On April 7, a radio host went on the air and said something really stupid — and it had nothing to do with Rutgers. Colin Cowherd, an ESPN Radio host, decided to flex his muscles by calling on his listeners to shut down thebiglead.com — a popular sports media criticism blog — by driving more traffic than its bandwidth could allow. It worked. Thebiglead.com, which often criticizes ESPN but only mentioned Cowherd once, was shut down for two days. “We shut it down in 90 seconds,” Cowherd bragged on air. “We apologize but just don’t screw with us.”
Enter Le Anne Schreiber, who had taken over for George Solomon as ESPN’s ombudsman only one week before. Schreiber, a former sports editor for the New York Times, is an able and tested reporter with a bona fide résumé. This potentially illegal and certainly unethical action was a major test for a network that has a history of protecting its own and an ombudsman who barely had enough time to locate the bathroom and learn the names of her coworkers.
To her credit, though, Schreiber deftly tackled the problem and handled the situation with poise and grace. She was unsatisfied with the ESPN official response, which was blander than Imus without the vitriol, so she called Traug Keller, senior vice president of ESPN Radio. We will never know what she said to him, but she should be given at least some credit for his immediate action. “We talked to Colin Cowherd, and we talked to all our radio talent, making it clear that you cannot do this,” said Keller the next day. “Our airwaves are a trust, and not to be used to hurt anyone’s business. Such attacks are off limits. Zero tolerance. I can’t say it any stronger.”
The media and bloggers had their hands full with a different radio faux pas, but those that did comment on the Cowherd case seemed appreciative of Schreiber’s efforts, if a bit cynical of ESPN’s contrition. “It seems she understands completely why we were all so mad,” wrote DCScrap on ourbookofscrap.com. “Good job.”
Last Friday, Schreiber wrote her second planned ombudsman column — her first was merely introductory — and she hit another home run. She took ESPN to task for the continuous shouting of their talking heads, citing poignant examples of their silliness and calling out a few well-established anchors by name. She engaged readers and invited them to respond, promising to use their input to better her work. This time bloggers took greater notice and were effusive with their praise.
“Welcome, Le Anne Schreiber,” blogged the Daily Verdict, “and might I say, bravo.” “If you look at the detail in the woman’s lengthy report, you’ll be surprised at the sincerity,” added Susan Mullen in her own blog.
“Ms. Schreiber, you are not out of touch with this viewer,” wrote Zach, responding to one of the columnists’ concerns. “She nails a few of the offenders by name, which I appreciate. I think other people will appreciate her perspective as well.”
Grizz 3521 took up Schreiber’s offer to write in and was equally complimentary. “I agree wholeheartedly with your first impression, there IS entirely too much shouting. Please continue to present your thoughts and ideas, hiring you was a great move for ESPN.”
Schreiber did not just take aim at the shouting, which she supposes “does no serious harm.” She also denounced the vociferous and forceful opinionating of many ESPN personalities, listing a series of “cringe moments” where she felt journalism was replaced by rumor mongering — an especially timely criticism in the wake of the Duke lacrosse case finally coming to an end.
“Wow. Just wow,” posted Awful Announcing. “Yes, Yes, and Yes. I’m leery of how much I’m agreeing with Mrs. Schreiber.”
“Her article was so refreshing — I can’t believe ESPN.com actually had it on its front page!” wrote save the steagles.
Dan Goldberg is a CJR intern.
It is somewhat rare for an ombudsman to have an anticipatory audience, but Schreiber has just that. Already she has some bloggers calling for a weekly or biweekly column as opposed to her plan of writing once a month. Twins15 seemed to have perfectly summed up Schreiber’s first two weeks on the job. “That was beautiful,” he wrote. “She was dead on.”