The biggest story in the sports media in recent days has been the abrupt end of ESPN’s partnership with the PBS show “Frontline” on a documentary about concussions in the NFL. While ESPN publicly denied that pressure from the NFL played a role in the network’s decision to pull out of the partnership, author James Andrew Miller reported in The New York Times that NFL officials complained to ESPN executives about the documentary a week before the decision was made (NYT, 8/23).
Certainly, it would not be unprecedented for ESPN to bow to pressure from the leagues with which it does business. The NFL famously forced the cancellation of the ESPN drama “Playmakers” in 2003, and Deadspin chronicled examples of NBA commissioner David Stern exerting pressure on the network to improve its broadcasts over the years (Deadspin, 8/28). Surely, many other examples exist from other leagues.
While coverage of the “Frontline” debacle has mostly focused on ESPN’s conflict of interest as an NFL broadcast partner, it should be pointed out that such problems are not limited to the network. It would be hard to imagine Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports Network, or CBS Sports Network engaging in similar partnerships – each network has a relationship, even if indirect, with the NFL. Furthermore, it would be hard to imagine Fox News, NBC News, or CBS News examining the issues of concussions in the NFL in as great a depth as possible, considering how much their parent companies pay for NFL rights.
This is the great problem with corporate owned media in general, especially as it pertains to sports. Five of the “Big Six” media corporations – 21st Century Fox (FOX), Comcast (NBC), Disney (ESPN/ABC), CBS Corporation (CBS) and Time Warner (Turner Sports) – have a lucrative television deal with at least one of the major sports and/or the NCAA. Even when a major media corporation does not have a relationship with a league, such as Time Warner with the NFL, the prospect of an eventual relationship is likely to color news coverage.
Which is not to say that the networks provide exclusively positive coverage. Even if just for credibility’s sake, bad news must be reported. Usually, however, that bad news focuses on the players instead of the leagues or owners. In the wake of the Aaron Hernandez arrest, for example, ESPN made much hay over the NFL’s ‘image problem’ – an issue that surely was a black eye for the league, but did not call into question its underlying system or those who control and benefit from it. In baseball, the outright hysteria surrounding performance-enhancing drugs has centered on demonizing a few designated monsters (first Barry Bonds, currently Alex Rodriguez), with league owners largely — though not completely — exempt.
While no league seeks negative headlines, it is easier to withstand scrutiny of the players than scrutiny of the system. After all, players can eventually be brought back into line through harsher and increasingly trivial PR moves (from the NBA’s dress code to the NFL’s celebration bans).
When the system is under attack — when the owners who pay the bills are the ones facing collective* scrutiny — it should not be surprising when the networks use kid gloves. Again, for credibility’s sake, bad news must be reported. But it would be naïve to expect that for-profit media institutions will go the extra mile to take down the billionaires with whom they do business. Of course, there are notable exceptions – HBO’s Bryant Gumbel has on occasion delivered biting critiques of league executives on his “Real Sports” show.
Even when media corporations are ‘in bed’ with certain athletes, the bonds are never as strong as with the leagues. Take for example the last time ESPN was the source of moral outrage and raw umbrage – “The Decision.” ESPN gave LeBron James an hour of programming and may or may not have spiked a negative – but fairly trivial – story about his partying habits afterward. Not exactly sterling stuff, but ESPN’s relationship with James did not prevent his image from falling off of a cliff for two years. Nor did it prevent ESPN from enabling the ascendancy of Skip Bayless, whose primary shtick is criticizing James at every turn.
There is only so much an individual athlete can do to control his or her image. If ESPN has a friendly relationship with James, that does not mean that CBS, FOX, and NBC will treat him the same way. Or, to use another example, when ESPN moved slowly to report on sexual assault allegations against Ben Roethlisberger in 2009, it did not stop other networks from reporting the news.
The leagues, on the other hand, not only have active or potential relationships with every major media outlet, but are also the primary source of their individual stars’ labor. After all, what value is LeBron to ESPN if the network lacks NBA television rights? More importantly, what can James give to ESPN as an individual that even approaches what the NBA can give as a league? As mentioned before, the players may get the most attention in the sports media, but it is the largely invisible owners who pull the strings.
This brings to mind the other side of the failed ESPN/“Frontline” partnership – PBS. The documentary that was too much for ESPN will still air on PBS in October.
Public broadcasting often comes under attack, especially in election years, but it is arguably the only refuge from the direct influence of powerful corporations. Surely, the day will never come when PBS sets aside a few billion in taxpayer dollars for an NFL television deal – after all, the expense of keeping “Sesame Street” on the air is too much for some.
With that said, PBS is certainly still subject to pressure from corporate interests. As of 2010, corporations provided one-fifth of the network’s funding, with controversial entities Bank of America and Monsanto even funding the PBS NewsHour (PBS, 6/18/10). But even such glaring conflicts of interest pale in comparison to the corporate arena, where the very reason for networks’ existence is profit. PBS has to turn to corporations in order to survive; ESPN turns to corporations because that is why it exists. It may be a fine line, but it underlines why PBS is willing to risk the ire of the NFL and ESPN – big, bad, all-powerful ESPN – fell to its knees and obeyed.
If the interests of league executives and owners are a primary concern of the corporate-owned networks with which they do business, such interests can be at least partly ignored by a public broadcaster like PBS. Despite its previously-mentioned flaws, PBS does still exist as a public service – not a profit-generating machine. That gives the network freedom to pursue stories that evidently would not fly on a for-profit competitor such as ESPN.
Even the general tone can differ on PBS compared to corporate-owned outlets. During the 2011 NBA lockout, PBS — in just a handful of segments — scrutinized the owners’ claims more than Disney-owned ABC News, whose corporate sibling ESPN owns NBA rights through 2016.
To an extent, all of this is understandable. Why should any viewer expect that a corporate-owned media outlet would risk a lucrative relationship with a professional sports league? Journalism is surely less of a concern in the corporate boardrooms than profit, and in general it seems extremely unwise to leave the reporting of important news to outlets that are beholden to financial concerns.
ESPN may try to portray itself as a legitimate news outlet from time-to-time, but journalism probably hovers around #38 on the network’s list of priorities. Just look at the network’s new Sunday morning schedule, which now features “Outside the Lines” at 8:00 AM on ESPN2 to accommodate a new Colin Cowherd football program. Of course, the same can likely be said of ESPN’s competitors, who it should be pointed out rarely face such scrutiny – as they do not even bother with the pretense of pretending to do journalism (although NBC Sports does usually face criticism for sanitizing its coverage of the Olympics).
In an ideal media landscape, the ESPN/“Frontline” divorce would not be a big deal. ESPN would not be trusted to objectively report on the leagues with which it does business, and its reticence to do so would be mitigated not just by PBS, but by other public broadcasters.
The solution is not to fix ESPN. ESPN may have its moments here and there — John Barr reporting on human trafficking ahead of the 2010 World Cup comes to mind — but the network will never be a truly reliable source for objective news. The solution is to provide for greater public options (and obviously, greater funding). Optimally, this would include additional publicly-owned networks, maybe even one just for sports. None of those things will ever happen in this or any other conceivable political climate.
Something as simple as routine and dedicated sports coverage by PBS would suffice, however. If journalism is to be left to sources that are intrinsically compromised, there must be at least some alternative.
* Typically, at least one individual owner becomes the source of negative media attention — Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, and George Steinbrenner come to mind.