NSJC columnists on ESPN-Frontline: ‘Roundhouse delivered to journalism’

I had intended to do a commentary on the ESPN-Frontline fiasco for this week’s column for the National Sports Journalism Center site at Indiana University. However, my fellow NSJC columnists, Michael Bradley and Eric Deggans, weighed in with pieces that echo what I would have said.

Bradley writes:

There were many denials about the reported reasons ESPN backed out of its arrangement with PBS’ “Frontline” to investigate the NFL’s approach to concussions in football and subsequent impact on players, but the whole thing still stinks. By removing itself from the relationship, the Bristol-based sports conglomerate sparked considerable conjecture – and direct accusations – that its business arrangement with the NFL led to the exit.

If that’s the case, consider it another roundhouse delivered to journalism.

Later, Bradley writes:

That’s why it’s getting less and less possible to consider anything’s being aired about professional or collegiate sports as objective. If ESPN backed out of its relationship with “Frontline” because of NFL pressure, how then can anybody expect the network and its other platforms to provide an unvarnished look at the league? Just the simple mention of ESPN as a “business partner” in the NFL response to the NYT

story shows how the lines have been blurred between journalism and commerce. When any news outlet moves into a relationship with the people or entities it covers, objectivity suffers.

Deggans, meanwhile, was critical of ESPN president John Skipper and his comments about withdrawing from the documentary.

Skipper did deny that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the partnership end. But the idea that ESPN would blow up a 15-month collaboration with public television’s highly respected investigative show over two lines in an advertising promo — especially knowing that many in sports media would assume NFL pressure was the inspiration, regardless of whether that was true — seems, well, fishy.

ESPN is essentially saying the most traditional investigative unit on television was too sensational after 15 months of allegedly smooth working relationships. Yeah, right.

Deggans concludes:

Executives at Skipper’s level shouldn’t be involved with the journalism unless a serious ethical breach has occurred or somebody made a big mistake. That’s how truly independent journalism works.

And perhaps the saddest aspect of this entire display is that everyone involved with the issue has been around the media block long enough to know all of this.

My hope is that Lipsyte doesn’t write another column until he can answer some of the questions we’ve all posed.

Because sports fans who expect accountability from the Worldwide Leader deserve better.

Couldn’t have said it better.

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