If ESPN wanted to cover up the Roethlisberger scandal, their initial decision not to report on it may have inadvertently helped that goal more than they intended, by moving the focus of the story off the suit itself and onto ESPN… (I swear I won’t spend every one of my posts talking about stories everyone has already left behind!)
Ultimately, the outrage directed at ESPN seems to have two sources. First, ESPN wouldn’t report on it, at all, not even on its web site, when other organizations – including the same company in the ABC News division – did. In his interview with ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, Vince Loria declares that “[i]t was never our intent to be out front on this story.” Newsflash, Vince: ESPN is expected to be out front on every story. At the very least, ESPN is expected to acknowledge the existence of every story, since so many people turn to it for their sports news. As more people turn to the Internet for their sports news, that may start to change, but ESPN is still the definer of the news cycle, and for the moment the Internet only increases ESPN’s responsibilities, by not restricting it to filling only an hour and thus not giving it any excuse for ignoring a story. (Ohlmeyer seemingly acknowledges as much towards the end, though he also seems to recommend that ESPN itself should make the story about its refusal to report, and no one goes to ESPN for that sort of meta-discussion… this was an issue with Ohlmeyer’s predecessors as well…)
Second is the question of whether ESPN’s decision was fair, balanced, or consistent, given the fact that ESPN has not shied away from reporting on unconfirmed civil suits in the past… then other times it has. ESPN’s inconsistent stance on this issue has seemed wildly inconsistent and left people in the dark as to what criteria ESPN is using to determine whether to report and when. (And how; some have accused ESPN of slanting the story when they did report it.) With people left to come to their own conclusions, some have determined it has less to do with ESPN’s claimed criteria and more with irrelevant aspects of the athletes themselves, such as popularity, race, and relationship to the network. Ohlmeyer arguably did a disservice by asking Loria only about Marvin Harrison. ESPN has a lot more than that to answer for. Ohlmeyer also did a disservice by asking only about ESPN’s perceived protection of the NFL, and not Roethlisberger or the Steelers (especially given some writers’ dredging up ESPN’s Spygate coverage for evidence that the Patriots are/were not one of ESPN’s “protected” teams and the Steelers are).
(In fact, Doria himself notes that “prior history” goes into coverage decisions – a commendable position on its face, but Mike Tyson getting in trouble with the ladies is kind of old news, and a pillar of the community doing so is big news.)
I think most of us would prefer that the media not get so wrapped up in accusations against athletes that damage reputations and then not restore those reputations if the accusations turned out to be false – a natural result of the fact that once the case is settled, there’s no reason to report on it anymore, so the “no accusation” doesn’t get as much coverage as the “accusation”. But that’s not the way the media (or this country) works, and ESPN shouldn’t pretend it is.
On another note, I’m debating whether to include Ohlmeyer’s line – “I think the Internet is the most transformative technological advancement since the printing press” – in my book on the impact of the Internet… then again, Ohlmeyer’s hardly the first to say it.