SBD/November 13, 2012/Media

Poynter Review Project's Final Entry Examines ESPN's Conflicts Of Interest

ESPN’s Poynter Review Project looked at “lessons learned over 18 months of observing the network’s various media outlets, examining their successes and failures, and investigating how ESPN works (and sometimes doesn’t),” according to McBride & Fry in a column for ESPN serving as the final entry of the project. McBride & Fry wrote, “We all fall into the trap of thinking about ESPN as a monolithic organization with a single point of view, mission and set of values. … But the strength of that brand can blind us to the fact that ESPN is a news organization, an entertainment company, a broadcast partner for sports leagues and a business in its own right -- and each of those portions has massive power and reach.” Most of the time ESPN "maintains an uneasy balance between those competing entities,” but they sometimes “wind up working at cross-purposes or get eclipsed by each other.” ESPN "draws lines between its news division and its business and production arms, and we never heard of an executive storming across that line and telling ESPN journalists what to do or what not to do.” At its best, ESPN’s reporting is “thorough and uncompromising about matters of great concern to its business partners.” But there is a "massive and inherent conflict of interest here, so the arrangement demands constant monitoring.” ESPN is “so big that it occupies a position in sports not unlike that of Microsoft in the ecosystem for computer hardware and software in the late 1990s.” ESPN "can’t be an observer or bystander because its mere presence changes things." If ESPN covers a story, "it becomes big news; if it ignores it, often it withers.” ESPN has "come very close to being synonymous with sports" in the U.S., and that position “places considerable strain on its journalists” (ESPN.com, 11/12). 

REVIEWING THE REVIEW: SI.com’s Richard Deitsch wrote Poynter’s tenure as ESPN’s ombudsman “was a mixed bag, a better fit for ESPN internally than the external output they produced for readers.” The Poynter Review Project “failed to deliver on a promised Craig James column, and most disappointing, they lacked the metabolism of what the job demands today: a near-daily look at the many issues that filter through ESPN's properties.” But Poynter did have “very strong moments, including its examination of Bob Knight's nonsense, ESPN's handling of firing an employee over a Jeremy Lin headline and the network's handling of the Bernie Fine allegations, which deserves a follow-up from the next ombudsman.” An ESPN spokesperson said of the net's next ombudsman, "The search is on, though no timetable” (SI.com, 11/12).
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