Bill Simmons' ESPN suspension and the challenges of editing star talent
Whether you think Bill Simmons is the latest sacrificial lamb at ESPN, or that his suspension is really theater in the vein of professional wrestling, there are important issues behind the suspension that we could all pay some attention to.
- Too much content, too little editing: From podcasts to blogs to social media posts, there is a fair amount of content that goes straight to the audience with very little editing. With small changes (see word choice, below) to his rant, Simmons could have stayed within the boundaries of ESPN’s acceptable journalistic standards. In broadcast, that’s the producer’s role. In writing it’s the editor’s role. There is editing and production that takes place. But do those people do their work with an ear toward editorial standards? It’s hard to say if that’s even possible with a marquee talent like Simmons (see Stars, below.) But they could and they should.
- Word choice: Simmons was on solid ground when he called Goodell’s response “fucking bullshit.” Suggesting the football commissioner take a lie detector test was clever. But calling him a liar went over a line, because it draws a conclusion that we cannot draw. The best reporting has demonstrated that the Ravens’ staff were aware of the contents of the elevator video and that someone at the NFL knew as well. It’s easy to assert that Goodell should have known. But that doesn’t add up to liar. When you make accusations you can't verify, you have moved outside of journalism into something else – politics, spin, deception? Even opinionated journalists should base their work on established facts.
- Stars: When I served as the head writer for the ESPN-Poynter Review Project, several ESPN employees told me, in confidence, how difficult it was to edit Bill Simmons. ESPN is not unique. This is true of many big stars in many newsrooms. Stars that operate outside the rules of engagement leave the organization exposed. It’s good for ESPN to have commentators pushing the boundaries of taste and journalistic ethics, that’s what the audience wants. Provocation is tried and true meme. But it’s even better to have a process that prevents stars and everyone else from blowing through those boundaries because they don’t realize it or they don’t care.
- Consistency: Ethics codes and editorial standards are fabulous, but if an organization inconsistently applies them, they become a weakness not an asset. That’s because they can be used against you. An organization as big and spread out as ESPN has steep challenges. How can it apply to same standards to its premiere investigative show, Outside the Lines, as it does to blog posts and podcasts? The answer lies in constant attention to process.
It’s hard to measure whether an organization has healthy processes. We never hear about the times that ESPN dials a writer or on-air talent back. We don’t see the great catches that editors make. We only see the gaffes. And given the volume of content that ESPN produces, there will likely be plenty of fodder for critics like Deadspin.
That said, when your biggest star declares himself above his newsroom’s standards, the boss has to respond.