ESPN, Journalistic Standards, and the Often Steep, Exacting Cost of Synergy

by M.C. Antil on December 2, 2011

(Dear Readers: The essay below, which I originally composed on the ten-year anniversary of my exit from ESPN in July, has not seen the light of day until now.  I sat on it for months out of deference to some of my former colleagues at ESPN, a handful of whom I respect and hold dear.

In fact, I eventually decided not to run it at all.   

But then things changed.  Boy, did they change.

Watching the unseemly, troubling and as-yet unresolved Jim Boeheim and Bernie Fine story unfold almost daily — in the very town in which I was born and spent the first 23 years of my life, no less — hearing what ESPN officials might have failed to do to prevent even more incidents of child abuse in Syracuse, realizing how many loyal Syracuse alumni continue to hold key decision-making positions in Bristol, and listening to the network’s news execs recently performing what amounted to a series of verbal shadow puppets and a Ralph Kramden, “homina-homina” sort of thing while hiding feebly behind a blanket of journalistic ethics — a blanket that for years they’d been oh-so willing to let the corporate synergy moths at Disney munch on freely — I decided all bets are off. 

Especially given the fact that many of the same newspeople just weeks prior had watched an eerily similar story unfold around an assistant coach just 200 miles or so southwest of Syracuse, a guy who witnessed an incidence of child molestation and who did virtually the same thing they did — or should I say, did not do — and then excoriated him for it.

And you’re right; maybe the gun in State College was white-hot, while the one in Syracuse was merely smoking.  But still, who could have listened to a tape of that creepy conversation with Laurie Fine and her husband’s alleged victim and not at least taken it upon themselves to alert the proper legal authorities, and let them decide what to do?   Or tell the young man to hire a lawyer?

Seriously, even if they weren’t going to go public with the information, what kind of person, journalist or otherwise — especially if that person also happened to be a father or mother — would have just sat perched on such a compelling and potentially damning piece of evidence of child molestation and not done a thing about it?

Journalistic ethics and professional righteousness aside, that scratchy recording provided far too much detail, offered just a few too many un-coerced concessions, and left way too many unanswered questions to simply write off.  Plus it entertained the vague but still-real possibility that an ongoing felony was taking place, one which threatened the well-being and safety of underage boys, not to mention their innocence.

Plus, of course, there’s that gnawing little thing about how, at the very same time the tape came into their possession, ESPN had countless millions in advertising dollars, rights fees and ratings points invested in Syracuse basketball and, therefore, hanging in the balance.

For those reasons and others, I offer the following essay with far more clarity and conviction than I had even as I wrote it.)


Ten years ago this very day — July 11, 2001– I walked away from ESPN and corporate life forever. 

On that day in ESPN’s executive offices on New York’s Upper West Side, I got asked to lunch by network president, George Bodenheimer.  George is a good man, and a guy I not only like, but respect tremendously. He asked me to lunch because he wanted to know if I had any thoughts or ideas about the company going forward.

I remember telling him over soup and a sandwich, “George, we’ve spent twenty years trying to make this company synonymous with sports.  And while that’s worked to a stunning degree, I’d be really careful over the next twenty years.  Some of these athletes are bad guys — and I mean really bad guys.  And most of the ones who aren’t bad have completely lost touch with reality because of all the money and fame.” 

“These guys are not the sports heroes we knew as kids,” I told him.

For that reason, I said that I’d be careful about all the group hugs ESPN had started to give the athletes our reporters were in the business of covering; and that the horrible things some of them were doing off the field, and the manner in which they were conducting themselves, could very easily start reflecting back on the editorial side, if not the entire company. 

I told George that if it were up to me, I’d kill the ESPY Awards; I thought they were too buddy-buddy, too inside and far too self-congratulatory.  What’s more, they did nothing to enhance ESPN’s brand or our reputation as a news outlet, both of which were riding sky-high at the time (in part, because of the remarkable “This is SportsCenter” campaign, developed a few years earlier by the ad agency, Weiden & Kennedy). 

Lastly, I told him that, much like CBS did during its fabled “Tiffany”days, I’d build a Chinese Wall between ESPN’s news and entertainment divisions, and would never let anyone except those as the very top influence the day-to-day workings on either side.   I remember talking about spending the next twenty years trying to turn ESPN into “the 60 Minutes of sports.”

But even as I was talking to George that day, I knew that my advice (both good and bad) would never take. Not really.  And not because he wasn’t listening.  But because, in the end, I knew such decisions were not really George’s to make.

Six years earlier the Walt Disney Company, a massive media empire with a culture steeped in wholesome, family entertainment, had paid a whopping $19 billion for ABC and the crown jewel in its programming crown, ESPN.  And the moment the title to the irreverent, fun-loving ESPN got signed over to its squeaky-clean and tightly wound new owner, things started to change. 

The competitive “sports-geek” dynamic that used to define the Bristol campus, if not the whole company (an attitude so pervasive, so palpable, yet somehow so remarkably cool that it inspired Weiden to conceive the “SportsCenter” campaign after only one visit), slowly but most assuredly started giving way to an all-consuming and joyless pursuit of bloated, non-stop cross-promotion — or something the Disney memo-hounds liked to refer to as synergy.   

Why bring this up now? 

Because this past week was an anniversary of a different sort at ESPN; the anniversary of, arguably, the single most defining and yet regrettable journalistic event in network history (my crippling exit notwithstanding).

One year ago this past week turned out to be the single darkest moment that many of the journalists among my former colleagues would ever experience in their professional lives.

One year ago this July, the acknowledged “Worldwide Leader in Sports” placed its hard-earned reputation for timeliness and accuracy atop the altar of synergy and offered it in sacrifice to the gods of entertainment.  In doing so, ESPN handed over its journalistic integrity to a single, self-absorbed athlete (and his entourage) in exchange for what amounted to 30 pieces of silver and an exclusive.

One year ago this past Friday — July 8, 2010 — a handful of dedicated, talented and, I’m sure, well-intentioned executives at ESPN, clearly fueled by synergy fever (and a boatload of dollars), won a hotly contested internal debate and foisted upon an unsuspecting public a programming debacle called, The Decision.  

An hour-long “news” event featuring basketball star Lebron James, the most coveted free agent in history, during which he announced his plan to play for the Miami Heat, The Decision helped take an otherwise likable kid from Akron and, over the course of 60 minute’s worth of painfully bad judgment, turn him into one of the most hated men in America.

A hate which radiated so strongly back upon ESPN that, quite frankly, a full year later it still seems — at least some degree — to be doing so.

I will spare you much of the fallout of The Decision.  Heck, you probably already know more about it than I do, since as a middle-aged man on the dark side of 50 I’ve chosen to treat ESPN’s utter disregard for me (and those my age) with mutual disinterest. In fact, I only watched The Decision recently, and did so only in anticipation of putting together this post. 

Besides, people much smarter than I have already put it under the microscope.  Don Ohlmeyer, the former ombudsman for the network, wrote a detailed and insightful analysis just two weeks after it aired. Then this past Friday, his successor, Kelly McBride, offered her take on what, if anything, ESPN had learned in the twelve months since.

I urge you to read both, if only because neither was written by a hyperbolic zealot with an axe to grind, or someone from a competing media outlet taking giddy delight in just how badly the neighborhood bully got his.  Each was written by a professional whose only job it is (or was) to serve as an advocate of the public interest, to vet ESPN news for truth and accuracy, and to traffic, not in cheap shots and sound bytes, but in reason, intellect and balance.

Like I said, I leave that level of analysis to the experts. 

Instead, I’d like to take just a few moments to reflect on the sad demise of what had once been one of the coolest brands in the world.

Death of a Brand
When I was at ESPN, a friend of mine in marketing liked to say we had the kind of brand that people wanted to sit down and have a few beers with.  And she wasn’t so sure the operative word wasn’t “few.” 

I couldn’t agree more. 

Back then, ESPN was that brilliant but quirky college roommate of yours who considered pizza and beer two of the five major food groups; the guy who left the toilet seat up as religiously as he studied the morning box scores; and the guy who, given the choice between bowling a perfect game, dating a supermodel, and sitting down for a 24-hour Twin Peaks marathon, would furl his brow and say, “Wow, that’s a tough one.”

But in the end, ESPN was also that one friend you could call when you wanted to know the NBA’s all-timer leader in free throw percentage, or which two Yankees were on base when Bucky (Bleeping) Dent dropped that little lob shot of his over the Green Monster in Fenway in ’78.

Back then ESPN’s brand was so relentlessly geeky that that’s what made it cool. 

And that’s what the creative team from Weiden & Kennedy picked up on the moment they set foot in the place. It’s also what every sports fan who ever tuned into SportsCenter knew in their hearts; that people at ESPN not only loved their jobs, and would probably have paid for the privilege of doing them, but there was an absolute purity to their love. 

And it was that love that viewers responded to, and that love that, in the end, gave rise to all that cool.

What’s more, back then ESPN made decisions that were, more often than not, based less on what made the best business sense and more on what served the interests of that sad sack of a sports nut who somehow always found himself sitting in the obstructed view seats or in the last row of the bleachers. 

But then something happened. 

Disney came in with its tone-deaf, mouse-eared, gee-whiz attitude, established new guidelines and priorities, and started messing with the one thing at ESPN that was pure magic.  Before you knew it, the toilet seat was down, the bed was made, and the porn, lava lamp and bean bag chairs were sitting in a pile in the dumpster out back. 

The brand that people always loved and wanted to sit down, drink beer and shoot the sh*t with was gone too; replaced by a sanitized, candy-coated and incredibly self-aware version of itself. 

Suddenly what had been so refreshingly cool, even unconsciously cool, was no longer cool at all.  Whatever trace of cool that still emanated from ESPN suddenly felt choreographed, contrived, and worst of all, manipulative. 

Think Jerry Lewis in the original version of The Nutty Professor

Rather than being the lovable geek who against all odds won the girl’s heart because she fell in love with his mind and passion, ESPN suddenly went all Buddy Love on us, turning into a creepy sort of hipster who, beneath all his surface cool harbored something that, when all was said and done, turned out to be the antithesis of cool.

In a few short years under the stewardship of Disney, ESPN went from being the guy every other guy in the room secretly wanted to be to that sleazeball from the accounting department, Vic. 

You know.  Vic.  The twice-divorced weekend warrior working in Accounts Receivable.

The cubicle-dwelling prairie dog who tries to pass himself off as twenty or so years younger than he actually is; the guy with the slightly rusting muscle car, the odd affinity for man-made fabrics, and what’s left of his 70’s-style haircut; the guy who every year at the Christmas party tries to lay claim to “Coolest Guy in the Office” by jumping on a desk, untucking his sweat-stained shirt, and lip-synching the words to such cringe-inducing relics as Hotel California, Smoke on the Water or his personal favorite, Bad to the Bone — all while playing some traffic-stopping, head-bobbing air-guitar.

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  Cheap shot.

But you need to know how much it hurts to have watched a brand that was so great for so long fall apart so utterly, and in such short order.

I used to tell people that ESPN ran one of the great news agencies in the world, and that it had a journalistic fire that would have given even the New York Times, NPR and CNN a run for their money.  And I told people that because I truly believed it. 

But, thanks to the folks at Disney, I don’t anymore. 

I used to think that ESPN’s programming was a huge tent under which there would always be room for sports fans of all ages, and from all walks of life. 

But time and personal experience have taught me otherwise.

In fact, I have no idea what the ESPN news department or its brand stands for these days.

If you’re someone my age or older, or someone who believes that any single game is more than just a series of mindless dunks, inconsequential home runs and silly end zone dances, and that a highlight reel doesn’t need a soundtrack, visual effects or machine-gun edits to be compelling, so much of ESPN’s news programming is — and I mean this literally — unwatchable.

The network’s obsession with the male 18-34 demo has become so pervasive and so all-consuming that in a few short years the coolest brand on earth has devolved into something apparently fueled by the same impulses that drive the editorial staff at Maxim; puerile urges I can only describe as Fox-like; they of the metallic audio effects, the rah-rah locker room-style network promos, and that ridiculous animated robot.

In fact, when I tune in to ESPN now — and I truly don’t do so more than an hour or two a month — it’s with the same sort of morbid fascination I get every time I watch an aging, once-great actor trading lines for a paycheck; like Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green, Helen Hayes in Airport or Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

And don’t think my attitude is what it is because, like so many of my peers, I am incapable of changing with the times, or have some sort of pathological fixation with the pop culture of my youth.   

I like plenty of new things, and find many of them incredibly cool.

The Killing is cool.  Best Coast is cool. L.A. Noire is cool.  Twitter and Flickr are cool.

So are Al Horford, Neko Case, Gnarls Barkley, Lisbeth Salander, Scott Pilgrim, Portlandia, Danny McBride and Lena Dunham.

The Iron Man franchise is cool.  Ellen Page is cool.  Nellie McKay is cool. Adele is cool.  Shaun White is cool. Seth MacFarlane is cool. So are the Fleet Foxes, Elizabeth Cook and the iPad.

To some extent, even Katy Perry and Taylor Swift are cool.  Hell, even Vince from the Sham Wow ads qualifies as cool.

But not ESPN.  Not by a long shot.  At least not anymore. 

And that makes me sad, because a part of me will always love ESPN.  I will always love so many of the people I used to work with, and will always love my memories of the cool brand those people helped build.

But that brand is gone now.  It really, truly is.

I look at the exercise in style-over-substance that SportsCenter has become, at how tired and listless the campaign to promote has grown, and how vastly the lines between news and entertainment have blurred in Bristol, and I realize that the ESPN I once knew and loved no longer exists.

Or if it does, it does so only as a broad caricature of itself.  Kind of like ESPN: The Theme Park Ride. 

What passes for World Wide Leader these days is bigger and more powerful certainly, and clearly more profitable.  But it’s not better.  At least not to guys like me; to aging, greying sports-geek boomers whose passion first inspired the network’s creation and whose loyalty made its growth possible.

When I used to look at ESPN, I used to see a lot of myself.  I saw that little kid who grew up loving sports, who once named his dog after his favorite basketball player, and who used to consume stats and player names the way the rest of his family consumed oxygen. 

It was all there, reflected in the brand that ESPN used to be.

But those days are gone.  It’s 2011 now.  And as I look back on that July day a decade ago when I left ESPN as an employee, I realize that was the day I also began weaning myself off it as a fan; a process, I’m sad to say, is now complete.

Now when I look at ESPN — or more specifically when I look at what Disney’s turned ESPN into — I see something very different. I see a brand trying way too hard to act young and be cool; two things it never used to have to work at.

Gone too is that Oscar Madison-type guy I used to spend so much time with in my youth, the guy who was not only one of my best friends, but one of the most colorful people I knew.  A man’s man.  A guy who understood when to buy a round, knew how to tell a joke, and off the top of his head could recite the all-black starting nine of the ’71 Pirates.

Geez, I miss that fat slob. I really do.  He was a great guy, and a ton of fun.

But, as it turns out, not very loyal.  And not very cool.

In fact, not cool at all. Because where I once saw a drinking buddy and a trusted friend, I now see someone else entirely. 

Vic.  From Accounting.

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