Friday, March 30, 2007

ESPN and its coporate journalism

ESPN/ABC inks a huge new deal with NASCAR and suddenly coverage of that sport across all ESPN platforms explodes. SportsCenter now dedicates large chunks of its 6 p.m. program to a sport that was once barely covered. But the telltale sign for any ESPN observer that corporate pressure is being exerted can be found from 5-6 p.m. on any weekday afternoon.

Prior to the new deal with NASCAR, panelists on ESPN’s afternoon sportswriter screaming match known as Around the Horn made fun of stock car racing. Now the panelists pretend to talk seriously about the sport. It’s a joke. And how about NASCAR popping up on ESPN’s most popular afternoon show, Pardon the Interruption. Both Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, the two hosts, admit to knowing nothing about racing yet they have a contrived, forced discussion about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am actually a huge NASCAR fan. So I find the increased coverage interesting. The problem I have is that the increased coverage is the direct result of a corporate relationship.

Perhaps even more egregious are the recent developments at ESPN involving the Arena Football League. ABC and ESPN, both Disney Company properties, are part owners of the quirky indoor football league. And this year, coverage of the AFL has skyrocketed on ESPN. Scores from games are making the ticker across the bottom of the ESPN screen, something that never happened before this new ownership.

Ron Jaworski is the lead analyst on ESPN for the AFL. And normally that would be good news for any sports television viewer, Jaworski is a knowledgeable and no nonsense guy.

The problem is Jaworski is the President of the Philadelphia Soul, an AFL team. How can he possibly be objective?

Check out what ESPN’s outgoing ombudsman George Solomon has to say about the wayward sports network. He specifically points out ESPN’s questionable corporate relationship with its news coverage.

The network would be wise to heed his advice on a number of matters. Unfortunately, his columns were usually buried somewhere deep on the site, making it hard for concerned customers to locate his articles.

ESPN is so large that consumers of sports on television have no choice but to watch. The network takes total advantage of its incredible power and sometimes viewers are getting hurt.

In his article Solomon mentions that hockey coverage on SportsCenter and across ESPN has been lacking. It is a terrible truth that what was once a major sport is being forced into obscurity.

A lot of that can be blamed on the NHL lockout, but after the lockout ESPN declined to carry NHL games. As a result, it seems like they no longer feel like they have to cover the sport with the same vigor and fairness. Scores of casual hockey fans across America are missing out on an incredible playoff race as this season winds down.

Instead, we are all being force fed the AFL. ESPN is right about covering a sport played in an arena, they are just wrong about what sport inside the arena they should be covering.


At Saturday, March 31, 2007, Blogger EJW said...

I agree that this sponsorship is a problem. How can a president of an AFL team possibly be objective as a commentator? I think this is a huge problems in other types of news as well. I once interned with an investigative unit at a tv station. The producer really wanted to do a story on this used car place that was ripping off poor people by offering them credit and other deals they could not afford and in the end were ending up with huge debts. However, the used car company was owned by a larger company that was one of the largest advertisers for the station. Thus the producer was informed she could not do the story. I was outraged! It's still hard for me to reconcile the business side of news with its public service. I know I have to, but I'm not sure where to draw the line.

At Saturday, March 31, 2007, Blogger AJS said...

Well, thanks for stealing what I was originally going to write about. You said it extremely well, and there's very little I can add. But there are two more issues I have with ESPN that I think dovetail nicely with what you wrote.

First off, I want to go on a bit of a tangent about Solomon, who may well be the weakest excuse for an ombudsman I've ever seen. He has absolutely no power, and it seems like his recommendations carry no weight. The idea of an ombudsman -- someone viewers and fans can complain to about the issues you write about -- is a good one, but if the network never follows any of his suggestions, then he's useless. But not all of the fault is on ESPN. I think Solomon is far too conciliatory towards the network, and many of his statements vacillate or are incredibly soft, full of "coulds" and "mights" instead of "shoulds." (Example from his final column: "News executives might consider occasionally slowing down the 'on-air' process until more facts become available. They might also want to back off the intensity of ESPN's coverage of Michelle Wie, the Yankees and the Red Sox.")

The second problem with ESPN is its ability to make news, which goes hand-in-hand with its decisions on which sports to cover. If Bob Knight "hits" a player's chin, is it news? Well, it is if ESPN says it is. Same with the T.O. "suicide" attempt. These might have been non-stories if not for ESPN. The network's ability to basically set the nation's sports agenda is something it often takes advantage of. It often puts real journalism on the back burner when a story that can draw ratings if ESPN hypes it enough comes up. ESPN has becone its own ratings-driving machine through this, and the level of sports discourse suffers as a result.


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