SBD/October 16, 2013/Media

ESPN Ombudsman Writes Net Deserves Credit For "League Of Denial," But Questions Remain

ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in his most recent column wrote ESPN "could be proud of its contributions" to Frontline's "League of Denial" documentary. After all the "questioning, the carping and the confusion over credits, it was clear that serious journalism had won." However, questions "remained unanswered about both ESPN and the NFL." Lipsyte asked, "Exactly how much did the league know about the dangers of head trauma and when did it know? How much was actively concealed? ... Just how was that settlement with players arrived at and how will the plaintiffs ultimately be affected?" And "more pertinently," will ESPN’s "powerhouse investigative unit go after those stories?" Lipsyte: "Why didn’t it produce such a documentary in the first place? How far can ESPN go reporting on the NFL?" To the "surprise of some, during the week leading up to the Oct. 8 debut" of the film, various ESPN TV and radio shows -- as well as ESPN.com -- "promoted the documentary." That "clearly happened" with the support of ESPN President John Skipper. Lipsyte: "Cynics claimed ESPN’s promotion of the book and documentary were merely attempts to salvage its journalistic integrity." But "whatever the motive, it buoyed internal journalistic spirits and drummed up interest in the book and show." The film itself was "a triumph -- compelling and beautifully crafted." Lipsyte noted "OTL" host Bob Ley "liked the Frontline piece" but "found the moment 'bittersweet' because ESPN’s name wasn’t on it." Ley said, “The main points were all from original OTL reporting. We’ve been on the story for a decade.”

ESPN CAME OFF WELL: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler said, “ESPN came off well. The Fainarus and Keating upheld journalism.” Some ESPN journalists said that they were "thrilled by the results of ESPN’s participation in the project, but felt a certain foreboding, even 'weirdness.'" Despite recent "pep talks by newsroom leaders, they wondered about the future of investigative journalism" on the net. One "important question is why didn’t ESPN do this show by itself in the first place." ESPN Senior VP & Dir of News Vince Doria: "The majority of documentaries here are done by ESPN Films. ... By and large they are terrific story-telling vehicles, but they are director-driven films, not typically executed by investigative reporters, nor do they purport to be investigative in nature. On the news side, we’ve taken the approach that we will execute stories in a report-the-news-as-we-learn-it approach, hence the notion of doing lengthy pieces, 10-14 minutes, as the reporting occurs, rather than gather string for a one-hour or two-hour show." Doria added, "Much of the reporting in the documentary had appeared in shorter form on our air. ... In this case, Frontline came to us with the idea ... No more complicated than that." Lipsyte wrote ESPN, in this "triumphant yet bittersweet moment, has something to prove, and the means to prove it." It can "continue to turn loose the Fainarus and Keating and [Don] Van Natta, and its stable of hard-nosed reporters such as T.J. Quinn, Tom Farrey, Mike Fish and Shaun Assael." Despite what at times "seemed like sloppiness or naivete or compromise, ESPN journalism won." It may have "won ugly, but it won" (ESPN.com, 10/15).
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