"The Decision," ESPN's ill-conceived LeBron James infomercial in which he announced his decision to sign with the Miami Heat, was universally panned by media critics as one of the network's lowest hours.
ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, a former NBC and ABC executive who is considered one of television's top innovators, agreed with many of the complaints in his scathing 1,150-word column posted Wednesday on ESPN.com.
"Some found ESPN guilty of violating a key ethical journalistic tenet — paying for news," Ohlmeyer wrote. "Others disdained the network's perceived pandering to a superstar, a trait causing them to ponder the network's biases. Still others decried a simple announcement being manufactured into the suspense of a 'second coming.' The monstrous hype that led up to the special was a calculated and constructed spotlight that media far beyond ESPN helped feed. To many, the aggregate was an affront to humility, loyalty, moderation, and instead became a celebration of greed, ego and excess. ...
"Beyond James, it's a cautionary tale for ESPN. If the network wants to be considered the true worldwide leader in sports, it must accept the responsibility that comes with it. As the biggest player in the space, ESPN can establish and give credibility to a story. With that clout, of course, comes the obligation to cover each story not just with journalistic integrity but with appropriate weight — or risk that very same credibility."
The one-hour special July 8 produced the network's second highest rating this year, peaking at 13 million viewers.
Ohlmeyer discussed the internal conflict between the network's business and studio side, which looked at the show as a coup, and the newsgathering side, which was concerned it would compromise its integrity.
Among some other ESPN mistakes that Ohlmeyer noted:
In the aftermath of the special, Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, said, "You can't justify paying for news. There are no excuses here. The hope is that we learned something from this, that we won't repeat the error, and that we can restore any lost confidence in our ability to objectively report and present the news."
Let's hope it's a lesson ESPN learns. As bad as announcement shows are, leave them to high school recruits and not egotistical superstars.
Link to Ohlmeyer column