Tuesday, December 2, 2008

NASCAR Media Moments: Ron Hornaday Jr. And Steroids

There was a lot of time and money spent by ESPN the Magazine to set-up Truck Series driver Ron Hornaday Jr.

For those readers who need a brief refresher course on this topic, here is a summary from Dave Moody of Sirius Speedway on his Motorsports Soapbox blog:

Hornaday’s Media Nightmare: After a Mike Wallace/60 Minutes-style ambush interview in early September, ESPN The Magazine writer Shaun Assael set new standards in yellow journalism when he wrote that former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday had “received shipments of testosterone and human growth hormone from an anti-aging center that has been linked to drug-related scandals in the NFL and Major League Baseball.” In his zeal to portray Hornaday as a 600-horsepower version of Jose Canseco, Assael slow-played the fact that Hornaday briefly used only a mild steroid cream to treat a diagnosed case of Graves disease. After a shameless, weeklong media frenzy, Hornaday was cleared of any wrongdoing. No apology was ever issued by Assael or ESPN The Magazine.

What ESPN did accomplish was the timely release of a NASCAR story the company knew would be carried around the world. Thanks to the Internet, it certainly was. Click here to see just how far it was stretched by media members.

The story was officially unveiled on a Thursday edition of NASCAR Now hosted by Nicole Manske. Click here for the TDP column on that program. This placement of the story allowed the press to circulate it just in time to build-up the media attention before the first Chase for the Championship race. That race was on ABC.

In an amazing coincidence, the Craftsman Trucks were racing that weekend with the Sprint Cup Series at the very same track. All of the full-time NASCAR traveling media would be perfectly in place to put Hornaday in their gunsights and fire away.

The ultimate irony of that week's NASCAR Now shows was that once again ESPN eliminated any promotion of the truck race because that event was on SPEED. Even as the Hornaday story raged in the media and on the Internet, ESPN inserted NHRA Drag Racing promotions and updates in place of the Craftsman Trucks.

Most interesting of all was the stone cold silence of the only doctor on the ESPN NASCAR team, Jerry Punch. That silence was echoed by Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree.

On the very next day (Friday), rain wiped-out the Sprint Cup qualifying and Punch, Jarrett and Petree had several hours of live TV to fill. Below is a complete transcript of all three top ESPN announcers talking about the Hornaday story:

"Ron Hornaday will not be disciplined by NASCAR for the testosterone use for a medical condition, a thyroid condition," said Punch.

That sentence took eight seconds. Jarrett and Petree said absolutely nothing.

But, later that day one member of the ESPN team said a lot. He was joined in his reporting of the facts by the very TV anchor who uncomfortably presented the story one day earlier. Here was the TDP comment at the time:

It was NASCAR Now's Lead Reporter Marty Smith who teamed with host Nicole Manske on Friday to deliver a stinging rebuke of ESPN the Magazine reporter Shaun Assael's assertions of Hornaday's steroid use as performance-enhancing.

The events of those four wild days are contained in (click here) this TDP column entitled "The Two Faces of ESPN On Display." Here is a brief excerpt:

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.

Needless to say, Hornaday provided all the medical materials and paperwork in his possession to NASCAR through his employer, Kevin Harvick. One quick press conference with NASCAR's Jim Hunter and the whole episode was gone in a flash.

But, ESPN had accomplished what it set out to do. The focus of the sports media world, including many publications and Internet sites not normally covering the sport, was on NASCAR for that weekend.

At ESPN many magazines were sold. TV and radio interviews were done and the "bottom line" sports ticker on the ESPN TV Networks said the words "NASCAR" and "steroids" together over-and-over again for days.

Traffic on the ESPN.com website was up and the mission of using this artificially created content to drive revenue for the overall corporation was a big success.

Hornaday had welcomed ESPN's Assael into his home for an interview under a false pretense. This friendly NASCAR driver was then sucker-punched and made to pay dearly in the public eye. This one incident cemented ESPN's "gotcha" reputation in the NASCAR community. It certainly made for a memorable moment in 2008.

The Media Moments theme will continue during the off-season, but for now you can add your comments on this topic by clicking the COMMENTS button below. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.


Richard in N.C. said...

I found the most telling aspect of the whole episode to be that virtually no one in the print media criticized ESPN - or as one noted comentator recently anointed them the "Evil Empire." Several primarily internet writers did and have recently criticized the way ESPN handled the story.

It continues to fascinate me that almost none of the major writers for papers having substantial NASCAR coverage will criticize ESPN for anything, including its mediocre race coverage. To me that raises serious questions about the credibility and objectivity of the major print outlets.

SallyB said...

And they wonder why many 'stories' reported by SEPN are considered suspect?

Anonymous said...

Luckily, most everyone saw through this as an attempt on ESPN's part to garner attention for itself, rather than provide actual journalism.

It became one of the nails in the coffin of ESPN's credibility where NASCAR is concerned.

PammH said...

And Nascar & the 4 letter networks thinking about this episode?? Same as Hollyweird's..any pub is good pub. Which should show how far our fav sport has sunk since BF (and those stand for something else for me) took the reins. To cast a good man in such a lite is a DISGRACE! And for all those that ducked & skirted the issue...SHAME on you! Hurrah for TDP to pt out this travesty!

Newracefan said...

Darn it JD I had almost forgotten about that mess. This one just made me made mad and is why I not longer read anything on ESPN.com unless it's written by Marty or Ed. I realize steroid use is a problem in other sports but going after grandpa was just wrong and vindictive. It was all about the hype and nothing about the truth.

Dot said...

Not to repeat myself, but this is what I was talking about in a prior post of how ESPN and their shows/print articles trash NASCAR. This is going to happen again and again since no one up the NASCAR food chain will do anything about it.

How sad that BF doesn't garner any respect by anyone. If he had the same respect that his dad and grandfather did, ESPN would have been falling all over themselves apologizing for Assael's story. I doubt it would have seen the light of day.

@ Richard in NC, I guess it's up to us to criticize ESPN/Evil Empire.

majorshouse said...

This is really why NASCAR and Bryan France need to step up to the plate and get rid of ESPN because of their horrid portrayls of not only Ron Hornaday, but NASCAR in general and I for one have to be skeptical when ESPN gives us something as the gospel and frankly, I have been watching their other sports coverage more critically and see how badly they cover many other sports, especially college football. If they like you, they are biased toward you, but if they are not, then God help you.

Anonymous said...

Here is another refresher course: Thinking he had a life-threatening illness, Hornaday did not seek out a doctor, but instead sought out a "clinic" that existed only on the internet and made all of it's money selling steroids to bodybuilders and athletes. It was a notorious clinic that had been and currently is involved with numerous criminal cases involving the illegal distribution of steroids to athletes for enhancement of performance. There is a reasonable, although denied, case to be made that Hornaday felt he needed steroids to improve his endurance during a time when he had an unknown illness that was draining him. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but anyone who reads up on this so-called clinic and then goes back and looks at how Hornaday's story has changed very much over time, the only conclusion is that there is reasonable suspicion at worst, and at best legitimate questions worthy of investigation at best. Could ESPN have made it a little less sensationalistic? Yes, clearly. But the fact remains that for many fans there are still many lingering, unanswered, and very troubling questions about this whole episode - and I for one do not think this is a fiction but a legitimate news story worthy of investigation.

Anonymous said...

"This is really why NASCAR and Bryan France need to step up to the plate and get rid of ESPN"

Brian France needs to get rid of HIMSELF. He just insulted the three-time champion of the sport his family owns when talking to the media today:

NASCAR chief executive Brian France praised the talents of Jimmie Johnson but conceded that the triple series champion has failed to become a household name outside racing circles.

"He's a California guy, a very nice guy, a cool customer and obviously very talented," France said at the Reuters Media Summit.

"But he's not going to do a lot of things that are going to wow you or stun you or surprise you in the ways that sometimes other athletes make their mark.

"We need to do more with our athletes to bring out their emotions."

Jimmie has said over and over that he's not that kind of guy. Yet he is well liked among the drivers and is showing he is one of the best drivers ever. He's not going to change and he shouldn't have to. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are just as vanilla/corporate as Jimmie (Charles Barkley, the Jordan sidekick, has TV personality-MJ and Tiger don't). But MJ and Tiger have been packaged for TV to show some (manufactured) personality through clever and entertaining Nike, NBA and PGA marketing - where often, they don't have to say a word during an ad. NASCAR has failed to be creative in saturating the country with appealing marketing packages for Jimmie and for other drivers.

Instead of saying this is a guy America needs to appreciate, Brian runs away from him. At a MEDIA SUMMIT in New York. (how's that for a media moment?) During Champion's Week.

Brian has gotta go.

Anonymous said...

Oh and let me add: at this same media summit last year, Brian France blamed Dale Jr's poor season for the declining TV ratings.

Because it's never NASCAR's fault.

Lisa Hogan said...

I am still angry about this "reporting".

Anonymous said...

Maybe no one else in the media ripped ESPN for reporting the Hornaday story because they recognized that ESPN did nothing wrong by reporting Hornaday's involvement with the clinic. As much as some would like to sweep it under the rug and excuse it all away, some of the holes in Hornaday's story are big enough to drive a mack truck through. Such as if Hornaday was only going to the clinic in Florida for treatment of his undiagnosed medical condition how did the clinic end up (illegally) prescribing HGH to Hornaday's wife? Maybe ESPN could have covered the story differently, but Ron Hornaday and steroids is a legitimate news story no matter how distasteful some may find the topic to be.

Anonymous said...

I for one do not think this is a fiction but a legitimate news story worthy of investigation.

Maybe we can get some real journalists to check it out, then, instead of what ESPN did, which wasn't journalism at all.

Daly Planet Editor said...

So, the fact that this story was several years old, was held and then released the week of the first Chase race and that the reporter gained entry to Hornaday's residence by lying is not a problem to some of you?

Do you know how many people and how much coordination went into this smear campaign?

Multiple TV networks, lower third screen "bottom line" graphics, SportsCenter, ESPNEWS, First Take, ESPN Radio, ESPN the Magazine, NASCAR Now and ESPN.com the website.

No one said Ron Hornaday had a Masters Degree in common sense. But to use the resources of a huge media company in a coordinated campaign targeting a Truck Series driver to try and achieve TV ratings for your Cup races is beyond disgusting.

Once the story was put to bed by NASCAR, ESPN was off to the next NASCAR smear. The Michael Waltrip/Clint Bowyer story will appear next week.


red said...

anon 11:20 pm and anon 8:40 am:
i believe i understand your point: you contend there is a story there that deserved to be covered. even if i agree with you on that (and i'm not certain i do,) the point of divergence is HOW espn chose to cover it. perhaps if they had treated it as the legitimate story you contend it was and approached hornaday honestly, i would have a different perception.

the reality is: they didn't. they outright lied to him about the purpose of the interview, they engaged in "gotcha!" and there was absolutely NO followup by the original writer once the denials were issued. no one from espn kept on the story, it was a "one and out" moment where they threw the more sensational tidbits out and let the story rage across the rest of the media -- including the internet -- without doing the work that would have been involved to add background and text. and that is not journalism, that is sensationalism.

they couldn't get additional interviews from anyone associated with hornaday BECAUSE of the way they chose to confront him originally. had they acted with respect and ethics, they might have been able to do followup interviewing.

if you're familiar with gladwell's concept of the "tipping point," this story was the tipping point for me and espn. sloppy reporting, sensationalism, the story not placed in context -- espn repeatedly handled nascar this way all season and by the time the hornaday story emerged, i was already unwilling to trust espn.

David said...

Dave Moody hit everything I would dare mention on this topic.

It was a dark, sad day with careless reporting and zero respect.

Where the retraction for this massive error in reporting? Don't believe its ever occurred.

Broomfield, Colorado said...

Just wait until they (ESPN) ruin the BCS Championship games in the next several years. Only then will the Major Sports take notice of a clown network. The other night on Monday Night Football, Tony Kornheiser said that he doesn't like athletes that just go out and do their job. His words: "I'm a sportswriter! We need Divas! We need flash!We need something to write about!" And that's coming from a guy who works the PTI show. Unfortunately, I have seen every day time show on ESPN, and it is clear to see, that they want bad news, they want drama, they want DIRT. If you act like a grown up, and don't shoot yourself in a nightclub, or use steroids; they don't want nothing to do with you. That can explain the treatment of NASCAR. And Brian France must adhere to that ideology of, "Bad publicity is just as good as no publicity."

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the scoops that The National Enquirer has printed. The Edward's story had been around for years, but no one would give it ligitimacy, until the pictures and the police were called to the BH hotel. It was a tabloid story, true, but guess what, it was mostly true. But when people like the person, they want to kill the messenger.

Regardless of what the truth is, and there are many reasons to be suspicious of Ron's expanation, my sympathies are with Ron.

When I was about 30, I became ill. It started slowly and every week became progressively worse. I went to doctors and even the the emergency room at one point. I was so weak I was in a wheelchair.

At this point, a friend told me about a clinic in Mexico. They used drugs that were not approved in the US, but did I care? No way. I had 2 little kids, my husband worked terrible hours, all the adults in my family worked. I figured I'd deal with the law after I got well. I was desparate.

I suspect Ron was at that place when he decided to do this clinic thing and involve his wife.

GinaV24 said...

Still one of the moments in ESPN's coverage of NASCAR that disgusts me the most. I don't bother to watch much of their programming on anything because I don't think they have credibility. And Brian France is a joke.

majorshouse said...

I think that the real problem is not the fact that there was a story to be investigated, but the way that ESPN went about doing it and after watching their coverage of college football lately, it is obvious to me that all they want is dirt and that just utterly disgusts me because they are not interested in the welfare of the sports that they cover, just the money.

Richard in N.C. said...

ESPN, or the mainstream print media, never refuted the fact that the basis for the Hornaday story was 2 lies - 1 to Hornaday's PR rep and 1 to Ron about the nature of the article being written. Thus, the story was done by a liar, which raises legitimate questions about the credibility of the writer and ESPN as an institution. Yes, the story probably deserved to be covered - but, in a responsible manner.

Gunner said...

Give the TV rights to Speed, let them show all three series, fom Friday through Sunday. Leave ESPN for stick & ball sports.

Anonymous said...

At this point, I wish we could have the NBC of 2003 back. It'd be even better if we had CBS like we did back then. I've had it with ESPN. 6 more years...only 6 more years of screw-ups, slams, and Jerry.

chase said...

Thanks John for this necessary column - I still reel at the smear journalism campaign of not only ESPN but the other networks and NASCAR's total inability to comment immediately on the truth of the story. For someone with a serious medical condition to have to go through what Ron did and the total lack of silence from Punch (obviously,given his lack of coverage and care of the sport this wasn't surprising), it should have been up to NASCAR and the other ESPN reporters to report the FACTS. Brian France continued to keep his nose in the sand of wherever and let it just play out in a very disreputable way. I hold not only ESPN responsible for this nightmare but also NASCAR and Brian France. If Brian France wants us to watch racing and attend races then we must be given the true facts as they stand and if we are given anything else like rumor, inuendo, etc. then its up to them to set the story straight immediately. I am so totally disgusted at this point and I think NASCAR has many legal grounds to negate their contract with ESPN - will that happen? Only when pigs fly!

Anonymous said...

It's a darn shame in what this little weasel did to Ron. Undeniably the greatest truck driver we have!!! Not only that, but for nobody else to stand up for Ron like Dr. Punch especially is also as disgusting!!!!!

ESPN should be ashamed of themselves for this.

Ziggy said...
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