ESPN spikes Neyer’s Whicker piece

Neyer wrote a post today about the now infamous Mark Whicker-Jaycee Dugard piece. But don’t bother going to ESPN to read it because it’s not there. As Rogers Cadenhead at Watching the Watchers reports, ESPN spiked it. Rogers has a cached version of it here. At least a partial one.

I think we’re all pretty tired of Whicker. He and his column is now played as far as I’m concerned. What isn’t played, however, are the larger questions his piece raised with respect to the role of editors and writer responsibility. Whicker’s piece showed what happens when editors are either asleep at the switch or, more likely in my view, not empowered to challenge name talent when they write garbage. People, especially junior people stuck working over a holiday weekend, can get fired for telling a guy with a column who has been around for two decades that they won’t run his piece. This happens an awful lot at newspapers, and I can’t decide if it’s (a) a sad thing to see time-tested journalistic conventions break down like that; or (b) a hilarious thing given how much crap the journalists have given the bloggers for our alleged irresponsibility. What good are the credentials and that editorial layer the Buzz Bissingers of the world go on and on about if they’re incapable of stopping an abortion of a column like Whicker’s?

But it can swing too far the other way too, as I think it has in the case of Neyer and his editors. If there is anyone — anyone — in the blogosphere who has earned the benefit of the doubt, it’s Rob Neyer. He has been doing his thing for well over a decade, and hasn’t even thought about throwing a bomb, let alone thrown one. To the extent he’s controversial it’s because he has dared to upset some dumb baseball conventional wisdom, not because he has gone after people or has taken ridiculous stances or has otherwise done anything that reflects poorly on ESPN. Indeed, even the most ardent ESPN bashers add the now de rigeur “except for Rob Neyer” when denouncing all that is ESPNy.

Yet for some reason, his editors felt it necessary to pull his Whicker piece. I see nothing in it that is objectionable. In quoting his friend Keith Scherer’s opinion, he even gives equal time — or at least some benefit of the doubt — to Whicker before launching into his own criticism. And what about that criticism? It’s certainly nothing crazy or even particularly sharp. Rob simply says he dislikes the Whicker piece because it reflects poorly on sportswriting at large. Which it does, and by doing so, makes it that much harder for guys like Rob Neyer to be taken seriously, which is bad. Given that ESPN is an outfit that employs a bunch of sportswriters you’d think they would tend to agree with Rob on this one.

Yet they didn’t want Rob to write it and don’t want you to read it. How does that make sense? Is Whicker slated to appear on “Around the Horn” sometime soon? Is Bill Simmons the last ESPN writer permitted to have an opinion about anything outside of his usual bailiwick? I simply don’t understand why this piece was pulled.

All I do know is that if ESPN’s editors were to donate half of their vigilance to the editors of the OC Register, both institutions would benefit from it greatly.

UPDATE: Rob explained the removal in an email to Rogers Cadenhead this morning: “At ESPN.com, we have a policy prohibiting media criticism, and I ran afoul of that policy, however unintentional,” he said. “Thus, an editor pulled the post from the site. Considering our policy, I could hardly complain.”

Fair enough. If there’s a policy there and it’s violated, I suppose I understand. Now, about the wisdom or purpose of that policy . . .

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Comments

  1. Jim Casey said...

    ESPN is so tied to corporate sponsors and their slavish pandering to all things NFL is disgusting. They spend 10 times more time projecting what’s going to happen in some game than they do actually showing highlights of games that have already taken place. I no longer watch baseball tonight either, mostly because of the stumbling, bumbling Karl Ravech.

  2. Jonah Keri said...

    Craig, you hit the nail on the head. In the case of the Register, this was indeed a matter of not wanting to challenge or materially alter a veteran columnist’s writing.

    An e-migo of mine who works as a copy editor at a big-city paper and doubles as an accomplished blogger encountered this exact problem recently. Obviously the subject matter wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as it was in the case of Mr. Whicker. It was just that the columnist he kept editing was a colossal hack, the cliched old-timer who would mock anything and everything to do with numbers, then take that mockery and channel into repeated, factually incorrect statements. If a writer wants to say that Tony Pena Jr. is awesome because he’s gritty, it’s up to the senior editors and higher-ups to recognize bad writing and find someone better. But when someone repeatedly distorts the truth, even on matters as trivial as a standard baseball column, copy editors should correct those errors.

    And yet my e-migo, though he fully recognized the egregious errors, did nothing. He was/is a relatively junior staff member there, while the columnist had been there forever. Editing the errors out wouldn’t have gotten him fired per se, but there was certainly a newsroom code that said you don’t F with people’s writing, especially when they outrank you.

    Having been an editor on both the sports and business journalism side, often (usually) editing the work of people more accomplished than me, I can tell you that I typically use a light hand, because as a writer, I understand the frustration of having my work hacked to bits. At the same time, if something is just awful, I’ll reach out to the writer whenever possible and see if we can reach common ground, or failing that, go ahead with the smallest tweak that will fix the problem without materially changing the story. If something is factually incorrect, I will flat out spike it/change it entirely.

    And yes, I have been yelled at, aggressively, for doing this.

  3. Rogers Cadenhead said...

    I got an email response from Rob Neyer explaining the deletion of the blog post. I’ve updated the article with his comments. In short, he violated the network’s policy towards media criticism.

    As a former newspaper reporter, I dislike the media’s reluctance to criticize other media. As we’ve seen in the Whicker imbroglio, the media can make some huge mistakes without an internal culture that encourages self-criticism. When the media refuses to hold other media to account, it makes me grateful for the rise of blogs.

  4. Grant said...

    What a colossally dumb policy.

    God forbid anyone should criticize anyone, ever. As long as the money keeps rollin’ in, it’s all good.

  5. BobbyRoberto said...

    Does anyone read ESPN articles?

    Does anybody watch ESPN anymore?  I’m as big a baseball fan as there is and I haven’t watched Baseball Tonight in years.  An overdose of John Kruk helped me quit Baseball Tonight cold-turkey.

  6. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Thanks, Rogers. I updated the post to reflect Rob’s comments.

    Agreed, Grant, dumb policy. The best possible spin to put on it is that it’s designed to avoid conflicts of interest, but that’s not a plausible basis for it here because what with their constant cross-promotion, blurring of the lines between news programming and entertainment programming, and the shameless way in which they suck up to athletes and coaches they cover, ESPN is a walking conflict of interest.

  7. Alan said...

    re: “not empowered to challenge name talent when they write garbage”—oh yeah, OTM. “The columnist is almighty” is pretty commonplace. A colleague of mine worked in an environment like that once. Years ago this newspaper’s very prominent sports columnist wrote a piece that virtually everyone on the desk knew would create a s—-storm, but the policy there was that you weren’t allowed to change a word in his column, and you weren’t allowed to phone him directly. To FIX A FACTUAL ERROR you had to talk to a managing editor, who would then run it past the columnist. So the column ran, the s—-storm ensued and everyone was forced to issue apologies. Inevitable, really.

  8. Matt M said...

    They move quickly at ESPN, as this story never hit Rob’s RSS feed.

    This isn’t about conflict of interest at ESPN; it’s about CYA. “At ESPN.com, we have a policy prohibiting media criticism” because people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    At least that’s my reading of the situtation.

  9. Grant said...

    Matt M, I think you’re right. As Craig pointed out, ESPN is probably the biggest conflict-of-interest prone sports media outlet out there, and they employ some of the dumbest columnists (and on-air analysts) out there as well. If they let the actual smart people they let hang around criticize dumb people in other organizations they open themselves up to all kinds of attacks. And attacks aren’t good for the brand. It’s really a very Disney way of operating, when you think about it.

    The one person who seems to be immune to these rules is Bill Simmons, who actually criticizes Joe Morgan, among others both at ESPN and outside it. My guess is that they give him a little more leeway because of his vast popularity and the fact that he’s on Page 2, which is intended as a softer, more entertainment-oriented section that never directly touches reporting.

    I remember several occasions where you can tell that Keith Law has wanted to criticize this or that person and has said he can’t, because of the rules in place.

  10. Richard Gadsden said...

    I hate editing my own writing.  I’d fair kill for a good editor.  The rare times I’ve been edited well, my writing has come out looking far better than anything I produced single-handed as a result.

    Great editors are exceptional talents. Charles Monteith is probably at least as responsible for Lord of the Flies as Golding if not more.

  11. Tony A said...

    I have to come down four square in agreement with the Keith S. comment which was included in the Neyer piece.  We have turned into a nation of assholes feigning indignation and moral outrage about almost everything not to our liking that comes down the pike.  We USED to have a greater tolerance of things said and done in bad taste, if not an occasional outright appreciation, not this “PC” driven, “off with his head” sort of fake crap I see today…

  12. sansho1 said...

    Hmm…might it be the link to corporate competitor MSNBC that got the piece spiked? 

    Also, the OC Register and Disney might be cozy (what with the sweatshop that is Disneyland being located there), that didn’t stop the Register’s ownership Freedom Communications from filing for bankruptcy just last week.

    Just throwing some stuff out there….

  13. Andy H said...

    “Whicker (and/or his corporate masters) is likely well-connected with the Disney hierarchy. “

    But this piece mostly defends Whicker . . .

    “He has been doing his thing for well over a decade, and hasn’t even thought about throwing a bomb, let alone thrown one”

    I can think of a couple of Neyer controversies, one about outing Mike Mussina as an anonymous source for Gammonns, and another about some Amazon book review, though maybe both of those fall under the upsetting “dumb baseball conventional wisdom” category

  14. TC said...

    You know, I never understood the Amazon “controversy”.  If I understand the facts correctly: he was sent a book in the mail.  He read it.  He disliked it immensely.  He wrote as much on Amazon in a review.  He used a fake name to do so, because he didn’t want to belittle a book by a little known author using his big, famous, flannel-wearing name.  The author and his friends flip out.  Find out it’s actually Neyer.  And Neyer is forced to apologize, or something.

    I don’t get it.  Isn’t the author the bad guy?  He wrote a bad book and then got all his panties in a twist about it.

    I sent ESPN’s ombudsman a note asking about the canning of the Neyer piece.  I’m sure I’ll hear about QUITE SOON.

  15. Scott Ham said...

    I think the Amazon flap was because Rob had a book about a similar topic (Fenway?) releasing shortly.  It was viewed as an attempt to divert sales.

    Regarding Whicker, my first assumption was his lawyer friend didn’t want his letter published.  Maybe he considered it a personal communication and didn’t want it published.  There certainly wasn’t anything controversial in the article.

  16. Chipmaker said...

    I can recall one time Neyer lobbed a bomb. The issue, as I recall, was Ruth’s walks totals being revised due to diligent research, and STATS was going to stay with the ancient, received-wisdom Old Established Stats, and Rob went off on Seymour Siwoff… that one got spiked PDQ, and Rob went quiet for a week or so. Most presumed he got a suspension. This was probably ten years or more ago. My memories are likely somewhat faulty in the details.

    But that’s it—ONE time. Yeah, he more than deserves benefit of doubt, even when up against a ludicrous policy.

  17. Mark Armour said...

    I don’t have a big problem with ESPN having a policy like this.  (Rob’s column was fine and fair, I am just speaking someone generically—I don’t know what the actual policy is, or how Rob violated it.)  There are plenty of avenues out there for media criticism—in fact, there may be more people writing blogs criticizing sportswriters than there are sportswriters.  I would suggest that most workers have more onerous work rules to adhere to than ESPN.

    Whicker and his editor have received an extraordinary amount of criticism.  I don’t see how society is ill-served by them not receiving more.

    Also, a shout out to Jonah Keri, who has had the burden on editing me in the past.  He kept asking for more, so I guess I didn’t drive him too crazy.

  18. Jason F said...

    I don’t know if he collects a check from ESPN, but Whicker has appeared on the panel of Jim Rome’s ESPN show. So he does have a relationship with the network, which probably has something to do with their allergy to criticizing him.

  19. winston said...

    Which would you rather read..nothing but bland, inoffensive, inaccurate and totally non-credible tripe.

    OR anything, even the most grossed out, crass, boorish crap you can’t even imagine.

    ESPN makes the Orange Register look good.

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