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WHITESOXINTERACTIVE.COM. Totally Biased Coverage of the Chicago White Sox!

Unasked Questions at ESPN

By Mark Liptak

I don’t know if you had a chance to read a pretty good column by Ed Sherman of the Tribune last week., October 7. Sherman contacted ESPN and spoke with some of their employees about the perceived East Coast bias from that media conglomerate. The issue is a particularly hot button one for White Sox fans and perhaps the organization itself due to some of the controversies that sprung up this season.

Sox fans remember the comments from experts like Jeff Brantley and Steve Phillips which many felt went beyond the lines of simply reporting.(and which ultimately prompted both of those individuals to apologize to Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.) They remember the apologies being reported in newspapers like the Tribune as well as comments from columnist Teddy Greenstein about Brantley’s butchering of White Sox player names. (Chad Hermanson...Freddy Guzman...) They remember the Baseball Tonight preview show the day before the season opened where in the five minute or so segment devoted to the A.L. Central the word ‘White Sox’ wasn’t uttered one time. Nor were any of the Sox players mentioned under any circumstances by people like Peter Gammons, Harold Reynolds or John Kruk. What they do remember is the Baseball Tonight crew talking about things like attendance issues while the club got off to its best start in franchise history as well as Brantley’s forceful comment that ‘Sox fans would be crying in their beer’ since the A.L. Central ‘belonged to the Twins.’

They remember Chris Berman butchering ‘Hawk’ Harrelson’s signature home run call during the 2003 All Star Home Run Hitting Contest at Comiskey Park and then getting upset when he was called out on it. They remember his comment following the All Star Game on SportsCenter where he said that Sox fans ‘were the worst fans in baseball,’ after booing Manager Jerry Manuel, Cub representatives, Twins players, and Indian selections. (Yet in 2004 when Houston fans booed their manager Jimy Williams, nothing was said by him...). And they remember his comments during the 9th inning of Game #2 of the 2000 ALDS when, with the Sox playing lousy and trailing badly, fans started leaving in droves. Berman castigated them for it.

So is ESPN biased towards the East Coast or not? Is it a deliberate bias or simply business circumstances in today’s world where the line between ‘fair and balanced’ is destroyed by the fact that the bills must get paid?

Sherman tried to find out and overall did a good job with the piece. My comments today are not meant to be spiteful or to downgrade anything that he wrote, I simply think that there were some follow-up questions which should have been asked. Or if they were asked, should have been reported on.

First off, a little about myself. This isn’t composed in order to brag but to establish some credibility towards me. I’ve been in the media since 1979. I’ve worked in television for 15 years, in radio, including play by play, and have written for a number of newspapers. I’ve worked in three markets...Lexington, Kentucky..Monroe, Louisiana and Pocatello, Idaho. Granted they aren’t major markets but I have been around major market people often. I’ve met and spent time with folks like Dick Vitale, Tim Brando, Brent Musberger, Billy Packer, Wayne Larivee, Tim Brandt, Bob Ley and James Brown. I’ve worked in small capacities for The Sporting News and for CBS Sports. I’ve covered Super Bowl XX, the 1989 Women’s Final Four and the first two rounds of the 2001 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament West Regional for CBS in Boise. I’ve seen a few things from the playing fields to inside the trucks that actually bring the events to fans.

Sherman in his column starts by giving us some background on the network including the revelation from Gammons that an American League Central G.M. called him to ask why ESPN was all over the Yankees- Baltimore and Red Sox-Toronto series but was basically ignoring two other ‘big’ series, the White Sox-Detroit and the Devil Rays-Indians ones. Gammons said the G.M. said ‘that’s not right.’

Ed then quotes a staffer as saying that ‘half the place is Yankee fans and the other half likes the Red Sox.’ That brings up my first ‘unasked question.’ Granted ESPN is located in Bristol, Connecticut (or as Keith Olbermann once said, ‘happiness is seeing Bristol in your rear view mirror...’) but the point is this is a national network. I would have asked for the figures showing where the on air anchors, and management officials from ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN News and ESPN Radio are from. Where did they grow up, where did they work?

Why is it that seemingly for every say, on-air talent from the Midwest, (Greg Gumble, Dan Patrick, Gary Miller) to name a few or the Far West, there seems to be three to four times that number from the East Coast. (Chris Berman, Sal Palontonio, Bob Ley, George Grande, Sal Marciano, Gayle Gardner, Steve Levy, Keith Olbermann, Tony Bruno, Karl Ravitch and Linda Cohn are some of the hundreds of examples.) Where’s the diversity? I assume that people from Missouri or Utah or Texas also would like to work at ESPN... why aren’t they? The bio’s at ESPN are loaded with graduates from Brown, Syracuse, Penn, Cornell, NYU but you don’t see a lot from USC, Illinois or Oregon. This is not saying those East Coast anchors that I mentioned aren’t qualified but my point is that there are other anchors from other locations also qualified. When the majority of your hirings are from a certain part of the country the news mentality is going to be the same, the teams rooted for the same and the overall programming mentality is going to be close to the same.

Gammons (a devoted Red Sox follower) says the emphasis on the Yankees and Red Sox is not intentional and it probably isn’t, but when the majority of the employees grew up following those clubs, it doesn’t have to be intentional, that result is ingrained in the group mind set. It’s not intentional but it probably is a subconscious bias which results in the same end result.

Sherman then quotes Norby Williamson, ESPN’s vice president for studio and remote productions as saying geography isn’t an issue (i.e. that ESPN is located in Connecticut.)

Williamson says that ‘it’s all about interest with a broad appeal that extends far beyond New England.’ Interesting in that the new ESPN ombudsmen, for over thirty years the sports editor of the Washington Post, stated in one of his first columns on that his network needed to realize ‘that fans in Phoenix, Arizona don’t have the same outlook on the Yankees- Red Sox rivalry that fans East of the Allegheny Mountains do.’ Perhaps Sherman wasn’t aware of that comment. I certainly would have relayed it to Williamson to get his reply if I was doing the interview.

But what Williamson touches on are two ‘unspoken’ facts. One, that the bills have to be paid and because of the population bases on the East Coast and the potential larger rating numbers, ESPN is always going to favor those teams even though they frankly may not be as good as the Cardinals or White Sox or the Dallas Stars or the Seattle Seahawks. Higher numbers mean higher advertising rates. So is the media supposed to report the story or make a profit? And going one step beyond, how much profit is enough?

The second unspoken point from Williamson is his contention that at least some teams on the East Coast have a ‘broad appeal.’ I would have asked Williamson ‘how much of that broad appeal is due to the fact that they are being force fed to the rest of the country on a regular basis?’

Why weren’t the Yankees ‘broadly popular’ in say 1985? Why couldn’t the Yankees sell out Yankee Stadium in the early 90's? Why was George Steinbrenner talking about leaving Yankee Stadium for New Jersey because he couldn’t draw fans anymore? Sure the Yankees starting winning and started spending obscene amounts of money but having their games on national television regularly on ESPN and Fox doesn’t hurt does it? Maybe a team like the Astros would start to develop a ‘broad appeal’ if they were on the game of the week on a regular basis too. This is a case where the media is helping to shape that ‘broad popularity’ isn’t it? One only needs to look at Chicago and see what happened to the White Sox fan base when they made two disastrous decisions to leave WGN-TV. First after the 1967 season and then after the 1981 year. Meanwhile while the Sox were ‘off the radar,’ the Cubs remained on visible, free TV. In the ensuing years they became the dominant team partly because of it.

Williamson ends by stating that if the White Sox keep winning coverage will be upgraded accordingly. Why is it the White Sox have to keep winning to get better coverage? (or for that matter teams like the Cardinals, Astros or Angels since this goes far beyond the White Sox or for that matter simply major league baseball) Are the ground rules the same for the Yankees, or the Eagles, or the Red Sox? Particularly in the case of the Red Sox, they haven’t made the post season every year, they don’t have the highest payroll, they aren’t in the biggest market...Los Angels and Chicago for example are larger, and they don’t win every season.....yet they are on ESPN’s radar an awful lot. Sounds like two sets of standards to me. Norby says that ESPN had a ‘Sunday Conversation With Ozzie Guillen’ and that when they clinched the division they had ‘their top 10 plays of the year...’ Two examples.

Every time a Yankee sneezes ESPN and Baseball Tonight are devoting the first five minutes of their shows to it. When the Yankees were awful earlier in the season, they were still devoting a significant amount of their air time to the team so Williamson’s comment about ‘winning’ doesn’t hold water.

I yearn for the days when media conglomerates didn’t own more radio and TV stations then you could count on one hand. When the influence of those companies didn’t extend so far down the food chain that even small stations are being effected by corporate decision made thousands of miles away. When a company like Clear Channel Communications doesn’t own over 400 radio stations in the U.S. then basically programs via satellite putting thousands of people out of work. Media bias? As someone who has spent most of their adult life in the industry how can anybody claim otherwise given the conflicts of interest everywhere. I only wish that Ed had been able or allowed to go deeper into the unspoken questions surrounding companies like ESPN. There’s an old saying, ‘the truth shall set you free..’.

Editor's Note: Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work. He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years. "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.

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