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The ESPN conundrum

Been thinking for a few days about the stir over ESPN backing out of a PBS "Frontline" documentary that allegedly casts an unfavorable light on the NFL's approach to concussions, and I've come to a few conclusions.

1. ESPN should stop playing us all for fools.

Its denial that the NFL put any pressure on it to back out of the project -- ESPN's spin is that it was over who had editorial control, PBS or ESPN -- is flimsier than The Dog Ate My Homework. A 5-year-old could connect the dots here: ESPN honchos have lunch with NFL honchos, who express displeasure over the tone of the project, and suddenly ESPN backs out of it.

Please, gentlemen. Don't insult us.

2. That said, why would the NFL object?

From the sound of it, the documentary won't break any new ground. The NFL's already been indicted by history and numerous news reports for virtually ignoring the epidemic of brain trauma in its game until five or six years ago. As recently as the middle of the last decade, it was denying there was a problem with concussions in professional football, stating in a 2004 report that there was no evidence that multiple concussions led to anything more serious.

3. If ESPN did succumb to NFL pressure, it's simply a sign of the times in journalism these days.

Look, it's not like journalism hasn't given way to corporate concerns before in this business. There's always been a fine line between reporting news of vital interest to the public and cheesing off your advertisers. And when you bump against that line, corporate has always howled and is always going to.

The difference between then and now, however, is that once upon a time there was editorial and there was downstairs. Now the trend is for downstairs to come upstairs; so many news organizations have hired business types to run the editorial side that the line between the two has become hopelessly blurred if not entirely eradicated.

This is especially true of broadcast entities, which pay enormous rights fees to air events. And so you've got ESPN, whose deal with the NFL is so mutually lucrative, trying to be taken seriously as a news entity and, in this case, failing. Because you can't enter into a business relationship with the people you cover without your attempts to cover them becoming hopelessly compromised.

You're either in bed with 'em or you're not. Tain't no in between.

Ben Smith's blog.

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