Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hiring the wolf to write the sheep's newsletter

The wolf sits at his typewriter, glasses pushed down to the brim of his nose, a cigar burning away in an ashtray by his fingers. The click-clack of the typewriter fills the forest ...

The Daily Sheep
by The Sheep

Today, I realized that all sheep are wrong for having misgivings about the wolves who prowl the forest and prey on our young and sick. The wolves are good creatures, just like we are, and share many of the same herd values. I think it's time that we let down our guard, put our heads confidently into the grass and munch away.

See, wolves are kind and considerate. They give milk to their babies, just like we do! They eat food, just like we do! Don't get caught up the drama of what they eat, but just enjoy the fact that our four-legged brothers are, without a doubt, no longer going to stalk and kill the rest of our herd. Yep, it's time we relaxed, fellow sheep. It's time we realize that wolves aren't killing us, but our FEAR of the unknown is what's truly killing us!

I met a wolf the other day. He was stuck in a wolf trap, his foot was injured ... injured bad. He was crying out to me: "Fellow forest creature! Help me! I am but a lowly wolf, you a proud, stout sheep. Only you can free me from this trap and save my life and the lives of my pups." Warily, I approached the injured wolf. But I could see his wolf tears were real, so I freed his leg from the trap and he sprung free and kissed my cheek, his nose was wet and cold, and showed me to the finest patch of grass I've ever seen in my entire life.

So there. Trust the wolves. My anecdote pretty much proves it forever. So stop questioning all the time and just ... just keep your heads down in the grass eating no matter what you hear.

Until next time,
The Sheep

Confused yet?

I would've been too, had I not read the first two articles from ESPN's newly appointed ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer.

But before we get to Ohlmeyer, let's use history to prove a much larger point about the role of the ombudsman in a large corporate entity like ESPN.

The one thing that kept me coming back to ESPN over the last few years, the one thing that filled me with hope that the network could still at times be an unbiased, thoughtful, self-critiquing, responsible member of the dying breed of true journalism was the work of the prior ombudsmen, Le Anne Schreiber, and before her, George Solomon, who served as the sports editor for the Washington Post for nearly three decades.

The ombudsman's job is, vaguely, to serve as the public's representative to ESPN, gathering questions, concerns and frustrations, internally and from the public, about the reporting, writing, and broadcasting of ESPN as a whole. The independent ombudsman is the single-most valuable member of the company. The ombudsman is the voice of the people ... at least it was before Ohlmeyer was hired.

I want to focus specifically on Schreiber, because in her two-year contracted stint as the ombudsman,
Schreiber squared ESPN up in front of her and hit the spineless conglomerate between the eyes over and over again. Schreiber was the Grim Reaper, or as my fiance so eloquently calls it, "Grim the Reaper," delivering deathly poignant analysis about the past, present, and future of ESPN.

Schreiber's background gave her that ability. She covered foreign affairs and the 1976 Montreal Olympics for Time magazine, was named editor in chief of Womensport's magazine, and was the sports editor at The New York Times (the first female to hold the title at a major American daily newspaper). She left that post in 1980 to become deputy editor of The New York Times Book Review.

She is also the author of two memoirs and won a National Magazine Award for a 1991 magazine series in Glamour about the violence and intimidation faced by doctors who perform abortions.

Simply put, she's a firestarter. Where there's fuel, Schreiber spent her entire journalistic life throwing a match on it. And when ESPN hired her to serve as their ombudsman two years ago, it seemed like the spineless conglomerate had finally done the right thing.

And for two years,
Schreiber was infallible. Here's a montage of some of her article headlines:

-"Too much shouting obscures the message"

-"At ESPN, conflict of interest is business as usual"

-"Viewers held hostage by 'tyranny of the storyline'"

-"ESPN must allow announcers to keep eyes on the ball"

-"Fed fast food of opinion, ESPN audience starves for reported fact"

-"'Sportscenter Specials' too often just hot air on hot topics"

-"Breathing room: ESPN must stop the suffocation of synergy"

-"ESPN guilty of teller becoming the tale"

I could seriously keep going. It was like she was writing all of the swear-ridden thoughts I, and every other true sports fan, was constantly shouting in my head at the TV. Go back and read through her archives when you get a chance, you'll feel like she downloaded the thoughts of your brain on a flash drive and just plugged in "Ands" and "Thes" before publishing. It's beautiful.

Now read back on all of those: Too much shouting, announcers making the games about themselves and not the players on the field, too much opinion, not enough fact. Has ANYTHING changed since
Schreiber started her crusade against ESPN for the people who watch it?

I'd argue to say that things have EXPONENTIALLY worsened. It's almost as if the network executives took
Schreiber's work and said, "Let's do the opposite, who does she think she is?!" She was a revolutionary who ended up having no power over the dictatorship. A brilliant voice mashed into the floor by blow-horn propaganda. And so, with a final farewell from Schreiber who warned ESPN to "curb the excess, dial back the arrogance and don't be so predictable," the ombudsman was gone.



Now we have a wolf writing the sheep's newsletter.

Don Ohlmeyer is EXACTLY who you'd expect ESPN to hire as ombudsman, which makes the Solomon and
Schreiber hires before him even more astounding in hindsight. Ohlmeyer could easily be one of the 1,209 talking heads shouting catch-phrases and "As reported by ESPN's" at us from an unnecessary game-break.

Schreiber was an award-winning rebel, a respected journalist, and a vigilant truth-seeker. Ohlmeyer is a corporate poster child, tossing out thoughtless words like "Due diligence" and "Rigor" as a means to not say anything at all. He is brilliant in his own way, not like Schrieber for unabashedly exposing the ridiculous company for what it is, but for his incredible ability to willingly throw horse-blinders on himself and tell everyone, even as the "public's representative to ESPN," that the network is totally awesome all the time. Awesome!

We know
Schreiber's background, but let's see who ESPN, a television broadcasting giant, chose to speak for the people. Directly from ESPN's announcement of their new knight in shining armor:

"Ohlmeyer has built one of the most distinguished careers in the history of television. He has served as an executive producer, producer, director and writer for entertainment and sports programming since 1967, culminating in his last network post as president, NBC West Coast prior to his retirement in 1999. Ohlmeyer twice worked at NBC; he first joined the network in 1977 as executive producer of sports. He returned as president in 1993, where he oversaw the activities of all the company's entertainment-related businesses, including NBC Entertainment, NBC Studios and NBC Enterprises.

"Prior to his time at NBC, Ohlmeyer worked at ABC, where he had served as producer and director of three Olympic broadcasts, produced ABC's Monday Night Football, worked extensively on ABC's Wide World of Sports and developed The Superstars for television.

"Over the next five years, he created the sports anthology series SportsWorld and served as executive producer of NBC coverage of the Super Bowl and the World Series as well as the prime-time series Games People Play and the made-for-television movie The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story. Ohlmeyer became well known for expanding the network's sports coverage and introducing innovative production techniques.

"He installed Bryant Gumbel as the host of NBC's live NFL show, hired Bob Costas, Marv Albert, partnered Dick Enberg with Merlin Olsen in football and Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire in what is widely regarded as the best basketball commentary team in history.

"In his career, Ohlmeyer has been honored with 16 Emmys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and two Peabody Awards, and has been inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame."

While that little biography ends with a flourish, the blood and guts of his career makes my spine tingle at ESPN's obvious attempts to solidify their own fortress. Don't get me wrong, he's had an incredible career in the broadcasting business, but that's WHY this move is so jaw-droppingly unjust from the public perspective. He's a broadcast frat boy wearing a member's only jacket with ESPN written on the back in Greek letters. The ombudsman's job is to report. To gather and report. To criticize, to highlight, to dissect the situation like a surgeon. A print journalist, at least before the era of modern journalism, was trained to ask the questions no one else would ask, write the thoughts and ideas that no one was willing to face. A journalist WAS the voice of the public. But broadcast journalism is an entirely different school of thought. Broadcast journalism is, well, what ESPN has become. ESPN was started and hosted initially by nothing but the finest print journalists. Were they pretty? Hardly ever. But they were journalists to their core, asking questions and making statements, based in fact and not opinion, that caused athletes to shiver in fear.

But as the true journalists at ESPN were moved off-air and replaced by talking parrots, the standard and quality of the REPORTING disappeared. And so it only makes sense that ESPN would take the last bastion of journalistic integrity and critique and assimilate it into the company. ESPN, meet the Borg.

What Solomon and
Schreiber were, Ohlmeyer is not.

And he proved that with his first two columns. Just as we highlighted some of Schrieber's best work through her headlines, I'll highlight some of Ohlmeyer's work directly through his articles:

-"Sports television is a world of loud, quick decisions, not quiet reflection."

-"Ultimately, I want to give YOU a better understanding of how ESPN works."

-"But there's no feeling in the industry more thrilling than walking out of the control room after a Super Bowl, knowing it was a good telecast."

-"On the other hand, Tirico, Jaworski and Gruden's handling of the dramatic finish of the Buffalo-New England game was first-rate. The play-by-play was totally controlled, hitting the key points. Both analysts, judicious in their comments, never strayed from the intensity of the moment. All were enthusiastic, yet restrained -- a tough order when the adrenalin is flowing as strongly in the booth as it is on the field. The trio let the drama build and unfold with intentional moments of silence that enhanced the tension. When the Patriots scored the winning touchdown, there was a long pause in the booth -- allowing the audience to enjoy the pandemonium around the stadium. This doesn't happen by accident. It was a conscious choice made by the booth and the truck, and it was excellently executed. "

Wow. I feel like I'm reading a movie review written by the director of the movie. Quite the drastic change from the pointed critiques Schrieber provided, eh?

But that's not even the scary part. I know I've been trying to convince you that Ohlmeyer is a corporate snake, chosen specifically by ESPN to minimize public outcry and quiet the voice of dissent. Whether or not I was able to convince you isn't really important, because Ohlmeyer can confirm that directly for me:

"Under the category of disclosure, back in the 1980s and '90s I had my own company. It included a full-service advertising agency and production, marketing and consulting arms, with clients such as the NFL, NHL and MLB. We were hired by ESPN as a consultant. The company was a joint venture with Nabisco Brands, and, as part of our consulting arrangement, purchased 20 percent of ESPN. I represented that interest on ESPN's board. Those were the early years of what would become the 'Worldwide Leader in Sports' -- when it was still carving its niche and deciding what it wanted to be when it grew up. My business relationship with ESPN ended in the late '80s when KKR took over RJR Nabisco and sold the 20 percent interest to Hearst. In 1993, I sold the sports portion of my company to ESPN.

"More disclosure: One of my sons has worked at ESPN Regional Television for 15 years as a producer/director. He's made a great career for himself. If one of his shows requires comment in this space, I'll be sure to remind you. As the saying goes, 'A conflict disclosed is not a conflict.'"

My, ESPN, what big eyes you have.

My, ESPN, what big ears you have.

My, ESPN, what big teeth you have.

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