Was ESPN Sloppy, Naive or Compromised?

August 27, 2013

By Robert Lipsyte via ESPN

So what’s more damaging to a corporate image: to be considered sloppy, naïve or compromised? Or all three? You get to pick in the wake of ESPN’s announcement Thursday that it was removing its brand from an upcoming two-part documentary by PBS’s “Frontline” that “reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries” (or so it claims in a controversial trailer).

The ESPN action drew immediate media and mailbag accusations that the NFL had pressured the network into severing ties to the PBS films. I thought the best and briefest characterization came from Ombuddy Philip Berenbroick of Arlington, Va., who saw ESPN’s decision as an example of “the dueling journalism and profit motives [via protecting valued partners] at the network.”

It’s hard to argue with that depiction. That duel also turns out to be the major ongoing conflict that the ombudsman deals with. This column is a first response to the current issue; there may be more columns to come as we learn more on the topic.

The background: For the past 15 months, ESPN’s enterprise/investigative unit has been working “in collaboration” with “Frontline” on two shows scheduled to air in October. They are titled “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth,” and are in parallel with a forthcoming book of the same name by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada — brothers and investigative reporters for ESPN.

By all accounts, it has been a close and happy collaboration between elite news teams, producers and writers. Results of that collaboration have already appeared on ESPN.com and “Outside the Lines,” the ESPN show that most closely resembles the PBS show in serious intent, as well as on the “Frontline” site. Indeed, ESPN has done extensive reporting on the NFL and concussions, from its “Football at a Crossroads” series to revealing reports by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada on concussion controversies involving Mike Webster and Junior Seau.

There were mutual corporate benefits. PBS would draw new viewers from the crowds in the ESPN grandstand, and ESPN would derive a dash of PBS prestige from its association with one of the nation’s most respected documentary broadcasts. Both sides trumpeted the relationship. In July 2012 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on a panel with PBS president Paula Kerger, ESPN president John Skipper said: “We’re not the public trust that PBS is, but we do a certain amount of programming that is a bit of the public trust.”

That attitude was a point of pride among ESPN journalists, including Dwayne Bray, a senior news producer who was working closely with “Frontline.” On Aug. 6, on a joint media panel with “Frontline” in Los Angeles to promote the documentary, Bray took on the question of ESPN reporting on the toughest topic bedeviling its most important business partner. Pro football is the most popular sport on ESPN and generates the most income. But the NFL is also dealing with more than 4,200 named player-plaintiffs in lawsuits over concussion-linked injuries.

At a news conference on the tour, Bray boasted of ESPN’s “bifurcated” structure in which journalism and business remained separate. He pointed out that ESPN has been reporting on football concussions since 1994, and that “the NFL is just going to have to understand” the nature of the ESPN-“Frontline” partnership.

That event, Skipper told me, was for him “the catalyst or starting episode” of what ultimately resulted in ESPN’s decision to part ways with “Frontline.” Skipper didn’t attend the event, and said he was “startled” when he read about a promotional trailer for the documentary which was screened at the news conference. He hadn’t seen the trailer or approved its content, which included the ESPN logo and a collaboration credit. He thought it was “odd for me not to get a heads up,” and said it made him “quite unhappy” to discover that ESPN had no editorial control over the trailer.

Upon screening it, Skipper said he found the trailer to be “sensational.” He particularly objected to the tagline — “Get ready to change the way you see the game” — and to the final sound bite in the piece, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, she says, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper said he found that comment to be “over the top.”

Eight days after the catalytic news conference, on Aug. 14, Skipper and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had lunch in New York City. It’s not hard to assume, as many have, that Goodell raised issues about the “Frontline” documentary and demanded that Skipper take some action to protect the NFL brand.

Commissioners are always trying to strong-arm or sweet-talk ESPN executives, especially Skipper. How well they succeed is a matter of constant speculation, both among Ombuddies and from some inside ESPN. Right or wrong, there is a perception that the company’s decisions — both long-term and moment-by-moment — are often made to promote, or at least not provoke, important “partners.”

When I spoke to Skipper on Friday and told him that my sources indicated he had discussed the “Frontline” partnership with Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, as well as lawyers at both Disney and ESPN, he confirmed that was true. Skipper noted, however, that he had made the calls to advise those parties of his decision to “remove the brand because we did not control the content.” He denied that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the action.

Said Skipper, “I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.”

ESPN’s public reasoning for separating from “Frontline” was tied to oversight, with the network saying “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials.” On Friday, Skipper released a statement of editorial support, saying “I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at ‘Frontline.’ ”

Which takes us back to the challenge of ESPN’s “dueling journalism and profit motives.” What exactly happened here, and how should we feel about it?

If, as Skipper told me, the ESPN-“Frontline” association was “a loose arrangement,” it seems an unusually sloppy execution for ESPN, an organization that is usually much more buttoned-up. (Raney Aronson, the deputy executive producer for “Frontline,” told me the arrangement was more of an “editorial exchange” and that “we were working on a piece of paper” — meaning some legal memorialization of the partnership.)

Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism?

Was ESPN naïve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also naïve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with “Frontline” (no league footage, no Goodell interview, limited access to doctors who advise the NFL on concussions)? The league was not happy with a recent OTL report on one of its main doctors — which ran on ESPN’s platforms just last weekend — so why would it support “League of Denial”?

Or did ESPN cave in to pressure from the NFL or Disney or both? And if so, really, what was the point? It couldn’t have been to stifle interest in the project. The media coverage of ESPN’s decision to remove its imprimatur from the “Frontline” films will probably result in both a sales and ratings boost for the book and documentaries, respectively.

So what just happened? Beats me. At best we’ve seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn’t very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.

This is a dicey time for the journalism side of the ESPN bifurcation. For all the current fuss, an even stronger message than ESPN’s disassociation from the “Frontline” project was the network’s recent decision to reschedule the Sunday morning OTL show from 9 a.m. on ESPN to 8 a.m. on ESPN 2 during the fall. A justifiably proud show is being demoted … for more football talk!

I’ll be staying on this story, as circumstances warrant, but will leave you for now with both foreboding and optimism.

“It’s sad because it sounds like a terrible blow for journalism at ESPN,” Sandy Padwe, a Columbia journalism professor, said of ESPN’s breakup with “Frontline.” Padwe, who recently ended a hitch of almost 19 years as a consultant to OTL, added that many journalists inside of ESPN are “demoralized by the capitulation and so much fine work is being marginalized.”

But Bray, the producer who has been among several in the forefront of the concussion investigations for ESPN, told me, “This issue is about branding, not about journalism. We will still get to do the stories, and no one will interfere with that.”

Let’s hope so.

Photo: Zack Baddorf