Below you'll find ESPN's editorial and advertising guidelines as of 2010, sent to us by a tipster. They are the sort of guidelines one finds beneath coffee mugs at any typical media company: binder with laminated cover; nice paper stock; a general air of scolding, constipated didacticism that's like something out of Sister Mary Catherine's classroom at Our Lady of Sorrows Elementary. The difference here is that ESPN is not a typical media company, and watching ESPN pretend that it is — "Our credibility rests on the use of identifiable sources and information" — is a little like watching a dog who thinks he's people.
"Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices" is the official name, though that's only because "Fifty-Some Pages of Corporate Gently Reminding You Not to Fuck Up the Brand" is a little too on-the-nose. The good stuff is mostly in the second file, "Advertising Standards," wherein we find such commandments as:
• Condom advertisements may air only between 9:00 p.m. and 4:59 a.m. (ET).
• Condom advertisements may not air in morning editions of SportsCenter
• Condom advertisements may not air in any programming ESPN reasonably believes to have significant audience concentrations or appeals to persons under age 17.
We pause here to note that, had ESPN always been so strict about not putting rubbery sacks of human ejaculate on television, Chris Berman would be working an Action News sports desk somewhere in the Lower Connecticut River Valley.
• Condom advertisements may not appear on ESPN.com home page, index pages, NCAA, Action Sports, Arcade, RISE or Little League.
• Condom advertisements may not appear on any content that ESPN reasonably believes is primarily targeted at persons under age 17, including youth fan pages.
• Condom advertisements promoting purely Social Responsibility messages may air on the ESPN home page and Index pages.
"What constitutes a Social Responsibility message," the author explains, capitalizing like some Victorian novelist, "is at the sole discretion of ESPN Commercial Operations." There are other such restrictions. No ads for R-rated movies during X Games coverage. No ads during golf programming for equipment "that doesn't conform to the rules of golf." No ads for distilled spirits "against NBA video online" without NBA approval. No ads at all for "habit forming" drugs. None of that's terribly surprising, though it's always funny to see the rules carved into stone. What is surprising is that maybe the most cringing and priggish brand-use entry shows up in the editorial guidelines:
Any time a product or brand name appears in our stories, we are treading on dangerous ground. Even if the mention appears to you to be innocuous, it will attract the close attention of the people behind that product or brand. This does NOT mean we keep brand names out of stories. It DOES mean that we must consider whether a brand name needs to be in a story. In most cases, it does not, and in fact should not. The brand of shirt, breakfast cereal, plasma TV or even car an athlete owns is almost always immaterial. The item in question can certainly be described to convey any implications (cost, style, garishness, fashion) you think are important. Most times, the best answer is to leave it out.
A couple things to note: 1.) There are good, healthy reasons not to mention a brand name in a story. That the people involved with that brand might see it and sit up is not one of those reasons. 2.) This is the sort of mealy-mouthed rule-making — we're not saying don't do it; we're just saying you probably shouldn't — that helped bring about the Bruce Feldman non-suspension non-flap. It's vague and vaguely menacing, a guideline that isn't a guideline so much as a directive to be faintly anxious about something new. It's just so very ESPN.
The manual is shot through with this sort of thing. In the section on "Civil suits," which addresses ESPN's cockeyed treatment of the Ben Roethlisberger story, the entry makes some sensible points about the tricky nature of civil cases and rightly urges "extreme caution" in deciding whether to cover these stories. And then, a few paragraphs later:
Perhaps, most significantly, is the Associated Press reporting it?
In other words, let's let a couple of guys in the AP's Reno bureau or wherever determine corporate policy for the largest sports media outfit in the world. That's fine. A little craven, but fine. I'm all for situational ethics. ESPN is a great big monument to situational ethics. Everyone knows that, except maybe the yammering Poynter lady. That's why a formalized guide to standards looks so silly in a company whose only inviolable standard, that I can tell, is that the folks in charge get to make shit up as they go along.