In October, Doug Gottlieb, a radio host and basketball analyst who'd decamped for CBS the previous month after nine years with ESPN, went on The Dan Patrick Show and dropped something of a truth bomb about his time in Bristol:
I was told specifically, "You can't talk enough Tebow." I would jokingly throw it into a segment. "I gotta find 15 seconds here to talk about Tebow, all right let's move on and talk about Major League Baseball."
Later, he said:
Is it ridiculous how much you have to talk about Tebow? Yeah! But for whatever reason people can't get enough of that story, and they kind of stoke the fire—that's kind of what ESPN does.
Gottlieb was referring to the network's yearlong infatuation with Tebow, a player who hasn't made much actual news since he was traded to the Jets in March. Bristol executives have decided that what we want—or what we should want—is Tebow. "They want to own the Tebow story," said Jim Miller, the author of the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun. "They want to put their watermark on it."
This helps explain why, over the summer, ESPN dispatched veteran reporter Sal Paolantonio and a crew to cover Jets camp as if it were the run-up to the Super Bowl. ("ESPN embarrassed themselves," Dan Patrick, who spent 18 years in Bristol, said of ESPN's flood-the-zone coverage in Florham Park.) This helps explain why ESPN2's First Take referred to Tim Tebow more than seven dozen times in late May even though there was absolutely no Tebow news to report on. This helps explain why SportsCenter covered Tim Tebow's 25th birthday like a moon landing. This helps explain why it seemed perfectly reasonable to a SportsCenter anchor to ask in-studio guest Liam Neeson whether Tim Tebow should be the Jets' starting quarterback even though Liam Neeson had no clue what he was talking about. This helps explain how ESPN wound up breaking Tim Tebow news to, yes, Tim Tebow.
The story of how ESPN fell in love with Tim Tebow is really the story of a breakup, between ESPN and the business of reporting the news.
The Tebow phenomenon—that is, the sustained celebrity of a football player of only moderate ability—says as much about ESPN as it does about the quarterback himself. For the better part of a decade, the narrative about ESPN has held that the integrity of the news operation is subordinate to the Worldwide Leader's business concerns. (Just think back to The Decision or to the Bonds on Bonds docuseries before that, the one that ceded editorial control to the Giants outfielder and left Pedro Gomez, ESPN's Bonds beat guy, pressing his nose up against his own network's window.) Given that ESPN has deals with nearly every major league—and ignores the ones with which it doesn't have deals—the question has become inescapable: How can the company produce honest journalism when it's in business with, well, everybody?
ESPN has proven it can—the coverage of the replacement-ref fiasco in the wake of the Green Bay-Seattle Monday night game was a high point—but in recent months something began to shift. There was Tebowmania, of course, but more quietly there were several incidents of journalistic malpractice that were notable not for the egregiousness of the crimes but for ESPN's total indifference to them (about which more later). We weren't the only ones to notice. A member of the newsroom was just as baffled as we were by the silence of a media company that blankets the office in memos at the drop of a zipper.
Why does any of this matter? For one thing, journalism is in the company's DNA. It's no exaggeration to say that the modern ESPN was built on top of its robust news division. When now-executive editor John Walsh—an editor at the Washington Post's Style section in its heyday, an editor at '70s-era Rolling Stone, and a founding editor of the short-lived, much-loved Inside Sports—arrived on Bristol's campus in the late 1980s, he declared that a strong newsroom would give the station the identity it had lacked to that point. As he staffed up, Walsh cared more about reporting chops than TV readiness: Andrea Kremer (hired from NFL Films), Robin Roberts (from local TV and radio in Atlanta), Peter Gammons (from The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated), Jimmy Roberts (from ABC News), Chris Mortensen (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National). Print people? Some inexperience? Didn't matter. Talent did.
ESPN left its mark on the major stories of the early '90s—Pete Rose, Magic Johnson, the O.J. saga—and competitors noticed. They worried about ESPN's reach. Well, actually, not just its reach. They feared its audience and its journalistic chops. Here's The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine author Michael MacCambridge talking in Those Guys Have All the Fun:
[Former Sports Illustrated managing editor] Mark Mulvoy was just obsessed with whatever ESPN was doing. A lot of writers at Sports Illustrated couldn't understand that and asked, 'Why are we so worried about ESPN?' but to Mulvoy's credit, he saw that the paradigm was changing and the primacy that Sports Illustrated had enjoyed in the media world was being usurped by ESPN. And the reason was not because ESPN was a cable network with x number of viewers; the reason was Walsh had invested SportsCenter with a journalistic authority that had not existed before he got there, and that did not exist anywhere else where people did sports reporting on TV. Mulvoy was scared, and in retrospect, he was right.
David Hill, the longtime head of Fox Sports, has called Walsh ESPN's "secret weapon." Longtime Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, in his 1998 autobiography Work In Progress, said Walsh's hiring was one of the two turning points for ESPN (the other was getting part of the NFL's Sunday night package in 1987). Walsh's genius, in Eisner's estimation? He "recognized that it was possible to lure viewers to ESPN with strong reporting about sports, even in instances where the network didn't have broadcast rights to a big event," Eisner writes. And it helps when the centerpiece show, SportsCenter, runs three times a day. This seems obvious now, but think about how you watched sports at the time: You watched them live. ESPN provided a self-contained alternative—highlights, reportage, and analysis—without having to open its wallet to buy every "big event," though eventually ESPN would grow profitable enough to want to do that, too. It was a deliriously effective business model. Today, ESPN is worth $40 billion, about $5 billion more than the combined value of every NFL team.
"You can't say enough about how important their news operation is," said Miller. "If you take John Walsh and [director of news] Vince Doria out of its history, ESPN is a fundamentally different place. It's a less important place, it's a less successful place."
But that success has created problems for the newsroom, which operates within a distortion field that the company's size creates. Doria, for instance, recently suggested to media reporter Ed Sherman that passionate local hockey fandom "really doesn't transfer much" to the "national discussion," which overlooked the fact that ESPN is the national discussion. If the network doesn't talk about hockey—and the evidence is strong that, lacking an NHL television contract, it won't—the nation doesn't talk about hockey, either.
And how much power does the newsroom have, anyway? One of the SportsCenter anchors who hosted the bizarre Tebow birthday bash said that she wasn't that into the idea. But she didn't have a choice. Here's Sage Steele speaking to SportsBiz USA (emphasis mine):
When it's Tim Tebow, when it's Tiger Woods, when it's Brett Favre, the numbers are such they support the bosses' decision to do this stuff. Not all the time. We can sit there in the newsroom and argue all we want. Which many of us do. When they come out and say, 'OK Sage, fine, here's a rating,' what do I say? What do I say? I can't fight that.
Unfortunately, when we do stories in that manner, I can't argue with fans (who criticize ESPN). I can't. So hopefully we can squash all that talk and cover more teams…I agree with people who are complaining. But I also agree with our bosses who say, 'OK, it's the business. Look at the ratings. They might hate it. But they're still watching.' People might hate Skip Bayless. But they're still watching.
As a result, the steady stream of Tebow non-news is as much a part of ESPN's identity now as Chris Berman doing NFL highlights on Sunday night.
"It's great when they choose to flood the zone on a story that's really important—like the Pete Rose trial early in their history," Jim Miller said. "Nobody can do it the way they can, that's fantastic. But when they do it to a story that doesn't necessarily warrant the attention they're giving it, it gets confusing to viewers. It hurts your pedigree.
"It's kind of out of whack," he continued. "You risk losing an identity for a news organization that they've been building for 20 years."
The story of ESPN's Tebow obsession really begins last year. In September 2011, ESPN2's First Take, having gone through several different lives (a faint imitation of a morning TV show, a debate-cum-variety show), went to an all-debate format starring former newspaper columnist Skip Bayless. This new iteration wasn't all that popular with other producers in Bristol, a source said, but the decision was made after ESPN consulted a focus group.
"We focus-grouped it to people and realized pretty quickly that viewers wanted debate," hot-shot First Take producer Jamie Horowitz told Men's Journal. "In particular, they wanted to see Skip debate."
Producers around the network saw it the same way a lot of us do: as willful crap. Staged disagreement. On the show, Bayless would be pitted against another panelist—often a black counterpart, including Stephen A. Smith, who is now the full-time co-host—and "debate" him or her, Crossfire-style, on the sports topic of the moment. Around the time that Bayless become the country's most visible and outspoken Tebow supporter—which ultimately spawned this abomination and the 4 million clicks that went with it—ratings for the show began to climb.
Before long, a source told me, higher-minded Bristol producers swallowed their pride and acknowledged that something was working. And the producers who really took notice? The ones who worked on the live morning edition of ESPN's SportsCenter, which runs opposite First Take. The morning SportsCenter's producers had a problem: First Take was eating into its ratings. In September 2011, the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. editions of SportsCenter had 636,000 more viewers a day than the same time slot that First Take owned on ESPN2, according to data from Nielsen. Over the next six months, a period that stretched from Tebow's emergence in Denver through his trade to New York, First Take narrowed that deficit each month. By March, when Tim Tebow was traded to the Jets, the SportsCenter lead was down to 182,000 viewers—less than a third of what its margin had been.
A programming battle ensued. Morning SportsCenter producers "noticed that First Take was killing them in ratings with Tebow stuff, so they made a conscious effort to deliver more Tebow," the source said. "ESPN is a competitive environment and the competition between SportsCenter and First Take is very real."
It resulted in the sort of skirmishes that you might find ESPN fighting outside the company. At times, SportsCenter producers made sure that certain NFL analysts weren't available for First Take, the source said. When SportsCenter went all-in on Tebow during Jets training camp in a way, some folks in Bristol saw it as a move to neutralize First Take.
"Producers were looking to duplicate the success of First Take," said our Bristol insider. "Given what the ratings were, you would have been an idiot not to talk Tebow. Decisions to talk Tebow were conscious and deliberate."
A small, prideful ratings battle had metastasized around the network. ESPN had become the source for Tebow news, whether it bled into SportsCenter or into its various NFL shows or its Monday night pre-game show or its NFL reporters' Twitter feeds or its dot-com stories or its SportsNation polls.
And what dawned on a segment of the newsroom was something that would've seemed absurd even five years ago: Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith were indirectly setting the editorial agenda for the biggest platform in the sports world. As our source put it to me, First Take's ratings surge late last year "completely changed" the look of ESPN.
Meanwhile, there were smaller moments that, taken as a whole, suggested ESPN was long past caring about its news operation. A litany:
- Our old friend, Sarah Phillips, was a weekly contributor to ESPN's website while also moonlighting as a sort of social-media huckster. The red flags were there when she was hired—a lack of experience, a trail of accusations in the message boards of the betting website where she briefly contributed—but she was given a column anyway because, as she put it, "they thought I was pretty, quick witted, and knew my stuff."
- Lynn Hoppes, an ESPN senior writer and former senior editor (he was the guy who recruited the scam artist mentioned above), was caught copying-and-pasting from Wikipedia and occasionally from press releases, too. ESPN called Hoppes lazy, but it turns out no editors over there could be bothered with updating any of his stories that we flagged. There are no editors' notes appended to Hoppes's stories; no corrections or links or attributions or clarifications. They exist exactly as they did before our initial story was published. He remains employed.
- In July, a German soccer player Lukas Podolski claimed that an interview posted to ESPN's Soccernet never actually happened. The story was removed from the web, and all Bristol had to say was that the interview was conducted by a "freelance contributor," and that the company was looking into "sourcing questions." A few weeks after the incident, I asked ESPN for an update; a spokesman gave me the same statement that was trotted out after Bristol deleted the story. Was the interview made up? Was it conducted when Podolski thought it was off the record? Who knows?
- Later that month, a SportsCenter anchor read on air, word for word, without attribution, something written by RealGM.com about Dwight Howard. An ESPN spokesman said steps were being taken to prevent it from happening again.
- Three weeks later, it happened again.
- In September, ESPN's soccer blog initially failed to credit an SI writer, who raised a small fuss over the omission. Poynter gave ESPN a slap on the wrist for that one.
- The same month, ESPN scooped itself when a video posted to ESPN.com broke the news that prized college hoops recruit Demetrius Jackson had elected to go to Notre Dame. The video was quickly yanked. Why? Jackson's announcement was scheduled to be broadcast exclusively by ESPNU later that evening—a staged event that for obvious reasons was more important to ESPN than the news itself.
These cover the waterfront of journalistic malfeasance: plagiarism, fabrication, a hiring clusterfuck, business decisions masquerading as news judgment, business decisions overriding news judgment. Taken individually, none of these missteps is pervasively illuminating. All newsrooms screw up. But here's why the recent incidents tell us lots about how ESPN regards journalism: nothing happened.
At any newsroom around the country, these dust-ups would prompt a self-administered proctology exam. There'd be earnest committee assignments, standards-and-practices reviews, a "Letter to Our Readers" or two. None of the mea culpas really matter in the grand scheme of things—mistakes will go on happening no matter how many seminars the Poynter Institute convenes on the subject—but the point is to let your readers and colleagues know that you're deeply concerned about these things, that somewhere a standard is being upheld. But if any of this were happening in Bristol, it would come as a surprise to the rank and file in the newsroom.
"What's funny is that as soon as the Steve Phillips [sex scandal] went down, they were very proactive about informing us on company policies and all that jazz," said one ESPN insider. "This?" the source went on, referring to Hoppes, Phillips, and the quote fabrication. "Crickets."
* * *
"It is a business first and foremost," Bruce Feldman, a 16-year veteran of ESPN who left for CBS last year, told me. "The people who run the company told me as much when I was going through it with them. There's still an element of ESPN that does journalism and there are some people there who are really good journalists. But above all it is a business."
Feldman ran into his own problems with ESPN. (Long story short, for those who don't remember the "Free Bruce" episode: Feldman told ESPN brass that he was writing a book with then-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. ESPN brass approved. Then when Leach decided to sue ESPN over its coverage of the Adam James affair, network execs ignored the fact they had given Feldman permission and suspended him. He chose to leave the network.)
"ESPN serves two masters—entertainment and journalism, information—and depending on the day, we're probably only serving one of those," said one ESPN insider. "We can't be purely journalistic because we have too many business interests with the subject we're supposed to cover objectively. But in a way, it's a copout. We move the journalistic line when it suits us."
And occasionally that line grades into incoherence. On Oct. 8, in anticipation of the Texans-Jets Monday night game, which was broadcast on ESPN, ESPN.com splashed a 3,100-word Skip Bayless story answering the question no one was asking: Why is Skip Bayless such a staunch supporter of Tim Tebow? During the pre-game show, there were segments devoted to Tebow. An ESPN New York Jets beat reporter breathlessly tweeted that Tebow was throwing more in pre-game warm-ups than he ever had before and this had to mean something.
What was it that Doug Gottlieb told Dan Patrick? He said "they kind of stoke the fire—that's kind of what ESPN does." That's not quite right, though. On this Monday night, ESPN didn't just stoke the fire. ESPN was the fire, the fireplace, the poker being jabbed at the coals, and the coals, too. The newsroom was covering a "story" that another wing had manufactured.
As Dan Patrick told Gottlieb: "They've lost that credibility, a large portion of the credibility of covering news. I think that it's now: 'What's trending?' Focus groups. You're trying to create things there."
In the end? Tebow saw seven snaps for a team that lost and fell to 2-3. During the game, ESPN's stat line at the bottom indicated that Tebow was 0 for 1 passing because a receiver dropped the ball. And it turns out he was throwing all those balls in the pre-game because he was a little bored. Game 2 of the Orioles-Yankees ALDS ran opposite the Texans-Jets game, but 14 million viewers tuned in to watch football anyway—about a million more than the Monday Night Football average. It was a bad night for journalism, but a good one for ESPN.
Image by Jim Cooke