Among the many laughable things contained in this ombudsman’s report absolving the WWL of any serious blame over how it reacted to excerpts from the Bruce Feldman-edited book from Mike Leach being published is this doozy:
… The first decision was whether to let Feldman participate at all in the book. Even though this decision was made before the Leach-James controversy, we can’t overstate what a bad idea we think as-told-to books are for independent journalists. Feldman covers NCAA football. By all accounts he is one of the best reporters on the beat. Leach was arguably one of the most innovative coaches on the job. In order to write the book, Feldman had to assume Leach’s point of view, right down to the cadence of the coach’s speech. How do you do that for a side job, then go back to the independent, more distant point of view for your day job?
… 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?
If helping Leach write a book indelibly taints Feldman’s judgment to that far-reaching an extent, you’d think that being the parent of a kid caught up in the same controversy and being the broadcast partner of that parent might have similar ramifications, too, right?
… After the Leach controversy boiled over with his suspension the last week in December, ESPN took James off the telecast — but not Patrick. ESPN’s rationale was that Patrick is a professional and his season-long work with James did not represent a conflict. Patrick’s professionalism notwithstanding, ESPN’s decision put him in an untenable position. In media, perception is reality, and it was clear the relationship between the two commentators could — perhaps should — raise questions for the audience. Word choices, phrases, even inflections are subjective. Everything Patrick said could be filtered through the subtext of “Would he have said that if he hadn’t been James’ partner throughout the past season?”
The circumstances surrounding Leach dictated that Patrick would have to discuss a controversy that had sparked heated emotions among many in the audience. And he fueled the flames late in the first quarter when, after ESPN showed graphics with statements from the university on the firing and a snippet of a Leach interview on why he believed he was dismissed, Patrick said of the reserve receiver, “There is Adam James, who is the young man who was actually punished for having a concussion.”
That comment articulated ESPN’s point of view for the audience: What happened? A player was punished. Who was the victim? Adam James. Who was the perpetrator? Mike Leach. What was the motivation? The player suffered a concussion. That thesis coincided with Texas Tech’s position, not to mention that proffered by Craig James. Clearly, there were various versions of what happened between coach and player, but Patrick’s statement offered no nuance. Opinion was stated as fact. James was “actually punished for having a concussion.”
So, while James was removed from a broadcast of a Texas Tech game, the restriction went no further than that. And Patrick presumably is under no restriction at all. I’d add a “so much for standards in journalism” here, but it’s hardly worth the effort.
ESPN is so big and so entwined in the world of college athletics at this point that conflicts of interest are part and parcel of its corporate DNA. (Hey there, Longhorn Network!) It’s difficult to see how the network could ever develop a consistent approach in response because it’s likely there will be too many instances where it will feel inconvenienced to do so. (Presumably that’s the case with Craig James still playing a major role in ESPN’s college football coverage.)
So while your first instinct might be to cringe when Kelly McBride writes, “Feldman’s authorship of the book became untenable when Leach sued ESPN…” without batting an eye about Adam James’ daddy – who’s part of that very same lawsuit, remember - being permitted to pontificate on a daily basis on all aspects of the sport for the same company, you might as well change that motion into a shrug. Because that what the suits at Disney are doing.