Recently, Will Leitch of Deadspin fame appeared on ESPN Radio with Scott Van Pelt. (If you didn't happen to hear the interview, you may listen to the audio by clicking here.) Leitch described the interview like so:
As Leitch acknowledges, he has drawn some criticism for not launching into "some sort of 'Stop Hurting America' rant, speaking truth to power, all that." Actually, Leitch did speak truth to power; he just displayed a sense of humor and showed some common courtesy in the process. Van Pelt seemed at least somewhat receptive to this approach, proving once again that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
In the aftermath of Leitch's interview, other bloggers have stepped forward to continue the conversation, which is both a healthy response and a demonstration of one of the beauties of the blogosphere. Because we are not hemmed in artificially by the dictates of limited column inches of newspaper space, the tyranny of the clock over finite amounts of air time between commercials, and hordes of anxious overseers from the corporate accounting, legal, and marketing departments determined to excise controversy from content, we have the luxury of writing and saying what we really think.
What you don't understand is that we're not making fun or getting angry at the games you cover (for the most part). Well I do, but I have a special sort of niche. It's all of the extracurricular crap that goes along with the network. It's the Budweiser Hot Seat, it's Who's Now, it's the Desperate Housewives interviews in the booth, it's the Stu Scotts and Chris Bermans, it's well....the list goes on and on. It's all of that nonsense that makes some of your programming unwatchable.
People of the Blogging Generation grew up with ESPN being a pioneer in the Sports World. SportsCenter was a half an hour and gave you all the news for that day in a nice little package. You smiled, ate dinner, and watched a good sitcom before you went to bed. It was wonderful.
Now the ESPN Brand and it's subsidiaries go before the players and the game. That's what makes the blogging world stand up and scream. And while I know that you've just copied the MTV model, money runs the world, and you're probably not changing back....it just....to use your wording....sucks.
The MTV analogy is absolutely perfect, which explains why "the list goes on and on" and why Sports by Brooks had some thoughts to share, as well:
ESPN fires on-air personalities and gives the listeners/viewers absolutely no reason for the departure. Bristol execs want us to care about the personalities they push in front of us, so why do they think they can blow out Harold Reynolds and Dan Patrick and give us nothing (Patrick's explanation was far from the truth - he wanted too much $ and was shown the door). We're not talking about intimate details, but give us SOMETHING.
One of the reasons for the rise of a sports blog like Deadspin is Leitch's transparent approach with his visitors (he recently roundly criticized D-Spin's site redesign). ESPN could certainly learn something from his methods. . . .
Since sports media competition has receded, ESPN has repeatedly made disastrous programming decisions. The entire EOE division is a major boondoggle (somewhere Mark Shapiro is giggling). And shows like "ESPN Hollywood", "Quite Frankly" and features like "Who's Now" and the fake Steve Phillips press conferences are prime examples of what happens in a monopoly. When you have no competition, you have no accountability, and creative quality inevitability suffers.
Brooks's last sentence states the crux of the issue, but, because of the importance of the topic, I would like to amplify and expound upon that point, at the risk of being referred to as "The John Barth of the Blogosphere" and called out for being longwinded. (In my defense, writing "posts of prodigious, intimidating length" in my capacity as "college football's most verbose blogger" is something of a trademark of mine, so I'm going to dance with the one who brought me.)
While we're on the subject of trademarks of mine, here is the obligatory picture of Kristin Davis.
There are, in essence, five fundamental problems with "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," which I will list in sequence in order to show the extent to which each failing flows from the preceding shortcoming. These are they:
1. ESPN's editorial decisions are based primarily not upon independent journalistic judgments but upon marketing considerations. As I attempted to satirize both in The ESPN "College GameDay" Drinking Game and in The Sound and the GameDay, ESPN shamelessly shills for its corporate interests, plugging games to which it has the broadcast rights, marketing ABC and Disney productions in its sports programming, and shoehorning unrelated and ill-fitting musical artists into its college football shows.
Most fans might not mind this so much if it did not come across as such naked pandering . . . or, perhaps, if ESPN would add some disclaimer so that viewers at least knew that the Worldwide Leader did not have such smug disdain for its audience that it thought it was pulling the wool over our eyes. Inviting Matthew McConaughey into the broadcast booth to pimp "We Are Marshall" or rewriting the real lyrics to a Big & Rich song without the slightest acknowledgment of the promotional considerations involved, though, is insulting and wrong, as is the related decision to send "College GameDay" to Los Angeles for the Nebraska-Southern California game on the Saturday of the Michigan-Notre Dame, Florida-Tennessee, and Auburn-Louisiana State games.
2. Due to its predominant position in the industry, ESPN gives the impression that it has no responsibility to do more than pay lip service to its constituency in response to criticism. This represents a dramatic difference between the Worldwide Leader and the blogosphere. When I offered constructive criticisms of The FanHouse, the folks affiliated with AOL's blogging network solicited reader feedback and had "a long, productive internal conversation." That willingness to confront constructive criticisms with honesty, integrity, and class caused even critics of The FanHouse to voice their agreement with subsequent praise directed toward it.
ESPN, by contrast, greets criticism by issuing memoranda such as this:
Consider the case of Colin Cowherd. When Cowherd cribbed material from The M Zone, the radio host responded with condescension until a backlash from the blogosphere forced him to apologize on the air. Even then, though, ESPN ombudsman George Solomon falsely accused The M Zone of being "aggressive and abusive in their e-mail responses to Cowherd."
If that struck him as "aggressive and abusive," maybe he needs to go back to his day job tending cattle.
A year later, Cowherd was at it again, using his radio show to crash a weblog called The Big Lead just for kicks. Once again, the blogosphere sprang into action and began bombarding incoming ESPN ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber with e-mails. Although ESPN responded by declaring a "zero tolerance" policy, Schreiber's subsequent presumption that "such attacks will be treated as an offense that warrants suspension" seemed quite unsatisfactory to those of us who thought an on-air personality with two strikes against him ought to be fired the next time he ran afoul of the supposed "zero tolerance" policy.
Both times, Cowherd acted with utter impunity until webloggers became actively involved. Cowherd committed plagiarism through carelessness, condescendingly overreacted when his error was brought to his attention, initiated an unprovoked attack on a weblog, and suffered no punishment more severe than being required to issue an on-air apology in either instance.
In the first case, the ESPN ombudsman offered an unfair broadside against Cowherd's initial critics when explaining the incident. In the second case, a different ESPN ombudsman confronted the issue unflinchingly and responded with appropriate actions and explanations, yet her final conclusion---that a third colossal misjudgment directed at the blogosphere by Colin Cowherd would warrant a suspension---was woefully inadequate concerning a repeat offender.
The notion that Colin Cowherd could still have a job with ESPN Radio after his next callous act of childish disrespect and disregard for consequences earns him a few days' unpaid vacation from work is absurd. The Worldwide Leader will continue to draw deserved disdain as long as its on-air personalities are able to launch such attacks and suffer only cosmetic sanctions.
3. Because ESPN is guided by marketing and promotional considerations and regards itself as impervious to criticism, the Worldwide Leader scripts predetermined storylines and refuses to deviate from them in the face of subsequent events. This observation, of course, was first given a thorough explication by LD of The Corporate Headquarters of the San Antonio Gunslingers. In October 2005, LD authored "a piece on par with Martin Luther's 95 theses, Newton's Principia Mathematica, and Hobbes' Leviathan for its sheer cromulence in its field"; namely, his seminal treatise on "The Narrative," in which he wrote:
And in the college football journalism world, certainty matters too. As early as the Spring, storylines are developed and plans are set in motion. Gameday knew probably back in January that the Ohio State-Texas game would be a huge matchup, so ESPN started hyping it a month ahead of time. ESPN decided USC would be a big story, so they've had Shelley Smith preparing in depth stories for months.
The key is that they decide upon the story ahead of time, so when something comes up that doesn't fit the parameters of that story, they don't know what to do.
LD is quite right that, in corporate mainstream media, The Narrative triumphs over all. The blogosphere, by contrast, can and does adjust on the fly. Voters in the BlogPoll, for instance, are asked to guide themselves by these principles:
That is a charge that we BlogPoll voters take seriously . . . and those who fail to live up to that standard invite open mockery and merciless ridicule. At ESPN, deviations from established storylines are what will get a guy ostracized and marginalized.
When I use the phrase "deviations from established storylines," of course, I'm really thinking of a Sinead O'Connor song.
4. Because "The Narrative" is the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of the room whom no one at ESPN can or will acknowledge, the Worldwide Leader refuses to recognize its tangible (and, sometimes, decisive) influence upon the events it purports only to cover as a disinterested bystander. At the most basic level, the boys from Bristol have an impact to which they are oblivious or about which they are disingenuous.
Whenever there is a BCS controversy (and there always is a BCS controversy), the opinions given voice on "College GameDay" unquestionably affect perceptions and probably alter outcomes. It is difficult to imagine that, in a world without Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit, Gino Torretta and Charles Woodson would have won the 1992 and 1997 Heisman Trophies, respectively.
That is not to say that those outcomes necessarily were wrong, but ESPN was not simply standing aside in a white lab coat watching events play out and noting the results dispassionately in a spiral notebook. The Worldwide Leader was and is making a decisive difference and that reality is never acknowledged out of Bristol, because owning up to that obvious fact would require admitting that ESPN's biases warrant examination.
Much more often than not, we in the blogosphere openly air our biases. However, ESPN's vested interests frequently go unspoken until bloggers call them to light and the Worldwide Leader's actions routinely go unexplained until bloggers begin asking questions and providing answers. Consider this critique:
I wonder why ESPN still doesn't have an independent media reporter -- as many newspapers do -- to cover such stories as Ron Jaworski replacing Joe Theismann in the "Monday Night Football" booth, the dismissal of Harold Reynolds and the departure of Michael Irvin? Such a reporter might have gotten a response from Theismann and his former boothmates, Mike Tirico and Tony Kornheiser, for the March 26 ESPN.com story, and ESPN TV reports, on Jaworski replacing Theismann.
Those wise words were written by former ESPN ombudsman George Solomon nearly four months ago. Why hasn't action been taken by his employer to comply with his reasonable suggestions?
The foregoing remarks regarding the observer (ESPN) changing the nature of the thing being observed (sports) were brought to you by Erwin Schrodinger and his pet cat.
5. Since ESPN lacks either the self-awareness or the integrity to acknowledge its impact upon the sports it covers, the Worldwide Leader is neither adequately cognizant of nor suitably deferential to those to whom it is beholden. Colin Cowherd's open contempt for the blogosphere is a symptom of this phenomenon. Although the radio host's misappropriation of a weblogger's material was accidental, owing more to laxity than to malice, his wildly disproportionate reaction to being called on his misjudgment demonstrated the ingratitude of commentators who know they are being lapped and don't like that fact.
As a result of this gradual changing of the guard, the punditocracy spews nonsense strictly for its shock value, columnists offer irresponsibly misinformed takes on content appearing on weblogs, and critics indulge in the silly fantasy that bloggers are uneducated, antisocial, and inarticulate. Following Cowherd's initial encounter with the power of fan-centered sports commentary, the incident was given context in The Blog-ifesto:
I don't do this because I'm a snooty blog elitist, I do this because the information, creativity, and overall presentation of information is superior. It's dynamic, constantly-changing and adapting, sharply and intelligently opinionated, and, at times, downright hilarious shit. My RSS reader has several dozen feeds for sports blogs (which I don't have room to list by name here -- although the bookmark bar on the side is a pretty good cross-section, and everything I've said above is applicable to those sites, too), and I spend a good amount of time reading through those feeds in an effort to become a better-educated sports fan.
And that's the point that ESPN and Cowherd don't get. You can't just say you found something "on the internet" anymore. These sports articles aren't like the "50 Reasons a Beer is Better than a Woman" e-mail your annoying co-worker forwards to you once a month, they're well thought-out and work-intensive observations that somebody worked very hard on and published to the world, free of charge, because they felt it was worth saying. All bloggers ask for in return is an appreciative audience and credit where credit is due. Text "from the internet" is not a free donation to the public domain, and certainly isn't a free donation to ESPN to assist in their commercial endeavors. I think the incident this weekend sent that message loud and clear. The days of ignoring sports blogs is over, and so are the days as dismissing it as anonymous internet chatter made available for the benefit of commercial networks.
Sports blogs are here to stay, and I predict we will see more clashes with the mainstream as the two media begin to compete with each other directly as bloggers move up the food chain in the sports journalism world.
While conscientious beat reporters have little to fear from the blogosphere, self-styled pundits have reason to be scared. Consequently, ESPN seizes every opportunity to bash and belittle bloggers, leading to such preposterous and regrettable results as this:
Once again, there is a marked contrast between the stingy and small-minded possessiveness exhibited by the Worldwide Leader and the respectful camaraderie of the blogosphere. Far from demonstrating a desire to deprive one another of access or deny one another credit, bloggers routinely give credit where credit is due.
The definitive treatment of this subject was written by Matt Ufford, who writes Kissing Suzy Kolber, edits With Leather, and covers the N.F.L. for The FanHouse, at the latter of which his noteworthy piece appeared. Ufford explained how blogs operate and how bloggers interact, including the etiquette underlying the "hat tips" and reciprocal links bloggers give one another as a way of giving credit and showing respect. (If anything, many of us err on the side of excessiveness in that department, which is how a fellow gets a reputation as a guy who "links a lot" and has "a shortcut for every thought he's ever had.")
Ufford covered his subject thoroughly and accurately, but a valuable addition was provided by College Football Resource, who wrote:
CFR is quite right that it doesn't have to be this way. Ours is a changing media landscape, but we need not be at daggers drawn with one another. Van Pelt, to his credit, asked Leitch how ESPN could be "fixed" and could "stop offending those who are blogging," but the sportscaster seemed to suppose that the blogosphere's view of the Worldwide Leader is uniformly, universally, and unqualifiedly bad.
This simply is not the case. When ESPN orchestrated a home-and-home series between Colorado and West Virginia for 2008 and 2009, Brian Cook gave credit to the boys from Bristol. "College Football Live," which will premiere next week, already has drawn favorable attention from Awful Announcing and CFR.
Granted, Orson Swindle had some pointed suggestions regarding the show, but, then, he is leading the revolution through EDSBS Radio alongside fellow revolutionary Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation.
Does this mean that Bean and Swindle are leading the charge to bury all forms of traditional media? Hardly; their radio show has featured such mainstream mainstays as Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chip Brown of the Dallas Morning News, Bruce Feldman of ESPN, Paul Finebaum, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, and Phil Steele. Bean, the editor of The Eyes of Texas, compiled the 2007 Longhorns annual by obtaining contributions from a diverse group of writers that included reporters and editors from the Dallas Morning News, the Hill Country News, and the Houston Chronicle, the owner and publisher of OrangeBloods.com, and webloggers from Behind the Steel Curtain, Dawg Sports, Every Day Should Be Saturday, The FanHouse, 54b's Longhorn Commentary, Hogs Haven, and Sunday Morning Quarterback.
Yes, it provides in-depth analysis of the Texas Longhorns, but will it also bring peace in our time?
As evidenced by the way in which the award-winning Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog peacefully co-exists in both worlds, there is no necessary reason why bloggers and mainstream media must regard one another with wary disdain. Accordingly, it carries considerable weight when Steinberg gives "an impassioned speech about how bloggers are unfairly predisposed to hate ESPN just b/c ESPN is big and powerful and an easy target."
That is a fair criticism coming from a man who deservedly is respected in both camps as a professional journalist and a capable weblogger. We shouldn't hate ESPN just because it's ESPN. We should try to bridge the gaps between traditional media and the blogosphere in the way that Peter Bean, Dan Steinberg, and Orson Swindle attempt (with much success) to do.
We should, however, continue to ensure that, where sports reporting is concerned, the answer to the age-old question, "Who will watch the watchers?" is: "The blogosphere, that's who." When we turn on ESPN, we should bring with us a reflective---not reflexive---skepticism but also an honest appreciation; to a great extent, much of what we are able to enjoy about the current sports landscape (up to and including Georgia's season opener against Oklahoma State) is the doing of the Worldwide Leader.
If we fail to express our appreciation often enough, or if we are knee-jerk in our criticisms, that is on us, and, for that, we ought to be held accountable. Respect, though, is a two-way street. Scott Van Pelt's interview with Will Leitch was brief but significant; it will be remembered either as the opening round of negotiations that will lead to peaceful relations between established and novel forms of media or it will mark the initial face-to-face confrontation in an escalating war of words.
Leitch showed admirable restraint in answering the questions put to him in a reasonable manner without bitterness or acrimony. How Van Pelt's employer treats the rising generation represented by Leitch in addressing our valid concerns will go a long way toward determining the way in which fan-centered sports commentators are able to interact with the monolith in Bristol.
For the moment, the most important letters in sports form the familiar acronym for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. The Worldwide Leader would do well to learn the seven letters that are most important in the blogosphere. If ESPN has trouble recalling what they are, Aretha Franklin recorded a catchy tune to help the boys from Bristol remember.