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ESPN’s answers the Harrison, Roethlisberger question…poorly

ESPN finally has a new ombudsman to handle reader/viewer/listener complaints.  

Don Ohlemeyer takes over as the new go to guy for fans to complain about the Worldwide Leader.  Right off the bat, he addresses the Roethlisberger situation.  He rightly takes letter from the audience, including one that summarized what most of us felt.

  • Kevin, Kokomo, Ind. / ESPN reader:
  • “I suppose I’m just looking for consistency. I would prefer that hearsay wasn’t a news story, but it was for Marvin Harrison and it should be across the board.”
    Ohlemeyer asked Vince Doria, Sr. VP and director of news to respond, and he did so, directly tackling the Harrison incident:

    Q: Just what are your criteria?
    Doria: “First, is there a legal component? Are there criminal charges, an investigation, an arrest? In this case, there was never a criminal complaint. Second, is there a past pattern of behavior? In this case, as far as we could determine, there was not. Third, at the time the suit was filed, can we reasonably believe it might have some on-the-field impact? As the suit was filed before teams opened training camp, we didn’t feel we could make that case at this point. “And finally, is the principal speaking publicly about the allegation on his own initiative? At the outset, he was not. Then, Roethlisberger called a press conference two and a half days later. At that point, our concern for fairness is moot, and we moved ahead with our reporting. It was never our intent to be out front on this story.”

    Q: Do you feel you are consistent? One reader specifically asked about Marvin Harrison.
    Doria: “With Marvin Harrison, we reported on a civil suit that related to a prior criminal investigation. It fit our criteria, so we went with it. In another instance, there were civil claims made against Mike Tyson for reportedly groping a woman in a bar — because he had spent time in jail for rape, we felt there was a pattern, so ESPN reported it.
    Well, that’s an explanation.  It’s just not a good one.  There was a criminal investigation in the “Harrison” case.  During the investigation the police publicly said that Marvin Harrison was not a suspect.  Then the DA called a press conference to announce no charges would be filed.
    The truth is that had ESPN not been out in front of the story, pushing the limits of credibility with a bevy of unnamed and criminally suspect sources, most people would never had known that Harrison was involved.  To this day, Harrison has not once been named by police as a suspect in the shooting, but ESPN has reported repeatedly on both the investigation and the civil suits.  This answer is utter nonsense.  What Doria essentially said was:  We can comment on the civil case because of the criminal investigation. 
    But the criminal investigation never implicated Harrison.
    ESPN has repeatedly implicated Harrison, choosing to publish the accusations of a convicted felon who was already convicted for lying to the police about the incident.  Trying to hide the double standard by claiming that there was a criminal investigation ignores every public statement made by the police and district attorney about that investigation.
    It’s a horrible shell game, and Doria’s explanation rings worse than false.
    Doria is then tossed a softball by the new Ombudsman:
    Q: How do you feel about all the criticism?
    Doria: “Today we’re scrutinized by everybody who has a laptop. Some, I believe, do it out of legitimate concern; others, perhaps not. The drum beat has an impact. We try to be careful, and we try to be responsive.”
    Ah, yes.  There it is.  Blame the bloggers.  ESPN screwed the pooch repeatedly both in how they handled Harrison AND Roethlisberger’s stories and their ultimate defense is:  the bloggers are just plain mean.
    Ohlemeyer’s conclusion:  ESPN needed to do more.
    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. On radio and television, it could have been as simple as this: “Many media outlets are reporting on a legal situation involving Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. We have chosen not to report the details of the story at this point — doing so would not comply with our standards. A further explanation can be found on ESPN.com.” On the Web site, ESPN could have posted an expanded version of this statement, including its criteria and any other necessary information.
    His solution is reasonable, but it doesn’t get at the core issue.  Why were the ESPN bosses so quick to implicate Harrison based on the erroneous reporting of a Philly talk show host and a slew of criminal witnesses, but slow to even mention that Roethlisberger was being sued?  This goes beyond the criminal/civil distinction.
    The answer is as simple as black and white.  The gun accusations against a black man ‘felt’ true to them.  They pursued them vigorously without any credible witnesses.  The rape accusation against a white QB was ‘suspicious’.  They chose not to report.  No matter how they spin it, they assassinated Harrison’s image and protected Roethlisberger’s.
    We deserve a better answer than the one Doria gave.