If Disney CEO Bob Iger does nothing about the shoe deals at ESPN, writes David Cay Johnston, “his inaction will only arouse suspicions about every journalistic enterprise Disney is engaged in, leaving doubt as to who may be on the take, whose agenda is being advanced by greasing palms and which critical stories are fueled by under-the-table payments to on-air employees or maybe those unseen producers who direct much of what gets on the air.” (Full letter after the jump.)
ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz asserts, “by any objective measure, Chris, Kirk and Lee’s on-air work is unassailable. Their content has not been compromised by this relationship.” That is simply not true. If the shoe were on the other foot Mr. Krulewitz would be telling a very different story.
What if Citibank paid the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel? The Patton Boggs lobbying firm paid ABC’s Jake Tapper? PBS Newshour’s Paul Solmon by Moody’s? Their unassailable work would no longer be trustworthy. Indeed, imagine that Richard Sandomir, the NYTimes sports reporter who broke this story, was being secretly paid by Fox Sports and that news broke right after his piece on the secret payments to ESPN reporters was published. Oh, the howls we could expect from Mr. Krulewitz, whose employer competes with Fox to air games.
Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso (who were or are on Nike’s payroll) and Erin Andrews (on Reebok’s payroll) are doing work that is entirely assailable every time footwear comes up, whether in reports about those ethically challenged deals footwear companies make with supposedly amateur college teams or during color commentary on whose feet slipped on wet turf.
But the Unethical ESPN Four are just part of a much bigger problem, one that now casts a shadow of doubt on all of the news operations of the Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN and also ABC News.
That the other networks evidently let their “color” commentators take money from sources and advertisers only adds to the problem. It does not excuse what Disney allows.
Sandomir’s article hints that these deals to take money from two of the most powerful and influential companies in sports may not have been covered by any policy at Disney. As Sandomir reported:
“Corso, Fowler and Herbstreit’s deals with Nike were never announced or disclosed to viewers. ‘We were unaware of these deals,’ Krulewitz said” and then Sandomir reports “ESPN said it allowed reporters and personalities to sign endorsement deals on a case-by-case basis.”
So were these deals secret arrangements between the footwear companies and the sports journalists? Or were they Disney-approved? If so, by whom? And if unapproved, what will be done about it?
What ethical standards, if any, does Disney CEO Bob Iger apply to Disney journalists? Surely as a highly paid manager Iger understands the need for consistent written policies on the conduct of employees and contractors so these questions should not require some ad hoc response, but must be already written down in a manual from the personnel office, right? The Disney board has ethical standards, including who can pay Disney directors, so its not like ethics is an ignored issue at the highest levels of Disney.) Just what policy, if any, does ESPN have on its reporters and commentators taking money from people who are inherently part of what they cover? What distinctions does it draw between “reporters” and “personalities” who appear side-by-side covering the same games, the same events, the teams, all influencing public perceptions? And what would be the rationale for any such differences, if they exist, among its on-air talents?
Of course, Iger can do nothing. He can look the other way. But if Iger does nothing his inaction will only arouse suspicions about every journalistic enterprise Disney is engaged in, leaving doubt as to who may be on the take, whose agenda is being advanced by greasing palms and which critical stories are fueled by under-the-table payments to on-air employees or maybe those unseen producers who direct much of what gets on the air. In such an environment the scrupulously honest get smeared by the dishonest, both among their peers and their superiors who do not articulate, teach and enforce clear and unambiguous policies.
And where does Bob Iger’s Disney draw the line? Would Disney let a quarterback hire one of its ESPN personalities as master of ceremonies at his family or college team reunion? How about getting paid by a firm that managers the money of players, coaches and team executives?
All organizations make mistakes. All organizations have employees whose actions raise questions. The test of integrity is how you deal with them — forthrightly or by trying to explain them away with nonsense, as ESPN is trying to do.