What Should ESPN Be?
Like lots of other people in the blogosphere, I have spent my fair share of time criticizing various facets of ESPN’s operation. From the lazy and ill-informed nature of a considerable portion of ESPN radio, to the blather on Around the Horn, to the sometimes sycophantic nature of Mike and Mike, not to mention the network’s general blurring of the line between shameless self-promotion on the one hand and self-importance as a serious news organization on the other, there’s plenty to criticize (and, did I mention the painfully insipid “Who’s Now”tournament that’s currently running?). But, these concerns are, arguably, not the most important ones. ESPN, in fact, is failing on a more profound level.
An article in Newsweek this past weekend, wonders whether ESPN has become the “world wide cheerleader”:
ESPN’s lucrative partnerships with the NFL, the NBA, MLB and NASCAR, among others, have put its news operation, and “SportsCenter” in particular, in a unique bind. “Imagine The New York Times owning half of the Broadway theaters whose plays it reviews. Or imagine CNN paying billions of dollars for exclusive … rights to cover the War in Iraq,” wrote ESPN’s own ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, in a May 10 Web column titled “At ESPN, Conflict of Interest Is Business as Usual.” It has led to the occasional gaffe, like ESPN’s decision to cancel its well-regarded drama “Playmakers” after the NFL complained about the show. And many influential sports bloggers, such as The Big Lead and Deadspin, have accused the network of ignoring sports, especially pro hockey, that ESPN doesn’t have deals with.
Newsweek also argues that ESPN is plagued by athlete hero-worship:
…in recent years, networkwide, that balance has begun to tip unmistakably toward the kind of athlete-centric idol worship that seems more like the province of Us Weekly than ESPN.
Newsweek raises a legitimate concern about conflict-of-interest. But, athlete hero-worship is far from the network’s biggest problem. In fact, reflecting a broader sports media culture, ESPN and its various talking heads, writers and shows, spend plenty of time harping on the foibles, great and small, of high profile athletes. It’s not merely true that ESPN serves, first and foremost, its own financial interests (that’s so, of course, but not particularly surprising). It’s that, in the course of doing so, it has taken the lead in promoting a sports conversation that is, by and large, watered down, uninsightful and an unfortunate reflection of larger trends in journalism that influence what constitutes news.
To take one example, transgressive individual behavior, even of a relatively trivial sort, receives inordinate attention. So, as I have written previously, Stephon Marbury finds himself the subject of a lengthy conversation about “bad character” because he blows off a reporter’s question, notwithstanding his extraordinary charitable works (Marbury’s been repeatedly criticized for his attitude over the years). Meanwhile, the same guys who piled on Marbury (in the above case, Mike and Mike), happily read ad copy for Shell Oil on the radio, notwithstanding that company’s longtime, and widely documented, complicity with the Nigerian military dictatorship, responsible for, among other things, executing the non-violent opposition writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1995. And, why were Saro-Wiwa and eight others executed? For the crime of protesting Shell Oil’s despoiling of land in his home region.
ESPN is a commercial enterprise, and this subjects it to all of the pressures and compromises of other commercial news organizations. And, it’s not as if mainstream news organizations have acted in exemplary manner in fulfilling their public and constitutionally protected responsibilities (CNN doesn’t have a contract to cover exclusively the war in Iraq, but it sure acted as if it did in the run-up to the war, mouthing uncritically administration claims that proved disastrously wrong, as well as in its starry-eyed coverage of the 1991 Gulf war). Furthermore, ESPN has some great assets in its universe: Bill Simmons has his limits, but he’s a very talented and entertaining writer. PTI is a fun show. Keith Law, Rob Neyer and John Hollinger are first rate analysts at the website. Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap are intelligent journalists and Outside the Lines is of consistently high quality. So, it’s both true that the network has some very good programming and that some of its key weaknesses reflect those that afflict American journalism more generally. This itself is not surprising – ESPN’s parent company, Disney, maintains a news operation at ABC that is also severely compromised by cross-pressures from advertising and its desire not to step too far out of line in raising hard truths about power in America.
But, having said all that, ESPN has a unique place in contemporary sports culture. The scope of its coverage, its near monopoly control of the national sports news cycle and its resources (it’s essentially ABC, NBC and CBS rolled into one) confer on ESPN unique responsibilities, if it is to be taken at all seriously, to act as a watch dog, at least some of the time. Instead, ESPN has made a mockery of the notion that journalism should be central to the enterprise of covering sports. There is little practice of serious investigative reporting, or relatedly, holding important institutional figures in sports accountable for their actions, both as they relate to the field of play and to the larger consequences of those actions. Again, ESPN’s following a larger pattern: as the major networks have learned, talk is cheap, literally. Filling up the airwaves with endlessly recurring tripe about this or that petty scandal is an easy and cost-effective way to fill programming time. Maintaining staff that can do the hard work of investigation and reporting requires a more significant commitment of resources with an uncertain payoff, at least in ratings terms. Such financial incentives and disincentives also make it easier for the network to steer clear of potential business conflicts. If ESPN is so invested in college football, how can it possibly soberly ask whether big-time collegiate athletics do more harm than good for universities, or for the student-athletes that the NCAA purports to serve? In 2003, Vanderbilt, the SEC’s only private school, abolished its athletic department because of what its then-chancellor Gordon Gee condemned as the culture of corruption in college sports. The result: the always woeful Commodores’ varsity teams entered an era of unprecedented success on the field, while saving money and improving student-athlete’s college experiences off the field. Why has ESPN given relatively little attention to this story? And, why has it followed the lead of other major news organizations in America in taking a police-blotter approach to journalism? As is well established, crime dropped dramatically in the United States during the 1990s. But, you wouldn’t know this from looking at public opinion polls, and neither, apparently, does the public. This is so because news coverage of law-breaking and shows like Cops provided a steady-drumbeat of crime stories, distorting public perception of the true nature of the situation, as Barry Glassner documents in his book, The Culture of Fear. Big stories were getting short shrift in the 1990s, like the gathering crisis in the US health care system. But, fuck if Americans everywhere didn’t know when someone in their local news area got murdered.
I understand that Michael Vick is a big story. But, does every DWI or night club incident really warrant a place on sports center? Couldn’t ESPN devote some portion of its resources to investigating whether, for example, college football isn’t detracting, at many schools, from the overall educational mission of the university. Or, devoting real time and energy to scrutinizing pro sports teams claims in the on-going publicly-financed stadium boondoggle so widespread in the US these days?
So, where does this combination of a commercially compromised enterprise and a culture stuck on individual-level transgressions but largely ignorant of institutional ones, leave us? At ESPN, the overall thrust of its various content is an insipid and trivial view of character, in which to be a “good guy” is to cooperate with the journalistic enterprise, such as it is, intertwined with an uncritical acceptance of the biases and pre-dilections of ESPN’s core audience. Like any business, ESPN understands its audience and, on the whole, is going to serve it. One can wring one’s hands about that, but that won’t change. But, is it necessary for ESPN to consign to the Outside the Lines ghetto almost all non-trivial concerns about the larger social context in which we consume sports, or the institutional realities governing how the games are played, and who benefits from them?