Is ESPN Too Close to Do Hard Reporting?

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Tuesday, October 16, 2007; 1:13 PM

It's been a very good October for ESPN -- continued decent ratings for Monday Night Football; the announcement last week that the cable network will replace NBC-owned USA Network and carry Thursday-Friday coverage of The Masters; the debut of a new hour-long magazine show called "E:60" and wall-to-wall coverage a week from this Saturday of horse racing's world series, The Breeders' Cup from Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

In an era when synergy has become a far too over-used buzzword by so many network executives, what a wonderful month it would continue to be if "E:60", which debuts tonight, somehow manages to incorporate a few hard-hitting stories on some of the mega-events, such as The Breeders' Cup and The Masters, that the so-called Worldwide Leader will devote so much air time to.

This week's "E:60" show does have some intriguing topics, even though a piece on the strained relationship between baseball star Prince Fielder and his father, retired Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, has already been well documented by the print media. There's also an investigation of an alleged sex crime cover-up involving a star player for a nationally ranked Miami high school football team and another feature on the recipients of the organs donated after the death of the University of North Carolina mascot who was killed in a traffic accident last March at an NCAA regional basketball tournament.

I'm sure the show will be well-produced and competently reported by the likes of host Jeremy Schaap, one of the network's most talented young broadcast journalists, and my former Washington Post colleague, Rachel Nichols, a terrific reporter herself, among others. But to me, the true measure of this show will be the producers' willingness to tackle tough and often unflattering stories involving the sports ESPN airs on a regular basis as a paid rights holder and "partner" with the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and many other big-time sports entities.

For example, with The Breeders' Cup on the horizon, here's a good story "E:60" producers might want to consider for next Tuesday's show. And if they've already got that 60 minutes in the can, perhaps the producers of the day-long Breeders' Cup telecast might cover it in depth with a long feature between any of the races on the card.

That would be the scandalous proliferation and continued use of often illegal pain-numbing drugs in the horse racing industry. In fact, one of the top trainers in the country, Patrick Biancone, would be the perfect place to start.

Biancone, a Frenchman with a history of suspensions for using prohibited substances in Hong Kong, California and Kentucky, trains several contenders in various Breeders' Cup races. Two weeks ago, he was given a one-year suspension by Kentucky's racing stewards for the possession of three vials of cobra venom, a prohibited substance that can act as a powerful painkiller and allow a horse to continue to train and eventually run for the money.

The suspension -- the longest ever issued in Kentucky -- was scheduled to begin yesterday, but Biancone and his attorney are appealing. The process likely won't start until after The Breeders' Cup, so Biancone can continue to work his horses, get stabling for his mounts in New Jersey, show up in the Monmouth paddock to saddle them and likely even get to the winner's circle to pose for pictures with smiling owners, jockeys and the governor of New Jersey.

The question is, on a day when ESPN likely will be in full celebratory mode of the (not so) glorious sport of kings, will it have the moxie to air such a story, either in its new magazine show or on race day itself? Stay tuned on that one.

As for ESPN's coverage of The Masters, just reading the news release last week ballyhooing the acquisition of the rights to the first of golf's four major championships, you got the feeling that it will be fawning reverence as usual from this or any other network that partners with the Green Jackets.

ESPN will not have its own production team or its own announcers in place. Instead the network, like USA, will use the feed provided by CBS Sports, the long-time weekend rights holder for the tournament.

ESPN will augment the coverage with studio host Mike Tirico, once the lead voice for golf coverage on ABC before the network essentially got out of the dimpled-ball business save for the ever-popular July morning telecasts of the British Open. But the usual CBS golf crew -- Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo -- will be in the 18th hole tower, with regulars like Peter Kostis, David Feherty and Peter Oosterhuis also reporting from around the course.

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