Saturday, June 14, 2008

I just wrote this to ESPN's ombudsman.

I've been a big fan of ESPN's ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, for some time. Her criticisms of ESPN--and her compliments of it--are reasoned, careful, and on the money.

I therefore hope she reads this letter I just wrote to her. And if she doesn't...well, I hope you'll read it.


Ms. Schreiber,

I'm writing about ESPN's coverage of Tim Donaghy and recent allegations of game-fixing in the NBA. I'm bothered by the way that ESPN has helped intensify the story.

"Like it or not, the public perception is that there's a problem," ESPN will report, "so the league needs to do something to change that perception."

I would argue that ESPN and other sports media are helping to create that perception--and therefore the problem.

I've heard Mike and Mike and Colin Cowherd address conspiracy theories on the radio. I've seen Bob Ley devote a good chunk of his Outside the Lines show to this unbacked allegation. I've read Marc Stein saying that "it's getting harder to find folks who don't believe" in a conspiracy. I've read J.J. Adande saying that "the most-discussed game to come out of these 2008 Finals is Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals." (Apparently Adande has been watching and listening to ESPN and reading like I have.)

The problem is that, while ESPN seldom points out how baseless and unbacked Donaghy's accusations are, they're still dusting off tapes of the 2002 playoff game, thereby advancing the possibility that the outcome was rigged. Then, since fans will talk about these incendiary accusations at the water cooler, ESPN can justify writing a second story about how much fans are talking about "the officiating problem." The problem, of course, is that ESPN has played a leading role in encouraging those negative perceptions of officiating by advancing Donaghy's accusations as as anything other than unproven.

They've even added the incendiary "-gate" suffix to sex up the story a bit: "Refgate."

It feels to me that, even if ESPN didn't light the match, they've fed the flames of the inferno they now are reporting on. It's not dissimilar from your excellent description of the breathless coverage of another -gate: Spygate. There's no evidence of wrongdoing...merely one man's allegation. Nevertheless, every branch of ESPN has gone bonkers reporting about negative perceptions that they themselves have helped to create. If anyone has said "Wait a minute. Donaghy is asking us to believe that David Stern would give up his cushy lifestyle and risk the entire future of the league just to get to a game 7 in one series," or shown how Donaghy's story has the officials involved risking their reputations and their six-figure incomes at literally no gain to themselves--well, if anyone pointed this out, it was drowned out by the passionate shouts of "Refgate!"

When ESPN overreports on unbacked allegations, then reports on how the public has a perception that there's an officiating problem, then ESPN has helped to create the perception problem they're reporting on. As a high school official, that perception eventually trickles down to me, so I have a pretty severe problem with ESPN's choices.

I hope I'm not alone in noticing this problem: I hope you do as well.


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