Sports Journalists and the Great ESPN Co-Opt (continued)

by Irvin Muchnick on January 30, 2006

The scouting report on your cableless, if not clueless, serial correspondent has always been: “Stupid — perhaps; slow — definitely.”

And so it is that I’m just now catching up to the fact that ESPN, the sports-media leviathan, last summer hired a retired Washington Post editor named George Solomon to serve as “ombudsman,” that latest corporate fad gesture toward in-house consumer advocacy. In his most recent contribution to the ESPN website, boldly going where Dan Patrick and Stuart Scott dare not when they’re busy shilling for beer companies or composing hip rhetorical accompaniment to marginal “SportsCenter” footage of recreational violence, Solomon writes:

“The synergy among various components of ESPN continues to grow, much to the pleasure of most company executives and millions of viewers. But an impending business relationship between ESPN Original Entertainment and San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds seems to be pushing the envelope for what’s an acceptable practice for a network that prides itself on newsgathering, reporting, commentary and analysis. A reality series of weekly shows featuring Bonds, who needs 48 home runs to pass Henry Aaron as the all-time Major League Baseball home run king, apparently is set for this spring, with EOE teaming up with Tollin/Robbins Productions. The relationship will result in a paycheck for Bonds, who will provide access and time not available to the rest of the media.”

Solomon goes on to label the arrangement “mind-boggling,” inasmuch as ESPN — where journalists, real and imagined, play journalists on TV — also has assigned a reporter, Pedro Gomez, to shadow Bonds for “regular” meta-reality “news” coverage.

Solomon doesn’t call it that, but I do. Coming soon to ESPN Kollege Klassics in HD: a C-SPAN bookchat copycat show, anchored by Oprah with panelists Jim Frey and Nasdijj.

I digress. Readers with elephantine attention spans (the very kind ESPN and its owners, The Walt Disney Company, are dead-set on turning into an endangered species) will recall that a year ago I gently broached the subject of why an astonishing number of the nation’s leading sports columnists regularly moonlight for ESPN. Might this not render them slightly … compromised? Sure, we live in an era of legalized payola. But, to use an analogy, does the government blatantly bribe putatively objective observers for favorable coverage of its policies?

Oops, let me rephrase that….

As it also so happens, the local target of our original ethics-a-la-carte roundtable (“Ray Ratto and the Great ESPN Co-Opt,” February 7, 2005, http://quartz.he.net/~beyondch/news/index.php?itemid=2609) had just gotten his own digs in at ESPN for the Bonds lunacy. See Ratto’s January 21 Chronicle column, “Bonds-ball Tonight won’t be all warm and fuzzy.”

In a polite email exchange last Friday, Ratto said that, as an aside, he in fact “didn’t skewer ESPN as much as I skewered Bonds.” This would be consistent with Ratto’s position on his ESPN relationship last year, when he argued to me: “As for being co-opted by ESPN, I am not. I don’t write much about sports and television anyway, and frankly, if I have windmills at which to tilt, mine are the leagues themselves and the owners therein.”

Ratto is an intelligent, clever, intermittently sharp writer. Whatever his freelancing for sports websites represents, it’s nothing worse than what the drug testers would be able to isolate in the urine samples of dozens of peers across the country. Ratto’s perspective on all this therefore warrants airing.

As does my counter-perspective. The trouble with Ray Ratto as high-minded social critic is that he cuts such a broad, word-drunk swath, and his curmudgeonlyness has such a mannered cynicism, that it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly who and what he’s “skewering.” Alongside a six-month-old’s bicuspids, Ratto’s scimitar-like wit is a blunt instrument indeed.

The January 21 commentary in question, for example, starts: “The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (we have found over the years that beginning a story with the letters ESPN tends to make people want to extract their own eyes)…” A disinterested reader could be forgiven for consequently concluding that ESPN, as well as Bonds, are being lampooned. And however obliquely, that dart, like the column as a whole, undermines the claim that just about any major sports columnist in this day and age could get away with not writing “much about … television anyway.”

Ratto himself no longer writes for ESPN.com — he jumped last year to CBS.SportsLine.com. “My move was simply a money and contract thing (cbssportsline offered more, and since I am still a freelancer, nothing else about my situation changed),” he told me. And his outside work is still “approved without reservation” by the Hearst Corporation bosses. I suppose that marks the end of our conversation on this issue, at least until such time as Ratto weighs in on whether “WWE SmackDown” should survive the merger of the UPN and WB networks.

As for ESPN “ombudsman” Solomon, I’ve read the entire archive of his withering take-no-prisoners articles since last August on such earthshaking topics as:

• “Can [Stephen A.] Smith’s show live up to the hype?”
• “Putting sports in perspective” [in the wake of Hurricane Katrina]
• “Viewers are confused by the blurring of the line between reporting and commentary on the network’s news and information shows.”
• “How much T.O. [Terrell Owens] is too much?”

My conclusion: Old soldiers never die. They just become ombudsmen. The ESPN’s of the world are only too happy to provide them with geriatric sinecures — and the rest of us with the illusion that their private service is really in the public’s.

Irvin Muchnick’s website is http://muchnick.net. His book Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal — one chapter of which originally appeared in Beyond Chron — will be published next year by ECW Press.

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