ESPN’s final public editor on the ‘unfortunate’ decision to eliminate the position

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On Wednesday, ESPN followed the lead of several journalism institutions, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and eliminated its public editor position. Kevin Merida, the chair of ESPN’s editorial board and editor in chief for The Undefeated, announced the move, writing that “the position had outlived its usefulness, largely because of the rise of real-time feedback of all kinds.”

The decision means that Jim Brady, who completed his tenure as public editor in March, will be the last person to hold that role at ESPN. The network inaugurated the position in 2005, and its elimination comes at a moment when ESPN is facing serious questions about its business model, its ties to league partners, and its handling of political topics.

Brady spoke with CJR on Wednesday, discussing his tenure at the Worldwide Leader, what ESPN is losing by eliminating the position, and what areas those covering the most powerful entity in sports media should focus on in the future. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

To begin with the recent news, how do you feel about ESPN deciding to discontinue the position?

It’s unfortunate. I think most media organizations, of any size, should consider having a public editor or ombudsman. But when you have a company that has such complicated ties to the entities it covers, it’s especially important.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

For a long time, when business was really good, it was a role a lot of organizations could afford, and it’s not a role that everyone can afford now as things get tighter. A lot of places have come down to the choice: Do I want a public editor or do I want two more reporters? It’s tough not to make that latter call these days, but places like ESPN clearly have the wherewithal to have that position if it chooses, so it’s disappointing that they’re deciding not to keep it going.

 

I was struck by Kevin Merida’s explanation that external watchdogs have made the public editor position obsolete. It sounded much like The New York Times’s reasoning for eliminating its public editor position. Can we rely on the Deadspins of the world to hold ESPN to account?

For certain things, it can. When I took the role, one of the discussion I had was to say I didn’t want to be the guy who writes four times a week about some ESPN personality saying something offensive on one of their hundred platforms. That stuff is as easily covered by people outside ESPN as by someone inside.

So for the stuff that’s public, there’s some truth to [Merida’s explanation]. But the stuff that’s a little more deeply embedded, like the piece I wrote about infighting within ESPN about politics, that’s not as easily spotted from outside. The public can only report on what it sees, and there are things going on inside a company that someone in that [public editor’s] role is more able to get at.

There are great reporters out there covering ESPN—Jim Miller and John Ourand, for example. So it’s not like nobody can do the job the public editor was doing; I’m not trying to suggest that it can’t be done. But you certainly have a major advantage when you can get to anybody and physically get on campus anytime you need to. That’s outside the purview of those sitting and watching and critiquing from the outside.

 

In your farewell column, you wrote that the company has struggled with transparency. In your time as public editor, did you find that people at ESPN were open to talking with you and explaining their thinking?

There were certain people who didn’t answer emails at all, and folks I had trouble getting to, but those were isolated incidents. I would say 85 or 90 percent of the people I reached out to got back to me and were willing to talk. They were definitely critical of certain pieces that were written, but it was always collegial feedback.

 

I’m not saying the politics thing hasn’t played any role, but to suggest that it’s the major reason for ESPN’s financial problems is just willful ignorance.

 

From business problems to social media guidelines to political issues, this seems like a time when ESPN could use a public editor more than ever. What issues do you think the company and those covering it should focus on in the near future?

For people who cover ESPN, I think they’re going to be focused on what the business model is going forward. The thing about politics…people go back to the column I wrote and point to it as when all this buzz started. It didn’t start then; people had been writing about it for a long time. One of the things that frustrated me about that column was when people said, “Okay, the public editor is over here reporting that there are political problems inside ESPN, and then over here there are issues with the business model.” But then people started putting those two together as if I had claimed the political issues inside ESPN were having a major impact on the business model, which I never said. Clearly, the changing cable distribution model has been the primary driver of their business challenges. I’m not saying the politics thing hasn’t played any role, but to suggest that it’s the major reason for ESPN’s financial problems is just willful ignorance.

We do live in the most partisan time of my life, where everything is viewed as being on one team or the other, and how ESPN walks through that minefield is going to be interesting. At the same time that we have an incredibly partisan country, athletes and sports organizations are getting more and more involved in social issues. So that’s going to be tricky for them to manage, but it’s not going to be the driver of whether they survive.

The easiest answer to give is that people have to keep a very close eye on their business relationships. That’s always the thing that is worrisome. I can’t say that in the two-plus years I was in the job I heard from people on the record or on background that there was any influence there, but the truth is, it’s hard to know. It’s hard to get at that question of how much contact there is between the leagues and [ESPN leadership], and how that manifests itself journalistically.

 

Do you worry about the commitment to serious investigative journalism without John Skipper being there?  

I don’t want to say I worry about it, because that implies I think something bad is going to happen, and I don’t know that. It’s something I think everybody should keep an eye on, because that is one of Skipper’s legacies. He really believed in that and put money behind it. I hope they keep that commitment.

With the amount of coverage of entities like college sports or the NFL, there’s a lot of great work being done every day [at ESPN]. While it may not make up the bulk of what they do because of all their other commitments and priorities, it is admirable that they’ve built those [investigative journalism] teams to the size they are now. I hope they keep that, because honestly, it’s one of the best arguments ESPN has against the criticism that they kowtow to the leagues. I’m not saying it never happens, but the argument that they kowtow is not helped by all the things ESPN has written about concussions or the myriad sports scandals they’ve reported on.

When I talked to the people who do that work, I pressed them pretty hard on whether they’ve ever felt pressure from management to go soft on any of the league partners. We’re talking about very well-respected journalists who would walk out the door the minute they were told they weren’t allowed to cover something, and they all said that they don’t get any interference from management on the things they cover. Keeping that work as impactful and as well-staffed as it is right now would be a good sign they’re serious about maintaining that journalistic integrity.

 

Even if the public doesn’t automatically see the value in the position, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

 

Do you have any regrets? Things you wish you had handled differently or stories you didn’t have a chance to get to?

Not really. Early on, there was a Grantland piece that a lot of ex-Grantland people didn’t like. I stand by what that piece’s conclusions were, but I got some social media criticism for not talking to more people who worked at Grantland. That was probably fair; I could’ve called four or five more people who worked there. The one that got the most attention was the Jemele [Hill] thing, and the position I took on that I stand by.

In terms of what I didn’t get to, one of the things I wanted to do while I was there was get one of those arrangements where I could be sitting at the table when complex discussions were going on around an issue relating to a league that overlapped with the journalism side of things. I never got that done, in part because I don’t think there was much interest in me getting that kind of access.

 

More broadly, at a time when “the media” is distrusted by so much of the country, what are we losing as more of our institutions choose to do away with the public editor position?

It’s hard to tell. It’s not like public editors were viewed by people who distrust media as being fully trusted figures. We’re still viewed as being part of “the media.” But I do think the arrangement, in which you have the job for a certain amount of time, you can’t be fired for your opinions on things, and every couple of years the organization gets to put someone new in the role, is a nice model. I couldn’t be accused of being too nice to ESPN because I wanted a job; part of the arrangement was that I was never going to work there.

The arrangement provides independence on both sides that should convey trustworthiness, but I don’t know that it does. In a lot of ways, the press gets that, but I’m not sure the public does. I think journalists feel that we’re losing something by not having it, but it’s an interesting question as to whether the public thinks the same. I’d love to sit here and say the public is outraged by this, but I don’t know if they feel that at all. That doesn’t make the position valueless. Having known many people who have done this job over the years at many places, [journalists and editors] do listen to what public editors say, and it can have an impact on how news organization operate. So even if the public doesn’t automatically see the value in the position, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

ICYMI: An ode to reporter’s notebooks

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.