ESPN Gets an Ombudsman

Melissa Block talks with Washington Post sports columnist George Solomon. ESPN announced yesterday that Mr. Solomon will the cable network's first ombudsman.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

ESPN is getting an ombudsman. Washington Post columnist George Solomon will be the first to hold that post at the 24-hour sports cable network. Newspapers have long had ombudsmen to critique news coverage and act as advocates for readers. NPR appointed one five years ago. George Solomon says that ESPN needs an ombudsman for the same reasons that news organizations do.

Mr. GEORGE SOLOMON (Ombudsman, ESPN): I think like all big news operations, they want to know how they're doing. They want to know how they're thought of. And they also want to know, you know, ways they can improve. And as with any other ombudsman in any other role, you know, is there a place for, in this case, the viewer or the listener to go to air a complaint? And I think they're very anxious for this to occur.

BLOCK: I'm sure they have avenues for those complaints to come in right now. What have they told you about what the most common complaints are?

Mr. SOLOMON: You know, as you know, sports fans are very, very passionate, and...

BLOCK: Shocked. I'm shocked.

Mr. SOLOMON: Yes, I know. And, you know, for instance, I know there was a lot of concern about how the network performed in its coverage of the brawl in Detroit.

BLOCK: The Detroit Pistons game?

Mr. SOLOMON: Right.

BLOCK: With Ron Artest?

Mr. SOLOMON: Right. So on sensitive news stories, as with all broadcast outlets, there is concern about how, you know, the network performs, as it would be the case in how the newspaper performs.

BLOCK: You were a sports editor at The Washington Post for many years. Do you figure that the mission of ESPN is different from that of a newspaper?

Mr. SOLOMON: Well, I think the network casts an enormous net in the world of sports, and it's a very significant voice in the sports world and in the culture in general. And, you know, hopefully, you know, what I can do is influence through whatever critical observations I can make in hopes of making an impact in, you know, the quality of the network and seeing that accepted standards of broadcast journalism are upheld.

BLOCK: There's a column in the newspaper USA Today, talking about a potential minefield for you in this role as ombudsman at ESPN, specifically talking about conflicts of interest that ESPN might have covering events that it owns, "Monday Night Football," for example, NFL games. Are you convinced that you have free rein to say exactly what you want to say? Are there some corporate restrictions here?

Mr. SOLOMON: Well, I do have the same free rein I had as a sports editor of The Washington Post in that it's my role to be responsible to what we cover and to, you know, what we do. Now you mention ESPN may broadcast "Monday Night Football" and telecast "Monday Night Football." They don't own "Monday Night Football." They do own the X Games. And, you know, can I make criticisms and question, you know, how ESPN covers the X Games? And the answer is obviously yes. But, you know, I don't see it as a minefield.

BLOCK: Here's one other thing that puzzles me. The press release from ESPN mentions that your own son produces an ESPN program, "Around the Horn."

Mr. SOLOMON: Correct.

BLOCK: What do you do about that?

Mr. SOLOMON: For the 35 years my son's been alive, I've offered constructive criticism and advice to him, and most of it, he's rejected. And if I write or talk about his show, I will have full disclosure, as we did in this press release, that he's my son.

BLOCK: Well, best of luck at it, and I bet you'll be getting an earful.

Mr. SOLOMON: OK. Thanks very much.

BLOCK: George Solomon starts work as ESPN ombudsman on July 1st.

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