There is no other way to say it: Le Anne Schreiber was a titan of journalism.
In an era when big-name talking heads dominate our understanding of the news, the legacy of a woman many sports fans have never heard of will be more significant than any of them. Schreiber, who had many thoughts on those talking heads, probably would have bristled at the claim, but it’s true.
Schreiber—who died Friday at age 73—was one of the most important women in sports journalism. In 1978, she was named as the deputy editor of the New York Times sports section, only to be promoted months later to become the paper’s first, and still only, female sports editor in history. At the time, she was the first female sports editor of a major American daily. She agreed to the position in part because “if the New York Times was ready to appoint a female head of a hugely male department for the first time in its history, I had no right to refuse the position,” but her ultimate dream was to be editor of the New York Times Book Review.
What is so important about Schreiber’s trajectory is its symbolism, not just for women, but also for what sports journalism should be: journalism.
It’s easy and pervasive to consider news about sports as “news light,” but as we’ve seen in recent years, appointing a true news mind to high-level sports positions should be a requirement. Sports is a multi-billion dollar industrial complex. And it’s ground zero for civil rights battles in this country.
Schreiber got her introduction to sports in the 1976 Summer Olympics covering feminist trailblazer Billie Jean King. Today, clear-eyed observers see major college athletics as a great civil rights issue of our time, an industry where institutions get rich on the backs of extremely talented, unpaid, largely black and brown labor. When we look at Colin Kaepernick and the protests led by black NFL players against racial injustice and police brutality in this country, what we find is real news done an injustice by a sports press corps largely unequipped to handle it. And we see issues of domestic violence and sexual misconduct thought of largely through the lens of how good the alleged abuser is on the field, weighing whether that outweighs his or her transgressions.
This is all to say that sports journalism needs more Le Anne Schreibers and fewer Colin Cowherds.
Which brings me to the most important contribution Schreiber made to our understanding of sports journalism and journalism writ large: her extensive and thoughtful body of work as ESPN’s ombudsman from 2007 through 2009. Schreiber served in the role—which both ESPN and the New York Times have since wrongfully killed—at a critical time for ESPN.
In 2006, ESPN had agreed to a $1.1 billion per year contract to carry Monday Night Football, and many of Schrieber’s pieces explored how corporate interests and stakes in leagues via massive broadcast contracts interfered with ESPN’s ability and credibility to report the news or select which sports to showcase on its flagship programs.
Her pieces provide not only incisive views of the struggles at ESPN at the time, but also a crystal ball onto the broken industrial media complex that nearly a decade later would help usher in Donald Trump into office. Her headlines alone told an important, familiar story: “At ESPN, conflict of interest is business as usual”; “Too much shouting obscures the message”; “ESPN guilty of teller becoming the tale”; “ESPN’s excess root of fan frustration.” They presaged the Jamie Horowitz-ification of ESPN and of political news coverage, and they should be required reading for every member of the 2020 campaign press corps.
Le Anne Schreiber’s columns were like a tornado siren for the news industry. But for a decade, we all ignored her. So instead of trying to paraphrase her enduring message, I’ll leave it to her, from her final column as ombudsman:
In a previous column, I wrote, ‘The endlessly swirling synergy of events programming continuously reinforced by pre- and post-event shows, by preseason and postseason shows, by news shows that cover those events and by opinion shows that derive their topics from those events is a business model both extremely effective and extremely transparent.’
I would like to revise that statement by deleting “extremely effective.” We now know that any business model based on the assumption the rich can get endlessly richer is bound to implode.
That is why, when searching for the taproot of discontent within those 30,000 messages, I settled upon the excesses of coverage that provoke fans to send me their virtual shouts of “MAKE IT STOP. PLEASE. IT’S TOO MUCH.” Those viewers are sounding a potentially empire-saving alarm.
Overcoverage of the favored few teams and players not only kills joy through its sheer tedium, it is also the root of fan grievances about bias, about cross-promotion, and about corporate conflict of interest. I suspect the perceived arrogance of particular ESPN personalities would become a small-potatoes complaint if it were not magnified in fans’ minds by the consequences of other forms of excess.
So what’s the one last message I want to leave ESPN? I guess it would have to be: Don’t be so predictable. Subtext: Stop trying to make the publicity-rich ever richer. Spread the wealth around before fans turn on ESPN the way investors have turned on bankers.”
I’m not sure how to close out a memory of a personal hero. The years Schreiber served as ESPN ombudsman were formative for me, too. I was elected sports editor of my college newspaper at Duke in 2007 and found that as a young woman in sports, I had few role models. But Schreiber was my north star. She treated her job so seriously—reading thousands of viewer letters and complaints, watching hours of coverage, and questioning everyone and everything. She was a brilliant writer and an even more brilliant mind, and she leaves behind a body of work that will stand the test of time.
If ESPN and the New York Times truly want to honor her legacy, obituaries are not enough. They should restore the position of ombudsman. We need critical watchdogs now more than ever, and for these outlets to suggest that angry mobs on Twitter are a sufficient replacement for someone like Le Anne Schreiber is an insult to her and to the rest of us.
When Schreiber closed out her final column at ESPN, she wrote, “I will miss you.”
Not as much as we will miss her.
Meredith Shiner is a former national political reporter whose work has appeared in Politico, Roll Call, Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports and a variety of other outlets.