ESPN Chief On Journo Independence: ‘No story has ever been compromised by having a business interest’

By Alex Weprin Comment

ESPN is the subject of the cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek this week, and it is a doozy of a piece. Among the topics covered is the tricky issue of journalistic Independence at ESPN, which has an enormous news division.

ESPN has long had to balance covering sports issues completely and fairly, while also engaging in multi-billion dollar deals with the leagues it covers. “SportsCenter” may be what everyone thinks of when they think of ESPN, but the network also produces some excellent and hard-hitting longform journalism in its documentary films and “E:60”

[ESPN president John] Skipper adamantly defends ESPN’s journalism. “The programming guys who manage those relationships have no say in news and information. Those lines do not cross. There is only one person who has a foot in each camp, and that’s me. … No story has ever been compromised by having a business interest.”

Yet ESPN has been widely criticized by media watchdogs for coming late to two major stories that tarnished the images of the network’s business partners: the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State and the rash of concussion-related brain injuries among former NFL players. Skipper insists ESPN didn’t compromise on either story. “We covered Penn State just as aggressively as any news organization. People criticized us for not having a truck there, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t covering it.” In 2004, ESPN canceled Playmakers, a popular show about professional football players that infuriated then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, prompting him to call former Disney CEO Michael Eisner to complain that the show was portraying the NFL negatively. “At the end of the day, I made a decision not to continue to produce something that was upsetting to one of our major partners. It wasn’t good business,” former ESPN president George Bodenheimer said in These Guys Have All the Fun.