SBD/October 27, 2011/Media

Poynter Review Examines ESPN's Role, Interest In Conference Realignment

In the latest entry for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, Poynter Institute Ethics Group Leader Kelly McBride noted amid the ongoing college realignment, many "fans, bloggers and other journalists have questioned whether ESPN's influence over this process is appropriate." It is "easy to see why they'd ask," as a "lot of money is changing hands in college sports and it's safe to say that ESPN is the biggest player, by its own design." McBride wrote, "ESPN is acting like the big business it is, strategically locking up its market whenever it makes financial sense. Could that be a problem for the network's credibility as its reporters independently gather information about schools and conferences? Yes." ESPN's role in the recent "unprecedented reshaping of athletic conferences epitomizes why even some of the network's executives call the company 'a walking conflict of interest.'" Given the "high-stakes money involved, how ESPN navigates this particular conflict of interest will have a profound impact on its credibility with its audience." ESPN is "hardly a bystander in this process," and the increasingly "huge amounts of money the network spends on college rights are a primary driver of the domino effect in conference realignment." McBride asked, "Is that inappropriate? Only if you think ESPN should be responsible for preserving the traditional values of collegiate athletics." Transylvania Univ. Accounting Dir Dan Fulks: "I don't fault ESPN, they're in the business to make money. I don't fault the conferences, they're in the business to make money for their schools. But when I look at Longhorn Network, I think that's the worst of it, because all that money goes to one school at the expense of other schools."

A DELICATE RELATIONSHIP: Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott and ESPN Exec VP/Programming Acquisitions & Strategy John Wildhack described the relationship between the Pac-12 and ESPN, and McBride noted it "seems reasonable that members of the ACC expansion committee were routinely bouncing information" off the net regarding the recent move to accept Pittsburgh and Syracuse as members. But the "dangerous conflict of interest is not that ESPN is inappropriately throwing around its money and weight." It is that while "journalists at ESPN are ferreting out the latest tip about conference realignment, the network's programming people are sitting in another part of the Bristol campus with inside information -- details of which they must keep to themselves in order to honor the business relationships." McBride: "It's a tenuous balance, reinforced every time ESPN's journalists prove their loyalty to the audience -- but undermined every time the veil is pulled back on the contractual process" (ESPN.com, 10/25).

REAX: SI's Richard Deitsch wrote the majority of responses he received regarding the Poynter article "believed the piece was incomplete." SI's Stewart Mandel wrote in an e-mail, "I kept waiting for her to get to the journalism/credibility issues ... and it never happened, other than a weak one-graf conclusion." Deitsch wrote, "Clearly, this piece could have used the voices of Pat Forde, Bruce Feldman, Joe Schad, Mark Schlabach or (ACC reporter) Heather Dinich, reporters who live in the news-gathering arena and have to deal with this inherent conflict between the business and editorial sides" (TWITTER.com, 10/26). BLOGUIN.com's Allen Kenney writes McBride "seemingly goes above and beyond the call of duty in attempting to absolve ESPN of blame in all the conference-swapping and bitter break-ups witnessed in the last two years." Kenney: "The truth is that while ESPN gives bitter fans a convenient bogeyman when their favorite team ends up on the short end of the realignment stick, ESPN's role in the neverending realignment drama wouldn't exist if the universities themselves weren't tripping over themselves to mine every dollar possible out of college athletics." Kenney adds the Poynter critique "falls woefully short, though, in addressing any internal mechanisms or policies in place at ESPN intended to assure its audience that its employees are encouraged to do their jobs in an objective or unbiased manner, let alone that they're free to do so" (BLOGUIN.com, 10/27). THE BIG LEAD's Ty Duffy writes of ESPN, "Like YES or NESN, it can be entrusted to televise games and present salient information for those games and present most innocuous news items. However, there will be incidents where a conflict and, regardless of the hard work and earnest intent of those involved, ESPN can’t be trusted as a disinterested broker of information" (THEBIGLEAD.com, 10/27).
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