The revolving door of personnel between journalism and the institutions of coverage is an old story at both the national and local levels. Expertise and contacts prompt individuals to change careers from one to the other, a pattern that these days is increasingly becoming one-sided as journalists depart the field involuntarily or, frustrated by deteriorating work conditions, voluntarily. Thankfully, news organizations that practice ethics insist on no simultaneous overlap. So it is both mystifying and appalling to witness the flimsy ethics of national sports TV networks, especially ESPN.
ESPN has not only endorsed but encouraged the New York Mets’ hiring last week of Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza as a baseball operations adviser who will assist with “player evaluation, roster construction, technological advancement and health and performance,” according to a club statement. That is not a ceremonial role. Meanwhile, her fellow analyst, Alex Rodriguez, is an adviser to one of his former teams, the New York Yankees. David Ross, another ESPN analyst, is a special assistant to the Chicago Cubs, one of his previous teams. Over at Fox Sports, studio hosts Frank Thomas and David Ortiz have advisory roles with their former clubs.
In a public statement about Mendoza, an ESPN spokesman referred to multiple such examples “across networks” and pledged that ESPN “will be fully transparent about Jessica’s relationship with the Mets.” I therefore expect nothing less than every name identification chyron for the entire season to say “Adviser to New York Mets.”
Certainly, transparency is a cornerstone of ethical communications in media. There’s a too-long history of compromising relationships and payments that were not initially disclosed. But transparency isn’t credibility. News outlets and commentators who work for clubs can claim that their remarks are completely unaffected by their team affiliation, and that may even be true. Doesn’t matter. Credibility is only what the audience perceives it to be. No matter how forthcoming and even-handed Mendoza or any other similarly situated analyst may be, I will always wonder if there’s any skewing of perspective about teams the Mets play against or may trade with. Which would be every team in Major League Baseball. Same goes for commentary about players. And gracious, at this point, ESPN doesn’t even seem to have a problem with Mendoza working games in which the Mets play or Rodriguez working games involving the Yankees.
Would a news division allow a regular on-air employee to simultaneously get paid by a subject of coverage? Don’t think so. And that’s a big part of the frustration here. In the world of TV sports, media credibility already gets pressured by the lucrative deals for broadcast rights. When certain outlets walk the plank even farther with formalized and fundamental conflicts of interest, it revives the (mostly) unfair aspersion that the sports media – all of them – don’t take their journalism seriously.