SBD/February 22, 2012/Media

Poynter Review Examines ESPN's Actions Following Racial Slur Referencing Jeremy Lin

With lack of oversight on mobile side, one person was responsible for headline
In the latest entry for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, Jason Fry discussed ESPN's apologies and actions following a racial slur used multiple times last week during coverage of Knicks G Jeremy Lin's star turn and sees "one as a lapse in judgment by an editor working without a net and the other two as terribly timed slips of the tongue." All three incidents "involved the phrase 'chink in the armor.'" ESPN online editor Anthony Federico was fired after using the phrase in a headline, and ESPN VP/Mobile Content Anthony Mormile said, "Anthony had no concept, no awareness that could be construed as a potentially explosive headline." ESPN Senior VP/Editorial, Print & Digital Media Rob King said that on the web side, "lead content packages and headlines go through a copy desk before they’re pushed live, and a copy editor is always there when a home page editor is working." But he added the mobile team does not have “that level of oversight." King: "You had one person making a move that a lot of people could see.” ESPN suspended anchor Max Bretos for using the phrase on air last Wednesday, and ESPN Exec VP/Production John Wildhack said that the decisions involving Federico and Bretos "were reached after 'a number of conversations.'" Wildhack added while the "subject matter was the same, we looked at each incident on its own." Fry noted one "potential factor in the severity of the punishments: Earlier in the week, racial sensitivity regarding the Lin storyline was a topic in the company’s monthly editorial board meeting, and ESPN issued a memo to all its content groups urging staffers to be cognizant of how Lin was discussed -- a directive that was revisited in a Friday staff meeting." Fry wrote the 30-day suspension of Bretos "strikes us as too harsh, though." Looking at the clip of Bretos’ comments, there is "no sign he was trying to be snarky or clever, and an on-air reporter must think, listen and talk in real time, with no chance to review his or her words." Fry: "Reconsidering Bretos’ sentence would neither undermine ESPN's speedy and forthright response to these incidents nor damage its efforts to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again." The third incident involved Knicks radio announcer Spero Dedes, who said the phrase on ESPN Radio 1050 N.Y. on Friday. Dedes is "employed by MSG Network, which produces the Knicks' radio broadcasts" (ESPN.com, 2/21).

DO THE PUNISHMENTS FIT THE CRIMES? In N.Y., Richard Sandomir notes in "comparing the ESPN punishments, it is likely that Bretos got off lighter because he used the phrase live and had no time to take it back." But Federico "had time to rewrite the headline if he realized his error" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/22). In Sacramento, Brian Blomster writes, "This is about being mature enough to recognize that choosing a better word for a headline or phrase is a small price for helping maintain an environment that values all parts of a complicated whole." Instead of firing Federico and suspending Bretos, ESPN "should have made those responsible for the Lin fiasco undergo extensive diversity training and then put them back to work having learned a hard, valuable lesson" (SACBEE.com, 2/22). USA TODAY's Michael Hiestand writes when it comes to Lin, "maybe the best thing for news media members is to avoid cliches" (USA TODAY, 2/22). SI.com’s Richard Deitsch wrote critics "can debate" the punishments handed out to Federico and Bretos, but what "isn't up for debate is the speed and proactive approach ESPN took soon after the offensive headline went up and down.” Fans heard from ESPN's “top digital content executive, it apologized on multiple platforms and the company's PR staff updated its statement multiple times.” ESPN can “often be clumsy with damage control as we saw in the Bruce Feldman situation” but in this case, the net “has been proactive” (SI.com, 2/21).

DEDES NOT SUSPENDED BY MSG: In N.Y., Marc Berman reports Dedes "has been disciplined but not suspended by MSG" for his remarks. An MSG Network statement read in part, "We took appropriate disciplinary action." Berman notes it is believed that Dedes "was fined and won’t miss any games." Meanwhile this is the "second strike for Dedes, in his first season with the Knicks after leaving the Lakers." He was "arrested for DWI on July 4 in the Hamptons" (N.Y. POST, 2/22).

UNIQUE COVERAGE FOR UNIQUE SITUATION: NBA.com’s David Aldridge wrote Lin's rise to fame “would not be covered the same way if a black kid did what Jeremy Lin is doing.” But it “wasn't covered the same way when Tiger Woods started doing what Jack Nicklaus did.” Aldridge: “That's the whole point. Jeremy Lin is different. ... Lin's ethnicity isn't the only thing that makes him different. And that's why his story, and his success, have resonated with so many people.” This story “transcends basketball, and if you don't believe that, you haven't been watching the ‘Today Show’ on NBC, or ‘Good Morning America’ on ABC, or reading that bastion of sports journalism, The Wall Street Journal” (NBA.com, 2/20).
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