"The recent flap over Bruce Feldman's non—suspension..." wrote ESPN's Poynter-approved ombudsperson, Kelly McBride, and already with that one jargony semi-word, "flap," we were in the Klein bottle of journalism about journalism by journalists for nobody. "To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we've tackled at the Poynter Review Project." Good luck!
This weird, loud, itty-bitty whatever-it-was about Feldman — OK, fine: flap — is confusing and boring, and confusing because it's boring, and it is valuable only as an illustration of how completely overmatched the Good Journalism people are by the enormity of ESPN.
If you want to care about the details, McBride reported that Feldman was not suspended. He was just told to stop doing his job for a while. Totally different. "A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for..." Zzzzz. OK. Where were we?
Principles! It was a bad idea for an ESPN reporter to be collaborating on a book project with a former coach who was suing ESPN, McBride wrote. Someone should have gotten Feldman to cut ties with Mike Leach, once Leach filed his lawsuit: "[T]he conflict was untenable, and it was ESPN's responsibility to recognize that."
But McBride had already established that attributing "responsibility" to an entity called "ESPN" is essentially meaningless:
At a company as big as ESPN, with dozens of vice presidents, it's not surprising that communication is complicated. [Rob] King, who was recently promoted to a position that includes editorial supervision of the magazine, learned last week for the first time that Feldman was writing the book. [Gary] Hoenig, head of publications, said he knew all along but had to refresh his memory on what decisions were made. [Chad] Millman is new to his title, as well, and is still transitioning into the magazine's lead editorial role.
And that is just the cluster of people who are supposed to be thinking about whether a writer should keep writing a book with a former coach who is suing the network. What about the other side of the conflict of interest, in which ESPN has gotten itself sued by a former coach in a sport it both covers and televises, after a conflict between the coach and one of ESPN's analysts, who is the father of one of the athletes who played for the coach in the sport that ESPN both covers and televises?
How many vice presidents were thinking about that? And what conclusions would Poynter advise them to have reached, if they had been better able to communicate with each other? Rather than digging into all that, McBride referred readers to what her predecessor, Don Ohlmeyer, had written about the Leach situation. Because the Leach case is a snooze, let's just read instead what Ohlmeyer wrote in his first column as ESPN's neutral-party in-house critic:
Under the category of disclosure, back in the 1980s and '90s I had my own company. It included a full-service advertising agency and production, marketing and consulting arms, with clients such as the NFL, NHL and MLB. We were hired by ESPN as a consultant. The company was a joint venture with Nabisco Brands, and, as part of our consulting arrangement, purchased 20 percent of ESPN. I represented that interest on ESPN's board. Those were the early years of what would become the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" — when it was still carving its niche and deciding what it wanted to be when it grew up. My business relationship with ESPN ended in the late '80s when KKR took over RJR Nabisco and sold the 20 percent interest to Hearst. In 1993, I sold the sports portion of my company to ESPN.
More disclosure: One of my sons has worked at ESPN Regional Television for 15 years as a producer/director. He's made a great career for himself. If one of his shows requires comment in this space, I'll be sure to remind you. As the saying goes, "A conflict disclosed is not a conflict."
What were we talking about? Oh, Bruce Feldman. McBride concluded that reporters should not help sports figures write their autobiographies.