I wonder how things would have been different with The Empire if the Death Star had hired an ombudsman. Darth Vader would not have curtailed his strangling of subordinates, I fear. The ombudsman’s office would have been tiny, probably right next door to the garbage compactor. And speaking of that, Don Ohlmeyer began his reign as ESPN ombudsman today, rolling out his debut column in which he tackled (eventually) the network’s non-coverage of the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault civil case.
Ohlmeyer, the venerable television director/producer who had legendary stints at NBC and ABC, apparently thinks he’s getting paid by the word; and who knows, he may be. His first column for ESPN is a massive tome, reminiscent of the Russian classics, or my phone book. Eventually, toward the end, he gets to what we all want to read: ESPN’s recent handling of Roethlisberger. After thousands of words laying the groundwork, he gave his verdict.
Unlike Ohlmeyer himself, I’ll get right to the meat. From today’s column:
But the more I thought about it, the more that mantra rang in my ears: “Serve the audience.” Even if ESPN judged that it should not report the Roethlisberger suit, not acknowledging a sports story that’s blanketing the airways requires an explanation to your viewers, listeners and readers. And in today’s world they are owed that explanation right away — to do otherwise is just plain irresponsible. It forces your audience to ask why the story was omitted. It forces them to manufacture a motive. And it ultimately forces them to question your credibility.
It appears that in an attempt to tamp down media criticism, ESPN issued a statement to inquiring news organizations that had questioned its lack of acknowledgment of this story. That doesn’t cut it. In a situation like this you need to be proactive, not reactive. If ESPN felt it needed to explain its rationale to The New York Times or The Washington Post, then there is no excuse for not giving the same explanation DIRECTLY to its audience.
It’s what many have been saying all along: To not acknowledge the story shone more light on it than if ESPN had simply made a brief mention, and then let it go. The sexual assault civil suit is, after all, something that’s happening in the world; with real legal papers and finding parking spaces near the courthouse and lawyers eating bearclaws and everything. Just a nod in the story’s direction was all ESPN had to do.
While this would not have satisfied everyone, at least SportsNation would have received the explanation it deserved. Aside from the events to which they have broadcast rights, the most important assets ESPN has are trust and credibility. Both are amorphous qualities; hard to gain, easy to lose. They are central to a bond with the audience. Break that connection and you jeopardize loyalty and, eventually, success.
ESPN goes to great lengths to position its brand as THE place for what’s happening in the world of sports. Its stated mission is “To serve the sports fan wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played.” That’s its mission, and that’s what we should hold it to.
Ohlmeyer is a smart guy who’s been through a lot: It was he who coined the phrase “Must-see TV” while the president of West Coast operations for NBC in the 1990s. (And it was also he who, when choosing between Mike Francesa, Billy Crystal and Dennis Miller for an addition to the Monday Night Football broadcasting booth in 2000, picked Miller. So I won’t get carried away here).
But he should also be made aware of a thing in journalism called “burying the lead.” He actually begins his first ESPN column with a definition of the word “ombudsman.” Do’h! Those TV classes he teaches at Pepperdine must be a hoot. “The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered?… raised tariffs … Anyone? … Bueller? …”
So, ESPN gets somewhat rebuked in Ohlmeyer’s initial column. But will they listen any closer than they did with the previous two oumbudsmen? Which is to say, at all?