Foul! ESPN Ombudsman Blows Whistle on LeBron 'Decision' Special

LeBron James on ESPN
LeBron James on ESPN

Plenty of observers were appalled by Decision, ESPN's hour-long special dedicated to LeBron James's announcement that he was signing with the Miami Heat. But no one seems to have been quite so appalled as Don Ohlmeyer, who, as ESPN's ombudsman, is the sports network's in-house referee on journalistic matters.

It took Ohlmeyer a couple weeks to render his verdict, but he has finally handed it down -- all 4,750 words of it. Decision, he declares, was a failure -- as a piece of journalism, as an entertainment program, as a business proposition for ESPN and as an exercise in brand-building for James, who succeeded in alienating a massive portion of his fan base. "It's a cautionary tale for ESPN," he writes.

"Editorial Acquiescence"

Among the special's many failings, in Ohlmeyer's eyes: letting James choose his own interlocutor ("[I]f the interviewee also brings along his own interviewer, you cannot protect the integrity of the broadcast"); stretching out to an hour what could have lasted five minutes ("[That's an editorial acquiescence, not an editorial decision"); and bombarding viewers with endless hype about the supposed import of James's choice ("an air of reality show 'who's going to be voted off the island' phoniness. . .that was hard to ignore"). There was also the failure to disclose directly to viewers of the special the nature of the various compromises that had been made to obtain James's cooperation.

But worst of all, he says, was the way ESPN essentially paid its source, James, on what was essentially a news story. The network agreed to let James's representatives arrange the sponsorships and turn all ad revenues over to charity. Here's how Ohlmeyer sees that arrangement:

No matter how convoluted the intellectual gymnastics, ESPN "paid" for exclusive access to a news story. For the network, there is quantifiable revenue associated with the Thursday 9-10 p.m. programming hour. That revenue was forgone, yielded in exchange for the exclusive. Team LeBron sold those advertising units. The fact that it was in turn distributed to charity was immaterial, journalistically. James used ESPN's commercial spots in an effort to enhance his image as a responsible, caring charitable guy -- there's direct value to James in doing so, and he did it courtesy of the network, and with the sponsor's money.

Ouch. And it's not just Ohlmeyer's opinion. He also quotes Vince Doria, ESPN's news director, who says Decision "had a damaging impact on our reputation as journalists. . . . The hope is that we learned something from this, that we won't repeat the error, and that we can restore any lost confidence in our ability to objectively report and present the news."

Employing an ombudsman who's willing to speak so bluntly about the network's errors in judgment should help with that, at least.