It was a clumsy, ego-laden move that did little except expose the lengths to which a rich outfit will go to bury a story it doesn’t want aired.
Last week, the National Football League was reported to have pressured ESPN into pulling out of an upcoming report on the NFL’s sluggish reaction to the dangers of football concussions. The report will likely air Oct. 8, since the PBS Frontline program is its prime producer. But the pressure the NFL applied was bad enough to spark the attention of the New York Times, which reported that ESPN had “abruptly” pulled out of its partnership with Frontline.
When four honchos, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN’s president, met at a lunch last Thursday, their “combative” lunch could do little to head off the series but lots to guarantee leaked reports of the pressure.
ESPN is owned, along with the ABC Network, by Disney studios. ESPN also makes a fortune promoting and broadcasting NFL games it shows on its network. Since ESPN also has an investigative reporting unit that has made a name reporting on behind-the-scenes sports controversies, it is in the conflicted position about reporting on an entity it must also promote.
In this case, the NFL and ESPN both compounded their error by denying any pressure. ESPN put out an elegant cover story: it had asked that its logo and other clues naming it be dropped from the PBS report “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions & the Battle for Truth” because it had “misunderstood” that it had no editorial control over the two-part production.
But in this case, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and lots of it. There’s little use issuing a denial no one will buy. The honchos proved little. The decade-long controversy over the effect of repeated head hits in football is well known. It’s also the subject of a simmering lawsuit. It’s well accepted that the NFL was dragged by emerging evidence into accepting the idea that such hits could lead to deadly long-term brain damage. So why act like a big bully when no good can come of it? Roger Goodell particularly should have stayed far away from the four-man lunch in midtown Manhattan last Thursday that attracted the attention of several Times reporters.
The damage went further when one ESPN official familiar with the lunch let drop that “Disney folks got involved and shut us down.”
The series is based on an extensively researched book by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. They denied being pressured, but their research is all in print. ESPN insisted it “will continue to report this story,” but it walked out of the long partnership with PBS so suddenly that it caught inordinate attention.
The story will air because ESPN can’t really do anything about it by dropping out, and because all the parties are anxious to scurry underground and avoid further reputational damage. But in the end, they have illustrated again the pressures being brought on media to conceal key details from readers and viewers.
ESPN has long known of the problems posed by its dual mission of covering the NFL while also promoting it. It developed a close relationship with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisberger, who gave its reporters lots of access. But, when Rothlisberger was hit with allegations of sexual misconduct in 2009, ESPN waited two days to report it, the Times noted.
Most telling, what’s the point of walking out of a game in the fourth quarter in which you’ve been so actively involved? The Fainaru brothers’ research was known and the program, set to air in two weeks, is mostly “in the can.” ESPN’s excuse that it had discovered belatedly that it lacked “editorial control” also holds little water. This was a full-on news collaboration. Reporters and producers on such a story work as a team, and seldom would split according to employer on key questions of news judgment, even if there were any.
It’s certain that the NFL brass has complaints about uncomfortable stories that put it in a spotlight. But the organization is at the epicenter of a multibillion-dollar industry and had best get over it. Whoever had the dumb idea of convening a lunch during the final two-minute drill should be fired, except that those with such authority were the dining perpetrators. They could do nothing but attract attention. The NFL had already headed off a fictional series about its players nearly a decade ago, the Times reported.
Blowing off steam is far different from attempting to exercise behind-the-scenes control with a risk of backfiring. Audiences don’t like to be reminded of their position as sheep to be fed what wealthy chieftains decide to permit.
The dangers of covering an event while also promoting it are also well known. The Los Angeles Times got in trouble a decade ago about a misunderstanding over the new Staples Center. Just Saturday, there was Fox, televising a big baseball game. It used the occasion to promote its new Fox Sports 1 network, which started last week. It had fans at Dodger Stadium raise one finger to salute to the new venture. Its producers must have taken special care to specify the index finger.
The writer (email@example.com ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.