ESPN's CEO John Skipper decided to end his company's partnership with a PBS's Frontline investigation into NFL concussions after viewing a trailer for the upcoming documentary. Skipper, talking to ESPN's ombudsman, said he thought the trailer sensationalized the story. Here's the trailer Skipper didn't like:
According to ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who titled his entry "Was ESPN sloppy, naive or compromised?" Skipper objected to the trailer's tagline — “Get ready to change the way you see the game”— and the final words you hear before the trailer ends: “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this," said by neuropathologist Ann McKee. Skipper was also “startled” by the existence of the trailer itself, which included ESPN branding when shown for the first time at an August 6 panel on the concussions project. Skipper hadn't seen or approved the trailer before it went public. That was a problem for the CEO.
But as an earlier New York Times report (not to mention Lipsyte's own take) makes clear, the issue is likely more complicated than an unwelcome trailer. Skipper marks the "catalyst" of the chain of events that led to ESPN pulling the plug as the August 6 panel at which the trailer was first shown. But a week after that, and one week before Skipper went public and severed the partnership, the CEO met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network. The Times described the meeting as "combative," and their sources say that Goodell pressured Skipper to cut ties with Frontline on the project. From the trailer, it's pretty easy to see how the NFL fares in the documentarians' hands: "Frontline investigates what the NFL knew, and when they knew it," the narrator says. Then, an interviewee adds, "you can't go against the NFL. They'll squash you."
Editorially, it's impossible to completely sever ESPN from the project. Two of ESPN's investigative journalists reported the basis for the PBS documentary, called League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Their book, also called League of Denial, is scheduled for release in the fall, when the "Frontline" series airs. "I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming," Skipper told Lipsyte. ESPN senior news producer Dwayne Bray, who is working on the documentary, seemed optimistic in his comments to the ombudsman: "This issue is about branding, not about journalism. We will still get to do the stories and no one will interfere with that.” Skipper also suggested to Lipsyte that the Frontline partnership was loosely formed. If true, Lipsyte said, "it seems an unusually sloppy execution for ESPN."
Addressing the root cause of Skipper's decision, Lipsyte wrote: "beats me." But the ombudsman raises a list of questions, some deeply rooted in an ongoing debate over the line between editorial and programming at the network:
Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism? Was ESPN naïve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also naïve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with “Frontline” (no league footage, no Goodell interview, limited access to doctors who advise the NFL on concussions)?
And tries to provide a range of answers:
At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.
Frontline's League of Denial, sans ESPN branding, will air on PBS in two parts on October 8 and 15th.
(Photos: PBS's Frontline)