Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Special Clearly Shows Where 'Lines' Are Drawn By Media, Loyalists Regarding Penn State Scandal

Thirty-five hours after the NCAA announced its sanctions against Penn State, ESPN offered an "Outside the Lines" special Tuesday night that represented some of the network's most balanced and engaging programming about the scandal.

As expected from "OTL" and almost anything that involves host Bob Ley, the show was fair, honest and informative.

For viewers fully engaged in the story, there were hardly any revelations, but the hour-long program featured two panel discussions and a one-on-one interview with NCAA president Mark Emmert conducted by Ley that were interesting and never disintegrated into (much) baseless opinion or shouting.

All of the segments produced something good. Of course, certain portions of the show also probably left some viewers frustrated. None of that was Ley's fault, though.

A general line

An initial panel with Jeremy Schaap, Tom Rinaldi and Don Van Natta Jr. provided moments some viewers -- at least those located in central Pennsylvania and most familiar with the situation -- probably found most frustrating.

Specifically, generalizations, the kind of things some national media members have utilized far too often with this story, were troublesome. At one point, Schaap mentioned the power of former coach Joe Paterno and said campus leaders were clearly the coach's underlings. "Any president that took measures probably would fail and might be fired."

Now, that sounds compelling, but it's also the kind of sweeping generalization that makes national media members sound disconnected. While Paterno's rebuff of an attempt by then university president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to oust him in 2003 has been well documented, there was only one such attempt. It's not as if multiple Penn State leaders challenged Paterno and lost through the years.

Similarly, even with three standout reporting talents like Schaap, Rinaldi and Van Natta, some important context for the scandal was lacking during the first part of the show.

Everything, in terms of individuals, remained focused on Paterno. The name of his ultimate boss, and Penn State's overall leader when the scandal arose, Spanier, was never mentioned until 20 minutes into the show. As the NCAA discusses the "culture" of intercollegiate athletics and an emphasis on things other than academics, it was interesting that the folks covering the story focused more on the sports side than those responsible at the highest level.

At one point, Van Natta noted that the Freeh Report was a "damning document" for everyone, including administrators and the Board of Trustees.

Still, no reporting was dedicated to what would happen, or has not happened, to those two groups of people. While that information might still play out, and is not as easy to unearth, or as easy to hear as the clear public outcry against Paterno (which are among the reasons the media has had trouble or simply has not tracked down the information), it remains the kind of hole in reporting on the overall story that some people notice. As a result, people sometimes then generalize that as media bias.

Power line propels story

Lines of bias and inaction work on both sides for the media and in terms of media perception with the scandal, too. For those consuming the story, especially some of those who support Penn State, the program's traditionally clean reputation might be part of the problem. Where those people saw something to tout and share their pride, others on the outside perceived as a holier-than-thou approach. Of course, that made tracking the story all the more engaging for some media members. It has also allowed some to sense a bit of bias by the media. Neither outlook might be true, but both sides have certainly given the other fodder to believe they're correct.

Still, the most powerful factor in the Penn State scandal was confirmed during the 'OTL' special -- and that's been public opinion. During the Q-and-A session with Ley, Emmert said public influence was a factor almost immediately. When the NCAA sent a letter to Penn State last November, it made the letter public, as opposed to doing so in a typically private manner with such matters. Ley asked about the change in tactics. "Well, because everybody was wondering" if the NCAA had a role or would take action, Emmert said.

Later in the interview, Ley appropriately questioned Emmert about NCAA-influenced perceptions that Penn State was somehow failing or at fault academically as a result of a "culture" on campus or the scandal. Ley compared the culture in Happy Valley with that at any major college football school, cited Penn State's previous poster-child status and wondered aloud if the case was really not so much about a culture but moreso about four men at the top of that making faulty decisions over a period of 10 years.

"It could well be," replied Emmert -- which would seem to contradict the entire need or reason for sanctions, and it was not a question that had been asked -- or answered -- in that manner during the first day and a half after the NCAA's actions. But, there was, by that point, even more of a public outcy that necessitated NCAA action. Emmert indicated as much, as the result of appropriate questions and follow-up by Ley.

A final panel on the show -- with Chris Fowler,  Rece Davis and Rod Gilmore (a nice opportunity for him after usually falling lower in ESPN's college football pecking order) -- addressed the uphill battle Penn State faces on the field in the coming years, reiterating the likely impact of the lost scholarships on the team's win-loss record in coming seasons. As always, they expressed concern for the children Jerry Sandusky assaulted and victimized.

They separated that part of the story and also wondered about the sanctions themselves and the role the public (and the NCAA's desire for a strong PR move) played in the decision. It was a perspective not given much time on ESPN or many other outlets in recent days, and the balance and consideration of different angles to the multifaceted story made the show stronger, without leaving the host and panelists perceived as Penn State apologists or somehow out of touch. They were exactly the opposite -- just doing their jobs. And doing them rather well.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Silence on Scandal Serves Blackledge Best

When the Freeh Report was released last week, ESPN officials put former Penn State All-American and longtime NFL and college football analyst Matt Millen front and center to react.

It was a difficult assignment because Millen was put on the spot immediately after the release of the report and because he was clearly conflicted -- wrestling with what he experienced during his Penn State career and believed and thought he knew, and what the report concluded.

Instead of that honesty and internal conflict drawing praise, though, his indecision or unwillingness to produce a loud anti-Penn State perspective prompted criticism from media and TV pundits. Meanwhile, ESPN executives and officials were more at fault. Millen was doing the best he could in a clearly emotional situation while another expert or experts might have produced better, smarter TV.

Still, another longtime college football analyst and former Penn State All-American has proven to be the most savvy, smartest expert regarding the scandal. That's Todd Blackledge, like Millen a member of the ESPN/ABC family but unlike Millen completely unavailable for comment in the wake of the report.

Maybe that's why Blackledge was an Academic All-American. He knows how and when to do his job.

In the past week, it has been to not do his job -- not to put himself in a position, as a former team captain for Joe Paterno and the quarterback of Paterno's first national championship team, to be critical of the program and be criticized for his work as a result. Whatever the reason (coaching his children, family vacation, something else), it's a smart approach. Silence has served Blackledge well, as it might many others in regard to the scandal.

That's because informative, quality analysis about the situation probably exists between what some see as the apologist approach practiced by Millen or local media in central Pennsylvnia and the extreme generalizations and shrill reactions of many who have national platforms for discussion. Both groups of media members have things that impact their ability to do the best work. For those closer to the situation, it's an overabundance of emotion and familiarity. For those farther away, it's a lack of context -- just not knowing what they do not know in some instances.

Also, in terms of criticizing Millen, it's interesting that some who complained and cited his work as flawed or not opinionated enough are the same folks who consistently and justifiably knock shows like ESPN's "First Take" for being one-dimensional, thoughtless displays of personality, ranting and style over substance. Again, really good TV rests somewhere in between those extremes -- with a little patience and perspective as well as some strong, thoughtful opinions. (Of course, if you're silent neither the good nor the bad can happen.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fox Sports Gets (Some) Credibility w/Erin Andrews

It's hard to imagine anyone has ever used "credible" as the first word to describe Erin Andrews -- and that's not going to happen here either -- but her debut as host of the Fox Sports college football studio show in 56 days does brings some credibility to the network's college football efforts.

Even before that first show begins, she has more big-time college football experience than almost any other on-air personality in the network stable. She comes with an ESPN pedigree and she should know what makes a strong pre-game show after contributing to one of the best of that genre for the past several years.

It might not be an easy transition to the host of such a show, though.

She proved how ready -- or mostly not -- she was for such an assignment on ESPNU when "College GameDay" expanded and she was supposed to host the first hour. Even during that less-watched first hour, she was OK, at best, and ESPN brass eventually altered the segments and style of the show to take Andrews off center stage.

At Fox Sports, she'll certainly be center stage. And, as networks jockey to position themselves to bid for TV rights to the upcoming Division I playoff system, Andrews could be in a position to become an even more prominent face in college football.

Her challenge remains moving past style and engaging viewers with substance.

She has improved as a sideline reporter, getting more information and asking better questions. At the same time, her biggest career boost was not an interaction with a coach or even her much publicized problems with a stalker. It was a stint on "Dancing with the Stars" that propelled her to a higher Q rating and seemingly more important assignments, such as hosting that first hour of "GameDay."

Unfortunately, she was not stellar in that role, missing the necessary gravitas to carry the show or serve as an adept traffic cop for others. That has to be of some concern for the folks at Fox Sports. If she did not dazzle on Saturday mornings, someone has to be asking how she'll do in prime time with even more exposure and pressure.

Then again, exposure might be the wrong word to ever use with Andrews. She's seems like a connected and knowledgable college football voice, but she's also a TV star, an attractive woman some critics and fans will never see her as more than a pretty face. In fact, Los Angeles Daily news columnist Tom Hoffarth this week offered some of the harshest criticism ever of Andrews.

He might be unfair at spots, but he's not entirely wrong. While critics and fans consistently send inconsistent messages about TV personalities, they often agree that they appreciate people who engage viewers and share information. Andrews can be engaging and informative at times.

To succeed as the face of a network team, though, she might most importantly need to seem more mature, and that's such a tough balance on TV for a woman -- and probably especially so while covering a youthful endeavor such as college football.

Viewers want vibrant and young, but Andrews is 34, so we're probably past the point where bubbly/laughter works. It's still sports and still fun and games, but successful studio hosts usually set an entertaining and strong tone for their broadcasts. Sure, things can be fun, but they're also seriously focused on what's about to follow or what's happening in college football overall.

We'll see Andrews on Fox Sports as soon as this week's All-Star Game (in a more familiar sideline reporting role from the American League dugout), but we'll have to wait until Sept. 1 to find out how she'll do as a host. We'll also find out if network officials really put her in a position to succeed or if they have something else in mind by reworking the typical pre-game show approach.