Skipper Defends ESPN's Journalistic Qualities, Denies Net Protects League Partners
ESPN President John Skipper gave a full-throated defense of the quality of ESPN’s journalism, saying the company does more to cover sports than any other entity. He specifically highlighted ESPN as the only sports media company that uses an ombudsman and has published social media policies for its reporters and on-air talent. “We have standards of journalism that are at the highest order,” Skipper told THE DAILY during an extensive interview in his N.Y. office. “There’s a separate question, which is, ‘Are we adhering to them?’ But at least our intention and what we publish is that we are going to adhere to high standards. We don’t discourage the scrutiny, we welcome it. Generally, we react to it.” As evidence, Skipper brought up the Ben Roethlisberger story from '09, when the Steelers QB was named in a civil suit that accused him of rape. ESPN was criticized for not reporting on the story initially. But Skipper said the newsroom made the correct decision to not report the problem at the time because ESPN had a policy in place not to report on civil suits. The company has since changed that policy. “We changed our policy and set specific guidelines. We said that we can no longer ignore it; if it becomes widespread and the AP goes with it, we will go with it, too. We’re willing to change to adapt to changing times. ... We decided to be quicker. We started Front Row so we could be a little more transparent. I don’t think anybody responds more or has higher standards. So I reject the overall criticism that we’re not doing this stuff.” Skipper made his comments as ESPN’s journalism has been criticized for improper sourcing and debate-style programming that seems to value opinion over facts. The sports blog Deadspin organized a panel of influential national media reporters to discuss plagiarism accusations against one ESPN writer.
TO SERVE AND PROTECT? One of the most persistent criticisms has dealt with the potential conflict between ESPN’s news gathering journalists and its business execs, who invest billions of dollars into the leagues those journalists cover. Such a conflict does not exist, Skipper said. “The thing that makes me angriest is that ESPN has a conflict. Give me three examples where we pulled up. I think that we did a comprehensive story on stadium and arena food standards and found about one quarter of the stadiums to be deficient in terms of their health standards. I don’t recall anyone else doing that or being in that much conflict with all of their partners. I think I remember a whole week of stories about the concussions in the NFL. But people still write it as a matter of fact, ‘Of course, ESPN’s not leading the way in writing about concussions.’ Other than the N.Y. Times, we’ve clearly been the most aggressive on that. Talk to David Stern about whether he thinks we pull up on stories.” When league execs like Stern call to complain, Skipper listens and may call an editor. However, he says he has never killed a story or even asked for one to be changed. “What I will do is say, ‘Guys, are you sure of your sources here? Be sure of your sources.’ You will not find -- because it hasn’t happened and I’ve challenged people over and over -- find me somebody. We have a lot of ex-employees. We’ve got a lot of people who don’t like us, who are gunning for us. Nobody can find anybody who says, ‘When I was there, Skipper told me to change something. He told me not to do that because our league partners will be unhappy.’ It doesn’t exist.”
THE GREAT DEBATE: Another persistent criticism deals with the popularity of debate programming on shows like “First Take.” But Skipper says critics are mistakingly applying journalistic standards to a show that is not steeped in journalism. “It’s just another show. It’s not journalism. Nobody goes, ‘Gee, look how awful it is that CBS does these awful reality shows. Doesn’t that taint their great news organization?’ We have seven networks. There’s 8,760 hours per year. We’re programming 50-60,000 hours per year. ... But people say, ‘Gee, that awful debate that you’re doing, how can the great 'SportsCenter' coexist with the debate of 'First Take.’ I don’t know, how do infomercials coexist with the great journalism they’re doing someplace else? We’re not a micromanaged place. Jamie Horowitz is the producer of 'First Take.' He’s gone in a direction that’s working. Ratings are up.”
ESPN BRAND NOT DAMAGED: Skipper says he takes complaints seriously. So far, the complaints have not resonated outside of sports media, and all research suggests the ESPN brand has not been damaged by any criticisms -- at least not yet. “The brand’s never been stronger. We care most about our brand with fans. We have no choice but to worry about our brand with our friends in the media and with advertisers and with business people. ... If you do the old concentric circle thing, of course the stuff that happens inside the figurative Beltway, happens first then it moves outward. We never want to wait until it gets to the edge. It hasn’t gotten to the edge. Am I concerned it’s getting there? No. But am I concerned enough to try and react and do things differently? Yes.”