CNN strength is its operation without guise of self-promotion


June 02, 2000|By MILTON KENT

In contrast to the ballyhooed 20th anniversary of ESPN last fall, CNN last night marked its second decade of covering sports in a calm manner and without calling undue attention to itself.

But then, that's the way the cable channel, or at least its sports news gathering wing, has always operated: quietly and with a lack of self promotion, as if the information was the star, not the people who get it or present it.

"I would be much more frustrated if we were consistently getting beaten on stories and on the news," said Jim Walton, the CNN executive who oversees the all news channel's sports operation and the spin-off channel, CNN/SI. "We have to live in our environment and nobody can question our product."

Over the two decades, the channel has produced high quality work and launched the national careers of some of sports television's bigger names, including Hannah Storm, Dan Hicks, Gary Miller, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, who paid tribute to CNN in a glowing and classy column at the Fox Web site yesterday.

In recent months, the profile of CNN's sports division has been raised through its ongoing investigation of Indiana men's basketball coach Bob Knight that culminated with the March report that he had choked former player Neil Reed, then a follow-up story in which a tape of an Indiana practice appeared to substantiate Reed's contention.

The reports have certainly brought more attention to CNN/SI, the all sports news channel that marks its fourth anniversary in December. But Walton, a Maryland graduate, also recognizes that the channel - with 15 million subscribers - needs more than just good journalism to survive in the growing cable landscape.

To get there, the channel, which is unavailable in the Baltimore area, save for direct broadcast satellite, will begin airing event programming, starting with coverage of Wimbledon, and continuing next year, when it airs the new women's professional soccer league. Walton said the channel may, down the road, air documentary series, interview shows or even a game show.

But CNN/SI will not produce the telecasts, leaving that to its corporate cousin, Turner Sports, so that the sports news channel can be free to pursue stories without being encumbered by business relationships.

"We won't take ourselves too seriously, but we don't want to damage the brand," said Walton. "We're journalists and we want to keep that divide."

Knight watch

ESPN's Roy Firestone said in an chat that his on-camera admission that he hadn't watched the Reed tape during his interview with Knight on Tuesday "blew up in his face." Well, his face isn't the only one in Bristol with explosive powder on it.

In some respects, Firestone did as well as could be expected, considering that he had a recalcitrant subject, intent on getting his point of view out on his own terms.

But neither Firestone nor Digger Phelps, neither of whom will ever be confused with a serious journalist, should have been anywhere near Assembly Hall the other night, and someone at ESPN should have known that.

This interview screamed for the presence of reporters with journalistic heft, on the order of Bob Ley, Mark Schwarz, Jeremy Schaap, Shelley Smith who could not only ask the tough questions, but the follow-ups that went with them, which Firestone woefully neglected.

In the end, ESPN got the kind of ratings that keep the ship afloat, but sold its credibility down the river.

One also wonders what the newspapers that allowed Knight to select his inquisitors at a pre-ESPN round table were thinking by permitting a subject to determine who would do the questioning, a violation of one of journalism's cardinal rules.

Cup crazy

After five years of bouncing from Fox to ESPN, the first fruits of the new hockey broadcasting deal should start to pay off this weekend as the Stanley Cup finals shift from ESPN to its corporate big brother, ABC.

Barry Melrose, ESPN's studio analyst, thinks the fans will be the beneficiaries.

"I think the hockey fan knows where hockey is, but what we're trying to do is bring in the casual fan and I think the cross-promotion between ABC and ESPN can only help," said Melrose, who will join ABC's studio for the rest of the series.

Al Michaels and John Davidson will anchor the coverage, with Melrose and John Saunders providing analysis. Gary Thorne, Bill Clement and Brian Engblom will call the action of the New Jersey-Dallas series.

Locally, Channel 2 will pass up tomorrow's Game 3 to air the Children's Miracle Network Telethon, the same telethon that wiped out coverage of Game 1 of the 1991 NBA title series here. Comcast subscribers can see tomorrow night's game on a variety of access channels.

Around the dial

From the local perspective, Milford Mill graduate Brian Jordan is the host of this weekend's "This Week in Baseball" (Channel 45, 12:30 p.m.), before his Atlanta Braves play host to the Yankees in the Fox game of the week (1 p.m.)

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