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.

Which NASCAR TV Reporters Did You Trust This Season?

Now that we have discussed the TV types who work on the actual race broadcasts and in the studio, this next topic is a TDP favorite. Credibility and journalism skills are on the line and NASCAR fans certainly have their favorites.

This slice of the "TV pie" is the reporters who are featured on the news and entertainment programs that NASCAR fans have been enjoying for years. Here are the reporters who worked hard to gain your trust in 2008.

Marty Smith had a busy season. In addition to his new role as Lead Reporter for the "NASCAR Now" TV series, Smith was busy writing for the ESPN.com website and ESPN the Magazine. Marty may be one of the most easily recognized faces in the sport, hairstyle not withstanding.

Smith struggled in 2007 because ESPN put him in a very tight TV box. There he was in a suit and tie in the summer heat reporting from the garage area looking completely out of place. He spoke with TV hosts who had little or no NASCAR knowledge and often looked like he wanted to be any place other than ESPN. He gets credit for hanging in there.

This season, ESPN surrounded Smith with Allen Bestwick, Nicole Manske and Ryan Burr. The results were amazing. The new TV professionalism of "NASCAR Now" laid a foundation that helped Smith become the focus of ESPN's NASCAR reporting crew.

Looking back, Smith was in the middle of the biggest NASCAR stories of the year. His appearances on the Sunday "NASCAR Now" shows really matched him up directly with the pre and post-race shows over on SPEED. If ESPN focuses on Smith as "the NASCAR reporter" for 2009 it should be interesting to see how he responds. Next season is clearly going to be a very unique challenge.

Angelique Chengelis comes to NASCAR from the Detroit News where she is a sports journalism veteran. She can talk Big Ten college football with the best of them and has worked on her NASCAR TV presence since she began with ESPN in 2007.

Chengelis is a "NASCAR Now" regular and reports primarily from the race tracks. Often, she is the "beat writer" who tracks down multiple stories and reports her findings on TV in a factual manner. This season, she has proven to be a life-saver for Smith who found himself surrounded by freelance ESPN reporters last year.

As SPEED TV continues to live in denial of that network's NASCAR issues, the news coverage from the race tracks was dominated by Wendy Venturini. While she also works practice and qualifying coverage for SPEED, she is only involved in the actual race coverage on DirecTV's Hot Pass telecasts.

Most viewers know Venturini's background of being married to a JGR employee, living the NASCAR lifestyle and following in the racing tradition of her father Bill. They also know that she understands TV, can navigate through the garage seamlessly and can pleasantly ask the tough questions with a big smile on her face.

In 2008, Venturini cemented her NASCAR TV credentials by providing "RaceDay" the vast majority of the news and interview content. It was clear that while Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace talked, Rutledge Wood goofed and Hermie Sadler chatted it was Venturini who did almost all of the heavy lifting where that TV series was concerned.

Venturini graciously made room for newcomer Sadler this season. After filling a part-time role and offering track descriptions and driver tips, SPEED found that Sadler's personality allowed him to conduct interviews from a different but often equally effective perspective than Venturini.

Sadler routinely adds personal references from football to fishing to his interviews, which puts the person being interviewed at ease. Sadler's good sense of humor was on display this season and he shares the NASCAR on SPEED trait of being able to laugh at himself. He also expanded his TV credentials with Hot Pass this season.

After the Sprint Cup races, it is Bob Dillner who is on-scene for two hours of programming on SPEED. Dillner is live for "The Speed Report" and then provides additional interviews for "Victory Lane." He worked hard this season.

Dillner has a unique personality and it comes through in his interviewing style. This year, he faced a lot of angry drivers after debacles like The Brickyard 400 and other tire fiasco races. Despite some issues in the past, his 2008 performance was solid and his post-race hustle was outstanding.

SPEED also offered Randy Pemberton this season as a utility player. He did everything from pit and garage reporting to being the media guest on "Tradin' Paint." Pemberton is flexible enough to assume additional responsibilities in the future for SPEED and also worked on the Hot Pass coverage this season to good reviews.

Honorable mention in this category goes to both Ryan Burr and Nicole Manske. After the disaster of 2007, "NASCAR Now" put both of these anchor/reporters on the road and it paid dividends. While admittedly Burr was still learning, Manske proved to be a natural and came into her own where field reporting was concerned.

This was especially true for Manske on race days, where pre and post-race interviews worked well for her with the drivers, owners and crew chiefs. One can only wonder what additional benefits would come from moving Manske to North Carolina and finally establishing a full-time ESPN presence in the Mooresville area.

There were several writers like David Newton, Tim Cowlishaw and Ed Hinton who crossed-over from their ESPN.com duties to appear on "NASCAR Now." Normally, what they were doing was talking about a story they had published on the website. Please feel free to refer to them in your comments, but they were introduced as writers and did not quite fit the TV criteria for this category.

So, who did you trust in 2008? There were several hundred hours of TV programming that came your way despite not one lap being turned in any of these programs. On many weekends, the number of hours of "support shows" was greater than the length of the Sprint Cup race.

Perhaps, you could share the memories you might have about the reporting of the group above. You can Google Daly+Planet+reporter's+name to refer back to any TDP stories of the season.

To add your opinion on this topic, just click the COMMENTS button below and follow the easy instructions. The rules for posting are located on the right side of the main page. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.