Many people around my age have grown up watching sports through the ESPN prism. The so-called "ESPN era" of sports encompasses a huge chunk of my life and ESPN has been a pioneer in shifting the way sports are reported. Sports used to 5-7 minutes at the end of a local broadcast, but over the past 20+ years it has become 1-2 hours of SportsCenter every night. ESPN has also revolutionized how games are shown and ESPN.com is arguably the foremost sports news website in the world. However, as ESPN has evolved and altered the sports journalism landscape, they have also stretched out their reach from simply broadcasting games and highlights to full blown talk shows, movies, and reality television. Considering the phenomenal changes that have occurred at ESPN, is it possible they have endangered their journalistic integrity and tainted the clear window through which they show the world of sports?
If you watch ESPN and ESPN2 you can see there are some a few different aspects the network broadcasts. There is the news division which includes SportCenter and the investigative show Outside the Lines. ESPN has the game broadcasts for the NBA, NFL, WNBA, and NCAA sports which included several hours of analysis shows such as pre-game and post-game offerings. EOE or ESPN Original Entertainment produces movies and reality TV like "Dream Job" The final area ESPN works in is the talk show arena with daily shows like "Quite Frankly" and "P.T.I."
Taking all of these together you have a massive conglomerate of progamming which, in my opinion, creates a conflict of interest. If ESPN's parent company Disney pays the NBA to broadcasts games, then they are looking for a ratings return which results in a revenue return for the corportation. That being considered, how are we sure the news side of ESPN will be totally objective in its presentation of NBA news? During the 2004-2005 NBA season, the infamous "Brawl in Detroit" occurred. The short story was that Indiana and Detroit players began fighting on the court and it spilled into the stands when Indiana's Ron Artest went 10 rows up to attack a fan who had thrown something at him. The NBA acted forcefully and responsibly with the punishements it handed down. ESPN's presentation of the matter was far from that. Based on numerous episodes of SportsCenter I watched, the brawl consumed huge chunks of airtime during each broadcast for days following the event. Was this a newsworthy event? Sure, and it deserved intense converage which ESPN took well beyond reason by showing the brawl over and over and over. Then came the startling revelation from ESPN during one broadcast: Following the suspensions ESPN said, on air, that they had sent footage they had over to the NBA in an effort to exonerate one of the Pacer players because they allege the footage showed him to be merely a peacemaker and not an instigator. While some may laud this move as being the same as a person providing evidence to a judge in an effort to prove someone's innocence, I was frankly appalled. ESPN/Disney has a defined contract with the NBA to broadcast games and devote X number of hours of coverage of the sport. For ESPN to interject itself into a internal disciplinary action by the commissioner of the NBA smacks of conflict of interest. It is one thing if NBA had asked for the tapes and they obliged or even if ESPN felt duty bound to offer the tapes to the NBA as evidence to exonerate a player, they should have done so and said nothing about it. For ESPN to announce to the world that they are attempting to persuade the NBA to lower a player's punishment illustrates how easily the line between objective journalism and NBA's broadcast partner with a financial stake in the matter can be skewed.
Another example of such an overlap was the almost constant coverage of Tennessee women's coach Pat Summit's winning her 880th career game which put her ahead of the NCAA men's all time leader former UNC coach Dean Smith. The coverage of the record was almost suffocating especially considered the false assumption they were operating. It was ESPN's implication that winning 879 games in women's college basketball was in some way the same as winning 879 games on the men's side. Let it be said that I am not a sexist since I would be willing to refer to Smith as the all time men's leader as long as the same gender label was applied to Summit. The error on ESPN's part is that it was like comparing apples and oranges. There is far more parity on the men's side, more competition in recruiting, and the odds are that on the men's side a team will face another team with a legitmate shot at beating them more often than a women's team will. Of course none of this was important for ESPN who billed Summit as the all time leader in wins in NCAA history. What was ESPN's angle? They are sole broadcaster of the NCAA Women's Tournament. ESPN will make every effort to build up the women's game since it their greater priority is not presenting an objective story but building ratings for the parent company and if billing Summit's pursuit garners more viewers then of course they are all for it.
The other problem with ESPN is the development of on air personas such as Stephen A. Smith, Chris Berman, and Dick Vitale. While there are others, these three illuminate a particular problem which is on air personas must inevitabley develop a style or schitck. In the case of Smith, his deal is to be highly opinionated and kind of "straight talker" ignoring unwritten taboos on what one can say about something. Smith made a career during NBA coverage for calling a spade and spade which resulted in popularity and surprise! his own TV show. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but Smith has reached a point where staying true to the schitck is often times more important than journalistic integrity. The same is true of Chris Berman, who devleoped a variety of cute things to say during the highlights which earned him a following. If you watch Chris Berman now he has become a sad caricture of himself as he expends a great deal of energy maintaining his persona to the point it is old and tedious. Dick Vitale has also entered this arena where his persona dictates his game analysis more so than the facts at hand. This is the only explanation I have for a man who failed miserably as a college and pro coach, yet everything he utters is regarded as gospel truth. The sad truth about Dick Vitale is people do not watch him for any analysis he provides they watch him because he yells catch phrases and sounds really exciting. The other problem with Vitale is his need to inject highly opinionated and completely biased comments into a game. During the Duke-Georgia Tech game on Feb. 22, Vitale suggested that Indiana should re-hire Bobby Knight and bring in Steve Alford as an assistant. The idea was for Knight to break Dean Smith's all time win record(which is a contradiction because according to ESPN, Pat Summit is the all time winningest coach and she is still coaching) and then step aside for Alford who should receive a seven year contract. Since when do basketball analysts lobby schools on how they should fill their coaching positions? And any reference on ESPN about Bobby Knight is automatically suspect since they also broadcast a reality show called "Knight School" about 16 students at Texas Tech fighting to fill one walk-on position. If Knight pulls another nutty, can we really expect a honest assessment from ESPN on his behavior considering they are also pulling ratings of his show?
The bottom line is that ESPN has moved into the realm of pure entertainment. While ESPN does engage in a fair amount of reporting which is objective and feature stories that are on the whole very good, there is also a good deal of entertainment value built into the way games are broadcast and the kind of analysis you get from the experts. Of course this does not make them wholly different from any other network that broadcasts games, but in the case of ESPN I think there is a huge conflict of interest when parent corporations are seeking ratings and revenue on a network that is also responsible for presenting sports news on a regular basis. A day's worth of ESPN broadcasting is fraught with an indistinguishable meshing of objective news/game broadcasts with the need to raise the entertainment value of both. This leaves the viewer with the job of picking through all of the fluff at times to decide what is real, what is true, and what is intended to fill the coffers at Disney. Maybe the true service ESPN offers is forcing viewers to think more about what they see rather than accepting it on face value. Creating entertaining rules the day at ESPN and as a viewer one must be ready to discard tons of sizzle in order to get to that little bit of steak.