We really don’t want our coverage of the civil lawsuit filed against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to become an exercise in the bashing of ESPN. We’ve got some friends who work there (maybe not as many after today), and we don’t generally believe that the network is evil or corrupt or otherwise nasty.
However, we do believe that the network is way too large for its own good, and that unless and until a true competitor emerges, it’s up to everyone else to point out those occasions when the emperor is riding both bareback and bareassed.
The handling of the Roethlisberger case makes us wonder whether there’s a complete firewall between the business functions of ESPN and its journalistic activities. We say this because we’re convinced that the Roethlisberger story initially was ignored due to concerns that ESPN would be jeopardizing its access to the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who also happens to play for the team with the most loyal and rabid fan base in America.
Though the “do not report” memo did not cite a reason for the directive to avoid the story, word initially began to emerge throughout the day (starting first at Jemele Hill’s Twitter page) that ESPN has a policy to not report civil complaints not accompanied by criminal proceedings.
Of course, if there truly were such a policy and if it were applied on an across-the-board basis, then there would have been no need for a “do not report” memo. And any such memo surely would have reminded the recipients of the policy regarding civil complaints without criminal proceedings, right?
We challenged our Twitter followers to submit links to situations in which ESPN reported on civil cases in the absence of criminal proceedings, but we can now pull the plug on that effort. There are, indeed, plenty of situations in which ESPN covered cases involving civil allegations but no criminal charges. And our private discussions with some of the folks at ESPN reveal that the rule isn’t nearly as black-and-white as Jemele’s tweets suggest.
Instead, the rule is far more vague and malleable, with a variety of factors to be considered that, in the end, allow ESPN to do whatever it wants to do whenever it wants to do it.
Regardless of how ESPN came to its conclusion, it clearly swung the bat and missed on this one. Everyone else has reported the Roethlisberger story. Everyone.
And Dave Goldberg, the venerable NFL reporter at the Associated Press, had this to say on his Twitter page: “Can u ignore an obvious story and call yourself the ‘worldwide leader?’ Arrogance has its own method, I guess.”
Still, ESPN has its defenders. So far, however, they exclusively arise from within the ESPN machine.
For example, Dan LeBatard of 790 The Ticket in Miami, a frequent contributor to ESPN, took up for the network today.
“God bless ’em,” LeBatard said of ESPN’s position.
“[I]t’s only being reported in the blogosphere, irresponsibly, unfairly,” LeBatard added. “. . . . It’s not being reported in credible places.”
But that’s not correct. Everyone but ESPN has picked this up. Every Pittsburgh media outlet, every newspaper, every major web site, along with the Associated Press.
If the Associated Press sees fit to report the fact of the existence of the lawsuit, then it’s being reported in “credible places.”
The only credible place in which it isn’t being reported is on ESPN. And that’s causing some in the media to wonder just how credible ESPN really is.
UPDATE: Technically, ESPN is now acknowledging the report, albeit unwittingly. As of this posting, the “Top Stories From ABC News” box on ESPN.com’s various pages includes the headline, “Woman: Super Bowl QB Raped Me.”