Thursday, April 25, 2013

Under Further Review: ESPN Takes Bold Step Hiring Lipsyte as Ombudsman

ESPN's near half-year search for their next ombudsman has concluded.  Robert Lipsyte, author and former sports writer for The New York Times, has been named the Poynter Institute's replacement.  A knowledge of sports, a fearless approach to criticism, and a history of looking at ESPN with a critical eye are just a few of the elements that Lipsyte will bring to the table that were unmatched by Poynter.  The hiring is a bold step forward for the World Wide Leader, but can we expect to see any practical changes?

For those of you that do not know, an ombudsman is essentially a public editor in place to create greater journalistic transparency.  For the largest sports media outlet in the world to maintain its journalistic integrity, an ombudsman is a must.  ESPN is widely criticized for some of its practices - most recently the sourcing dilemma and always for its "debate" style shows.  An ombudsman is there to ease the pubic backlash by either agreeing with the public our agreeing with the media entity while always explaining the decision clearly.

That is precisely what Lipsyte says he intends to do.  In an interview on Tuesday with Marc Tracy of New Republic, Lipsyte said that he wants his style to be near that of current New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan.  He explains the style as, "respond to something people are concerned about do the reporting, lay it out to give you a chance to make a decision, and then at the end: 'This is my take.'"

Within Lipsyte's work, he has laid out what he calls the "SportsWorld".  In the SportsWorld, there is discrimination against women, racism, homophobia, among a plethora of other issues.  His work does not necessarily blame one particular party as much as it does the system that sports exists in.  However, part of that burgeoning system is ESPN, the media enterprise that has brought sports to the level they are at today more than any other outlet.

(Read Dave Zirin's interview with Robert Lipsyte at The Nation.)

A constant theme in Lipsyte's sports media work is the conflict of interest that outlets like ESPN have in covering sports with objective journalism and reporting while also being the media rights holders for those sports, leagues, or events.  It is an issue that is looked over all too often, but is it an issue for the ombudsman to address?  If the ombudsman wants to remain employed himself, then probably not (although how great would firing the ombudsman look on a media entity!).  You can expect whiffs of the conflict of interest in Lipsyte's work, but expect a much larger focus on the day-to-day journalism.

Lipsyte is a bold, yet necessary hire for ESPN.  Poynter was accused of not knowing sports and going a bit soft at times while being more than fashionably late on others.  Lipsyte will do just the opposite.  ESPN did seem responsive to public outcry when they began directly sourcing their information on Twitter, the bottom line of their channels, and so on.  Will Lipsyte's criticism draw any direct response from ESPN?  Only time will tell.

Lipsyte's 18-month assignment as ESPN ombudsman begins on June 1st.


Kevin Rossi is a pre-junior Drexel Sport Management major with a minor in Communications. Kevin has worked at Double Eagle Golf where he is now Social Media Coordinator and Comcast-Spectacor as their market research intern. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to Vice President. Currently, Kevin is a staff writer for, and he has joined Temple University Athletics Communications for co-op this spring/summer.  Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

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