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ESPN Ombudsman - (sean taylor related


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Not sure if this has been posted...tried to do a search for it.

I still have not and will not listen to Cowherd.


Sometimes in this column, I call out ESPN for journalistic practices or problems unique to it, such as the conflict of interest issues arising from rights ownership and other business ties to the leagues it covers. Other times, I call out ESPN for practices common to its cable news peers, such as bloated coverage of the moment's hot-topic stories and the mad dash from scant information to voluminous opinion. Often, the questions I pose ESPN executives can be, and often are, answered with a version of "That's just the way the 24/7 media is today."

But I am not ombudsman for CNN or Fox News. I am charged with monitoring ESPN, looking at how its coverage affects sports and sports journalism, and in some ways I hold ESPN to a higher standard than its media peers. ESPN is, after all, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports," with a niche dominance that gives it an opportunity to set new standards.

Sean Taylor Coverage: Wait for the facts

When news broke Nov. 26 that Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, 24, was in critical condition after being shot by an intruder in his home, virtually all news outlets chose to follow The Associated Press' lead and include information about his past misdeeds on and off the field as part of the story. The dirty laundry list included a 2005 felony assault charge for brandishing a gun (later reduced to a misdemeanor), a drunk-driving charge (later dismissed), NFL fines for missing a rookie symposium and spitting at an opposing player.

Those incidents, along with his exceptional on-the-field accomplishments for the University of Miami and the Redskins, were part of Taylor's public profile, which was a lower, facts-only profile than many NFL stars enjoy because Taylor actively avoided the media. So, if one didn't know anything else about Taylor, anyone who followed the Redskins knew about his past public troubles -- and after the AP ran its story about the shooting, everyone else did, too. They also knew that Taylor was black.

"I don't know how you could have ignored them," said Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, of the blots on Taylor's public record. "But the directive to shows was to take steps not to link that behavior to this incident."

In ESPN's news reporting about the shooting, on "SportsCenter" and on ESPN.com, that directive was followed and the network presented the facts without interpretation, showing more restraint than much of the mainstream media.

Still, the mere mixture of dry facts -- the shooting, the priors -- was too combustible to contain.

"After the initial AP report, we heard from readers who disliked the straightforward recitation of facts," said Robert King, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com. "These readers viewed the juxtaposition of facts surrounding Taylor's shooting, his football career and his off-the-field episodes, as a de-facto editorial statement that he somehow 'had this coming.' I'm aware of similar dissatisfaction among some fans concerning the choices of video and still images used to depict Sean Taylor on and off the field. Every editorial choice, it seems, became symbolic of a broader mindset.

"Some of this I attribute to the broader news narrative of 2007 in which athletes of color have played starring roles: the murder of Darrent Williams in January, the arrests and suspensions of Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones; the confession of Marion Jones; Barry Bonds; and Michael Vick. In this environment, it's hardly surprising that even the most fact-pure, analysis-free report could earn negative reaction."

From the beginning, though, it was clear that media coverage would not remain fact-pure, analysis-free. In a media world with limitless cyberspace and hours of daily opinion programming to fill, whatever aspect of a story lends itself to provocative stance-taking and speculation will receive disproportionate attention. So, as Taylor lay dying in the hospital from blood loss too extensive to survive, the opinion media began spinning its wheels in a frenzy of race-tinged speculation about how to connect the dots of present and past, of deathbed and rap sheet.

Until the police could provide perpetrators to hold accountable, the question was: To blame or not to blame the victim?

With the notable exception of ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd, ESPN's commentators did better than many in the mainstream media at reining in the impulse to speculate, pontificate and prematurely assign responsibility for Taylor's death. Cowherd, however, trusted his "gut feeling" to guide him to "the truth." His gut told him that Taylor's "history of really, really bad judgment, really really bad judgment" had caught up with him, and even if the emerging reports that Taylor had "cleaned up his act" were true, "Well, yeah, just because you clean the rug doesn't mean you got everything out. Sometimes you've got stains, stuff so deep it never ever leaves."

Most other ESPN commentators seemed to understand that when it comes to race, crime and sports, the last source to be trusted is one's gut, which tends to be lined with bilious stereotypes and prejudices. Some commentators, including Michael Wilbon of "Pardon The Interruption," admitted to not being surprised by the shooting, of suspecting a link to Taylor's past associates or enemies, but they aired their presumptions tentatively, with sadness or anger at the "senseless death" of yet another young black man, not in the gloating, know-it-all voice that many of Cowherd's listeners called "appalling" and "indecent" in their e-mails to me.

On Nov. 28, two days after the shooting, one day after Taylor's death, "Outside the Lines" devoted a segment to a panel discussion on the media's handling of the Taylor story. Dan Le Batard, columnist for The Miami Herald and ESPN The Magazine, voiced his disgust, including self-disgust, at what happens when the media is faced with "a lot of airtime and few facts," saying "We end up cloaking gossip in journalism. We get up on our soapbox and say we're doing journalism. Oh no, we're not. We're speculating. ... What's the girlfriend's role in this? ... And it's not fair."

The simple solution, urged by OTL panelist Shaun Powell of Newsday, was "to wait for the facts." OTL anchor Bob Ley responded to Powell by asking the crucial question: "Can the marketplace allow that, with the hours, the Web pages to fill?" The question implied its own answer, which was made explicit by Le Batard, who said, "That's utopian." The self-criticism was sober, sincere, welcome, but also defeatist in tone.

Thanks less to media restraint than to fast police work, the speculation about Taylor's responsibility for his own violent end came to a quick halt when police arrested four suspects, three of them teenagers, who provided details of an armed burglary gone tragically wrong when they were startled to find Taylor at home. Any links to Taylor's past seem to be by those degrees of separation that can haunt any of us.

The best antidote to a week of speculating about Taylor's life and character was the live telecast of his funeral on ESPNEWS on Monday, Dec. 3. Those who knew and loved Taylor got to speak of him and for him, publicly, directly, unmediated. That was probably the first time some viewers learned that the "girlfriend" of news reports, who huddled under the covers with their 18-month-old daughter while Taylor went to fight off intruders at their bedroom door, was the prep school sweetheart, fiancé and now single mother who had shared her life with Taylor for six years.

If you haven't already, please connect those dots with the ones you gathered here and there from news reports and punditry.

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