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Saturday, November 26, 2005

ESPN The Magazine and Steroids in Baseball

A few issues ago, ESPN the Magazine ran a big story on the steroids scandal in baseball. I read it, didn't really learn anything new, but somehow felt that ESPN the Magazine wanted me to feel grateful because it addressed the issue. That feeling irritated me, because where was ESPN in the first place, when the problems started?

Instead of several years too late.

ESPN clearly had a conflict of interest. I'm not sure whether ESPN actually is in the journalism or entertainment business, but sometimes the lines can get tangled. After all, it's hard to put your investigative muscle on a brewing scandal when that scandal could cost you millions in ad revenue because you have a big contract with Major League Baseball to televise its games.

One reader castigated ESPN the Magazine by writing "The steroids story needed telling. But missing were any hard questions for ESPN's baseball folks about what they knew and when they knew it. You apparently tried to confront players, who then refused to comment, but why weren't your star reporters put in the same position?" That's what Mark Ludolph of Peoria, Illinois wrote.

Good questions.

And here's what ESPN the Magazine wrote in the last line of its short missive on the topic: "When the national pastime is infected, so are we all."

That is absolutely pathetic. The purpose of the press is to ask the hard question and to press. Where were the photo analyses of changed physiques, the yearly comparisons of player's listed weights, the comparisons of stats, so that a banjo hitter who never hit more then 10 homers in a year got questioned when he then hit 50? Or the pitcher whose miles per hour on his fastball mid-to-late in his career jumped by more than 5 m.p.h.? Are the baseball media really journalists, or they simply cheerleaders who can't believe their good fortune that they get to watch games for a living. Say what you will about the media who cover the national political scene, but if they were on this case, they wouldn't have missed it at all, and the game would be better off for it.

ESPN the Magazine, don't separate your shoulders patting your collective selves on the back. Your signature piece, as it were, was several years late. Your justification for the press's huge miss is even worse.

Make up your minds: are you publicists and entertainers, or are you journalists? In the case of baseball in the recent past, the answer is obvious.

I've blogged tirelessly (to myself and perhaps tiresomely to others) on the steroids issue. The mainstream baseball media took a huge powder here and shouldn't be given a pass. They got coopted and corrupted and instead of wondering why the numbers were getting so inflated, they took a joyride in reporting a sudden surge in performances and the sports renewed popularity. It's the job of the press to ask how and why, and the mainstream baseball media, ESPN included, struck out.

Without even taking their bats off their shoulders.


Anonymous Mark said...

I happened to be googling myself and cam across your reference to my e-mail to ESPN regarding their steroid piece. I realize this is a year and a half late, but thought you might be curious to see the full letter I sent to ESPN (because they only printed a portion):

The Steroid piece was an important story that needed to be told. The one thing missing, however, was any hard questions directed at the ESPN baseball folks (Harold, Peter, Soup, Tim K and Buster) about what they knew, when they knew it and why they didn't report it. I think these questions go to the heart of why something wasn't done sooner. If the biggest sports network was afraid to run the story, didn't think it was a story or was afraid of losing player access, you should have to explain yourselves. You were willing to report allegations against players and indicate that they refused comment, why weren't your star reporters put in the same position? Interestingly, the one ESPN personality who was a focus of the article, Steve Phillips, portrayed himself as hero , trying to raise questions MLB refused to address. Perhaps this portrayl is accurate (or perhaps Phillips wants it to have been accurate). Unfortunately, there is no supporting sourcing, so it looks like Phillips is simply puffing himself up.

It was a very important piece, but you left out ESPN's role in not bringing the story out sooner.

BTW I appreciated your kind words regarding my question and agreed wholeheartedly with your analysis. You blog has made my list of favorites.


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