How ESPN Ditched Journalism And Followed Skip Bayless To The Bottom: A Tim Tebow Story
In October, Doug Gottlieb, a radio host and basketball analyst who'd decamped for CBS the previous month after nine years with ESPN, went on The Dan Patrick Show and dropped something of a truth bomb about his time in Bristol:
I was told specifically, "You can't talk enough Tebow." I would jokingly throw it into a segment. "I gotta find 15 seconds here to talk about Tebow, all right let's move on and talk about Major League Baseball."
Later, he said:
Is it ridiculous how much you have to talk about Tebow? Yeah! But for whatever reason people can't get enough of that story, and they kind of stoke the fire—that's kind of what ESPN does.
Gottlieb was referring to the network's yearlong infatuation with Tebow, a player who hasn't made much actual news since he was traded to the Jets in March. Bristol executives have decided that what we want—or what we should want—is Tebow. "They want to own the Tebow story," said Jim Miller, the author of the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun. "They want to put their watermark on it."
This helps explain why, over the summer, ESPN dispatched veteran reporter Sal Paolantonio and a crew to cover Jets camp as if it were the run-up to the Super Bowl. ("ESPN embarrassed themselves," Dan Patrick, who spent 18 years in Bristol, said of ESPN's flood-the-zone coverage in Florham Park.) This helps explain why ESPN2's First Take referred to Tim Tebow more than seven dozen times in late May even though there was absolutely no Tebow news to report on. This helps explain why SportsCenter covered Tim Tebow's 25th birthday like a moon landing. This helps explain why it seemed perfectly reasonable to a SportsCenter anchor to ask in-studio guest Liam Neeson whether Tim Tebow should be the Jets' starting quarterback even though Liam Neeson had no clue what he was talking about. This helps explain how ESPN wound up breaking Tim Tebow news to, yes, Tim Tebow.
The story of how ESPN fell in love with Tim Tebow is really the story of a breakup, between ESPN and the business of reporting the news.
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The Tebow phenomenon—that is, the sustained celebrity of a football player of only moderate ability—says as much about ESPN as it does about the quarterback himself. For the better part of a decade, the narrative about ESPN has held that the integrity of the news operation is subordinate to the Worldwide Leader's business concerns. (Just think back to The Decision or to the Bonds on Bonds docuseries before that, the one that ceded editorial control to the Giants outfielder and left Pedro Gomez, ESPN's Bonds beat guy, pressing his nose up against his own network's window.) Given that ESPN has deals with nearly every major league—and ignores the ones with which it doesn't have deals—the question has become inescapable: How can the company produce honest journalism when it's in business with, well, everybody?
ESPN has proven it can—the coverage of the replacement-ref fiasco in the wake of the Green Bay-Seattle Monday night game was a high point—but in recent months something began to shift. There was Tebowmania, of course, but more quietly there were several incidents of journalistic malpractice that were notable not for the egregiousness of the crimes but for ESPN's total indifference to them (about which more later). We weren't the only ones to notice. A member of the newsroom was just as baffled as we were by the silence of a media company that blankets the office in memos at the drop of a zipper.
"Producers were looking to duplicate the success of First Take," according to a Bristol insider. "Given what the ratings were, you would have been an idiot not to talk Tebow. Decisions to talk Tebow were conscious and deliberate."
Why does any of this matter? For one thing, journalism is in the company's DNA. It's no exaggeration to say that the modern ESPN was built on top of its robust news division. When now-executive editor John Walsh—an editor at the Washington Post's Style section in its heyday, an editor at '70s-era Rolling Stone, and a founding editor of the short-lived, much-loved Inside Sports—arrived on Bristol's campus in the late 1980s, he declared that a strong newsroom would give the station the identity it had lacked to that point. As he staffed up, Walsh cared more about reporting chops than TV readiness: Andrea Kremer (hired from NFL Films), Robin Roberts (from local TV and radio in Atlanta), Peter Gammons (from The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated), Jimmy Roberts (from ABC News), Chris Mortensen (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National). Print people? Some inexperience? Didn't matter. Talent did.
ESPN left its mark on the major stories of the early '90s—Pete Rose, Magic Johnson, the O.J. saga—and competitors noticed. They worried about ESPN's reach. Well, actually, not just its reach. They feared its audience and its journalistic chops. Here's The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine author Michael MacCambridge talking in Those Guys Have All the Fun:
[Former Sports Illustrated managing editor] Mark Mulvoy was just obsessed with whatever ESPN was doing. A lot of writers at Sports Illustrated couldn't understand that and asked, 'Why are we so worried about ESPN?' but to Mulvoy's credit, he saw that the paradigm was changing and the primacy that Sports Illustrated had enjoyed in the media world was being usurped by ESPN. And the reason was not because ESPN was a cable network with x number of viewers; the reason was Walsh had invested SportsCenter with a journalistic authority that had not existed before he got there, and that did not exist anywhere else where people did sports reporting on TV. Mulvoy was scared, and in retrospect, he was right.
David Hill, the longtime head of Fox Sports, has called Walsh ESPN's "secret weapon." Longtime Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, in his 1998 autobiography Work In Progress, said Walsh's hiring was one of the two turning points for ESPN (the other was getting part of the NFL's Sunday night package in 1987). Walsh's genius, in Eisner's estimation? He "recognized that it was possible to lure viewers to ESPN with strong reporting about sports, even in instances where the network didn't have broadcast rights to a big event," Eisner writes. And it helps when the centerpiece show, SportsCenter, runs three times a day. This seems obvious now, but think about how you watched sports at the time: You watched them live. ESPN provided a self-contained alternative—highlights, reportage, and analysis—without having to open its wallet to buy every "big event," though eventually ESPN would grow profitable enough to want to do that, too. It was a deliriously effective business model. Today, ESPN is worth $40 billion, about $5 billion more than the combined value of every NFL team.
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