Q/A with Vince Doria: ESPN didn’t bow to NFL over ‘League of Denial’; Never been told not to report a story

BRISTOL, Conn.–Sitting alone on a table in front of a line of Emmys in Vince Doria’s office was League of Denial. You know, the book that ultimately created much angst for ESPN and the network’s senior vice-president and director of news.

ESPN still is feeling the fallout over its decision to take its name off the PBS Frontline documentary based on the book. The perception remains strong that the network caved in to pressure from its most important TV partner, much like a 350-pound nose guard falling on a running back.

Doria, who oversees ESPN’s news operation, was right in the middle of it. Perhaps the conspicuous placing of the book in his office was a coincidence. Or maybe he keeps it there as a reminder of a controversy that likely will linger for a long time.

In a recent interview during my recent trip to ESPN, Doria said that he wouldn’t discuss the exact details of the network’s actions regarding the documentary. However, he stressed repeatedly that ESPN didn’t bow to the NFL in this case, or any other for that matter.

“People either didn’t do their homework as well as they could have, or maybe didn’t want to do their homework as well as they could have,” Doria said.  “It is an easy enough story if you wanted to, to connect some dots to it and say, ‘Look, they kowtowed to the NFL.’  But if you looked slightly further, and look at what the on‑air product was and what we delivered and the volume of what we delivered, the platforms over which we delivered it and so forth, show me somebody else that comes anywhere near giving that kind of exposure to the concussion issue as it relates to the NFL. I don’t think there is anybody.”

Here is Doria’s first extended Q/A about the repercussions from League of Denial and ESPN’s dealings with the network’s big business partners. Notice I opened with a general question, and he went running from there.

How are things going with the various shows (SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, etc)?

The whole thing is going well.  Look, I don’t know what you were told, but I don’t want to talk about anything (regarding the documentary).  Certainly not everybody was in agreement on that, but look at the actual product that was produced. We produced six or seven pieces over the course of a year, co‑produced with Frontline, with the Fainaru brothers, our producers, their producers. They aired on OTL, which eventually formed the basis for the documentary, as well as more pieces online, written pieces.  When the documentary was ready to air, the Fainarus were on, I think, four different times for long talk‑backs here on Outside the Lines, on SportsCenter, on Olbermann.  We ran two long excerpts in OTL from the documentaries, both eight, nine minutes, shorter versions on SportsCenter, elements on other shows, on the NFL shows, Olbermann and so forth.

We probably, as it turned out, gave it even more exposure than originally planned.  As far as serving our viewers, readers, consumers and so forth, they got a heavy dose of the reporting that went into this. I think for people who think that somehow we squashed the project here or something, take a look at what was on our air and what we delivered.

Why did you go with more than you originally planned? Was it the result of the fallout from the decision to pull out of the film?

There’s no doubt that the sort of kerfuffle surrounding it here, however you want to refer to it, brought more attention to the whole thing.  But at the end of the day, we ran as much of it as we did and carried on the discussions we did because it was good, strong reporting, interesting, in many cases new material that deserved an exposure.

You know, we’ve done a long list of stories on business partners and so forth.  Honestly, I don’t know who else is doing this kind of work in sports with the regularity, with the frequency, putting the kind of resources, of manpower and money that we put towards it.  I don’t think anybody else in television is doing it to the extent we’re doing it.

Yet having said all that, how do you combat the perception that ESPN bowed to pressure from the NFL in this instance and probably will again?

Well, look, it’s always going to be out there.  You can scream from the mountaintop.  My sense of it is, look at the body of work.  If that doesn’t convince you that we’re independent, that we do a lot of tough, critical reporting on our business partners, then I don’t know how else to convince people beyond that.  But the people who want to assert that we’re compromised, and we don’t do this kind of stuff, I don’t know, look at the work.

You can say all you want. However, I bet you if I went and talked to 10 people, at least half would say they kowtowed to the NFL here.

You’ve been in the business long enough, and people are looking for stories ‑‑ they’re not looking for stories about how good you’re doing, they’re looking for stories about how bad you’re doing, right?

But this was a big public documentary, and for whatever reason, the perception was not favorable. Was there damage to your brand as a news operation?

Yeah, the way some of it came out publicly to me was not beneficial to the brand.  But at the end of the day, if you try to look past just some of the superficial media coverage of it and the blaring headline aspect of it and say, well, what exactly did this mean in terms of how ESPN delivered this reporting on the concussion issue, hard‑pressed to have anybody say that we pulled our punches in that area.

Yes, but can the ESPN news division remain truly independent when your programming division has a multi-billion dollar deal with the NFL?

We’re a big business partner.  The programming department here is charged with maintaining relationships with those business partners.  We try to keep them in the loop to the best we can about the kind of stories we’re doing and so forth.  Obviously when we’re doing these stories, we’re going to our business partners for responses, asking them tough questions and so forth.

Whenever you’re doing these kind of stories, yes, you want to keep people informed, but also you’re trying to keep some of the information held within a small group of the people reporting it and so forth so that it’s not all over the place.  That’s always a consideration here that is being made as you’re reporting these stories.

I think that because perhaps we have these business partnerships, it makes us ‑‑ I’d like to think we’d be careful reporters regardless of the situation– but there’s no doubt that knowing those relationships, we want to have things nailed down. We don’t just want to throw things at the wall here and so forth.  We try very hard to do that.

But there’s never been a time here in my 21, going on 22 years here, whatever, where anybody has told us not to report something that we have confirmed as it relates to business partners.  Nor has anyone ever steered us off of a story, stop reporting that story, stop pursuing it.  That’s never happened, either.

How would you react if it did happen?

I’d probably have to retire just like they’re saying I will.

We all know there are people here who talk to people and so forth.  I think that’s true of any large organization.  Clearly aside from the motivation that you want to do good, solid enterprise reporting, I think everybody understands that if there’s any evidence that you are backing off on that, or if you aren’t pursuing stories that you feel should be pursued and so forth, people are going to raise questions about it, and nobody wants to see that happen, either.  But that’s not the primary motivation I don’t believe, certainly not on my part.

Have you ever met with NFL officials, or representatives from the network’s other TV partners (leagues, teams, conferences) over ESPN’s coverage of stories?

Is there the occasional meeting with business partners where they’re unhappy with us and wonder why we have to be as aggressive as we do?  Those things happen from time to time, but again, they’re part of doing business…

But even prior to this kind of situation, it existed in newspapers. What, you’re going to do expose on a big advertiser here or something?  Let’s talk about it. That was the church and state in newspapers, if you will, right?  Television church and state is kind of the rights holding business and the journalism business.

So you’ve met with league commissioners?

There have been situations where I’ve been in meetings with commissioners, league commissioners and so forth…

Could somebody come here if they weren’t rights holders and have that meeting?  Yes, they could.  (ESPN’s partners) may feel they have a right to have that meeting because they’re rights holders or something. I don’t know, but I’ve always been open. For instance, our programming people may come to me or John Skipper and say, ‘Hey, would you be part of a meeting with so and so and explain how our news gathering operation works and so forth?’ I’m more than happy to do that.

Have any of ESPN’s partners ever threatened to pull the trump card on you?

No, nobody has ever done that. Nobody as a rights holder feels comfortable saying, ‘You as a journalist shouldn’t do that. We don’t want you to do that story.  We know you think you’re a journalist, but don’t do that story.’

No one is comfortable with doing this. They want to perhaps tell us why they think we’re wrong on a story, why their version of events is the accurate version of events. It’s all fine.  You listen to them.

I mean, to be honest, it’s not as oppressive as people want to make it out to be.  Whenever you’re doing difficult stories, any kind of medium, there are always potential landmines on it.  You want to make sure you’re accurate.  Maybe you’re going to step on some toes that matter, but that can happen in almost any medium.  I don’t find it ‑‑ there is a unique aspect to it here, I think, in terms of the large number of business partners we have and the large volume of news and information platforms we have.  But we’re not the only person dealing with some of these kind of issues.

What will be the effects on your end as a result of what happened here?

It’s not like you walk in the building every day looking for something to fall on your head here or something.  I mean, you go about your business, your reporting business.  We’re doing that story, we’re doing many other stories at the same time that we’re pursuing.

Wednesday: Doria on moving Outside the Lines to ESPN2, Olbermann and why does ESPN bother to cover hard news?




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