Monday, July 18, 2011

ESPN Ombudsman: We Totally Suspended Bruce Feldman, But You Are Ignorant For Calling It That


The recent flap over Bruce Feldman's non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (A) a Twitter revolution, (B) an ESPN house of cards, (C) Twitterati gone wild.
In fact, it's all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we've tackled at the Poynter Review Project.
Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:
What s strange circumlocution: your findings based on a weekend of reporting? Whose reporting? Yours? ESPN's? Anyway, lets get to it.
 ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.
Maybe I lack the nuance of an ESPN ombudsman, but being asked to not do your job sounds exactly like a suspension.
The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
So, Feldman was suspended, and he wasn't told how long the suspension would last, but it wasn't an indefinite suspension? I know that both of those words are polysyllabic, but they're not that ambiguous.
 Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he's not saying anything.
Maybe he's pissed. Maybe he's looking for new employment. Who knows? But notice that there was no acknowledgement that the unprecedented bad publicity played a role in any of this.
ESPN officials approved Feldman's authoring then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach's autobiography, long before Leach was fired by the university and sued ESPN. 
When Leach filed the lawsuit against ESPN, it's clear to us that Feldman's involvement with the book became an impossible conflict. But Feldman failed to seek and the network failed to provide clear guidance.
I cannot reconcile these two paragraphs. ESPN gave a thumbs-up, but Feldman didn't seek out guidance? Didn't he get the guidance when he received permission from ESPN to write the book? Also, isn't the continued employment of Craig James an equally, if not more, impossible conflict of interest?

Some of these questions are half-assedly answered later in the column.

 ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no. 
Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.
This is lawyer-speak. I am well versed in it. When you are a reporter in the public eye, being told to "lay low" is exactly the same as a suspension, whether or not you go through the official HR channels.

The rest of the article is tut-tutting about not having facts, all based around the faulty premise that it is a fact that Feldman was not suspended. This is not fact.

This saga also opens up a question of whether ESPN can be trusted about any reporting in the future, especially when quotes like this enter the public domain:
As the college football season heats up, ESPN must still figure out what Feldman can report on independently. When a reporter has a clear conflict, it's standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach's voice, Feldman clearly can't cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach's former staffers, who are now spread far and wide -- some of them now head coaches -- make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman's bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman's self-imposed silence.
Why stop at Feldman? Given ESPN's conflict of interest, can any reporter be trusted to report on Leach, Leach's coaching tree, or the Big 12? Given the Big Ten's (And Pac 12's) growing independence from the network, can they be trusted to report on the conference accurately? When you have a virtual monopoly on sports journalism broadcasting in many markets, are those markets completely foreclosed from accurate reporting on a subject because of those conflicts of interest. Oh, and while we are in Conflict of Interest Land,  what about the accusations that Spaeth Communications (employed by Craig James) was providing ESPN reporters with most of their information during the Adam James saga.

Here's a simple rule of thumb: when the entire non-affiliated relevant broadcasting says that what you are going is slimy, you are going to need to do better than finely parsing the definition of the word suspension. And if your ombudsman can't see what every other journalist immediately saw, then why bother having an ombudsman?