For a while now, ESPN's big alibi, the thing Bristol would trot out any time someone questioned the company's journalistic bona fides, was its joint investigation into NFL head injuries with PBS's Frontline. Now that's done with. PBS announced the news. It reports:
You may notice some changes to our League of Denial and Concussion Watch websites. From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players.
We don’t normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN’s decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as FRONTLINE’s own original journalism.
ESPN’s decision will in no way affect the content, production or October release of FRONTLINE’s League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The film is grounded in the Fainaru brothers’ forthcoming book, also titled League of Denial, and the authors will continue to participate in the production and be featured in the documentary.
The film is still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives, although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input. The two-hour documentary and accompanying digital reporting will honor FRONTLINE’s rigorous standards of fairness, accuracy, transparency and depth.
Update, 6:13 p.m.: ESPN sends a statement:
Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN's marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.
Update, 7:40 p.m.: Earlier this month, an ESPN producer said the network had made a deliberate decision to "literally get in bed" with Frontline.
Aronson told me late Thursday that ESPN contacted “Frontline” last Friday to request that it remove ESPN’s logo from its website, citing the technicality that it was a “trademark issue.” It wasn’t until Monday, after the latest collaboration was published on “Frontline”’s website and aired on “OTL,” that ESPN also requested that language describing collaboration not be used, and that it became clear the collaboration itself was coming to an end.
The arrangement, Aronson said, had worked well for over a year. “We have weighed in on each other’s work, but we don’t have control,” she said of the “OTL” segments. Conversely, she said, “We would definitely welcome their editorial thoughts, but we ultimately bear responsibility for our broadcast.” Aronson added that this has been the arrangement with other collaborations “Frontline” has done, including with NPR and Univision. “It’s not conceivable for us to give up editorial control of our broadcast,” she added.