ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte last week tackled another tough issue facing the World Wide Leader, taking on the question of whether the network should stop using the name of Washington’s National Football League franchise, as other outlets have done. ESPN’s own Tony Kornheiser, a former Washington Post columnist and long-time advocate of changing the name, suggested recently that it should especially on television, where it would serve as a catalyst for change at other media outlets and in the general conversation about a name many — including me — find racist and offensive.
Lipsyte, who came across as generally sympathetic to dropping the name and talked to other ESPN employees who have considered the question, outlined three arguments against nixing the name in broadcasts or on ESPN’s online reporting. The first two — that “ESPN should be covering the news, not making it” and that it “should consider how the consequences of an ‘adversarial environment’ could limit ‘access’ in covering the team” — strike me as non-starters. ESPN and other outlets make editorial judgments about what is appropriate for print and what isn’t all the time, and while Washington owner Dan Snyder may be vindictive against news outlets that criticize him, even he understands that cutting ESPN off from access would hurt him more than it would hurt the network.
The third argument Lipsyte heard from ESPN colleagues is interesting, and it touches on another question that has plagued the network since it decided to end its partnership with PBS on League of Denial, a documentary about the NFL and concussions (emphasis Lipsyte’s):
3) A gesture as aggressive as attacking a famous, long-standing team is antithetical to the ESPN business model. Snyder is a business associate (his Washington radio station is an ESPN affiliate), and the NFL is an important partner. ESPN is a major media corporation with a parent company (Disney) and shareholders. I am still in the early process of exploring the depths and facets of ESPN, but one thing is clear — it is an entertainment company trying to maintain a vigorous journalistic presence. This is no simple matter. This so-called “bifurcation” — business side and journalism side — requires respect and mindfulness.
I’m still not certain this flies as an excuse in this instance, since again, I think Snyder and everyone else understands that the franchise has more to lose by severing ties with ESPN than ESPN does by poking Snyder’s sore spots. But it is a reminder that while ESPN produces quality journalism day after day, that is only one aspect of its business. The network’s primary business, the place where it makes its money, is in sports broadcasting and television rights that come from deals with major sports leagues, and because of that, its business interests can conflict as they are doing here. Add in that ESPN is the main raft keeping its parent company Disney afloat, and those conflicts only grow larger. It isn’t just Dan Snyder that doesn’t have a problem with the name, it’s also that the vast majority of NFL fans don’t either. ESPN is going to cater both to them and to its shareholders (many of whom fit in the first category too) before it rocks the boat too hard — just as it probably did on League of Denial and just as it has on other issues.
ESPN isn’t necessarily unique in that regard. Part of today’s media reality is that newspapers and news outlets can’t ignore the business side of journalism the way they once did, and new masses of competitors make maintaining both business relationships and access more important than ever. That balance exists almost everywhere now, but at a network that is as large and intertwined as ESPN, where the business relationships with sports leagues subsidize the journalism that covers them, that dynamic is highlighted and tested more often than it is anywhere else.
With that said, Lipsyte is right when he calls ESPN.com editor-in-chief Patrick Sampson’s opinion the most sensible he heard. “To simply ignore the nickname in our coverage seems like nothing more than grandstanding,” Sampson said. “We can use the name of the team, but our best service to fans is to report the hell out of the story, draw attention to the issue and cover all aspects of the controversy.” While I think dropping the name would be a positive step, it wouldn’t mean much if ESPN wasn’t also willing to “report the hell out of the story” around it. That’s the ultimate test of the business-journalism balance for any outlet, and for one as powerful as ESPN, it needs to be applied and evaluated as often as possible.