Evolution or devolution?

As ombudsman mailbags go, this month offered a wild ride: naked bodies to gambling tips, alleged immoral behavior to the coarsening of the media culture . . . and points in between. Fasten your seat belts, it’s e-mail answer time.

The Naked Truth

“I just wanted to let you know that we have canceled our subscription to your magazine due to your SKIN issue. We have young kids in our house and if I wanted them to see soft-core porn, I would have bought Playgirl or Playboy. You have sunk to a brand new low in journalism when you have to rely on sex or a naked human body to sell your mag. Maybe you ought to fire your writers because it’s obvious that you no longer have confidence in them, and therefore I have no further need of you.” — Shane N., Oakley, Calif.

The reference, of course, was to the 2010 “Body Issue” of ESPN The Magazine, which featured nearly 40 athletes from across the sports world photographed in various states of undress, including cover athletes Diana Taurasi, Tim Howard, Esther Vergeer, Amare Stoudemire, Camilo Villegas and the U.S. women’s water polo team. ESPN touted the second-annual issue as a “celebration and exploration of the athletic form shown through artistic photos, insightful articles and in-depth interviews.”

What is the philosophy behind the “Body Issue”? Gary Belsky, editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, made it clear that the issue was intended to captivate the magazine’s target audience — 18- to 34-year-old male sports fans – by presenting “compelling images while staying true to the standards of ESPN.”

“We know that some fans may find the contents inappropriate or otherwise objectionable,” Belsky said. “That’s why we spend considerable time weighing the purpose, relevance and ramifications of every image and story in the issue, among a diverse group of senior staff members that includes people of various backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities and sexual orientations, as well as parents with young children. More importantly, though, we see the body issue as conforming to our broader mission of providing readers a unique perspective on sports, in this case a celebration and exploration of the athletic form.”

Belsky stressed that the photography included athletes of all ages, ethnicities and body types, noting that “If this were an attempt to be salacious, lascivious or pornographic in any way, we would hardly feature images of wheelchair-tennis players, 73-year-old master swimmers or full-bodied bobsled racers. We do ask some of our athlete-models to remove their clothes, primarily because we’ve found that level of openness to be the best way to reveal their particular body types and musculature through photography. We also think it looks cool.

“But only a portion of the images in the issue involve full or partial nudity, and in no instances do we display genitalia. Although we’re willing to be provocative when we think it’s called for, we never try to be provocative just to provoke. We’re always trying to inform, educate and entertain, and we think the ‘Body Issue’ does all three within the bounds of appropriateness and respectability.”

Conflicting points of view generally surface when the discussion turns to nudity. The photographs did not strike me as salacious or lascivious. But that’s just one man’s opinion. Many of the poses were reminiscent of the classic Greek sculptures of athletes, but that doesn’t guarantee some readers won’t find them objectionable. Subscribers, in general, don’t want to be surprised in their own homes by material they feel is inappropriate, particularly if they have young children.

The photos in the “Body Issue” are a total departure from those that normally accompany stories in this publication. Perhaps ESPN should have sent an advisory to subscribers notifying them that the next issue would contain material some may deem objectionable. Because of similar concerns, for example, Sports Illustrated allows reticent subscribers to skip its annual swimsuit issue and extend their subscription by an extra week.

Of course, cultures change. SI created a firestorm when it published its first swimsuit issue in 1964 . . . and that franchise now engages 67 million consumers through a multitude of platforms (swimsuit videos, iPhone apps, etc.), compared to an average circulation of 3.15 million for the magazine.

You’d be hard pressed to say ESPN’s edition is as blatant an appeal to sexuality as Sports Illustrated attempts to do, but there’s no question ESPN hopes the athletes-in-motion format can similarly catch fire. In 2009, the “Body Issue” newsstand sales were 73 percent higher than the magazine’s average circulation of 2.2 million, and sales for the 2010 edition were up 22 percent over last year. While such statistics and ESPN’s business goals matter little to those that were offended, all readers ultimately retain the ultimate voting right — either maintain or cancel the subscription.

Betting on a Sure Thing

Noting a recent Insider link on the ESPN.com homepage that called out to “How to bet on Redskins vs. Eagles,” one reader found it contradictory that — while sports gambling is illegal in much of the United States — ESPN seemingly condoned and encouraged it. “I’m curious about the ethical stance and whether or not ESPN is just trying to skirt the line.” — Al S., Baltimore, Md.

How does ESPN justify the overt and prominent reference to gambling?

“We are by no means endorsing, encouraging or facilitating sports betting,” said Robbyn Footlick, executive editor of ESPN the Magazine and Insider, “but we are happily embracing its interest to our fans — providing relevant and deep information and insightful coverage. Along those lines we are expanding gambling coverage on Insider. We see the pay wall as a distinguisher and an opportunity for gambling content.

“We already have a Behind the Bets column and blog, which covers the world of gambling and includes the line’s movement on a weekly basis during football season. We are moving forward with the intention of maintaining the editorial integrity of the ESPN and the league brands, while also serving the fan — many of whose sports engagement is enhanced by casual sports betting.”

On the TV side, ESPN has been referencing point spreads on Saturday and Sunday “SportsCenters” for more than seven years, and more recently started doing so on The Bottom Line, “SportsNation” and “The Herd” simulcast.

“We don’t do it in NFL branded shows,” said Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. “The impetus for it initially was that point spreads have long been the simplest comparative factor between teams, a part of the culture of sports, readily available in newspapers around the country, and of interest to all fans beyond just the bettors.

“We understand that point spreads are the central tool for sports gambling, which is illegal everywhere [in the U.S.] except for Nevada. But, weighing that factor, we’ve come to the conclusion that the spread has become a significant part of the sports conversation.”

Gambling is anathema to the major sports leagues, at least publicly. The “line” has been a verboten topic on any network program tied directly to those brands, and the commissioners have always felt that discussing betting in proximity to their games can have a negative impact on viewer perceptions of the integrity of the sport. Still, over the past 50 years, betting scandals have touched football, baseball and basketball. The reality is, whether sports organizations like it or not, gambling plays a major role in some fans’ enjoyment and participation.

In 2009, according to the American Gaming Association, $2.6 billion was legally wagered on sports in Nevada. It’s estimated that $380 billion per year is illegally bet in this country — with more than $1 billion wagered on the Super Bowl alone. In 2006, Congress passed a law making it illegal for offshore websites to collect money from gamblers in the United States. But that only eliminated the faint of heart. While the number of foreign sites dropped by roughly 50 percent, the overall handle diminished only minimally.

Over the past two generations, politicians, law enforcement officials and society at large seem to have developed a more lenient stance regarding gambling. All but seven states sponsor some form of lottery. Slot machines have popped up at racetracks. Off-track betting is a staple in some states (when the bureaucrats can keep it from going bankrupt). Card clubs thrive in various jurisdictions. Twenty-eight states allow gaming on Native American reservations, with more than 500 Indian casinos and bingo halls. Their locations have been proliferating and their business is booming.

If sports betting is as popular as the statistics imply, politicians and police don’t rate the enforcement of gambling laws a high priority and betting information is carried in almost every newspaper in the country, it’s hard for ESPN to pretend sports bookmaking and lines don’t exist. However, providing “how to bet” guidance — even behind a pay wall — does nestle right up to the line of “promoting and encouraging” gambling.

There’s no question that the information ESPN provides is a service to the millions who are interested, but there are lingering questions: How much? And to what extent?

ESPN is not in the position or the business of legislating morality, but it should recognize there is a delicate balance between “knowledgeable advice” and “complicit promotion.” It’s a tightrope ESPN should walk carefully.

Can You Hear Me Now?

“For the last few weeks that you have been covering NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, the sound mix has been TERRIBLE. All I can hear is the roar of the cars, which covers up the announcers’ voices to the point that I can’t understand a word they are saying. I have tried playing with the stereo balance on my set and that does not help the problem.” — John P., Clifton Springs, N.Y.

Was ESPN aware of the issue, and are there any corrective measures?

“Week to week we take a number of steps to insure we are passing the best quality signal possible,” said Rich Feinberg, vice president of motorsports for ESPN. “This includes monitoring the audio and video leaving our remote location, our Bristol, Conn., control facility, and the network return feed. Additionally, a number of us record/TiVo our shows at home so we can review the end product just as our viewers see and hear it.

“I’ve checked our audio mix on recent telecasts and it’s been fine, both leaving ESPN and reaching my home. But, with 1,335 ESPN distributors and affiliates, there is certainly the potential for other technical issues down the line. These can exist at the local level and yes, in the individual fan’s home system.”

Chuck Pagano, ESPN’s executive vice president for technology, monitors the quality of the more than 3,000 remote productions that the network transmits each year — and was very candid about the concerns over audio quality.

“I don’t want to dismiss out of hand any reported problems,” he said. “We repeatedly check the meters and listen to the audio quality — what’s coming in from the field is fine and what’s going out is fine. We had similar complaints about five or six years ago, and we finally sent engineers out to viewers’ homes.

“We found the problem there. Today’s television sets have different set-ups for audio stabilization and level control. Home processors let the viewer select from multiple scenarios and configurations. You can choose live sports, music hall, sports dynamic, opera, surround, etc. If you haven’t selected the right set-up these systems can artificially shift audio frequencies that can change the mix between crowds and announcers. Other homes, we found, had audio wires out of phase because they had been reversed. With digital technology there shouldn’t be any difference between what we send from the field and what the audience receives.”

And the feed you receive takes a fairly lengthy trip in just a matter of seconds. The remote sends the A/V signal by satellite to Bristol – 22,000 miles up, and 22,000 miles back down. Bristol then sends it by satellite to the head-end — the facility at a local cable TV office that originates and communicates services — which is another 44,000-mile journey. Then it’s routed from your cable company to you over wires (or back up to the satellite if you’re a dish customer). Audio distortion shouldn’t occur during these hops, but nothing is impossible.

Complaints on this issue aren’t just limited to NASCAR. They’ve been reported on football, as well as other telecasts. The number of e-mails are noteworthy, by mailbag standards, but miniscule when compared to the nearly 250 million viewers ESPN reached in the fourth quarter of 2010. Pagano promises to keep checking the quality from Bristol’s end, and suggests that those who have had this problem make sure the audio on their home TV is enabled correctly.

Too Close for Comfort?

“I just watched the interview ESPN analyst Merril Hoge conducted with Ben Roethlisberger. It is a complete farce to pass that interview off as true journalism. Hoge himself has admitted to working closely with Roethlisberger to get his life back together. How then can Hoge be expected to turn around and provide an unbiased and neutral interview? Similar to Jim Gray being hired by Lebron James’ people to interview Lebron, this Hoge interview poses a serious credibility issue. Overall, I’m frustrated and annoyed that ESPN would not only pass this off as real journalism but also skip the opportunity to really ask Roethlisberger the tough questions.” — Patrick C., Lexington, Mass.

What was the rationale for using Hoge, a former NFL player and current NFL analyst for ESPN, to conduct the interview with the Pittsburgh Steelers QB?

“We believed Hoge’s close monitoring of Roethlisberger during this whole period would give Merril unique insights and an intimate understanding of what Ben had been dealing with, saying and thinking,” said Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice president and managing editor, noting that Hoge had been asked by the Steelers to serve as an advisor to Roethlisberger before and during his four-game suspension for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.

“We went out of our way to be transparent. We announced during the lead-in to the interview exactly what Merril’s relationship was with Ben. Our management team reviewed with Merril all of the questions he was going to ask to prepare him and make sure all the right questions would be asked. Having been forewarned, viewers were able to make their own decisions concerning the value of the interview and Roethlisberger’s responses. It’s important to note that Roethlisberger placed no restrictions on the questions Hoge could ask . . . and in retrospect, we think Merril did a good journalistic job.”

Close relations between athletes and the reporters and analysts who cover them can be a plus for the audience, providing an ease of access that results in more information. It can help reporters break exclusives and get interviews at pivotal points. It can also provide excellent background for not-for-attribution insights.

That’s the blessing. The curse, as happened here, is the perception by the audience that the interviewer may pull punches in order to maintain that close relationship. And this isn’t the first time ESPN has danced around this issue.

One of the best and most effective campaigns in advertising history is ESPN’s “This is “SportsCenter” series, which uses superstar athletes to cleverly promote the show. These spots purport to display the camaraderie and close working relationships between ESPN and the most important athletes in the business. Ironically, the spots can also subliminally interject into the viewer’s mind a very subversive thought: “Yes, ESPN is close to athletes – but is it too close?”

Most viewers want to believe that on-air opinions and interviews are free from bias, and not shaded by an announcer who’s trying to protect a relationship. In the case of Hoge and Roethlisberger, ESPN did the appropriate thing by being transparent at the right time, alerting users to a possible conflict as the interview started. That’s noteworthy, as it was the antithesis of the way the network handled its introduction to the Gray-James interview during “The Decision.”

Relationships between ESPN personnel and the athletes and organizations they cover are important and can be productive, but there are occasions in which those affiliations need to be clearly disclosed, even spotlighted — and the relationships should never interfere with the obligation to serve the audience with candid and objective information. Reporters, analysts and anchors can be friendly with those they cover, but must take great care not to be perceived as press agents for athletes.

The Evolving, or Devolving, Landscape

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. I am so sick of ESPN deciding that it is going to ignore the stories that demand exploration, while choosing to beat other stories to death. When the story involving Brett Favre [allegedly] sending naked images of himself to a female Jets’ employee happened, you had nothing to say about it. Why is it that media outlets such as yours have no problem tearing down other athletes ad nauseum, while others get a pass? Your station’s love affair with Favre is insulting and sickening.” — Elease E., Bloomfield, N.J.

It’s a common mailbag refrain: concerns over athletes’ personal problems, and the way ESPN covers them. Editorial decisions are easy targets for criticism. ESPN is often justifiably rebuked for going overboard on stories, with an approach that seems to say, “Are we overdoing it enough?” Just as often, the network is critiqued for underplaying similar stories. The appropriate weight of coverage, like beauty, resides entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Reports on superstars such as Favre, LeBron, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant draw the attention of sports fans, as reflected in the ratings, website traffic and coverage from other media. ESPN is often lambasted for overdosing on Favre, so to question the network’s delay in reporting his alleged “sexting” communications to a former Jets sideline reporter is logical. Like all judgment calls, some are based on gut instinct, others on clearly outlined criteria.

The story initially broke on the Internet in August. At the time, it couldn’t be confirmed by reliable sources and gained little traction. It was revived with additional details by Deadspin.com the week before Favre and the Vikings were set to play the Jets on “Monday Night Football,” quickly exploding across the Web, the tabloid media and some television outlets. Many “mainstream” media outlets left it alone, waiting for dependable corroboration — even the Deadspin report acknowledged “And, yes, there’s a possibility that the person communicating with Jenn [Sterger] was not actually Brett Favre.” Was the voice on the tape actually the then-Jets QB? Were the pictures actually of, and sent, by Favre? Was this a verifiable story, a maliciously manufactured rumor or fraudulent circumstance?

ESPN didn’t initially report it for the same reason the New York Times, USA Today and others didn’t cover it — even though the New York Post carried it on its front page. Different media organizations have different standards. Some choose to be more responsible, others are just more conservative in their choices. Ironically it was the NFL’s announcement that it was investigating the charge that gave the story a heightened air of legitimacy. As soon as the NFL said it would look into the matter, ESPN began reporting the basics of the story.

ESPN leaves itself open to criticism when it carries unnamed single-source “exclusive reports” like it did when it covered the whole circus surrounding Favre’s return to the Vikings this summer. The network went so far as to cover Favre’s return live, focusing on a plane landing in Minnesota without having any real confirmation that the QB was actually on it. As luck would have it, he was.

But that’s the harmless excess of star mania — if proved wrong, the network would simply be embarrassed for overzealous reporting. It’s not as potentially dangerous as incorrectly or unfairly reporting on an alleged case of moral indecency involving one of the most prominent players in the NFL.

ESPN can be legitimately criticized for excess, but over the past year, it’s been relatively faithful to its own editorial standards when it comes to reporting on sensitive or controversial issues that can affect athletes’ reputations or their private lives. When ESPN has transgressed in its coverage, the mailbag — and this column — have not been shy about taking the network to task.

The company has long had guidelines for the coverage of such stories. However, the network has made significant strides toward codifying its overall editorial standards and practices, a process that has culminated in a revamped, 50-page editorial manual that is nearing final approval among top executives.

“These are our guidelines for what may be potentially controversial issues and for situations that present potential conflicts,” said John Walsh, ESPN’s executive vice president and executive editor. “We will put them out in order to establish expectations for how people should approach decisions and execution in their jobs. We hope that people can accomplish excellence in their work while understanding directions, which at times may require patience, discipline, restraint and limitations.

“We have been developing these guidelines for specific issues since the early ’90s as they have arisen in the workplace. Over the last decade it became more evident that there were several additional areas we had to cover based once again on our experiences. Finally, the position of the ombudsman convinced us that we should put them all together in an internal document because we have grown so much. We took this on as a project for our editorial board. It is an organic ongoing work in progress that will be living inside the ESPN culture.”

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit Bristol and sit in on the ESPN editorial board meeting in which the guidelines were being reviewed and discussed. These well thought out, written and distributed “standards and practices” will provide guidance and cohesion as editorial decisions are made around the company. There will be bumps in the road as the guidelines are fully implemented, as ESPN is so large and encompasses so many different forms of the media. No guidebook can possibly cover every permutation of conflict or issue that can arise, but this is an important effort to addresses transparency, integrity, fairness, propriety and responsibility.

ESPN deserves credit for finalizing these guidelines, but we’ll hold the applause until we see how well they’re implemented and enforced.

The Favre contretemps and the issuance of written standards are symptomatic of the changing face of content and tone in today’s media. The mailbag consistently reflects a growing concern for what’s presented and the way it’s handled. Use of words such as coarse, unseemly, crude, rude, tawdry, indecent and vicious is common among those e-mailers who are disappointed, offended or outraged by what they see, hear or read.

Over the past two decades, societal standards have considerably evolved or devolved, depending on your point of view. Many feel that the national conversation has degenerated and that it’s often reflected and abetted by the media — be it talk radio, cable news, print outlets or websites like ESPN’s. What’s considered appropriate in language, tone and subject matter has decayed. The more outrageous an athlete’s words or actions off the field, the more exposure they tend to receive. Athletes and commentators now understand that notoriety of almost any kind can translate into visibility, which can be turned into dollars.

The salacious scandals of athletes have become daily fodder for reporters and pundits. In the past, television chose to ignore the antics of nutty behavior by fans in the stands. Now their acts are immortalized on “SportsCenter” and they’re even interviewed by satellite so they can expound on their disruptive behavior. Announcers and commentators increasingly display a flip attitude to even the most serious of topics. Their criticisms are not only pointed, but also increasingly personal.

“So much of the media today is about getting attention,” said John Anderson, an anchor on “SportsCenter” who’s been with the network since 1999. “It’s almost more ‘look at me’ as opposed to ‘listen to me’. Everybody is drawn to talking in absolutes. The noise can get deafening. It’s all about the argument.

“One of the reasons I’m a fan of [“Pardon the Interruption,” the daily ESPN show hosted by Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon] is they’re not afraid to agree. I grew up admiring writers like Jim Murray, Mike Royko and Dan Jenkins. Their attitude always seemed to be ‘When you poke the stick you stop short of drawing blood.’ Today, a lot of times, drawing blood seems to be the goal.”

Jeremy Schaap has reported for ESPN since 1996. He has received six Emmys, is a best-selling author and has had a front-row journalistic seat to a “world in which our standards for public discourse have changed.”

“The culture has coarsened,” he said. “Things are said now on TV, on radio, in print, especially online, that would not have been said a generation ago. There’s so much snarkiness out there — and so much of it is unfair and ill-informed. I think there is less respect for the media now because there’s been so much pandering to the lowest common denominator. Maybe the ratings or circulation numbers justify that pandering, but, ultimately, respect, trust and confidence have been lost. It’s a vicious cycle.

“The reporters weaned on the lessons of Watergate and Vietnam are more dogged and more inclined to a healthy disrespect for authority than many of their predecessors. The good ones are more likely to hold feet to the fire. But there are plenty of others who confuse a healthy disrespect for authority or for public figures with mean-spiritedness. They are confrontational for the sake of being confrontational — often when they never have to confront whomever it is they’re criticizing.”

Schaap referenced the famous quote of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

“That’s important to remember, especially these days, when everyone has the opportunity to express their opinions to large audiences,” Schaap said, “Facts rarely get in the way, especially in the field of punditry. And I think the problem is getting worse because much of the punditry, in sports and everywhere else, is based simply on conjecture, not reporting. You can have an opinion — you can have a strong opinion — but it should be built on the structure of reporting.”

Calling Jimmy Breslin “probably the best big-city columnist ever,” Schaap noted that the longtime New York author is reporter first. Breslin often said the most valuable tools as a reporter are your feet — you’ve got to do the hard work of finding people, talking to people, listening to their stories and climbing the stairs in order to write an honest column.

“Of course, the Breslin rules don’t apply to all writing and punditry,” Schaap said. “You can form legitimate opinions based on facts that someone else has reported. But the reporting has to be done by someone . . . and these days too little reporting is being done relative to opining.”

Bob Ley joined ESPN on the third day of its existence in 1979. Among other assignments, he hosts “Outside the Lines,” which has received eight Emmys and three Cable Ace awards. And with all of the noise of 24/7 media and hundreds of cable channels and the incessant flow of blogs, Tweets and Facebook updates, Ley says, “Breaking through the clutter is increasingly tough to do.”

“In this Binary/ADD media echo chamber that we work in, you’re called upon to make dozens of decisions a day, from the mundane to the profound,” Ley said. “We celebrate ratings and penetration numbers today that we would have had angst over several years ago. Everyone has more choices — cable, satellite, Internet, streaming, you name it. So you have to stand out. There’s a pressure to be distinctive and memorable. One way to do it is to push or break the envelope on topics or language.

“I guarantee you, some days we do better shows in our meeting rooms or in the newsroom than we can deliver on the air; funny lines that rip folks in private among colleagues. I mean, is there any place more cynical or hard-bitten than a newsroom? Those lines work in that venue, but would you use them on the air? Increasingly, there are folks who just might.

“Look, we all have guilty pleasures. We all troll, or at least visit, from time to time, the same blogs and websites that can have smarmy and salacious sports-related items. And they’re all the more interesting when they involve people you know. We live in a world where self-respect is at a premium, where people invite reality shows to live with them and document the most personal moments of their lives. Where the NFL must be reveling in the reception that ‘Hard Knocks’ received, how much of that show’s attraction is the unvarnished cascade of F-bombs?

“Trying to ‘police’ an entity as large as ours for propriety on every utterance or item is impossible. This brand is too large. A lot of this is based on trust, the notion that good people share many of the same values, and care about the standards and image of the company. But we deal in entertainment, and the deft line or clever quip is the currency by which you can be noticed or remembered. One standard has always been, would I say that to his or her face? That’s probably a pretty good standard to bear in mind.”

All concepts for ESPN to ponder as it continues to confront the challenges of a constantly changing media landscape.

Until next time . . .

This column was originally published on ESPN.com on Oct. 31, 2010.

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