After a day in which Barry Bonds claimed (presumably with a straight face) to XM listners that he felt honored to be mentioned in the company of Babe Ruth, I can’t help but appreciate comparisons, however indirect, to Martha Stewart and Donald Rumsfeld. From the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir.
The notion that ESPN can cover Barry Bonds as a news subject while he is paid, through a marketing arrangement with Tollin/Robbins Productions, to be the star of the series raised internal concerns about how to separate the network’s journalistic and entertainment sides. Making that fine distinction is more crucial with Bonds than it is with another divisive figure, Texas Tech Coach Bob Knight, the star of a current six-week ESPN series, “Knight School.” Knight is not the subject of a controversy.
In Bonds’s case, would he say things on his series that he would not say to Pedro Gomez, an ESPN reporter assigned to Bonds? If he were to give an extensive response to the steroid stories, would he do it on a program that is part of his portfolio of business deals, or on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”?
John Walsh, ESPN’s executive editor and its longtime journalistic overseer, said: “We had several meetings where objections were raised, and we fought through them all and said: ‘What if this happens? What if that happens?’ We felt we can live with it. Is it perfect? No. But to say the news division will be compromised is wrong.”
Walsh said that the presence of ESPN Original Entertainment, the corporate unit that oversees films and prime-time series, creates needed separation. Walsh likened the situation to what happened with Martha Stewart, whose prison stay and release were covered by NBC News but whose deals to produce a daily show and an “Apprentice” spinoff were made with the network’s entertainment division.
There was sentiment within ESPN not to carry the series, Walsh said. And George Solomon, ESPN’s ombudsman and the former sports editor of The Washington Post, wrote on espn.com that it was wrong to do it.
“My feeling was that ESPN is still primarily a news organization, and to have a relationship with a key newsmaker left me somewhat perplexed,” he said in an interview. He said the awkwardness would be the same if Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approached NBC News to produce a reality series about himself.