ESPN Ombudsman Gives His Network 'High Marks' for 'Nonideological' Promotion of Michael Sam's Draft Day

As a network, ESPN continues to propagate the bizarre idea that it’s non-ideological to celebrate the drafting of gay NFL draftee Michael Sam. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte – a former New York Times columnist – unsurprisingly gave the network “high marks” for its promotional Sam coverage in a column posted Friday.

“I think ESPN’s point of view here is nonideological, unless you believe capitalism and proper journalism are ideological,” Lipyste claimed.

This was a big story -- the first openly gay player in a sport relentlessly marketed as a test of traditional American manhood, one step below military special ops. (Pat Tillman’s stride from Arizona Cardinal to Army Ranger might have been seen as anti-capitalist, but it was certainly logical as an expression of masculinity....)

Apparently, "proper journalism" is defined as "aggressively pushing society forward, away from its archaic religious origins." Lipsyte utterly ignored Chris Connelly's crusading piece just before Sam was drafted prematurely attacking the NFL as "unworthy of its place in contemporary society" if Sam went undrafted. So much for no-ideology-but-capitalism ESPN. Lipsyte added  interesting detail that Sam's team of publicists felt ESPN pushed Sam's story too much:

Many correspondents accuse ESPN of having a liberal, East Coast, even anti-Christian bias, exemplified by a general tone of celebration about Sam’s drafting. Some also say the boyfriend scene was “orchestrated.”

No argument about that.

Filming a situation with no definite start time in a room filled with the two principals, their public relations handlers, and crews from ESPN and Oprah Winfrey’s network, requires a great deal of orchestration -- or at least cooperation. According to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, the network had agreed not to start shooting the scene with Sam until the draft call came. There would be no pictures of Sam on the couch biting his nails. That said, according to Doria, ESPN refused a later request from “Sam’s people” to cut back the amount of footage being aired.

A primary member of Sam’s camp, respected Hollywood publicist [and gay activist] Howard Bragman, was uncharacteristically curt when I asked him about the arrangements with ESPN. He said he would refer the matter to “people who were there,” but those from Sam’s camp in attendance during the draft did not respond for comment.

Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer in charge of NFL studio shows for ESPN, was guiding the network’s draft coverage from a remote truck outside Radio City Music Hall. When asked about the scene with Sam, Markman told me he didn’t preview the video and was “trusting” producer Maura Mandt, who was with Sam to produce a segment for this summer’s ESPYS awards show “and had called and said ‘it's really great and emotional.’ I was really never worried about what was on the video at the time,” he said.

“As far as letting it play out, I felt that was a no-brainer,” Markman said. “Our job is to document the draft and all the emotion that goes with it. We don't make political statements. We captured the scene, which wasn't all that different than the hundreds of kisses we've seen over the years -- except this was a man and a man. If we didn't let it play out, it would be inconsistent with how we have always documented this event.”

Lipsyte also dismissed the idea that evangelical Christian quarterback Tim Tebow was treated more harshly than Sam:

ESPN’s coverage of Tebow over the past few years was criticized by some as being excessive (not then the Ombudsman, I actually enjoyed it), but I don’t recall the young QB’s religious beliefs being attacked, certainly not in the way the sexual orientation of gay athletes has been criticized, even by an ESPN reporter on air.

And for all the conspiracy theorists who have claimed ESPN has been promoting a gay agenda, no one has wondered whether ESPN has been setting up Tebow for his new job as a TV star on the upcoming SEC Network.

Again, Lipsyte might check out Skip Bayless asking Tim Tebow about being "astonishingly polarizing." Or the contrast in general.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis