Can ESPN Be Trusted?

by Tracy R. Walsh

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Why did ESPN pull its support of League of Denial – Frontline documentary based in large part on work by two ESPN journalists – less than three weeks before the film was scheduled to air? James Andrew Miller and James Belson broke the news last week:

On Thursday, ESPN, which has spent heavily in recent years to build its investigative reporting team, abruptly ended its affiliation with Frontline, a public affairs television series that was weeks from showing a jointly produced two-part investigative project about the N.F.L.’s contentious handling of head injuries. The divorce came a week after the N.F.L. voiced its displeasure with the documentary at a lunch between league and ESPN executives, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Marc Tracy is troubled:

If ESPN will bow to its most powerful broadcasting partner when it is doing its most lacerating journalism, we have no choice but to assume that it would cut other, lesser corners as well. What happens next time there is a National Basketball Association lockout? What happens when it’s concussions in hockey? More troubling still: What happens when it is not investigative journalism? Can ESPN be trusted to be fair-minded about soccer now that it is beefing up its soccer coverage (including with a new show) given that it broadcasts Major League Soccer? Or given that NBC is making its Premier League coverage more prominent?

Over the weekend, blame shifted from the NFL to Disney:

According to the Times, about a week before Frontline officially announced ESPN’s departure, ESPN president John Skipper had lunch with ESPN executive vice president of production John Wildhack, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, where the two NFL suits made their displeasure with the documentary known. Soon thereafter, ESPN broke up with PBS for good. Both the league and ESPN have released statements denying that version of events. Skipper told ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte that he terminated the partnership after he saw the “sensational” trailer, which features a series of bone-crunching hits and promises to “change the way you see the game.”

But over the last 48 hours a counter-theory has emerged, alleging that calls to dump the documentary — despite the fact that much of the research for it was done by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru — came not from the NFL, but from ESPN’s parent company, Disney. Not only is ESPN owned by Disney, the sports cabler, which airs Monday Night Footballprovides the bulk of the parent company’s profit. In fact, ESPN’s relentless, often maddening coverage of the NFL is a big reason it’s now worth $40 billion.

Robert Lipsyte, for his part, hesitates to point fingers:

So what just happened? Beats me. At best we’ve seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn’t very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.

Dave Zirin reports that reporters at ESPN are demoralized:

One top [ESPN] journalist described it to me as follows. “Our corporate strategy right now is to go all-in on football no matter the cost [to journalistic integrity]. We are going all-in on football at a time when you have damn near 5,000 people suing the sports that made them famous [for head trauma]. You have empirical evidence that something is going on with this game that is really dangerous. We are now carrying water for a game that is on a deeply problematic trajectory. We are going all in on this sport and this sport is in peril.”

But Viv Bernstein, who was a contributing writer for ESPN’s women’s sports affiliate, argues the network can’t be neutral and shouldn’t even try:

Look, it was business that trumped journalism when it came to the Frontline documentary. And there should be no shame in that. After all, ESPN is a business and its success is inextricably tied to the NFL. The shame is in misleading the public by trying to maintain a pretense of unfettered journalistic integrity that simply cannot exist.

To read the Dish’s long-running thread on head injuries in professional sports, go here.