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ESPN’s Jason Collins Coverage Criticized by Ombudsman

'Outside the Lines' segment critiqued

Debate over coverage of NBA center Jason Collins’ revelation that he is gay “still resonates in ESPN conference rooms,” according to ESPN’s newly installed ombudsman in a largely critical piece.

“More than one ESPN manager told me it was ‘a learning experience’ and then couldn’t come up with what had been learned,” wrote Robert Lipsyte, the longtime New York Times columnist who this year became ESPN’s fifth ombudsman. “The tricky trifecta of religion, race and sexuality exposed not only the fault-lines (in the preparation of ESPN news series “Outside the Lines”) but the inconsistent performance of ESPN journalism in general.”

ESPN.com today published Lipsyte’s 3,300-word examination of the Collins coverage, a piece that raised such questions as “What is the distinction between a reporter and a commentator?” and “How can ESPN balance the varying sensibilities of its audience?”

A key part of the analysis was an exploration of the on-air segment which quickly put ESPN commentator Chris Broussard under fire for his comments equating homosexuality to sin. “Outside the Lines” host Steve Weissman told Lipsyte that he thought at the end of the day there had been “a respectful, intelligent and honest conversation” between Broussard and commentator LZ Granderson, but Lipsyte questioned that conclusion.

“The program was lumpy and unframed,” Lipsyte wrote. “A commentator and a reporter were put into a position of point-counterpoint. They went too far and yet not far enough. Granderson’s concept of the ‘uncomfortable conversation’ should be an aspect of ESPN’s purported mission of injecting more journalism into its coverage. But it needs to be offered in a context that explains why you need to know about drugs, sexual abuse, money for college athletes, cheating, the topics that some in the audience will consider crucial, others alienating, still others just plain buzz killers. Maybe more of an effort has to be made to place these stories beyond a 13-minute, 46- second slot on ‘OTL.'”

Overall, Lipsyte was largely critical not only of ESPN’s coverage, but of the cable giant’s own reaction to its coverage.

“The attitude, as I read it, was that these were small, regrettable, forgettable mistakes,” Lipsyte said. “No major fouls. In fact, considering ESPN’s ‘Embrace Debate’ mantra, it could have been far messier. In other words, we can move on. This was a one-off.

“You think? Or was it another example of that Jock Culture sensibility of not dwelling on an error, fine for the playing of games but not for the journalistic issues that affect our understanding and appreciation of those games. The ESPN audience was not so ready to move on. There were hundreds of emails to the ombudsman.”

Lipsyte noted that 30% of the e-mails supported Broussard’s views and another 30% supported his right to express them, while 20% said the topic of homosexuality had no business being discussed on ESPN’s air. Only approximately 20% focused on the idea that Broussard had spoken inappropriately.

Broussard, a former NYT colleague of Lipsyte, defended his performance amid the overall coverage of Collins.

“The media in general, not just ESPN, is lopsided in its coverage,” Broussard told Lipsyte. “It’s a cheerleader for the lifestyle and same-sex marriage and puts those who disagree in an unfavorable light. You can see it in the eye rolling and body language of so-called objective journalists. Born-again people are made out to be bigots and intolerant even though there are Neanderthals present on both sides.”

Said Granderson: “The conversation went too far — not too far for where it needs to go but too far for that news story. It was not necessarily a conversation for ESPN, which is not necessarily the place to examine theological differences.”

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