A blind man can see that the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports is no giant of journalism, but the hype-pool of Super Bowl week is no excuse for the eyewash ESPN put out yesterday masquerading as an Earth-moving event of epic proportion. It was pathetic; it was sad; and it goes to the heart of my belief that many in the news media compromise their integrity every day in covering sports stories, giving control over what they ask and what they publish to the players and the teams.
Loads of reporters have wanted to interview Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whose great career came to an unexpected (and perhaps only temporary) stop when he missed this entire season recovering from neck surgeries. They’ve especially wanted to talk to him since (1) his contract is expiring and everyone wonders if he’ll come back to play with the Colts, or if the team will drop him to save money and use the first pick in the upcoming draft to secure his successor, (2) the Super Bowl is being played in Indianapolis on Sunday, (3) Manning’s brother Eli, the quarterback of the New York Football Giants, is playing in this year’s big game, and (4) anything new to report on would be a blessing.
They’ve all wanted the Big Get, but Peyton Manning has declined the offers, which is his right, until yesterday, when he agreed to an interview with ESPN’s Trey Wingo. But you and me, the great unwashed American tee wee viewer, we had to be sharp to notice that the interview was arranged through the good offices of Gatorade, which granted ESPN access to its spokesman Manning so he could talk about a Gatorade promotional event. As such, Gatorade leveraged its position to turn a “news” interview with a hard-to-get person at a time when he’s even more in the news than normal into a commercial for Gatorade (Manning was interviewed with Gatorade bottles lined up behind him, for crying out loud!); as a business with a product to promote, that’s Gatorade’s right.
But it only works when ESPN agrees to the charade. Check out the interview, parts 1 and 2. I give Wingo credit for repeatedly trying to get Manning to talk about his injury, his unfortunate public disagreement with his team’s owner, and his contract situation, all things that Manning didn’t want to discuss—all the reasons why he hadn’t been talking to anyone lately. As for Manning—and this is particularly true in part 2—I give him credit for not straying from his intended topics. But for a guy who is so good on camera in so many commercials and interviews, and when he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” I thought he looked uneasy throughout, as if he were seated on something not flat or soft. When you think about it, that isn’t surprising for a guy who agreed to be interviewed but knew he wasn’t going to be responsive to most of the questions. I’m not the only one he thought that the very camera-friendly Manning looked uncomfortable in this “interview.”
I’m not saying you can’t do an interview arranged by a press agent or a corporate sponsor, but if you put yourself out to the public as an independent journalistic voice then you don’t roll over (insert inappropriate sexual metaphor here, if desired) and let the flaks have their way with you. This interview wasn’t live to air—ESPN had the time, and every right, to edit it as they saw fit before airing it, or not to air the damn thing at all if they determined that it wasn’t newsworthy. What they aired was an embarrassment…or should be.
And then I think about Newt Gingrich, and the traction he’s getting complaining about presumptuous reporters asking uncomfortable questions during campaign debates. (Jack Shafer takes him to task for pouting and blaming journalists.) Gingrich is smart enough to know that asking hard questions is what reporters are supposed to do, and also smart enough to know that a lot of people will find him brave for “standing up to” the hated left wing liberal news media.
Remember, most people don’t see any substantive difference between the reporters covering the candidates for president and the reporters covering high school football. When those people see that “the media” is willing to surrender control of the content of an interview and allow a pro football quarterback to hawk a promotion put on by his sports drink company but conspicuously refuse to answer any question of substance, we shouldn’t be surprised when they think it’s inappropriate “gotcha” journalism for reporters to ask a pointed question of a candidate for president. And we sure as hell shouldn’t be surprised when the candidate exploits those feelings for his own benefit.
Thank you, Worldwide Leader, for your contribution to journalism education—the bad example.