ESPN told us yesterday that tweets from NFL reporters Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen in which they implausibly expressed strong desires to spend New Year’s Eve eating Domino’s pizza were improperly not labeled as ads, and that in the future all promotional tweets from ESPNers would be properly labeled. Today, an ESPN reporter did it again.
This afternoon, college football reporter Kaylee Hartun tweeted some junk about Buick:
If you’re in Phoenix for #CFBPlayoff, look for me at the @Buick tent. #ThatsABuick
After I inquired about whether this tweet—which was pinned to the top of her Twitter feed, where you couldn’t miss it—and the numerous others she has sent about Buick were ads, Hartung deleted her tweet and replaced it with one labeled “#ad”:
ESPN has a commentator endorsement list that doesn’t feature Hartung or Mortensen, and mentions Schefter only in the context of his deal with DraftKings. When asked why the Buick and Domino’s endorsements weren’t listed, an ESPN spokesperson said, “We require all commentators to disclose and obtain approval of third party endorsement opportunities. The list is designed to denote endorsement deals that could be perceived to present a conflict of interest.” It seems, then, these aren’t third-party endorsement deals, but rather small parts of much larger agreements between brands and ESPN.
As the Wall Street Journal demurely noted in a piece on the topic today, “the issue of whether [ESPN’s] roster of pundits and anchors are journalists guided by traditional editorial strictures or entertainers allowed to hawk products has been a thorny one for some time.” While ESPN sometimes argues that different rules apply to “personalities” than “journalists,” that isn’t at play here. Schefter is the best-known NFL reporter in the world and Mortensen isn’t too far behind, while Hartung’s Twitter profile literally identifies her as a reporter.
(This isn’t just some hoary ethics sermon. Three years ago the Federal Trade Commission released its .com Disclosures to offer guidance for how ads online should be labeled to avoid running afoul of the law. And as they note, the FTC Act’s prohibition of “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” doesn’t make an exception for the internet. The FTC has popped Deutsch LA and Kim Kardashian, among others, for deceptive tweets.)
Now, Schefter, Mortensen, and Hartung’s tweets were pretty clearly ads. (I hope to God nobody is using the hashtag #ThatsABuick without getting paid for it.) They’re part of broader commercial relationships with these brands—Hartung has appeared in an advertisement for Buick, and Schefter and Mortensen for Domino’s. But even if the effect wasn’t deceptive here, the intent was. If better ad agencies came up with less cringe-inducing language for the tweets, you might honestly think ol’ Mort just loved himself some Domino’s. And while most journalism ethics guides aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, a good reporter should be honest with their readers/viewers about everything, especially about whether they’re shilling for fucking #Buick. They should also have some self-respect.