ESPN needs more consistent newsroom standards, Ombuds Says

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Robert Lipsyte, ESPN’s ombudsman, called for ESPN to be more consistent when it disciplines staff.

Lipsyte’s comments, in his Nov. 4 ombudsman column, followed up on ESPN’s September suspension of Bill Simmons, Grantland’s editor, after he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar on an ESPN podcast.

As iMediaEthics wrote at the time, Simmons was suspended for three weeks after he called Goodell a liar and his press conference about Ray Rice “such f***ing bullsh*t.” Lipsyte explained in September the discipline was both for calling Goodell a liar without evidence and for insubordination since he challenged ESPN to punish him.

Lipsyte used his column earlier this month, in part, to advise ESPN to come up with better and more transparent standards for handling and preventing incidents like Simmons’ podcast and suspension.

According to Lipsyte, his reader “mailbag throbbed with outrage” at Simmons’ punishment. In his opinion, readers and listeners were “wrong-headed but understandable” in being upset. And it’s partially ESPN’s fault, he wrote, because Simmons wears two hats —  that of a journalist, and that of “one of the boys, only smarter an funnier.” Fans tend to think he’s the latter. Lipsyte wrote:

“What continues to trouble me is the disconnect between those ‘journalistic obligations’ ESPN claims to be straining to maintain and what the audience expects from the company, or at least from that celebrated corner of ESPN under Simmons’ banner. That includes freewheeling podcasts.”

He went on, and repeated his earlier point that Simmons’s liar accusation against Goodell didn’t have any proof:

“This is immediately tricky because Simmons sometimes acts like a journalist, or at least seems to want to be taken seriously. If he were starring on or his own version of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” that split personality might work. But the site is owned by ESPN, and house rules always apply. If you call a subject a liar on ESPN, you better have definitive proof. “

Lipsyte divided the blame among Simmons, ESPN and fans’s expectations.

It’s Simmons’ fault because he is “continuing to straddle the line between taking a stronger editorial grip on himself and playing leader of the pack with little to lose,” Lipsyte wrote.

Then, ESPN is “certainly culpable” because it has an “inconsistent approach to discipline” and unclear “guidelines for standards and practices.” And finally, Simmons’ fans, for expecting him to act as “a rebel in the benign father-knows-best world of ESPN,” which Simmons then acts out.

Lipsyte called for EPSN to be more transparent about what disciplinary action happens at ESPN especially since ESPN covers disciplinary action in other organizations.

ESPN “needs to be clearer about which rules of journalism it is going to enforce and why they need to be enforced equally in print and on pod, on Grantland and ‘SportsCenter’ and ‘GameDay’ and perhaps even on ‘partner projects.’ ESPN needs to be more transparent about the role of journalism in its business model, the purpose behind it and how committed it is to supporting it,” Lipsyte wrote.

Lipsyte pointed to his Sept. 9 blogpost calling out ESPN for unfair or questionable, inconsistent punishments. He listed five recent incidents that got attention:

  • This summer’s suspensions of Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Dan LeBatard
  • The lack of punishment or disciplinary action when Mike Ditka suggested calling the Washington Redskins the Brownsins
  • The apology after Josina Anderson reported on air that Michael Sam wasn’t showering with his team

“ESPN personnel seem to be fired, suspended or forgiven for what appear to be similar offenses. This leaves an impression of unfairness or that some greater transgression, the real reason for the punishment, has been hushed up,” Lipsyte wrote in September.

An ESPN spokesperson told iMediaEthics that it doesn’t typically comment on Lipsyte’s columns as they stand on their own.

iMediaEthics has asked Simmons for comment.

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ESPN needs more consistent newsroom standards, Ombuds Says

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