Feldman’s ESPN non-suspension follows bad decision-making

The recent flap over Bruce Feldman’s non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (a) a Twitter revolution, (b) an ESPN house of cards, (c) Twitterati gone wild.

In fact, it’s all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we’ve tackled at the Poynter Review Project.

Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:

  • ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead, managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.
  • The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
  • Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he’s not saying anything.
  • ESPN officials approved Feldman’s authoring then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach’s autobiography, long before Leach was fired by the university and sued ESPN.
  • The previous ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer did a very good job detailing ESPN’s shortcomings in reporting on the Leach controversy, which involved disciplining player Adam James, son of ESPN commentator Craig James. (Thank you, Don, otherwise this column would be a book too.)
  • When Leach filed the lawsuit against ESPN, it’s clear to us that Feldman’s involvement with the book became an impossible conflict. But Feldman failed to seek and the network failed to provide clear guidance.
  • We believe If ESPN had better guidelines on who can write as-told-to books, this whole thing could have been avoided. But there little consensus among top managers on the topic. Instead we see a culture of optimistically searching for a middle pathway, when at times someone just needs to say no.

Background

Bruce Feldman covers the college football beat for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. He appears on air occasionally, does a weekly online chat and tweets often. He has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.

In 2007, Feldman signed on to author Leach’s autobiography. At the time, Leach was considered one of the most innovative offensive coaches in college ball. ESPN management granted Feldman permission to do this, Gary Hoenig, general manager of ESPN publishing, told us during a phone interview over the weekend.

In December 2009, Leach and his staff came under criticism from Adam James, who claimed Leach ordered him locked in a closet during practice while he recovered from a concussion. ESPN had assigned Adam James’ father, Craig James, to call Tech games. The network’s reporting on the controversy was highly critical of Leach and out of step with other newsrooms, Ohlmeyer documented.

Texas Tech fired Leach. Leach sued ESPN. Fresh details of that time period emerged in Leach’s book, “Swing Your Sword,” which was widely excerpted last week, offering a fresh look into ESPN’s shortcomings, which ESPN is hamstrung to address because of the pending lawsuit.

A Twitter wildfire

Brooks Melchior first posted the erroneous news of Feldman’s suspension on his blog Sports by Brooks, Thursday afternoon, just hours after ESPN brass, prompted by the book’s publication, met by conference call with Feldman to discuss his involvement. For the past decade, Melchior has been the primary writer and editor on the site, which is now part of the Yardbarker network now owned by Fox Sports.

ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no.

Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.

Feldman did not respond to several emails, text messages and phones calls from us. He has not tweeted or published any stories or appeared on the air, fueling rumors that ESPN is lying and that he really is suspended.

At this point, Feldman’s silence is self-imposed, according to Rob King, ESPN senior vice president of editorial for digital and print media, and Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine.

“He’s paralyzed,” King said. “He doesn’t want to go out to an event and become the subject of the story. But he doesn’t know what to say or how to say it, in order to put the story to bed.”

“He’s pretty anxious about this whole thing,” Millman concurred.

Melchior also refused to comment for this column when we reached him on the phone Sunday. He does not offer his readers any information about his source or how the source came by the knowledge. But ESPN sources said no one in the company got a call from Melchior asking to confirm Feldman’s suspension.

By Thursday night Twitter was buzzing. By Friday #freebruce was trending and dozens of sports bloggers and radio talk show hosts were repeating the information. Our reader mailbag was exploding, as were our personal email accounts, as well as tweets to Poynter.org.

Although many at ESPN were shaking their heads at the Twitterverse, King had a different reaction. “I can’t for one second feel this is a bad thing. People take what they believe and they act,” he said. “Some people would call it a free-for-all. I call it fairly democratic. I just wish that reactions like that would be based on fact.”

Repetition without verification

As news of Feldman’s alleged suspension traveled far and wide, his silence on Twitter made the allegation seem credible. That was all the confirmation most bloggers and tweeters needed. Professional journalists should have a higher standard. However, ESPN has hundreds of people fully engaged in the virtual space and did nothing to immediately correct the inaccuracy.

Part of the problem was time, and part of the problem was communication. ESPN has lots of layers of management.

The book “Swing Your Sword” officially hits the shelves next week. Several news sites excerpted it last week, including Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports.

Most of the excerpts posted late in the day July 12 referenced the chapter in the book that explains Leach’s side of the Adam and Craig James controversy. It was the first hint that ESPN might have yet another complication in the Leach saga.

That meant that July 13, the day of the ESPYs award show, several executives at ESPN saw the excerpts on other sites and started asking questions, including: Who gave Feldman permission to write this book? (Answer: Hoenig, head of ESPN publications, along with the previous editor of ESPN the Magazine.) Did he actually write the book? (Yes, although he is listed as editor.) Did he write that chapter about ESPN? (Yes.) When the controversy between Leach and James arose, what instruction did Feldman receive from ESPN management? (Not very clear instructions, it turns out. We’ll explain.) When Leach sued ESPN, did Feldman reach out to his bosses for further guidance? (No.)

At a company as big as ESPN, with dozens of vice presidents, it’s not surprising that communication is complicated. King, who was recently promoted to a position that includes editorial supervision of the magazine, learned last week for the first time that Feldman was writing the book. Hoenig, head of publications, said he knew all along but had to refresh his memory on what decisions were made. Millman is new to his title, as well, and is still transitioning into the lead magazine editorial role.

Bad decisions

There were two opportunities to make decisions that ESPN missed: before the contract was signed and when Leach filed the lawsuit.

The first decision was whether to let Feldman participate at all in the book. Even though this decision was made before the Leach-James controversy, we can’t overstate what a bad idea we think as-told-to books are for independent journalists. Feldman covers NCAA football. By all accounts he is one of the best reporters on the beat. Leach was arguably one of the most innovative coaches on the job. In order to write the book, Feldman had to assume Leach’s point of view, right down to the cadence of the coach’s speech. How do you do that for a side job, then go back to the independent, more distant point of view for your day job?

Hoenig agrees with us on this. “I don’t think we should let people do as-told-to books in the future,” he said. But King said he doesn’t want to eliminate the possibility. Such books give reporters a chance to deepen their subject-matter expertise, he said.

“It’s complicated,” Millman explained. “You don’t want to limit people’s opportunities. But you don’t want to limit their ability to cover their sport either.”

You can’t have it both ways, as much as ESPN tried. Feldman sought clarity in the spring of 2010, after Leach had been fired but before he filed suit against ESPN. At that point, Hoenig recalls telling Feldman he needed “distance himself” from material about the company.

“We told him, short of getting out of the book you need to remove your name from the book and distance yourself from the book,” Hoenig said. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? This could really harm your career at ESPN.’ ”

“He has a stubborn, and somewhat admirable, moral streak,” Hoenig continued. “I don’t think he took our message the way we intended, which was, ‘This might impair your ability to do your job.’ ”

It was bad advice, unclear and too easily dismissed as a challenge rather than a solution. As a result of that conversation, Feldman and the book publisher changed Feldman’s title from co-author to editor, moving his name off the jacket and onto the title page. That changed the appearance of a conflict but not necessarily the actual conflict.

At the point that Leach filed suit, Feldman should have again sought clarification, but he did not, ESPN executives said. For its part, ESPN should have insisted Feldman walk away from the book and offered him the financial and legal help to do so. The publisher could have brought in another writer/editor to finish the work. Of course, Feldman would have been upset; he’d already put months of work into it, and the book was mostly complete. But the conflict was untenable, and it was ESPN’s responsibility to recognize that.

Feldman did what reporters do: He assumed that truth would keep him safe and that by the time the book was published, everyone at ESPN would agree that the network itself had failed in reporting the Leach-James controversy. And perhaps if “Swing Your Sword” were an independently reported biography instead of an autobiography with a distinct bias, it could have provided the definitive chapter. As it is, the book is merely one more point of view in a muddled narrative where many individuals and institutions failed to live up to their ideals.

What’s next

As the college football season heats up, ESPN must still figure out what Feldman can report on independently. When a reporter has a clear conflict, it’s standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach’s voice, Feldman clearly can’t cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach’s former staffers, who are spread far and wide — some of them now head coaches — make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman’s bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman’s self-imposed silence.

The Feldman-Leach-James-ESPN chronicles cannot be reduced to a simple point where things went wrong. Some want to spin this story into a David and Goliath tale. Feldman and his supporters take on the giant ESPN with Twitter as their slingshot. Others want it to be a cautionary tale of inaccuracy exploding across the virtual space.

“Everyone wants to portray this as either a staff writer went renegade or Twitter overreacted,” King said Sunday night during a phone interview. “Neither of those are completely accurate and it’s a lot more complex than that.”

Instead, this recent online fracas is a result of cascading decisions that were made with good intentions but without the proper attention to core values and loyalties. Had ESPN put its obligation to bring fans the best independently reported information first, everyone would have recognized that Feldman’s involvement in the book itself was a bad idea — a conflict of interest in the making. That first bad decision was compounded by additional conflicts that surfaced as ESPN reported on the controversy between Leach and a player who was also the son of a powerful ESPN commentator, material that ultimately became a chapter in the book. Feldman’s authorship of the book became untenable when Leach sued ESPN.

We realize no one will be happy with our conclusions, because nearly everyone involved — ESPN the company, individual managers, Bruce Feldman, Brooks Melchior and every journalist who repeated the word “suspension” without verifying the facts — bears some responsibility. ESPN, of course, bears the largest, but not the only, burden.

This post was simultaneously published on ESPN.com as part of the Poynter Review Project.

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  • Robert Radakovich

    Slanted bias. No mention about Craig James in the affair whom I can’t stand personally. We had to stomach him last night during the MSU/LSU slugfest. ESPN has obviously been biased during the whole Leach Farce. I hope Leach kicks ass in court. This whole affair reeked of ESPN’s involvement from the beginning with a spoiled child in the middle and Daddy James working with ESPN in a conspiracy to slander, libel and defame Mike Leach. I could care less about Leach as a coach or a person, but he got screwed by all the plaintiffs. I hope Leach wins big!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NT4SAIEPXOHJ4YNHZSUISUTMUQ Michael

    You guys have your noses so far up ESPN’s backside that you cannot smell the crap being fed by ESPN.  Shame on you.  No wonder ESPN chose you as their ombudsman. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XUJQTLP36AA5S2YP7JUDCUSWFM Craig

    In light of what we know about this situation now, it appears Poynter got this issue as wrong as humanly possible. I mean, I don’t know if it’s even possible to screw it up more than you did. Before this, I had never even heard of Poynter, and I can assure you, there was no positive first impression.

    I’m seriously embarrassed for you. As others have commented, I think you need to review the definition and concept of ombudsman and get back to us.

    #FUCKINGCLOWNS

  • http://twitter.com/TheMadSpin Steven Kilpatrick

    I used to love reading the ombudsmen for ESPN because I trusted them to be more than shills.

    This whole thing sounds like well worded spin meant to take just enough responsibility for things to deflect a sense of arrogance.

    I feel like I’m reading a carefully vetted ESPN press report and not the solid work of an ombudsman. Maybe that’s why they’ve moved to this format.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6XLKJQVNHYEQ3YXB5FISJLEAGA TEXAZ REB

    WHAT A CROCK OF SHE~ITE…..
    TO BE INACURATE IN THE MUSSINGS LISTED ABOVE WOULD BE GENTLE…..
    LETS CALL A SPADE A SPADE….
    ESPN MANAGEMENT IS UP TO THEIR EYEBALLS IN IT….

    GOD BLESS BRUCE FELDMAN…. ANOTHER CASUALTY IN THE POOR DECISION MAKING IN BRISTOL….

    BETTER OPEN UP THAT CHECKBOOK SOON FELLAS…CUZ YER GOING TO BE PAYIN OUT OF YER NOSE!

    SWING YER SWORDS…..AND…
    FORGET HELL…..!

  • Max Thomson

    Laughably incomplete and a disappointment coming from Poynter.
    Feldmen is now a free agent. Would you consider revisiting this topic?The whole ESPN structure is filled with corporate conflicts that do not seem to bother anyone.ESPN’s ownership and promotion of the University of Texas through the Longhorn Network is the latest.Who is going to be suspended for that one?

  • Anonymous

    Feldman alleges that Skipper told him not to speak to you. 

    That really negates the tone of this. His silence was not self-imposed. 

  • Michael Wright

    In view of Feldman’s remarks today, especially the fact that he was not allowed to speak to Poynter for this piece, perhaps you should review. Feldman says he did indeed go to ESPN for guidance after Leach filed suit.  In fact, he says he warned the company it had big trouble. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/richard_deitsch/09/01/brucefeldman.cbs/index.html?eref=sihp&sct=hp_wr_a3

    Feldman says he was, if not suspended, banned from doing any work.  He contends a “Do Not Book” order was sent to all ESPN properties in regards to him and the Leach book.  

    Sports writers have long ghostwritten.  Ed Linn and Frank Graham were masters of it and I don’t recall their integrity being questioned.  Your argument there seems to be that Alex Haley should have ceased writing about race after “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” came out.  

    Poynter needs to revisit this issue immediately, or it will lose all credibility.

  • http://profiles.google.com/pastorjamesc James Cotten

    Gee, I see ESPN made sure and got a new ombudsman that will do their bidding and make sure and water things down. Do you even understand what the word ombudsman means?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_C3ONYQDBI76OTWA72EYM56MPXM t

    Holy cow you loser, this is clealry someone pandering to ESPN.  Why don’t you expound on James’s employment of a PR firm to disparage Leach.  There’s a lot more going on between ESPN, conflict of interests, and James, but god forbid we should focus on the bigger story.  Great reporting.  Did you intern with Dan Rather?

  • Jason Duhon
  • Jason Duhon
  • Anonymous

    It’s absurd to suggest Bruce Feldman faced an “impossible conflict” when you consider the wide varieties of “conflicts” that espn is engaged in in this story.  But merely on the issue of Feldman alone, I fail to see how he has a conflict of interest as a journalist when it comes to reporting on his own company. Perhaps he has a conflict as an employee, but this isn’t the same thing. As I understand it, the role of ombudsman is not to figure out who followed espn rules and who didn’t – it’s to decide whether or not espn, its employees and its policies, adheres to  a defensible code of journalistic ethics.  NY Times reporters cover the NYT. If you think Feldman’s book is a hack job then make that argument but reading this I get the impression that the author hasn’t even seen Feldman’s book.  

    Also, it should be pretty obvious that reporters have a public presence now – radio, twitter, tv, etc.  If you tell a reporter not to do any of these things you’re basically telling them not to show up for work, so spare us the hackneyed attempt at semantic hairsplitting.  

  • Anonymous

    What is ultimately damning of ESPN, and perhaps unknown to Ms. McBride when she wrote this article, is that ESPN has tolerated similar conflicts of interest in the past. Mark Slabaugh, for instance, recently co-wrote a book by Bobby Bowden, but that hasn’t prevented him from covering Florida State, the ACC, or coaches that were on the staff at Florida State. Other on air reporters frequently cover stories and games involving teams where they coached or played–and are rather transparently biased in favor of them (Lou Holtz and Mark May joke about their biases, Kirk Herbstreit shows up on air with his family in Ohio State uniforms).

    That ESPN is only restricting the scope of reporting for a conflict involving Bruce Feldman is transparently retaliatory for the criticism that the Mike Leach directed at ESPN.

    I would also point out that it was hardly a secret that Bruce Feldman was writing a book for Mike Leach. I’ve known for over a year, based entirely on the stories and chats that Bruce Feldman has put up on ESPN.com. There is no way that anyone familiar with ESPN’s online content should have been blindsided by this book; it wasn’t a secret and was publicized often to the public.

  • Allan Bird

    It’s difficult to conclude that Ms.McBride and Poynter aren’t pimping for ESPN.  Ms. McBride bends over backward to give ESPN the benefit of the doubt regarding motives and actions, but tries to spin and twist and dance around her less than generous treatment of Brooks, other journalists and the general public.

    ESPN lost all credibility on this story when they allowed Craig James to be an active participant in the original story’s coverage.  It is pretty clear at this point that ESPN lacks all integrity, and should be considered more as a TMZ-styled operation than as a serious journalistic endeavor.

  • http://twitter.com/ksb74 K.S. Bailey

    This column is little more than well-worded shilling for ESPN.

  • http://twitter.com/mkokc Mike Koehler

    It seems a scalpel is being taken to Bruce Feldman’s ability to report without causing a conflict – no Leach, no Tech, no Big 12 (?!), but not ESPN’s as a whole, let alone Craig James. If McBride feels like Feldman needs to have these boundaries placed on him heading into the season, how can the network be expected to report unbiasedly on a pending lawsuit against itself. ESPN is a target because it has a double-standard in how it reports (and hypes) news about athletes and coaches, yet turns a blind eye to itself when it makes news. Can’t have it both ways and it seems like Poynter has drunk the Kool Aid on that. 

  • Anonymous
  • http://www.facebook.com/loupickney Lou Pickney

    With all due respect to Kelly McBride and to Poynter, an organization that I respect and which I have primarily had positive dealings with in the past, I strongly disagree with both the characterization of Brooks Melchior (hereafter referred to as Brooks, the name under which he writes for SPORTSbyBROOKS.com) and the way that McBride presented the definition of the word suspension relative to the credibility of Brooks’ reporting in her article.

    From the Google dictionary, here is the third listed definition of
    the word suspension: “The official prohibition of someone from holding
    their usual post or carrying out their usual role for a particular
    length of time.”

    Based on the information that Brooks reported, information that McBride herself confirmed as fact in her article (“managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air”), the definition culled from Google’s dictionary fits the discipline meted out to Bruce Feldman by his superiors at ESPN.  Feldman was clearly both prohibited from holding his usual post and from carrying out his usual role, meeting both criteria for a definition of the word suspension that requires only one criterion to be in effect for the definition to apply.

    McBride claimed in her article that “This is more than just semantics.”  Yet it seems that McBride contradicted herself on that point when she applied her own narrow definition of the word suspension to, in turn, place a blanket blame on Brooks and “every journalist who repeated the word “suspension” without verifying the facts” and further claim that the group somehow “bears some responsibility” about the alleged inaccuracy.  To the contrary, I assert that the report of McBride facing a suspension was not inaccurate but, to the contrary, spot-on accurate according to the aforementioned Google dictionary definition of the word.

    As a journalist who used the word suspension on Twitter and Facebook in describing what Brooks reported, McBride included me, along with many other journalists with much higher profiles than I have, with Brooks in what she described in the article as an “erroneous” report.  I take umbrage to that characterization, as however indirect it might be, it calls my journalistic integrity into question.

    There are several questions that McBride’s article left unanswered.  Why was the line in the terse statement issued by ESPN that “Bruce has resumed his assignments” not addressed directly in the article, particularly since that line gives credence to the idea that what Feldman’s bosses told him to do fits an accepted definition of the word suspension?  Why was SPORTSbyBROOKS.com described as a sports gossip blog when the site has clearly long-since transitioned away from gossip and morphed into an outlet whose primary focus is the coverage of hard sports news?  And why was Brooks’ quote from Feldman (“Do not do any work until we tell you to. No tweeting, and no chats.”) absent from McBride’s article?

    This response to McBride’s article
    was simultaneously published in the comment section below the
    article on Poynter.org and also on DraftKing.com on July 19, 2011 at
    2:25 a.m. CDT.

  • http://twitter.com/brdmaker Brad Kirkpatrick

    How can you write this whole column without addressing Craig James role in the whole affair? Frankly, that makes the whole column reek of an ESPN-slanted bias. Not what we would expect from a supposedly “unbiased” observer…

  • http://twitter.com/gregpfrancis Greg Francis

    I am not sure ESPN is worried about a conflict of interest.  Doesn’t Craig James still call games involving his son’s former coaches? 

  • Anonymous

    Money, and access to future money is behind this debacle.  ESPN must institute strict financial restrictions extra jobs, conflicts of interests, excessive gifts, and most importantly; unwarranted access to individuals or sports teams. 

  • Anonymous

    People weren’t upset that Feldman might have a letter placed in his file; people were upset that he had been silenced. In that context, the definition of the word suspension is irrelevant. What upset people was seeing someone largely viewed as being a standard-bearer of professionalism being muzzled publicly for something that he’d already gotten the approval for. To insinuate that the public is equally at fault as much as the stance ESPN took is at fault is the logic equivalent of saying that it wasn’t manslaughter, but rather involuntary manslaughter. At the end of the day, someone still had to die for either to be true, which is the bigger picture. In this case, it was Feldman’s name.

    A different, but perhaps even more pressing, point for ESPN is why so many people would be so quick, so eager, and so ready to bash them publicly. If they truly have convinced themselves it was just a misunderstanding, they run the risk of far greater danger, of far more lasting damage than any book or lawsuit might bring. There was an instant vocal, passionate wave of sentiment that had no qualms rising against them. They would be wise to make getting to the root of THAT -even moreso than the Feldman/Leach issue – the priority. This was just a symptom; they need to cure the disease.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe ESPN should have been more clear.  Of course it doesn’t look good to say what they really meant which was ”I don’t think he took our message the way we intended, which was, ‘This might impair your ability to HAVE a job.’ ”  And please don’t give ESPN a pass because they’re big with lots of layers of management.  The real issue is that they were trying to figure out how to keep from looking even worse as a result of a series of their own bad decisions makes the public wonder how much of what they do is true journalism.