Robert Lipsyte takes deep dive in examining journalism at ESPN; ‘Making it up as it goes along’

Robert Lipsyte notes that his 18-month assignment as ESPN’s ombudsman is coming to an end. He definitely plans to make some noise before he leaves.

Lipsyte’s latest piece is a lengthy analysis that carries the headline “Probing the gray areas of ESPN’s journalism.” He writes:

In the early days of my ombudsmanship, a senior ESPN executive suggested I stay away from “conflict of interest” as a topic in my upcoming columns; it was an irrelevant issue, he said, nothing more than a way for lazy critics to attack ESPN. 

Just the other day, a different senior ESPN executive told me that the “conflict-of-interest” topic was just too complex to explicate. He said, “There are no black-and-white areas at ESPN. Everything is gray.” 

These were two smart and important executives, a generation apart in age and service, reflecting what I found to be the prevailing mindset of a company that has been enormously successful at making it up as it goes along — shuffling personnel, sports, shows with a gambler’s pragmatism as it tries to balance the demands of the leagues that are its principal business partners with the journalistic obligations to cover them honestly. 

I was struck by this passage:

Sandy Padwe, a former editor at The New York Times and Sports Illustrated who has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism since 1989, takes a hard-eyed view (he was also a consultant at ESPN for 19 years). 

“Journalism is important to ESPN when it needs it,” he said, “meaning when critics look at the whole product and wonder why it seems 99 percent of the daily report is devoted to noise and the current name of the moment. Then the network points to ‘Outside the Lines’ or some of the recent reporting on Roger Goodell. 

“ESPN will mature when it starts bringing in people from the newest production assistant to the glitziest commentators who know how to diagram a courthouse as well as diagram the latest offense or defense. You can’t get by anymore with a handful of people who know journalism and literally thousands who have no idea about it. What does it say when Bill Simmons doesn’t even understand that he needs proof before calling Roger Goodell a liar?” 

On any given moment of any day somewhere in the vast ESPN TV, radio, digital empire, any of the above opinions is true. The acceptance of conflict of interest as an acceptable climate, of gray as a moral position on most matters, makes it impossible to state what ESPN as a company actually stands for beyond entertainment and the bottom line, which is what major sports stands for — making the fans happy and putting points on the scoreboard. 

There’s plenty to consume on the various sides of the issue. Lipsyte quotes ESPN staffers who maintain the network doesn’t have a conflict of interest in reporting news.

Yet Lipsyte’s conclusion clearly shows he is skeptical.

As for ESPN, it needs to be clearer about which rules of journalism it is going to enforce and why they need to be enforced equally in print and on pod, on Grantland and “SportsCenter” and “GameDay” and perhaps even on “partner projects.” ESPN needs to be more transparent about the role of journalism in its business model, the purpose behind it and how committed it is to supporting it. 

There should be nothing gray about that.

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