When ESPN (DIS ) aired a story this summer about the return to the diamond of Barry Bonds and curiously included in the report a two-month-old footnote about Bonds having been involved in a minor clubhouse fracas, some of the sports net's viewers probably wondered why.
So did George Solomon.
Solomon, ESPN's first ombudsman, dressed down the reporter and editors involved. Among his concerns: Why had it taken two months to run down the story of the clubhouse dispute? And why wasn't the player who supposedly tussled with Bonds identified in the report? In his monthly column at espn.com, Solomon pronounced himself "surprised and disappointed."
Such criticism may sting, but network execs say it's why they hired Solomon: to point out small problems before they become big ones. "When people hire an ombudsman, most of the time something happened. Jayson Blair [the fallen New York Times reporter] -- 'uh-oh, we need an ombudsman.' That's not the case with this one. We're big believers in putting out fires before they start," says former ESPN programming exec Mark Shapiro, who hired Solomon before leaving the network on Oct. 3.
Since being named to his watchdog post on July 1, Solomon, a former Washington Post sports editor, has chided the sports net for sins ranging from failing to correct inaccurate reports to underplaying stories involving ESPN. No doubt Solomon will be weighing in on another issue: the potential for the cable net's cozy relationships with pro leagues and college conferences to disarm its news coverage and creep into programming decisions.
Showing live sports has always been ESPN's bread and butter. Except for the National Hockey League and Nascar, it has rights deals with all the major leagues and many minor ones. ESPN's clout is formidable enough so that it usually holds tight to its journalistic scruples despite the pouting of players and league execs.
"We definitely have a separation of church and state. I never tell journalists how to report a story. Believe me, they are doing their jobs, because I am the one who gets the calls [from angry league officials]," says ESPN President George Bodenheimer. Ombudsman Solomon is satisfied, saying the net's reporting "does not seem affected" by business ties.
As proof, Shapiro recalls that before the National Basketball Assn. All-Star festivities last season, ESPN aired two edgy stories that had league officials wincing: one on race and the NBA and another on the league's messy collective bargaining predicament. "If it was up to the NBA, they'd prefer we didn't do the stories," notes Shapiro. Conflicts "can hamper your journalistic efforts if you let them. We march on in fourth gear."
Most of the time. Last year, in a much-publicized confrontation with the NFL, ESPN ended its testosterone-laden drama, Playmakers, a sex-and-drugs look at life inside pro football, after league officials howled. The decision was painful, Shapiro says, because Playmakers was drawing high ratings and doing well with young women -- a demographic ESPN covets. "I think the league overreacted. They have a history of being overprotective of their brand," he says.
Still, Shapiro says the incident taught him a valuable lesson about ESPN's unique position. "We're in a different business than some of the over-the-air [networks]," he says. "We have to make sure our rights holders are on board if we're going to do a dramatic interpretation that might resemble their games."
It wasn't surprising that ESPN viewers would tune in to Playmakers. Its schedule is crowded with provocative programs, from blustery talk shows to Sports Center, the hip highlight-reel show that recaps the day in sports. The network's most recognized broadcaster, Chris Berman, is best known for compiling silly nicknames for hundreds of ballplayers.
What ESPN hasn't done as well of late, despite its resources, is break news. It has dozens of reporters around the country and is building its network of bureaus to 30 cities. Yet it was The San Francisco Chronicle that obtained secret grand jury testimony in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroid investigation of Major League Baseball stars last year. One of this year's major scoops, Phil Jackson's return to coach the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, went to the Los Angeles Times. "I think [ESPN] was a little more news-driven a couple of years ago in breaking stories," notes Solomon.
Building a first-rate news staff "is more important than anything else," Shapiro explained before he left ESPN. "If a story breaks, ESPN has to have it every time. Journalism is the foundation of the brand."
Hiring Solomon, who will serve as ombudsman for 18 months, makes a statement about the sports net's commitment to serious reporting, Shapiro says. "Self-reflection is a good thing. It can only make us better in the way we report news," he says. And Solomon, who received about a thousand e-mails after his first column posted in July, says he'll spout off knowing that reporters and editors don't have to listen to his criticisms. (That includes Solomon's son, Aaron, an ESPN producer.)
Some of ESPN's competitors question whether news reports are what sports fans are tuning in for. "I don't think the overall image they want to project as a brand is hard-edged journalism. It's a youth-oriented, live, Sports Center brand," says Ross Greenberg, president of HBO Sports (TWX ). Chris Berman probably would agree.
By Mark Hyman, with Tom Lowry, in New York
Edited by Patricia O'Connell