Job Report: ESPN’s New Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer

 

katie-bakes-ii

Just in case our mandate of covering the media is not recursive enough for you, we gather here today to watch the watchmen watch the watchmen. In other words: How did ESPN’s new ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer do in his first column for the World Wide Leader in Sports?

The answer: pretty good… if you could make it far enough into the nearly 4,000-word column to get to the point. Or as the kids might say: TL;DR.

Unlike his predecessors Le Anne Schreiber and George Solomon, both of whom came from newsroom backgrounds, Ohlmeyer is more of a Jack-Donaghy-of-all-trades: His resumé includes line items like producer and network honcho. This is crucial. Assessing a behemoth like ESPN that karaoke-steps the line between entertainment and information (“Let’s invent a 24-hour sports network that buys rights from leagues and teams and then does news coverage half the day that covers those leagues and teams critically,” deadpanned ESPN’s John Walsh on Bill Simmons’ podcast, but like, that’s exactly it) requires a multi-media perspective.

What it probably doesn’t require is a lengthy intro peppered with name-drops, confusing disclosures, and conventional wisdom. I’m hardly one to call someone out for excessive verbiage — I’ve never met a complicated sentence structure I didn’t love — but I think it’s fair to say that one really shouldn’t have to slog through this:

I think the Internet is the most transformative technological advancement since the printing press. Gutenberg’s press freed information from the control of the church and the aristocracy. It led to literacy and the freedom to think based on knowledge. The Internet has revolutionized access to unfiltered information, putting it at everyone’s fingertips. The blessing is that, at the touch of a finger, we can Google almost anything and find a wealth of information. The curse, of course, is you can’t be sure what you find is fair or accurate.

…in order to finally arrive at this:

It appears that in an attempt to tamp down media criticism, ESPN issued a statement to inquiring news organizations that had questioned its lack of acknowledgment of this story. That doesn’t cut it. In a situation like this you need to be proactive, not reactive. If ESPN felt it needed to explain its rationale to The New York Times or The Washington Post, then there is no excuse for not giving the same explanation DIRECTLY to its audience.

That point, coming as it does nearly 3,600 words into the column, is exactly right. A few weeks ago, I dubbed ESPN’s weirdly circuitous way of issuing one statement to explain its lack of another “a sort of journalistic fingers-in-ears ‘I can’t hear you!’” maneuver. It was paternalistic: not just in its condescension — we’ll engage with readers of the Times, sure, but not with our own viewers — but also in its daddish fogeyness, its clear misunderstanding of the way information is disseminated and digested online.

(Speaking of old farts who don’t get it, an aside: In a bit of corporate synergy, ESPN employs Rick Reilly, hater of blogs and one of the worst perpetrators of what Can’t Stop The Bleeding terms “terrible sub-Dave Barry-style jokery — the sort of Dad-grade randomness in which words like “weasel” and “donut” become punchlines of their own.” Or dental metaphors: Their odd prevelance in Reilly’s writing was first uncovered by Slate’s Josh Levin and most recently scrubbed from Wikipedia by a kindly PR rep. Then there was the Twitter hammer brought down by Bristol. No wonder Bill Simmons seems evermore crazed!)

Anyway, reaction to Ohlmeyer’s early effort has been mixed. Examiner.com’s Paula Duffy was unimpressed with the ombudsman’s interview with ESPN VP Vince Doria as well as his suggestion that the network should have briefly acknowledged the story, explained that it was opting not to elaborate further, and directed viewers to its website for an explanation of its policies. I agree about the Doria interview — he already spouted the same useless party lines when Dan Patrick interviewed him — but I like Ohlmeyer’s protocol for handling issues like these. (I proposed a simple line item linking to the AP report, but his method is even more transparent.)

Over on Deadspin, Dashiell Bennett ruled that Ohlmeyer, once he got to his point, “pretty much nailed it” but not before comparing the column, which used the old crutch of defining the word ombudsman in the lede, to “a bad graduation speech”. (A commenter likened it more to a bad college essay, noting that “I was always partial to ‘Since the dawn of time…’”) Amusingly, Bennett took more comfort from Ohlmeyer’s overall rambling tone than he did from his voluminous conflict-of-interest disclosures:

At this point, you have no need to worry about Ohlmeyer’s independence from the ESPN corporate structure since it’s obvious that no editor touched this thing. (Although it was published at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, just before the Brett Favre news conference. Not exactly primetime placement.)

NBC’s Pro Football Talk, one of the most outspoken blogs during the initial Roethlisberger flareup, also agreed with Ohlmeyer’s conclusions, although writer Mike Florio did lament the lack of hard-hitting and/or follow-up questions in the ombudsman’s exchange with Doria. He also served up a juicy parenthetical aside:

(There’s also a possibility that ESPN was protecting its relationship with Harrah’s, the employer of the plaintiff and all of the defendants not named Roethlisberger. Coincidentally, SportsBusiness Daily reported today that ESPN and Harrah’s Interactive Entertainment have announced a seven-year deal for ESPN to continue to broadcast the World Series of Poker. A month ago, a report regarding the suit against Harrah’s employees could have complicated the negotiations.)

Innnnteresting. Perhaps Ohlmeyer can get some boilerplate denials from Doria about that one in his next column. Let’s just hope that he skips the part where he waxes nostalgic about the origin of the slot machine or looks up “junket” in the dictionary.

Katie Baker has contributed to Gawker, the Yale Daily News, Young Manhattanite, and US College Hockey Online. Her blog can be found here. She also has a day job.

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