Friday, January 8, 2016

Why ESPN Isn't About News Anymore

Al Jazeera is currently under attack for breaking the biggest sports story of the year. The network debuted an explosive documentary, “The Dark Side: The Secret World Of Sports Doping,” which links NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning to performance-enhancing human growth hormone.

Chief among the critics have been prominent voices in the traditional sports media, who have attacked the network’s credibility or, in the case of CBS’s Jim Nantz, refused to cover the story at all. ESPN’s Mike Ditka was even more pointed in his remarks, calling the story and the network itself “garbage.”

While Manning denies taking the performance-enhancing drugs, he has not denied that they were shipped to his wife. “Any medical treatments that my wife received -- that's her business,” Manning told ESPN. “That has nothing to do with me.”

The linchpin of the allegations against Manning are undercover recordings of a former worker at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indiana, where Manning was once treated. On the tapes, former pharmacy intern Charlie Sly says he shipped human growth hormone to Manning’s wife in Florida. “It would never be under Peyton's name; it would always be under her name,” Sly said.

Unsurprisingly, Sly recanted his story before the documentary came out, but Deborah Davies, the reporter behind the doping investigation, said Al-Jazeera had already confirmed the information with an additional anonymous source she called “utterly credible and well-placed.”

Al-Jazeera is no fly-by-night propaganda machine but one of the largest news organizations on the planet, with 80 bureaus around the world and a massive English-language viewership and readership. The network poached dozens of talented journalists from places like CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS when it launched Al-Jazeera America in 2013 and now offers an array of news programming alongside documentary investigations and miniseries. It has won dozens of awards for its investigative and documentary work, including an Emmy and two Peabody awards.

Pushback from the subject of any investigation is par for the course in journalism, but the documentary’s producer, Jeremy Young, sees the hostility toward Al-Jazeera from the sports media as a symptom of a greater problem.

 “What you have to understand is that a lot of the commentators -- especially from CBS, ESPN -- have big contracts with major sports leagues,” Young said. “It’s not easy for them to openly criticize [sports figures] because it could have potential ramifications for their bottom line.”

Indeed, days after Nantz slammed the Al-Jazeera report, the New York Daily News revealed that Nantz and Manning have both been represented by sports broadcasting agent Sandy Montag, who in turn helped Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to George W. Bush, set up his sports communications practice. Fleischer now represents Manning.

Davies said she sees this as a developing story and Al-Jazeera’s documentary as just the beginning. The New York Times reported further on the story by linking all the players Sly named to a fitness instructor in Florida. “What should now be happening is some kind of serious law enforcement investigation,” Davies said.

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