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Miscellany

An Interview with ESPN Ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber

January’s been a fun month for interviews: We chatted with the NFL commish, Roger Goodell, ESPN Sportscenter anchor Scott Van Pelt, and last week, one of the men who will announcer the Super Bowl on Sunday, NBC’s Al Michaels. Today’s guest: ESPN ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber.

Q: What was your path to ESPN? Between being sports editor at the New York Times and editor of the NY Times Book Review about 25 years ago, and the ombudsman at ESPN, what did your career entail?

I don’t really think of myself as having a career. It’s more accurate to say that since leaving New York City and The Times in 1984, I have simply been living a life that happens to pay for itself, mostly by writing, every once in a while by teaching. In choosing what to write about, I have mostly been guided by curiosity – what life handed or threw at me that seemed worth spending a month, sixth months, a year or two studying, investigating, writing about. The result could be an essay, a magazine article, a book, an archive of ombudsman columns.

My subjects over those years have been nature, family, social history, brain science, medicine, architecture, visual art, physics, literature, you name it. By temperament, I am a serial specialist. I tend to get intensely engaged in some area of interest for a while, burn out, move on, and sometimes circle back later, as I did with sports. By my measure, the best thing I ever did was a memoir called Light Years. It’s terrible to feel you did your best work 12 years ago.

Q: Talk to us about how you ended up in the Ombudsman seat. Did ESPN approach you out of the blue? Did you immediately jump at the offer, or was this a difficult decision to make? Could you sum up what ESPN was looking for out of you as an ombudsman?

Totally out of the blue, and I did not jump at it. In fact, my first response was, “Are your crazy? I haven’t paid close attention to sports journalism for 25 years.€ I was saying this on the phone to John Walsh, ESPN’s executive editor, whom I had known during my time as sports editor but hadn’t seen since the early 80’s. This didn’t seem to discourage John, and he asked me to do some serious ESPN-watching for a week or two before deciding.

I did, and got intrigued despite myself, in part because the problems I saw right away in ESPN’s programming were similar to those that drive me crazy in other kinds of 24/7 cable news — hype, saturation-coverage of underwhelming stories, dominance of opinion over information, abuse of the word ‘analysis’. I thought if I could make a dent in any of those practices, or at least give voice to viewers’ discontent with those practices, whether it was about coverage of sports or anything else, well, that would be a good thing to do for a couple years.

I also admit I was intrigued by the idea of having a bookend to my so-called career in sports journalism. When I was named sports editor of the Times in 1978, everyone said, she’s too young, and she’s a woman. I knew if I was named ombudsman, everyone would say, she’s too old, and she’s a woman.

In a nutshell, what ESPN wanted of me was to stand way back and look at the big picture. Several people there talked about how they had grown so large so fast, were so busy filling the proliferating channels and platforms, that no one had the luxury of standing back and taking stock.

Q: How aware were you of what George Solomon accomplished in his tenure as Ombudsman? Did you chat with him before taking the job? Would you say that you’ve taken a different approach to the job than he did?

I had been aware of George Solomon’s work as editor of a terrific Washington Post sports section, but when I got that first call, I was not aware ESPN had an ombudsman. One of the first things I did, though, was read his complete archive, and we did talk before I took on the job. He assured me, among other things, that ESPN gave him complete independence, and that has been the case with me. No interference whatsoever, and good cooperation when I go to executives, producers, writers or on-air people for information. They may dread the call or email, but they respond.

I think the main difference between me and George was that I decided early on to take an essayist’s approach rather than an incident-by-incident approach. George had paved the way for my doing that by discussing so many specific instances. With that base already laid, I looked for patterns, entrenched or developing habits of coverage that I thought needed to be reconsidered. In some ways, I was a sports journalism policy wonk, though I tried not to write like one.

I also probably gave out fewer kudos than George did. My attitude was that ESPN gets its kudos in the form of ratings and page hits. My role was to point out the ways that ratings and hits can camouflage viewer or reader discontent.

Q: What is the process for deciding what to write your column about? Are you constantly watching ESPN and reading every columns, gauging emails

Yes, all of the above. It’s impossible for one person and her DVR to consume all that ESPN puts out, but I worked out a daily routine of watching, for starts, a SportsCenter, Outside the Lines and PTI to keep on top of basic news, issues, and grist of day’s opinion mill. Also reading selected columns and news stories, especially anything marked Report or Source. Also checking mailbag to see what was on fans’ minds. Then, depending on topics I was considering for the column, I would add other shows to my viewing — might be a couple weeks of Baseball Tonight, a season of MNF, a run of E:60’s or those endless (may they RIP) SportsCenter specials. I always had way more material and notes and solicited information than I could use. Often I would have a column written in my head, then switch topics to address some furor that arose in the mailbag.

Q: Were you also perusing blogs and the mainstream media?

Yes. I discovered sports media blogs in those first weeks when I was deciding whether to take on the job. One of my concerns was that I was too far removed in sensibility from ESPN’s core demographic to represent them. How could a gray-headed ombudsmarm speak for all those sports-obsessed young men? But when I started my intensive ESPN-watching and noticed someone or something that seemed off-base to me, I would plug a few key words into Google and up came the sports blogs. The way bloggers expressed themselves was worlds apart from me, but I was often in sync with the gist of what they were saying (minus the cheap shots and personal attacks, and yes that’s a cheap shot at sports media blogs from the ombudsmarm).

I didn’t yet have access to the ombuds mailbag, so blogs were my first clue that I had more in common with young male sports fans than I imagined. Or maybe I should say that was my first clue that age or gender didn’t matter much among people who really cared about how something was covered. When I started posting columns, the mailbag reinforced that, so I stopped worrying about being the old gray lady of sports.

Later, I discovered a far greater variety of blogs – ones devoted to particular teams or sports, and I would check them as well as mainstream media, mostly online newspapers, to see how other outlets were covering a particular piece of disputed sports news.

Q: Why not grant the interview to us earlier? We’ve been pestering you for well over a year now.

When you first asked, you were anonymous, and since my job is to be Ms. Accountability, that was a problem. Later, after you named yourself, I had adopted a no-interview policy across the board, because it seemed all anyone really wanted from me in an interview was ESPN-bashing. I thought I would have a better chance of being heard within ESPN if I stuck to the forum I had – the column. Being perceived as an omni-scourge would only result in my being tuned out, always a big risk for an ombudsman. Now that I am down to the last few columns, I have lifted the no-interview policy. By this time, everyone at ESPN who reads me has had a chance to make up his own mind about whether I’m worth listening to or not.

Q: What are you going to miss about the job?

Even though it was 99% virtual, I’m going to miss the connection with all those fans I mistakenly thought I had little in common with.

And, believe it or not, I am really going to miss my long conversations with Vince Doria. I would drive to Bristol from my home on a little lake in upstate New York to engage Vince in what has to have been some of the best-natured disagreements in the business. Often they ended with Vince calling me an out-of-touch nature freak who spent too much time paddling with the ducks, and my calling him an out-of-touch company man who spent too much time in the Bristol bunker. Underneath it all, there was more mutual understanding than you might imagine.

Q: What are you not going to miss?

Staying inside and watching too much television.

Being a professional scold. I’m tired of the internal tug-of-war between being a tough-minded critic and a good Midwestern girl raised on, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it.€

Seriously, with a couple exceptions who shall remain nameless, everyone I dealt with at ESPN was extremely nice (that Midwestern term of highest phrase), forthcoming, helpful, and the hardest working set of people I have ever met. It was not easy to hold their feet to the fire month after month.

Oh, it will also be a relief not to have to be so fair-minded all the time. I can just scream at the TV set or the computer when I’m mad, instead of figuring out how to phrase myself publicly, not too hard, not too soft.

Q: You said there almost everyone at ESPN was great to work with. What were the sticking points with those you didn’t see eye-to-eye with? Were their issues with you about your critiquing in general, or do you think these individuals would be upset with anyone in your seat?

It was simply a matter of individuals not wanting to be on the receiving end of public criticism. I certainly understand that.

Q: Newspapers still haven’t found a way to solve the riddle that is the internet. How do you see the immediate future playing out for the newspaper business? Can you think of a model that might work? Is eschewing print the answer?

I wish I had the answers. I wish anybody did. I imagine the future of newspapers is online, but unless online advertisers and consumers are willing to pay what it costs to gather reliably sourced news of the breadth, variety and depth we have been used to, it will be a bleak future. Opinion is quick and cheap, literally. Gathering primary information is time-, labor- and cost-intensive. When the opinion media realize there will be nothing to chew over if newspapers are no longer around to provide information, maybe they will be motivated to partner with newspapers in a way that keeps them financially viable. Of course, that presumes the pundits would want more than a steady stream of soundbites.

Q: As a former sports editor of the NY Times, what do you make of right wingers claiming that the Times shows a decidedly liberal slant? Did you encounter this kind of talk in your days with the paper? How do you feel about claims that the media in general skews liberal?

The right has always claimed the NY Times is too liberal. The left has always claimed the opposite. Personally, I am glad that there are still a few newspapers left who put as many resources as they can into actually gathering information instead of just opining about it. It makes me extremely nervous to read about the NY Times borrowing millions from a Mexican billionaire to refinance its existing debt.

Q: Is monopoly a fair word to use when it comes to ESPN? It seems to us that ESPN, with its website, magazine and multiple TV channels, has grown much bigger than CNN, BBC or any of the four major American TV networks. As newspapers shed staff and cutback, and ESPN the Magazine challenges (or overtakes) Sports Illustrated, can the dominance of an ever-expanding ESPN possibly be good for sports fans? Or does stuff like ESPN covering college football (and college basketball, and golf, and tennis, and the NBA and the NFL, etc), but also televising the games not matter to most fans?

Monopoly is not the right word. I would call it dominance. I don’t think it’s healthy when the biggest guy on the block gobbles up the competition, whether it is Barnes & Noble running independent bookstores out of business, Home Depot wiping out the local hardware store, or ESPN reaping what networks and newspapers are losing. But as competition bites the dust, I can hope that ESPN will use its luxuriously secure position to break the mold, to reform the bad habits of 24/7 media.

Q: In your first column, you wrote, “Who are these people and why are they shouting at me?” Do you feel ESPN has done anything to tone down the volume on its army of shouters? Do you feel as if ESPN has made any significant changes to the way it does business in the wake of comments/recommendations you’ve made since arriving?

I think that column made ESPN more self-conscious about the shouting, but it’s hard for me to say if the volume has been toned down, because over-exposure to the noise induced a degree of immunity in me and perhaps hearing loss.

ESPN has made some changes that I like – getting rid of booth guests in MNF, handling breaking news in digestible chunks though live SportsCenter segments instead of through those gaseous SportsCenter Specials I complained about so much – but I would be foolish to draw a direct cause and effect link from my columns to those changes. I think I helped make the case for some changes that viewers wanted and that certain people within ESPN were already supporting. I may have added to the momentum. I hope I did.

QUICK HITTERS:

Q: Is there one column that generated more email than any other one? The Colin Cowherd incident, perhaps? Probably the first one, Can We Keep the Yelling Down, and close to that, the one about announcing, Keep Your Eye on the Ball. What I said about the demoralizing effect of too much cross-promotion also struck a loud bell with readers.

Q: If ESPN said it’d like to keep you on for two more years, would you do it? No. See above about what I won’t miss. It is time to move on, and time for a new set of eyes and ears to keep tabs on ESPN.

Q: Your favorite sport to watch, and why? Pro Football — though I find the bone- and brain-crunching that players submit themselves to for our entertainment progressively harder to stomach. Why? Because the season is short enough, games few enough, to get a bead on the whole league. And there is more at stake in each game.

In late season, when games really matter, I love watching college and pro basketball, because dimension of court allows you to see most of the action. I get bored by the narrow pitcher-batter focus of televised baseball, and between pitches, there are way too many spitting shots from the dugout.

And every four years, I am glued to the Summer Olympics. As a kid, I wanted to be the world’s fastest woman. Sprints only. No marathons.

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