SBD/Issue 124/Sports Media

ESPN Ombudsman Finds Fault With Net's Suspension Of Kornheiser

ESPN Ombudsman Says Net's Suspension
Of Kornheiser "Seemed Disingenuous"

In his latest contribution as ESPN Ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer wrote the network's rationale in suspending Tony Kornheiser for critical remarks about Hannah Storm "seemed disingenuous." It is "unseemly to have a commentator publicly deride and insult a colleague's appearance," and a "response from the network was warranted." But instead of "rightfully suspending Kornheiser for denigrating a fellow employee, the company's statement issued an all-encompassing dictum that 'hurtful and personal comments' would have 'significant consequences.'" This message establishes a "very low disciplinary bar, considering that a sizable portion of what ESPN airs and prints involves blunt opinion and criticism." So to "imply that punishment awaits announcers and analysts who levy such remarks, no matter whom the target, doesn't seem realistic." ESPN management waited six days to "announce Kornheiser's suspension, implying a good deal of thought went into the decision." Perhaps the punishment was "influenced by recent negative publicity about gender issues at the network or issues of ageism," but ultimately the suspension "should have nothing to do with gender or age." Ohlmeyer: "Derogatory comments about a fellow employee's appearance, male or female, should be unacceptable."

RIGHT DOWN THE MIDDLE: Ohlmeyer wrote ESPN brought "first-rate and thorough coverage" to Tiger Woods' public apology on February 19, as the net included reaction from fellow golfers, "other athletes, fans, business analysts, marketers and ESPN commentators." The "extent of the coverage, however, did not sit well with all viewers." Ohlmeyer noted in the past, the "agenda for what was 'newsworthy' was set by a few highly influential newspapers, magazines and wire services." But now that "mainstream approach is overshadowed by myriad new players -- cable news, blogs, talk radio and the tabloids." ESPN's coverage of Woods' address had "breadth, scope and a sense of fairness," but it still was a "story made larger than life by the tabloids and blogs." When asked how tabloids "alter the philosophy of those journalists who have responsibly stayed above this fray," ESPN Senior VP & Dir of News Vince Doria said, "The honest answer is, I don't know. There is a very basic difference in philosophy, between the more conventional newsgathering operations and the new-breed purveyors of information. The traditionalists believe in checking information and sources, making sure a story is accurate before exposing it publicly. Many of the new-breed community believe information should be made available to everyone, regardless of its accuracy, and allow them to draw their own conclusions about its veracity." Doria added, "What I hope for is that this new breed of information gatherers/disseminators begin to embrace responsibility in what they report. But the Internet provides such easy access to a platform that's available to virtually everybody, that it's hard to believe the standards of accuracy and fairness, the bedrock of traditional journalism, will ever dominate the landscape."

A PRICE TO PAY: Ohlmeyer noted he has received e-mails from ESPN users who "vociferously rail against the concept of paying for content online." But ESPN.com VP, Exec Editor & Producer Patrick Stiegman said, "Our goal is to offer a hierarchical view of what's important in sports that day from a news perspective, as well as representations of the various storytelling elements. ... If an Insider element -- often predictive and deeply analytical -- best tells a given story, we'll feature it prominently, just as we would public content." ESPN Publishing GM & Editorial Dir Gary Hoenig: "Only a tiny portion of what you see on ESPN.com is behind the pay wall. At about 11 cents a day, it doesn't seem like much to ask for what we think is premium content. With advertisers hurting these days, we need to find more ways to pay for all the talent that provides what fans want to know about sports." Ohlmeyer wrote in order to charge for content, it "must provide value to the consumer" and be perceived as "proprietary, not undifferentiated." ESPN Insider is a "foray into the premium market" and readers will "determine whether the content is truly proprietary or just more undifferentiated information." That perceived value "will tell the story" (ESPN.com, 3/10).

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