lie” a bait and switch -- a show that purports to be about advanced stats but is really just another venue for arguments about heart, momentum and other sports generalities. 

Smith’s comments at the conference fell along similar lines: He said that “Numbers Never Lie” began with different goals but “now is a debate show, like most other shows on ESPN. ... I hate to say it’s not about analytics, but it’s not about analytics.” 

This is just a misleading name for a show.

Unfortunate, but why did that happen? Because, Smith said, ESPN’s research found most viewers didn’t want to watch a show with statistics that had to be explained to them. We’ve heard similar things from other ESPNers; they like smart, dispassionate shows such as “Outside the Lines” as much as we do, but those shows don’t consistently pull in the ratings of, say, “First Take.” 

I understand the concept of ratings. ESPN is a business whose lifeblood is money. Ratings equal advertising dollars and advertising dollars equals profits. Television shows are on the air because they have good ratings and make money. Someone has to be watching these debate shows, just like someone has to be watching "Two and a Half Men" or purchasing Michael Bolton's albums. 

But such choices don’t amount to violations of ESPN’s standards. Yes, ESPN “plays the hits,” to use the expression we heard a number of times. But television is a hits-driven business. The real question might not be why we get so few shows such as OTL – it’s why we get such shows at all. If readers want such fare -- say, more “30 for 30” and less “Around the Horn” -- they need to vote with their remotes. 

It's our fault of course. Hey, there's nothing ESPN can do about this. They don't decide what shows are aired on their network.

It's simplistic to say viewers should vote with their remotes. The real issue is ESPN doesn't have any competition. That's the real issue. Once competition comes along then ESPN will no longer be the only game in town and will be forced to try and find shows which will woo the demographic they have lost to other networks. I personally rarely watch ESPN, outside of baseball or football games.

In ESPN’s early days, the forced insularity of Bristol life fostered a scrappy us-against-them attitude that was a big asset for ESPN, as well as creating a certain boys-will-be-boys cabin fever that the network came to regard as a problem.

After being forced to see this as a problem by female ESPN employees who were being harassed. Let's not pretend ESPN was leading the charge at finding the boys-will-be-boys fever as an issue. They were forced to see it as an issue.

But some prominent ESPNers date back to that era, and both those times and Bristol continue to shape how they see the world.

We don’t want to overdo the psychoanalysis on this point, but it’s a mindset we think is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess ESPN’s decisions, particularly how it reacts to outside criticism. 

This is irrelevant. Everyone else lives outside of Bristol, Connecticut. The fact ESPN has an insulated environment is not an excuse or reason to explain away the mindset that takes hold. The world moves on and exists outside of Bristol and the "Bristol mindset," which sounds like a convenient excuse, makes it seem like these employees have never been outside of the city when this isn't true.

The numbers game: In a given year, more than 1,000 content contributors -- anchors, reporters, columnists and analysts – provide coverage across ESPN properties. If you count guests who call in or contribute via satellite on breaking news stories, the number tops 5,000. Most of its entities are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. says it posts more than 800 new content items a day. 

And yet, the ombudsman writes one column every other week.

Yes, ESPN makes mistakes every day, mistakes of commission and of omission. But given the amount of content ESPN produces, daily mistakes are neither surprising nor necessarily alarming.

Again, the issue isn't the mistake in and of itself, but the amount of sweeping under the rug and lack of humility the company can show at times. Bruce Feldman is given permission to write a book with Mike Leach and then gets suspended for writing a book with Mike Leach. Stephen A. Smith uses a slur on air and then gets indignant in his "apology" that we thought he used that word, even though he clearly did.

Another major issue is sourcing issues. Poynter did a column on this, but I found the explanation given by ESPN to be wholly unhelpful to prevent further issues of sourcing in the future. In reality, the issue of sourcing in regard to ESPN has not stopped. Rick Reilly grabs credit for a scoop about Ben Roethlisberger's injury even though he wasn't the one who reported on the injury. These are the types of things that happened after Poynter wrote their "sourcing" column and will continue to happen. Presumably because ESPN just doesn't care. Reilly made it a point to claim he was the first one on a story when it wasn't true and he was never corrected nor was the mistake acknowledged. I find it hard to believe the "sourcing" column was taken to heart by ESPN.

Jay Glazer then further reported on Roethlisberger's injury and SportsCenter attributed this story to "sources." To make matters worse, ESPN had previously given Glazer credit on and then later removed Fox Sports as being the first to report the story. So ESPN steals Glazer's report and files it under "sources," then replaces what was the correct sourcing on their web site to Fox Sports with "sources." Throw in an interview with a soccer player this summer that never actually occurred (ESPN said it was done by a freelancer, thereby absolving them of any wrongdoing of course) and the whole Sarah Phillips disaster, to where the problem isn't the mistakes but the hubris with which ESPN refuses to admit wrongdoing and correct these mistakes in the future.

Are slips of the tongue treated differently when anchors relatively low on the totem pole make them, compared with what happens to high-profile personalities?

If Poynter had taken the time during one of their bi-monthly columns to cover this story, then yes, they would find out slips of the tongue seem to be treated differently.

It’s hard to judge because ESPN rarely reveals the internal changes it makes in response to external criticism. Often we heard privately that policies were being revised and training was being implemented.

What's the point of an ombudsman if even the ombudsman has no idea if changes are being made? I know the answer to this question, but the fact ESPN shells out thousands of dollars to pretend to care about standards and practices only annoys me further at their hubris. We don't need heads on sticks, but if the ombudsman has no idea if changes were implemented, then how can ESPN's viewers feel comfortable the same issue(s) won't arise again?

The big picture: ESPN’s critics seize on every mistake, which can make the company’s editors, producers and PR folks defensive at times. That’s understandable; it’s not easy waking up each morning knowing you’re a big target. 

(the world's tiniest violin plays for this billion dollar company)

Media analyst SNL Kagan estimates ESPN will make $8.2 billion in revenue this year. It controls the rights to a huge range of live sports, using that content as fuel for its sports-information engine.

While ignoring the sports they don't have the rights to. That's why each SportsCenter doesn't have NHL lockout coverage in the first ten minutes and why when the NBA lockout occurred if David Stern farted too loudly then it warranted courthouse step coverage.

At its best, ESPN’s reporting is thorough and uncompromising about matters of great concern to its business partners: Take its recent series on football concussions, or the throw-the-script-away “SportsCenter” that followed the debacle of an NFL replacement ref’s blown call that cost Green Bay a victory in Seattle. Both storylines served fans and undermined the business interests of the NFL. 

Both times ESPN got credit for doing this from viewers. The off-the-cuff SportsCenter, as well as the reaction from Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico was a breath of fresh air to many fans. It removed many of the barriers and canned opinions from the broadcast and felt like ESPN was actually covering the story as opposed to framing the story in a way to draw ratings.

ESPN can’t be an observer or bystander because its mere presence changes things. This is true not just in business but also in journalism: As noted earlier, if ESPN covers a story, it becomes big news; if it ignores it, often it withers.

Hence the difficulty I have with accepting the "vote with your remote" and "we market towards the fan who only watches one show" reasoning they use for saturating their stations with coverage of one story. ESPN knows they can create or destroy a story, so by saturating their coverage with one story they are determining how big of a story it becomes.

But occasionally, as happened in the wake of the grand jury indictment against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the rest of the world overrules ESPN’s judgment and the network must reverse course and pursue a story it originally treated lightly. 

Because at the time, accusations of multiple counts of child abuse wasn't nearly as important of a story as how well Tim Tebow was performing for the Broncos. 

we need journalists such as ESPN’s -- and they, in turn, need standards and practices that are clearly and wisely defined, and faithfully followed. 

But who is going to stop ESPN if they don't do this? Is the next ombudsman going to write a column three weeks after an issue occurs or completely ignore that issue (Craig James, Stephen A. Smith)? Mistakes happen and no one has to be burned at the stake as the result of the mistake, but when mistakes do occur it would help if ESPN acknowledged these mistakes. Maybe once ESPN figures out how to make money or get ratings from admitting mistakes they would will be more inclined to do so.


rich said...

understand ESPN better

ESPN is a money generating entity. That's all there is to know about it - they've dropped their standards, beaten the most asinine stories into the ground and, on occasion, become part of the story.

Somehow, despite not having any discernible (current) talent besides their fanbases, Rick and Bill were given massive contracts. It wasn't because of their incredible insight - it was because they generated money. The fact that they are probably among the highest paid employees (if not the two highest) at ESPN and yet never appear on ESPN television, that's a massive signal, at least to me. If Bill Simmons is worth the money they're throwing at him, wouldn't you want him on tv doing something?

The point is that every ESPN character (and they're characters) has a fanbase or, more appropriately, an anti-fanbase. ESPN relies on these two groups to watch their shows and read their articles to put money in ESPN's pocket's.

In the end, it's ultimately the people who watch(ed) ESPN for the N aspect that got screwed. It's absolutely impossible to watch Sportscenter now - you want highlights of last night's 4OT game that ended with a half court three? Too bad, LeBron and Tebow met up in Miami while the Jets were playing the Dolphins.

The fact that ESPN basically blackballs sports ::cough:: hockey ::cough:: that don't sign their tv rights over to ESPN is another massive slap in the face to "old-time" viewers like myself.

What's worse? I don't watch ESPN and yet it costs me five bucks a month. That's right, if your cable package comes with ESPN included, that's costing you $4.69 a month. I hate E and whatever the hell Lifetime became, but at least they have the decency to only cost me 1.50 combined.

However, that lovely $60/year price tag everyone who has cable pays... covers only 1/5th of their total "programming costs." Meaning that they're pissing away money left and right.

To understand ESPN, all you need to know is that it's a bloated monopoly that puts out a shitty product knowing they're too big for cable providers to say "fuck you" to that hefty price.

Because at the time, accusations of multiple counts of child abuse wasn't nearly as important of a story as how well Tim Tebow was performing for the Broncos.

And here's the real stupidity of ESPN's decision - they have enough outlets to do both of those. When you have three tv stations (ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNews) that pretty much everyone with cable gets, to gloss over a major story like that shows a severe lack of judgment.

And then taking it one step further, once ESPN got involved... they wouldn't shut the fuck up about it. This is something they do constantly and it was the reason I just stopped watching. Their race baiting, over the top and moronic analysts were bad enough, but you could at least go watch Sportscenter to get news.

And then Favre retired and unretired and retired and unretired. Every time Favre even so much as looked at his alarm clock not only was ESPN there with a story, BUT THEY FUCKING MADE IT BREAKING NEWS. The number of times they broke into something (Sportscenter, a game, etc) to report that Brett Favre was, in fact, still retired pissed me off.

Other than a few 10-15 minute runs when something big actually happens, I've stayed away from them since.

Their analysts are all boring and uninsightful, their personalities all have the same, over the top, race baiting "character" (Steven A, Scoop, Jemele Hill and Skip Bayless may as well be the same person) is insane.

Then you add in Cowherd who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, Wilbon who has become a kiss ass to the stars, Korheisser who honestly looks like he doesn't give a shit and Clarissa Thompson who was hired from... Versus... where she did hockey games... a sport ESPN refuses to acknowledge.