Sunday, September 14, 2008
The Two Faces Of ESPN On Display
The lines are being drawn in the ESPN sand quicker than you can say "performance-enhancing steroid." A short time after ESPN the Magazine writer Shaun Assael delivered a blindside to NASCAR on the eve of The Chase, hard feelings and angry words have been flying around the ESPN world and it is not pretty.
Back on Thursday, it was Assael and ESPN who launched a well-coordinated media assault on Craftsman Truck Series driver and NASCAR veteran Ron Hornaday. In addition to the ESPN.com Internet content which was crafted to suggest performance-enhancement and downplay a 2005 timeline, Assael's steroid scandal was also the lead story on NASCAR Now .
Assael is one face of ESPN. This group of ESPN writers and reporters skips back-and-forth between sports as assigned. Their goal is to bring back from each assignment what ESPN calls "content" that can work for the company in several different types of media. This "steroid scandal" is a perfect example.
The Hornaday story was reported exclusively on three national cable TV networks. ESPN, ESPNEWS and ESPN2 all had the story on various TV shows. It was then placed on one of the largest Internet sports sites in the world, ESPN.com.
It migrated to one of NASCAR's top Internet fan sites at Jayski.com. Remember, this is a website that ESPN now owns. The Internet exposure featured video from ESPN specifically created to feature the Hornaday story.
Finally, Hornaday's name and the word "steroids" were scrolled across the ESPN bottom-line "ticker" on multiple ESPN TV networks endlessly.
Make no mistake. This was an effort that involved hundreds of ESPN employees of all kinds in various departments. It was planned and executed in a well-organized fashion that appeared effortless. We all know the reason why. It had been done many times before to others in the sports world.
On Friday, rain wiped-out the Sprint Cup qualifying from Loudon. ESPN's three top NASCAR announcers took to the air with two hours of live TV to fill and lots of resources from which to draw. Finally, fans would get some information about this Hornaday steroid issue from the people who bring the races to the fans.
It was Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree who were seated in the ESPN Infield Pit Studio watching the rain fall. This is the very atmosphere in which Punch thrives. Not only as a reporter, but for this story Punch would be able to address the issues from a medical perspective. What a great bonus for viewers.
In the second segment of the show, Punch addressed the issue that had been the lead story on NASCAR Now, was still at the top of the ESPN.com NASCAR webpage and had generated headlines around the world.
"Ron Hornaday will not be disciplined by NASCAR for the testosterone use for a medical condition, a thyroid condition," said Punch. This sentence took eight seconds.
Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree were silent. None of the ESPN pit reporters or on-site journalists appeared. Punch moved-on to host numerous drivers in the pit studio and introduce others being interviewed by pit reporters Jamie Little and Shannon Spake. Hornaday was not among them in the two hour program.
This is the other face of ESPN. The goal of the ESPN crew in the field is to follow a script. That is now to endlessly hype The Chase races for which ESPN paid hundreds of millions of dollars. That script was followed on Friday to the letter, despite the weather. That script did not include Hornaday.
It was left to Lead Reporter Marty Smith and host Nicole Manske to try and walk the fine line between the sleaze and innuendo of Assael's report and the reality of an angry NASCAR garage in Loudon. It was 5PM and once again time for NASCAR Now.
If you look up the term "deer in the headlights," you should find Smith looking just like he did on this TV program. After Manske handled a quick Chase preview, she opened the second segment of the show with a "soundbite" from Hornaday and then introduced Smith on-scene in Loudon.
"He has nothing to hide and he's not going to apologize," said Smith of Hornaday. "The fact of the matter is the man was very sick a couple of years ago and he had to take dire circumstances in order to figure out a way to feel better."
Smith introduced footage of a Hornaday press conference on Friday in Loudon. Hornaday immediately introduced a topic with his words that ESPN had failed to mention. That topic is deception. Click here for the link to the Jade Gurrs website that addresses this issue.
Assael had made contact with Hornaday and arranged an interview at his home under the guise of creating an ESPN story about Hornaday's pursuit of another Craftsman Truck Series title. Assael had lied to Hornaday, plain and simple.
Hornaday is a tough old-school driver and he related that Assael "took him out back to look at the beautiful lake" and got him alone. Only then did Assael confront Hornaday with the real reason for his visit. He wanted to know if Hornaday had every taken steroids.
"Yes, but you didn't have to take me out back," said Hornaday. "My family knows what I do and I have nothing to hide." These words did not seem to translate to the Assael story on ESPN.com (click here). That says Hornaday admitted steroid use only "when shown records from The Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center."
NASCAR Now continued with Marty Smith introducing more "soundbites" from driver-after-driver relating to the serious medical issue that Hornaday was trying to solve. "To a man, everyone said they do not feel like this was a performance-enhancing situation," said Smith to wrap things up.
"There are a lot of different health reasons that you would have to use steroids for," said Hornaday's Truck Series owner Kevin Harvick. "Synthroid is actually a form of steroids that is prescribed to him now to take care of his thyroid. If he does not take that now, he pretty much dies." Leave it to Harvick to present a truly sobering reminder of the reality of Graves Disease.
Manske and Smith presented a very different view of the issues raised on Thursday by Assael. They documented the first person response from Hornaday, they offered views from many parties associated with the sport and they refuted any allegation of performance-enhancement. There was only one thing missing. His name was Shaun Assael.
The first face of ESPN has perfected the hit-and-smear style of sports journalism that is currently thriving in society even as ESPN's second face promises more hardcore sports coverage of NASCAR and Monday Night Football during ESPN broadcasts.
The end result for NASCAR is going to be painful. No longer is the casual atmosphere and the open communication going to exist between the sport and the media. Tony Stewart's 2007 comment about ESPN reporters "sticking daggers" in the backs of the drivers could not be more on target where Assael walking into Ron Hornaday's house is concerned.
Hornaday was just another friendly NASCAR driver played for a sucker by an ESPN reporter and then made to pay dearly in the public eye.
Click here for just one example of what this single story can do to a repuation.
What Assael does not understand is that his actions have impacted the overall trust of both NASCAR and many fans of anything connected with ESPN. Punch, Petree and Jarrett may take to the air on Sunday for the Cup race as scheduled, but it will no longer be the same. The fans and those in the sport will now be on-guard. Waiting for ESPN's next sucker punch.
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