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ESPN Journalistic Standards: The Emperor No Longer Wears Clothes

Guest blog: From Tim Tebow to Penn State, a look at ESPN's journalistic failures

For quite some time, ESPN has been the know-all, tell-all leader in sports media. But times change and companies rise and fall. Because of missteps and competition, it looks like the king might have a rebellion on his hands.

Disney created a beast in ESPN. It grew to incredible heights very quickly and in the process nearly monopolized sports news and entertainment. Look at its accomplishments: it defined the highlights show with “SportsCenter,” created the ESPYs and found a niche for extreme sports with the “X-Games.” Its reach and business decisions helped it determine the fates of many sports and college conferences.

Also read: 'Monday Night Football' To Remain on ESPN Through 2021

But ESPN isn't what it once was. It's become a bloated bastion of hyperbole. Instead of giving us the highlights and sound bites, the network is shoveling hours of mindless dreck into our TVs. Needless to say the journalistic standards have suffered.

Also read: Deadspin Spy Infiltrates ESPN Meeting

The decline in news quality can be directly attributed to conspicuous conflicts of interest. ESPN covers sports leagues journalistically but also pays them billions of dollars in rights fees to broadcast their games. As ESPN has won the rights to more sports, it has started covering athletes as if they were promotional ideas. By playing things both ways it has become a shell of its former self.

Let’s look at the crimes ESPN has perpetrated against the American sport-loving public:

2005 – Hockey Coverage

After the strike of 2004-05 ESPN decided not to renew its agreement with the NHL. Sports rights change hands all the time, but since its decision ESPN, seems to have made a conscious effort to put hockey coverage on the back burner. The attitude seems to be, "If we don’t have the rights, the sport is not important." And ESPN executives have said as much. Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, was quoted this year saying that hockey “doesn't translate to television, and it really doesn't transfer as much as a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do.”

2009 – Ben Roethlisberger Rape Allegations

Like many athletes, the Pittsbugh Steelers quarterback appeared in ESPN's "This is SportsCenter" promos. ESPN soft-shoed coverage of the rape allegations against him, and there was a sense among critics that the network didn't want to offend him.

2010 – “The Decision”

Lebron James' made-for-TV fiasco damaged ESPN’s credibility as a news organization. Although it took James only 12 seconds to announce his decision that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, ESPN endlessly hyped and overpackaged the announcement. As David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun wrote, “ESPN led the way in some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing. The hype was shameless, the lack of perspective colossal.”

2010 – The Longhorn Network

ESPN created the Longhorn Network with the University of Texas, giving it $300 million over twenty years to exclusively show Texas sports, including football games. With ESPN cherry-picking the schools for which it creates channels, critics are bound to wonder if that means ESPN will take a pro-Texas slant on their news coverage. Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch wrote, “The network's existence… creates an impossible situation for ESPN's college football producers and reporters (plenty of whom care about reporting). For every story ESPN does on Texas and its opponents, [there will] be skeptics wondering what the motivation was for the story.”

2011 – College Realignment

Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo said ESPN “told us what to do” before the ACC raided the Big East to add Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the league. Later, ESPN vice president for college sports programming Burke Magnus said the network doesn’t get involved in conference expansion decisions, and DeFilippo backtracked from his statement.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also evidence that the Longhorn Network played a role, sending Texas A&M to the SEC and Nebraska to the Big 10 because both were so upset about the deal when it came to light. Whether intentional or not, ESPN's actions make it a power broker for today’s college conferences.

2011 – Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal

With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. It didn't. When students rioted, ESPN wasn't on the scene to cover it. Its early coverage of the scandal was minimal and its focus was more on the impact on Penn State's football recruiting and Joe Paterno's legacy than on the alleged crimes. Where was the in-depth reporting to show us all sides of the story? Where were the questions to hold the powerful accountable? 

2011-12 – Tim Tebow

All networks want to capitalize on the hot story, but ESPN took it to another level with over-the-top coverage that could be called all Tebow, all the time. Never before had an athlete been promoted as heavily as Tebow was in the fall of 2011. The coverage ate up airtime that could have gone to other stories.

And it continues. ESPN has aired live reports from Jets training camp all summer to cover the backup quarterback. That’s three weeks of coverage on a non-story.

2012 – “First Take”

“First Take” was never one of ESPN's best shows, and has tried to reinvent itself by constantly stirring up debates. Skip Bayless' sole job on the show is to go out and start fights. Not because he has a grievance or cares, but because he likes to argue. Unfortunately viewers will watch to see who he’ll skewer next. And ESPN simply stands on the sidelines letting him vent about whatever topic he chooses. That has done more to ruin my enjoyment of ESPN than anything else.

I know that no other outlet will be able to match the breadth and depth of ESPN for quite some time. But there are other options now. Two national cable networks, NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, are making a run at ESPN. NBCSN had it's coming out party during the Olympics and has covered the NHL for some time now. CBSSN provides more than 300 live sporting events annually, offering a robust college football schedule.

Neither has the self-proclaimed ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’ shaking in its boots. Still, with the backing of well-funded broadcast organizations, both should continue to grow and make an impact.If NBCSN or CBSSN grabs hold of major football, baseball and basketball events, look out. Things will change.

I'll still tune in every now and again to catch “SportsCenter” or a bit of “Pardon the Interruption.” And ESPN has some excellent programming, including “Outside the Lines” and the “30 for 30” documentary series. Unfortunately, those examples are few and far between. I'm watching ESPN less and less.

Kent Youngblood is a producer, creative director and blogger who writes on film, television and the media. Focusing on the business side of entertainment, Youngblood examines the incongruity of everything from the over-the-top hype of showbiz to the cutthroat nature of an industry that is struggling to find its way. As executive producer at Movie Mogul Productions, he spearheads business development and creative development on all original productions.