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Skipper’s claim Frontline’s sensationalism led ESPN to break ties falls short

So it seems the decision by ESPN to pull out of its partnership with PBS’ “Frontline” on a documentary about head trauma in the NFL came down to the impact of a 2 ½ minute promotional trailer.

At least, that’s the explanation ESPN president John Skipper gave the sports network’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who wrote a column titled “Was ESPN sloppy, naive or compromised?”

Unfortunately, much as I respect Lipsyte, I think he missed the mark on this one, allowing Skipper to tell a story about how the partnership ended which doesn’t pass the smell test.

According to Lipsyte’s column, Skipper objected to a tagline in the trailer which said “get ready to change the way you see the game,” and a final soundbite in the clip from a neuropathologist who said “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Lipsyte said Skipper found the comment to be “over the top.” So did he meet with PBS executives to explain his position? Did he tell his subordinates at ESPN of his misgivings to try figuring out a solution?

There’s no mention that he did. But Skipper did talk about the issue with executives from the NFL at a “combative” lunch, according to the New York Times.

Curiously, though Lipsyte reports asking about rumors that Skipper spoke with Disney chairman Bob Iger and lawyers for both Disney and ESPN — the ESPN president says he did, but only to inform them that he was pulling out of the partnership — the ombudsman doesn’t indicate asking if the executive discussed the partnership with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the Aug. 14 lunch or if the Times’ description was accurate.

Skipper did deny that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the partnership end. But the idea that ESPN would blow up a 15-month collaboration with public television’s highly respected investigative show over two lines in an advertising promo — especially knowing that many in sports media would assume NFL pressure was the inspiration, regardless of whether that was true — seems, well, fishy.

 

ESPN is essentially saying the most traditional investigative unit on television was too sensational after 15 months of allegedly smooth working relationships. Yeah, right.

Lipsyte asks the questions we all have: Was ESPN naive about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit? (Doubtful. Didn’t they pay attention when “Frontline” took on the NCAA?) Did ESPN cave to pressure from Disney or ESPN?  (Football is the most popular sport on television and on ESPN. That’s a pretty big stick to wield in any organization.)

Unfortunately, he has no answers. The ombudsman’s conclusion: “If the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder of how often the profit motive wins the duel.”

Again, with all due respect, if the worst turns out to be true, it’s much worse than that. It’s proof that the most powerful sports league in America can make the most powerful sports media company in the industry pull back on even the language in a two-minute promotional advertisement.

Can ESPN ever be trusted to break news which will damper NFL profits? What if its journalists unearth evidence which would validate the more than 4,200 player-named lawsuits over concussions? Their journalists’ obligation is to report the information, but their obligation as business partners with the NFL might require a different choice.

I’m frankly quite surprised at the attitude of some who have covered this issue. If ESPN wants to be taken seriously as a home for incisive journalism, it needs to grant its journalists true independence. Right now.

No more notifying big business partners when a tough story is about to drop. If the journalists pursuing the story have done their jobs, the companies already know they are the subject of a major investigation.

No more top executive lunches with the subject of major investigations weeks before big pieces are due to drop (even if the stories aren’t discussed in those meetings, employees know they’re happening and it has a chilling effect.)

Executives at Skipper’s level shouldn’t be involved with the journalism unless a serious ethical breach has occurred or somebody made a big mistake. That’s how truly independent journalism works.

And perhaps the saddest aspect of this entire display is that everyone involved with the issue has been around the media block long enough to know all of this.

My hope is that Lipsyte doesn’t write another column until he can answer some of the questions we’ve all posed.

Because sports fans who expect accountability from the Worldwide Leader deserve better.

Read more about this and other media issues on my blog for the Tampa Bay Times, The Feed, by clicking here. Info on my new book, Race-Baiter, can be found here.

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