The Washington Post

With Bernie Fine story, ESPN is a model of accountability

● Regardless of whether you feel that ESPN should have aired a story in 2003 on the sexual molestation charges against Bernie Fine. (I say no way: ESPN had one on-the-record-source and three referrals from that source, all of whom either denied the allegations or refused to comment. Sum total: Zero story.)

● Regardless of whether you feel that ESPN should have forked over the Bobby Davis-Laurie Fine audiotape to police. (I say it’s a reporting breakdown. One job of crime reporters is to ask the authorities about evidence — and that’s how the media “shares” information with the police. Why didn’t ESPN say, “Hey cops, what do you think of that Bobby Davis tape?” ESPN’s Vince Doria insists there was nothing to be gained in pursuing that angle.)

● Regardless of whether you feel that the emergence of a second accuser following the Penn State story gave ESPN enough of a foothold to broadcast its investigation. (Doria tells me it was a combination of the second accuser plus the fact that the cops were looking into the allegations anew. Seems just barely okay.)

● Regardless of whether you take issue with the 10-day lapse between ESPN’s airing of the Fine story and its airing of the Davis-Fine tape. (Screwy, yes; felonious, no.)

● Regardless of whether you object to ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz putting one accuser in contact with another. (ESPN’s Doria regrets this episode. I’m not seeing the subscandal here.)

● Regardless of how you feel about Wednesday’s grandstanding, overreaching news conference by Onondaga County (N.Y.) District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and its implications for ESPN. (I say it was grandstanding and overreaching.)

Yeah, regardless of all that: ESPN has shown the rest of journalism how an accountable news organization works.

After ESPN aired its first story on Fine, the public wanted to know a lot about the process. The network responded. The editorial transparency started with a posting on ESPN’s Front Row blog in the form of a Q&A with Doria. That piece covered most of the central questions relating to the coverage of the Fine story.

But there were more, and ESPN answered a good many of them directly. Doria did an eight-minute interview with CNN’s Howard Kurtz, which CNN called an “exclusive.” That’s a mislabel because Doria also appeared on Sirius/XM with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. He talked with a faculty member of the Poynter Institute as well. Lead reporter Schwarz did an interview with Sports Illustrated and two with CNN.

I reached out to ESPN last week and requested to speak with someone about the stories. Next thing I know, I’m on the line with Doria. We chatted for nearly an hour and the interview ended only because I ran out of questions. The talk yielded 1,742 words of notes.

The network’s openness prompted a great deal of chatter on the Internet. Everyone had something to say about the way ESPN went about its business. Comment boards got heavy, repetitive and, of course, nasty. Much of the criticism was fed by ESPN’s own generosity in dishing on the details of its coverage. A beautiful dynamic.

So that’s how ESPN handled things. And here’s how it didn’t handle things:

● Hide;

● Issue a brief, lawyered on-air explanation;

● Refer all questions to a flack who e-mails a prepared statement;

● Say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Doria’s on deadline — forever”;

● Say, “The story speaks for itself.”

One popular critique suggests that ESPN heeded its bottom line in holding the Fine story for eight years. To air it would have have alienated the world of college basketball and perhaps upended the network’s lucrative broadcasting deals.

Doria responds that ESPN has “never backed off a story because of a business relationship. I would challenge anyone to offer an example of that.” Who knows if ESPN engaged in classic corporate behavior in pursuing the Fine story. It certainly didn’t engage in classic corporate behavior in responding to criticism of it.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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