More than five months after the last ESPN ombudsman signed off, a new ombudsman is on the job in Bristol.
As previously announced, veteran television executive Don Ohlymeyer now has the gig.
And, as expected, ESPN’s non-coverage of the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault suit represents the focal point of Ohlmeyer’s first effort.
Ultimately, Ohlmeyer concludes that ESPN got it wrong.
“[T]he more I thought about it, the more that mantra rang in my ears: ‘Serve the audience,'” Ohlmeyer writes. “Even if ESPN judged that it should not report the
Roethlisberger suit, not acknowledging a sports story that’s blanketing
the airways requires an explanation to your viewers, listeners and
readers. And in today’s world they are owed that explanation right away
— to do otherwise is just plain irresponsible. It forces your audience
to ask why the story was omitted. It forces them to manufacture a
motive. [Editor’s note: Or, possibly, to correctly identify one. More on that later.] And it ultimately forces them to question your credibility.”
Ohlmeyer explains that, instead of sending out a statement to news organizations asking why ESPN had opted for silence regarding the publicly-filed civil complaint, ESPN should have acknowledged the situation directly to its viewers, with a message like this: “Many media outlets are reporting on a legal situation involving
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. We have chosen not to report
the details of the story at this point — doing so would not comply
with our standards. A further explanation can be found on ESPN.com.”
Also, Ohlmeyer provided ESPN news director Vince Doria an opportunity to answer a list of written inquiries, which apparently (and unfofrtunately) did not entail any follow-up questions.
And there’s one specific area in which Doria’s answers cried out for more questions.
As to the issue that ESPN was trying to protect Roethlisberger, Doria said this: “We’ve done a number of tough stories on the NFL over the years. We did
a series questioning the league’s handling of the concussion issue. More stories on the lack of funding on the retired players experiencing
physical and emotional difficulties. The Pacman Jones situation,
Michael Vick, Brandon Marshall, Spygate. None of these stories put the
individuals or the NFL in a good light. Anyone who contends we shy away
from stories that are critical of the NFL isn’t paying attention.”
The point that we and others made wasn’t that ESPN shies away from criticizing all NFL players or teams. The point was that ESPN had chosen to protect Roethlisberger, who has always been accessible and available to ESPN, by for example filming a SportsCenter commercial, showing up at the on-field set after the Super Bowl win, and taking time to be interviewed live from Lake Tahoe during the golf tournament at which he was served with the lawsuit that ESPN initially ignored. (Roethlisberger also appears on Shaquille O’Neal’s new reality show, which debuts tonight on ESPN’s sister network, ABC, at 9:00 p.m. ET. We suggest America’s Got Talent instead, on NBC.)
So it’s disingenuous, in our view, for Doria to explain that ESPN wasn’t trying to protect Roethlisberger by pointing to the fact that ESPN has attacked others, such as a high-profile Patriots team coached by a man who isn’t known for apply his lips to Bristol’s (or anyone’s) butt.
(There’s also a possibility that ESPN was protecting its relationship with Harrah’s, the employer of the plaintiff and all of the defendants not named Roethlisberger. Coincidentally, SportsBusiness Daily reported today that ESPN and Harrah’s Interactive Entertainment have announced a seven-year deal for ESPN to continue to broadcast the World Series of Poker. A month ago, a report regarding the suit against Harrah’s employees could have complicated the negotiations.)
Bottom line? We agree with Ohlymeyer’s conclusion as to ESPN’s error, but we would have preferred to see a more probing interrogation of Doria, especially in response to the flimsy argument that ESPN couldn’t have been protecting Roethlisberger because it has gone after other NFL players. Indeed, Ohlmeyer seems to believe that the speculation about motives was the erroneous product of a lack of information, without delving into the tougher question of whether ESPN actually was trying to preserve its relationship with Roethlisberger and/or Harrah’s.