I watch NFL Network. Some of the programming is appealing. Nowhere else will you find direct access to press conferences around the league. Mike Pereira’s segment on officiating can be interesting when Rich Eisen pauses to let the league’s officiating director talk. One of my concerns, however, is that the league will grow its media machine at the expense of access for independent reporters. With that in mind, I spoke with media ethicist Bob Steele about various related issues. A transcript of that interview follows.
Before we dive into the interview with Bob Steele, let me pass along the following comment from Kim Williams, chief operating officer for NFL Network: “We don’t have editorial police at the league. We don’t have an editorial-review process at the league; we have editorial-review process within the network. … Our philosophy is rooted in credibility.”
Now, on with highlights from the interview …
Q: The NFL is covering itself through NFL Network. We’re talking about a sports network here. Is this serious stuff?
STEELE: “Sports is part of the American fabric in many ways. It’s not just about scores and winners and losers. There is a great deal about sports that has to do about economics and major financial issues in communities. There is a great deal in sports that has to do with race and race relations. There are important stories in sports related to medical issues and health concerns and drugs and chemical dependency. There are many issues in sports related to labor issues and all of these are news stories. They happen to be in sports. We should not diminish the importance of these stories in the arena of sports. At the collegiate level, there are many issues relating from how tax dollars are spent to those same issues related to race and medical issues and academic qualifications. Clearly the stories related to sports should be treated with the same professionalism and the same rigorous reporting standards that we would apply to covering government or the environment or medical issues.
Q: Is the NFL in position to meet such standards?
STEELE: “It is problematic for the league to be covering itself. One of the core principles in journalism is independence. Ideally, the journalists covering a story are not connected to the story in a direct way. The journalists are not beholden to the teams, the owners, the players in a story. The journalists have the professional distance that not only allows them but requires them to report the truth with rigor. That doesn’t always happen whether it’s in sports or politics, but that is the ideal. In professional sports and to some degree in college sports, we’ve faced this for some time with the announcers. Many teams select their own announcers and these individuals work for the teams, work for the ownership group. It’s questionable how much independence they have. The Chicago Cubs’ situation a couple years ago when Chip Carey and Steve Stone got pushed out the door. Certainly Stone did. Both had been pretty critical of the Cubs compared to a lot of announcers. There is no doubt Stone got pushed out because he wasn’t more of a homer.
“When the NFL controls the broadcast rights and the tabletop in terms of how games get covered, how the teams get covered, how much access there is to the coaches and players, it can be problematic. It’s a little bit like the Pentagon controlling the news coverage of what is going on in Iraq. When the Pentagon is wise, they provide expert PAOs to facilitate independent substantive coverage of the military and what is going on in the battlefield. Yes, there are some restrictions that are acceptable, just as there are some restrictions in terms of what the NFL might apply in terms of its financial proprietary interest. But those restrictions should not deter vigorous, honest, professional reporting.”
Q: Where are we headed with this?
STEELE: “We know that it is driven by economics. There are questions that should be asked about access issues for the public. We felt that way as sports viewers when more of the coverage started going from the traditional networks to the cable networks. Not everybody has these cable networks. Well, as time has played out, the access to ESPN or to Fox Sports and others has proven to be much more widespread, but it still raises questions. And yet it’s understandable even if it’s frustrating to the public that the pro sports leagues and the teams are looking for increased leverage and control of the financial tabletop. We hope their strategies aren’t so financially driven that it hurts the audience. I think it would be problematic. I’m not a big boxing fan, but much of that is in premium now. Certain sports, if they increasingly go to premium access via dedicated cable networks, that can raise some questions of the ability of the general public to watch games. Some of that is already true with Major League Baseball.
“The more the league and the owners control the media tabletop, the more problematic it can become in terms of access to coaches, managers and players. Good sports journalists do that kind of interviewing in the wake of the game to talk about everything from key plays to injury to controversy. If the league or the owners place increasing restrictions on the access, then the public is disserved. If it becomes harder for the sprots reporter to ask questions of the coach or the manager or the player in the wake of a game, then the story is more likely to be incomplete or inaccurate or unfair. That is a downside journalistically and for the public.
“One of the keys is to make sure the news organizations apply the same standards of professionalism and ethics to the sports department that are applied to politics and schools and any other beat. We should make sure it is of the same high level in terms of its skill and ethics. We shouldn’t wink and nod as sports journalists take freebies or financial relationships with coaches or significant friendships with players. When we do that, we say sports are not as important and we leave ourselves open for criticism and reduce our leverage. If we are going to say we need more access, then we need to measure up in our skills and our ethics.
“It’s not just what we read or listen to or see, but what aren’t we seeing in the stories? You can tell what stories are there. But are they holding back stories because they are too controversial?”