Monday, June 14, 2010

Chip Brown, ESPN and journalism for the critically lazy

My dear friend and mentor Cory Giger, who writes for the Altoona Mirror and hosts his own talk show on ESPN Radio in the State College/Altoona market, raised a really great question this evening:

"Surely you've heard the name Chip Brown. He's the guy breaking news for, a Texas Rivals site, and appearing on ESPN. Given that Big 12 is still alive, did he really break anything? Seems like he was wrong from get-go. His sources were probably high up Texas administration, and he reported what they told him, which probably suited their needs."

Don't be fooled -- this is really two questions masquerading as just one. For the sake of being orderly, we'll address the literal question first: did Chip Brown break news?

It's not outrageous to suggest that the most comparable situation to this we've seen in recent memory occurred in 2007, when the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review erroneously reported on its front page that the Steelers had picked Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. The Trib was clearly wrong about this, but the paper stood by its reporting, even after it became clear that the job belonged to Mike Tomlin. In the weeks that followed, fragmentary details trickled out indicating that Grimm's belief that he'd been offered the job, though the Steelers vehemently denied ever making an offer.

We'll probably never know what really happened between the Steelers, the Trib and Russ Grimm. The same probably isn't true of this whole Big 12 fiasco. As the next college football season nears, it's a good bet that you'll see Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe, Texas head football coach Mack Brown or one of the few remaining conference bigwigs sit down across a desk from Bob Ley or Kirk Herbstreit and discuss what happened.

Given that Colorado bolted to the Pac-10 before anyone knew conclusively that the Big 12 wasn't going to fade into Bolivian, I'm inclined to believe that Brown probably had the story right at the time, and that the entire thing simply shifted underneath him after he'd already stuck out his neck. By the same token, it's also entirely possible that Brown's sources were totally manipulating the story to achieve a certain desired outcome, but Brown can hardly be held accountable for that.

In 1964, Ben Bradlee, the greatest newspaperman of the 20th century, was working a story for Newsweek about Lyndon Johnson searching for a new FBI director to replace J. Edgar Hoover. Bradlee sat on the story for months, waiting for some indication that Johnson was going to make a move. Finally, Bradlee got a tip from LBJ special assistant Bill Moyers that a change in the FBI leadership was imminent. Bradlee ran the story, and, as expected, the White House denied it. Later that week, LBJ held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, naming Hoover FBI director for life. Moments before the press conference, LBJ turned to Moyers and said, "Tell your friend Ben Bradlee 'Fuck you.'"

Did Bradlee screw up? Yeah. Was he wrong? Not in the least.

Did the Trib break news, even though it wound up being wrong? What about Bradlee? It's really hard to judge from the outside looking in. But I'd give Brown the benefit of the doubt. This kind of thing happens in journalism; what's fact one day might be outdated the next, especially when there's major money involved. And college athletic administrators will always lie to reporters if it means taking control of a story and a situation upon which rests an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is only half of the issue, though, because there's actually a very important subtext in play here, and it concerns the question of new media versus established media.

As someone who studied and worked in sports journalism for a number of years, I'm fascinated by the way the industry continues to evolve, especially with respect to how people get their sports news. I was watching the 5 p.m. SportsCenter the other night when Jay Harris led off the show by interviewing this Chip Brown fellow, and the segment blew me away. On live television, at the very top of the sports equivalent of the evening news, Brown appeared on ESPN via telephone and reported that Nebraska was leaving the Big 12 to join the Big Ten. He didn't stop there. After discussing this story in depth for less than two minutes, Brown added that he had even more breaking news, and reported that six of the Big 12's remaining teams would jump to the Pac-10, and that the Big 12 would cease to exist in a matter of days.

On a certain level, this shocked me -- some blogger ostensibly hijacked a live national television broadcast, and was talking way ahead of any prepared graphics, B-roll or knowledge of anyone at ESPN. As this happened, the only thing I could think was that Chip Brown had just set off the latest skirmish in the ongoing war between new and old media.

Just for background's sake, there have been lukewarm hostilities going on the past few years between the established media and the new media, and it's gotten pretty heated on a number of occasions. The most notable of these occurred when author Buzz Bissinger savagely attacked Deadspin founder Will Leitch on an episode of HBO's "Costas Now," while Braylon Edwards looked on in befuddlement. I've long been a proponent of the idea that blogosphere is very important, in that it provides a much-needed check on an industry full of dead wood writers who aren't capable of relating to their readership at all (see: Fire Joe Morgan). But a lot of the better sports blogs thrive on the quality of their speculation, gossip and commentary, not the quality of their reporting.

This isn't true across the board. Yahoo's sports coverage, which is Internet-centric, is outstanding and breaks stories regularly. Sports reporting blog networks like Scout and Rivals, which operate by enlisting local writers in various markets to generate premium content, do a lot of solid reporting.'s Steelers coverage -- hosted on Steel City Insider -- is done masterfully by Pittsburgh writer Jim Wexell, but the quality of the coverage varies from market to market and sport to sport. Purchasing a account gets you great Steelers coverage, but the Penguins, Pirates and Pitt coverage on the network isn't worth reading, let alone paying for. OrangeBloods is the affiliate for University of Texas coverage. I don't read OrangeBloods, and I can't speak to the quality of Chip Brown's work.

However, I think the reason Brown's chops as a reporter are being called into question here has less to do with the story panning out the way he initially reported it than it does with the fact that he works for a web-based news gathering organization. There's a common and infectious attitude of uncertainty, especially among members of the traditional media, as to how we're supposed to treat the information we get from non-traditional news sources.

This is totally understandable. In his skimming of the sports section, your average newspaper reader does not distinguish a game story from a sidebar or a notebook from a column; to him, everything he reads in the newspaper is simply "an article." Similarly, we are still at a point with digital media where reporting isn't distinguished from commentary. This is why Buzz Bissinger was so outrageously wrong. It's also why the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan -- who has said that he reads blogs like Deadspin, and that there must be a harmony between the new and the established media -- is the most right of any nationally-known sports writer I've heard speak on the topic.

Blog is a four-letter word to a lot of traditionalists, and this is because they simply don't take the time to parse news from entertainment or good information from bad. In the education world, this concept is called information literacy, and it's the difference between writing an entire term paper with things you find on Wikipedia versus using resources like databases and the library.

Finally...whether or not Brown broke any news here, and whether or not he was right, it's worth pointing out here that the degree to which ESPN piggybacks on the hard work of real journalists is utterly shameful. It's been quite a while since anyone at ESPN broke any news, but unfortunately, not too long since the last time someone at ESPN took something that someone else wrote and claimed it as their own.

It's been at least a decade since ESPN permanently broke the cardinal sin of putting making the news ahead of reporting the news. ESPN gave up reporting years ago in favor of turning itself into a brand that makes money off people the same way professional sports do. With that in mind, FTC offers a simple word of advice to anyone who cares about sports enough to read about sports: diversify your sources of news and commentary. Read blogs. Read your local newspaper in print or online. For the best coverage of sports outside your area, get online and read other areas' local newspapers. Quit basking in the glitz and gimmick of the faux analysis, the rampant cross-promotion, the money-driven, image-conscious self-censorship and Stu Scott's hypnotic robo-eye. You can do better. You will do better.

1 comment:

FRANCOfranco said...