The Sports Page

Poynter and ESPN: The Short Way Down

(The following has been published in the March 12 print edition of Sports Business Journal.  Many thanks to the folks there.)

I remember an illustration from youth rallies and assemblies.  The speaker would have someone stand on a chair, with a friend standing on the floor next to him/her.  The one on the chair would be challenged to lift the friend.  Impossible.

Then the speaker would challenge the friend to bring the one on the chair down.  One yank, and mission accomplished.  The warning?  It’s easier to drag someone down than lift someone up.

Perhaps someone needs to bring a chair to the Poynter Institute.  In their role as ethical watchdog for ESPN , the Institute risks dragging themselves down in their attempts to lift ESPN — or, at least, to be perceived as lifting ESPN.

The partnership was announced in March 2012 and hailed as a "new step in media transparency."   Poynter Institute staff would review ESPN’s content and practices and comment as appropriate, while also addressing fan concerns and writing monthly essays.  ESPN would gain Poynter’s expertise in teaching and encouraging ethical behavior.

In theory.

In practice, the arrangement seems to be having little effect on how ESPN conducts its conflict-of-interest-filled daily business.

First, some background on the Poynter Institute.  An excellent training facility for all aspects of journalism, the Institute was funded by Nelson Poynter, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers, who willed controlling stock in his newspapers to the Institute as a funding source.  (Disclosure: I attended a seminar there in the late 1990s.)  It’s impossible to summarize for the purpose of this article.  Check the hyperlink above.

So it is not surprising that the essays themselves, by Kelly McBride and Jason Fry, are excellent, thoughtful and deserving of consideration by readers as much as by ESPN’s management.  But are they more than just words on a screen?

First, have you ever tried finding these essays?  You’ll need help, and here it is:  On the entry page, scroll down almost to the bottom.  Under “Feedback” is a link to “Poynter Review Project.”

The uninitiated reader might think the feature is dedicated to a review of the career of Michael Poynter, backup QB for Rice.  Understandable, because the name “Poynter” is meaningless to most outside of the journalism industry.  You’ll have to ask ESPN why they don’t put the word “ethics” there.

Vague as that is, it’s an improvement.  You used to have to go almost all the way to the right at the top menu bar, to “Page 2 & Commentary.”  It was buried at the bottom of the commentary list — not so bad, since Rick Reilly’s column was next to the bottom. (Of course, Reilly is hardly buried, since his columns by contrast are frequently featured on the ESPN front page.)

Second, what impact are the essays having?  McBride criticized the network’s lack of action after hearing the alleged victim’s taped conversations with former Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine’s wife.  Fry and McBride also criticized their slow coverage of the Sandusky scandal.

From a practical perspective, those columns might have encouraged more aggressive coverage of allegations in the case against former AAU president Bobby Dodd.  Of course, the lack of action in the Fine and Sandusky cases has caused reflection and reform across the board in such cases, but McBride’s and Fry’s particular critiques of ESPN were enlightening.

My concern is the impact on the broader conflicts of interest, involving ESPN’s double life as an outlet for objective news information and a producer of overly-hyped programming.  In these cases — for example, McBride’s appraisal of ESPN’s schizophrenic role in reporting and promoting college football realignment — the columns seem like window dressing.  ESPN lets McBride and Fry reflect and ponder, but ultimately they are left to their own ivory tower, worth only PR points for ESPN, with no real change.

A more recent slam came from Richard Deitsch of SI.com, in his best and worst of 2011.  He double-slapped both Poynter and ESPN for their lack of follow-up regarding allegations that ESPN analyst Craig James hired a PR firm to smear former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, whose book Bruce Feldman (then of ESPN) co-wrote.  Although Poynter mentioned the allegations, neither the Institute nor the Worldwide Leader has taken further action.  That earned a “dud” designation from Deitsch.

Their initial response to the charges of racism in coverage of Jeremy Lin did not appear until three days after the worst of the offenses — the “Chink in the Armor” headline that cost an ESPN.com editor his job.  Not very nimble.

The third concern involves ESPN’s payments to Poynter.  In an e-mail to McBride, I asked her for details on this.  She declined, saying that Poynter, although a non-profit, does not disclose the details of such client contracts.  (Disclaimer: True to form as a Poynter faculty member, McBride provided me much instruction and background in our brief e-mail exchange, even as I prepared an article that would criticize her organization.)

In this non-disclosure, I think Poynter errs.  Given their status within the journalism profession as an ethical stalwart, their transparency in this relationship should be above the letter of the law.  I don’t believe that Poynter is being bought off by ESPN, lending their name as sanctifying gloss over the network’s ethical derp-dom.

But I do believe that Poynter could head off any ethical misgivings while showing that they are truly the Worldwide Leader when it comes to journalism ethics.  It takes some organizational courage to show the specific financial benefits of such relationships.  But that courage is buoyed by confidence that what they are doing in their work with ESPN is right.

In fact, I don’t believe that ESPN will drag the Poynter Institute down.  But to extend my opening metaphor, I don’t believe that Poynter will raise ESPN up, either.  I’m thinking that, however long the relationship lasts, ESPN will remain at its level of ethics, and Poynter, from its lofty position, will end up with sore arms and improved finances.

  • 14 March 2012