Over the years, the biggest criticism of ESPN, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports,'' has been that it engages in shameless self-promotion that often makes it seem as if the network is bigger than the stories it covers. But in a strange twist, two stories have developed in recent days that have thrust ESPN into the national spotlight and made the network the story. Here's a look at those two stories — one that made the network the focus through no fault of ESPN's and one that did through ESPN's doing — and how they have been viewed.
The Erin Andrews videotape
A videotape surfaced on the Internet of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews, who was filmed naked through a peephole in a hotel room. Andrews' representatives and ESPN acknowledged the grainy video was of Andrews and that they would seek civil and criminal action against those behind the video if they are caught.
Exploiting the story
While all agree that Andrews was the victim of an abhorrent act, that didn't stop several media outlets, including Fox News and CBS, from airing either photos from the video or the video (with parts of Andrews' body blurred). The New York Post also ran several still photos, and ESPN has responded by banning Post reporters from appearing on its shows.
In an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer said, "Erin was grievously wronged here, and while we understand the Post's decision to cover this as a news story, their running photos obtained in such a fashion went well beyond the boundaries of common decency in the interest of sensationalism. This is not a decision we undertook lightly, but we feel it is an appropriate one."
In the story's wake has come backlash against ESPN and Andrews. The Post's Page Six gossip page ran at item Thursday that blamed ESPN. The Post wrote, "No one would have known that a sick voyeur had secretly videotaped ESPN reporter Erin Andrews nude in her hotel room if the Mickey Mouse sports network hadn't sent a letter to an obscure Web site demanding that it take down its link to a fuzzy video of an unidentified blonde.''
Meantime, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan seemed to criticize Andrews in a Twitter post, writing, "Women sports journalists need to be smart and not play to the frat house. There are tons of nuts out there. Erin Andrews incident is bad, but to add perspective: there are 100s of women sports journalists who have never had this happen to them.''
Brennan clarified her comments Thursday, saying her "frat house'' comment, "was not meant to be pointed specifically at Erin, and I'm sorry if it was taken that way.'' She added, "What happened to her is terrible, and she will always have my full support.''
Interestingly, "Erin Andrews peephole tape'' was the top Google search Tuesday and Wednesday this week and No. 3 on Thursday. As AOL Fanhouse's David Whitley wrote, "The fact is only one person committed the crime, but almost all of us have contributed to this revealing peep at our culture. That includes ESPN.''
Andrews was the victim of a pervert who crossed all lines of decency. To somehow question her style as a reporter or ESPN's role in creating a media sensation such as Andrews in the context of this scandal is not only unfair, it's indecent. Certainly there is never an inappropriate time to have intelligent conversations about networks' hiring practices, the networks' role in developing popular personalities and why certain personalities become popular. But it is apples and oranges. In this case, the blame starts and stops with those responsible for drilling a hole in a wall, taping an unsuspecting naked woman and posting that video on the Internet.
The Ben Roethlisberger case
This week a woman in Nevada filed a civil lawsuit accusing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of sexually assaulting her last summer. The story appeared in newspapers throughout the country (including this one), on other media outlets and on major sports Web sites with one notable exception: ESPN. The network did not report it on any of its broadcast outlets or its Web site. It said that it has a policy of not running stories based on civil suits without a criminal investigation or without conducting its own reporting.
The initial reaction
ESPN claimed to be taking the high road by not reporting the lawsuit, and there is precedent for its decision. In 2005 it did not report a story about a woman who accused then-Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in a civil suit of infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease. On the other hand, ESPN did report last month that a woman had planned to file a civil suit against Lakers guard Shannon Brown on sex-related accusations.
With Roethlisberger, many wondered if ESPN was refusing to address the story in order to stay in good standing with one of the country's most high-profile athletes.
Late Wednesday, ESPN first reported the Roethlisberger story when authorities announced there would be no criminal investigation. Why did ESPN shift gears? ESPN says it simply was waiting for either Roethlisberger or law enforcement to make a statement. On Dan Patrick's national radio show Thursday, ESPN senior VP and executive editor John Walsh was asked if ESPN should have reported the story sooner.
"I don't think that question should be answered until we see how the news story unfolds,'' Walsh said. "In the blogosphere and sports talk radio, too many judgments are rushed to be made before we know what we should know about a case. … You want to get to the bottom of it and honor and respect all the people who are involved, including the victims."
Any news organization has the right to set the standards by which it will report a story. But because this case involved a civil suit and a high-profile athlete and because reputable news organizations, including the New York Times, reported the story, it did seem odd that ESPN chose to ignore it, especially when it calls itself the "Worldwide Leader in Sports.'' If nothing else, ESPN's future practices on reporting such stories will be under heavy scrutiny.