ESPN’s Ombudsman Slams Network’s Decision to Air ‘The Decision’ — Finally

Don Ohlmeyer says channel damaged its credibility … in 4,600 words

Last Updated: July 22, 2010 @ 11:26 AM

Don Ohlmeyer, ESPN’s ombudsman, took some heat following the network’s hideous handling of LeBron James and “The Decision,” its infamously staged one-hour special.

The day after “The Decision” aired, Ohlmeyer did not mention it in his column, turning his attention instead to ESPN’s World Cup coverage (which was awesome, by the way) and its decision not to mute the incessant vuvuzela buzz while broadcasting the games.

What Ohlmeyer lacked in urgency, he made up for in volume – filing roughly 4,664 words, many of them harsh, on “The Decision.”

While Ohlmeyer argues that ESPN wasn’t alone in overhyping the James’ spectacle (“Clearly, the hype and excess surrounding James' choice was not ESPN's crime alone. Many of the same media participants that helped turn it into a quasi-national obsession were among some of the program's sternest critics”) he concedes the "Worldwide Leader" was left holding the smoking surface-to-air rocket launcher.

For “Decision” completists, the whole thing is worth reading. Here are some of the key passages:

No matter how convoluted the intellectual gymnastics, ESPN "paid" for exclusive access to a news story. For the network, there is quantifiable revenue associated with the Thursday 9-10 p.m. programming hour. That revenue was forgone, yielded in exchange for the exclusive. Team LeBron sold those advertising units. The fact that it was in turn distributed to charity was immaterial, journalistically. James used ESPN's commercial spots in an effort to enhance his image as a responsible, caring charitable guy — there's direct value to James in doing so, and he did it courtesy of the network, and with the sponsor's money.

As to transparency, ESPN failed miserably where it mattered most. Although there was no attempt to hide the Gray involvement or the inventory arrangement leading up to the broadcast, the viewers were not explicitly told at the most appropriate moments that conflicts existed. Before turning from the Bristol set to Gray, ESPN should have advised viewers that Gray had been selected by James' team to do the interview.

And:

If the interviewee also brings along his own interviewer, you cannot protect the integrity of the broadcast. According to ESPN, the understanding with Gray was that he would ask James "a few questions" before LeBron announced his destination. That "few" turned into 16 questions. And on a live telecast, when an announcer who doesn't work for your network gets to questions 7, 8, 9, 10 … well, there's nothing the producers can do. They can't kill his microphone; they can't come out and pull him out of his chair; they can't even fire him because he's not in their employ. ESPN's producers were stuck, and, at the key moment of the telecast, the program was out of their control.

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