ESPN is a sports network. Its purpose is to report on sporting events in a journalistically responsible manner. It is owned by Disney/ABC, a multimedia-entertainment conglomerate.
ESPN runs college and professional sporting events on a daily basis. It has sports news casts throughout the day. It has analysis and feature programs related to sports. But the entire station format is based on a journalism foundation.
Until March 10th.
ESPN will be producing a made-for-cable television adaptation of the book, A Season on the Brink, a book about former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. First, the book's author was not privy to the adaptation, and the producers acknowledge that some of the treatment may not be accurate. Second, it appears to focus on Knight's worse tirades and cartoon persona-non-grata. Third, the entire network has bent over back-ass-wards to promote this broadcast. This is not a documentary or news feature on a legendary coach.
But the real problem with this production is the fact that it is a piece of entertainment and not a product of sports journalism like the program, Outside the Lines. This program will cross the boundary of journalistic integrity. It is fiction based upon a real character. It is a distortion of events wrapped into a foul-language promotion. It is ESPN taking the wrong path to create repeatable, long term shelf life programs like the movie studios dusty archives.
If you want entertainment, you go to a network entertainment or movie channel. If you want sports, you go to a sports program. If you want sports journalism, you went to ESPN. You should not want to blur the lines between sports journalism and fictional entertainment. The foundation of journalism is the truth, the facts, and accurate reporting of events. Not a director's adaptation of a book with a script that puts words in characters mouths, being sold and promoted like its the truth (akin to Oliver Stone's biased forays into historical films).
There will be columns about the inaccuracies in the made for cable movie. It will jackhammer the creditability of the newscasters other works. For if the pride of the network is an inaccurate fiction drummed up for ratings, what is Sportscenter or what will it become?
It is not an over-reaction to be concerned about the state of journalism in America. Only a few megamedia companies control all forms of the national press and expression. If company executives turn over the keys to the journalism departments to entertainment producers who have no ethical obligation to the truth, ignorance will not be bliss. The problem of the corrosion of the firewall has already begun; it is cheaper to have talking pundits argue their opinions on a set than hire reporters, camera and sound men to go out and actually cover multiple beats for in-depth stories. A person's opinion is more entertaining that a story's black and white facts.
Sportscasters are journalists, trained in the basic tenets of sound reporting. Look at critical events outside the realm of the sporting event, and you can recall the professionalism displayed by a Jim McKay in Munich in 1972 or an Al Michaels during the Bay Area series earthquake. It is those precedents that will be lost.
No one at ESPN has publically berated this dangerous precedent. This network is on the brink of tarnishing its reputation for hard news with a soft peddle tabloid sports subject film.