Sexual harassment among warts exposed in new book on ESPN

Media Watch

April 07, 2000|By Milton Kent

A newly published book is threatening to take a good deal of the sheen off ESPN's brightly polished image.

The book, "ESPN: The Uncensored History" (Taylor; 286 pp.; $24.95), takes a well-researched trip across the channel's 20-year history, from its unlikely founding by a Connecticut advertising executive through its growing pains to its current post atop the sports broadcasting firmament.

However, the portion of the book, written by Michael Freeman, that will draw the most attention is the detailed description of seemingly rampant sexual harassment at the company's Bristol headquarters along with the depiction of apparent indifference.

Freeman, who covers the NFL for the New York Times, recounts the stories of female staffers who had been fondled, threatened with demotion or termination if they didn't sleep with supervisors or pursued for dates with little or no help from management.

In particular, Freeman, with substantiation, tells the story of popular host/announcer Mike Tirico, who was suspended for three months in 1992 for harassing female colleagues.

An ESPN spokesman said this week, in response to the book's allegations: "We had some issues in the past and we've addressed them, whenever they were brought forward. We learned from the experience and it's a much better place today. Contrary to the book's portrayal, ESPN cares very much about its people and has over many years taken many pro-active steps to enhance the workplace environment."

Freeman, a skilled and concise writer, does an exceptional job of telling the entire story -- warts and all -- of how ESPN became a global communications force, though he would have served the reader well to more clearly delineate the ax-grinding undertaken by former anchor Keith Olbermann.

Many parts of the book, published this week, will make some at the "worldwide leader in sports" wince, particularly John Walsh, the executive who runs the editorial and news-gathering operations, who is portrayed as brilliant, but lacking in sensitivity to his employees, as well as former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein, who comes across as willing to take credit for the company's successes at the expense of others.

All in all, "ESPN: The Uncensored History" is necessary reading for anyone who wants to see what happens to the eggshells on the way to making a terrific omelet.

Tiger on CBS' mind

What do Regis Philbin and Tiger Woods have in common? Apparently they both are great at getting fannies planted in front of television sets.

If Philbin's game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is the biggest television story of the year, then Woods is right there with him. CBS Sports President Sean McManus, in giddy anticipation of the ratings for this weekend's Masters, says that if Woods is in contention for any tournament, the ratings tend to go up between 40 and 50 percent for that event.

"It is a phenomenon that is just not seen, other than `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,' in television. I don't ever remember where one athlete, with the exception of Michael Jordan, who can so dramatically affect the amount of people watching a tournament," said McManus. "Tiger's effect on golf is even greater than Michael's was on the NBA. Today, Tiger is the most dominant sporting personality in the world. His effect on the viewership of professional golf is almost impossible to overestimate."

Needless to say, Woods' attempt to rally from an opening-round 75 will be a major, but not the only, storyline throughout CBS' coverage, which continues with highlights at 11: 35 tonight and nine-hole broadcasts tomorrow at 3: 30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.

A few NCAA thoughts

OK, so the television landscape has changed dramatically since CBS first got the NCAA men's basketball tournament contract in 1982, what with competition from cable and satellite. But there is more to the network's 4 percent ratings drop from last year's tournament and the whopping 18 percent championship game fall.

We've said it here before, and it bears repeating that the network, rather than blaming ratings on teams with "regional" interest, as a CBS spokeswoman did regarding Monday's Michigan State-Florida contest, ought to do something with its telecasts, which just don't reflect the passion attached to the sport.

Frankly, the appeal of lead analyst Billy Packer has been lost on this observer for quite some time. Beyond his penchant for ill-timed off-court remarks, Packer, while technically aware, is tone-deaf to the emotion of the game, which is college basketball's chief selling point. CBS may not want to replace him, but it ought to consider complementing Packer's technical savvy with someone like Clark Kellogg or Bill Raftery.

By the way, for those who missed the end of Monday's telecast, and CBS' annual "One Shining Moment" montage, the fault lies not with Channel 13, but with the network, where a satellite feed went haywire. The station, faced with nothing else to air, started its news, but taped and aired the montage during the sports segment.

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