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Do ESPN’s NFL Ties Affect The News Side?

Imagine how TV news coverage of politics might be perceived if networks paid millions - even billions - for TV rights to, say, the White House or Congress.

That, essentially, is ESPN's situation. It began with lots of news shows - cheaper than buying TV rights to events - then raised its profile by adding live action such as NFL games, for which it now pays $1.1 billion annually. Now, the biggest year-round topic on ESPN's highly profitable news shows, its radio network and ESPN.com, which draws about 1.1 billion page views annually, is also the source of its highest-rated shows - the NFL.

So it's suspicious when ESPN waited about 48 hours before reporting Wednesday on the sexual assault accusations against Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger after Disney corporate cousin ABC News and the league-owned NFL Network had done so. What the ensuing flare-up suggests: ESPN can tightly control its myriad news outlets, but hardly controls sports news.

ESPN's news process is centralized. Vince Doria, ESPN's news director and former sports editor of The Boston Globe, says about a dozen editors in "a 23-hour-per-day" operation try to vet everything, deeming it usable for any ESPN platform. ESPN's in-house news wire has a "hot list" for news all shows "must report" as well as items "worth considering" - "and on very sensitive stories, a news editor will write script for shows."

Items routinely are flagged "do not report" - like the Roethlisberger civil lawsuit. Says Doria: " 'Do not report' doesn't mean the story is inaccurate. We might be unsure of sourcing. Or it could just be sensitive information."

ESPN gave the radio station it owns in Pittsburgh an exception, but other ESPN outlets were silenced.

But so what? With today's media, the Roethlisberger story was everywhere - with ESPN's reticence adding to the buzz. Arizona Cardinal Darnell Dockett Twittered if he'd been "falsely accused," he'd be "all on the news every Five mins."

Doria suggests concerns about "potentially damaging information" about Roethlisberger eventually became moot: "As stories evolve, we sometimes come to that reasoning. The story became so widespread, the buzz so big, there's not much to be fair about since the story is so widely reported. It's not exact science."

Did ESPN worry about the NFL? Doria says ESPN's programming department, not its news side, "maintains relationships" with leagues. The news side just keeps programmers "apprised so they won't be surprised if they get calls from business partners. It might be because of those (league) relationships that we do so much due diligence. It makes us a better news operation."

And one, given its setup, that will always be questioned.

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