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The sports network ESPN is the NFL's largest business partner. It currently pays the NFL nearly $2 billion a year to broadcast its games. But ESPN is also home to some of the most aggressive investigative reporters who cover the league. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, that creates a tension that has reemerged during the NFL's domestic abuse scandal.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Don Van Natta is an author and has shared in three Pulitzer Prizes at the Miami Herald and The New York Times. He's broken big stories on espionage, politics and terrorism. So why would Van Natta join the worldwide leader in sports as he did two-and-a-half years ago?
DON VAN NATTA: Well, I had written a couple of sports books. I did a book about presidential golf called "First Off The Tee." And I wrote a biography of Babe Didrikson. And so I was kind of a frustrated sports writer and always sort of dreamed, since I was a kid, of writing about sports and never had the opportunity to do so either at The Times or at the Miami Herald.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet even in scratching that childhood itch, the adult Van Natta told ESPN executives his approach would not change.
VAN NATTA: We had lengthy conversations about the journalism at ESPN and what kind of investigative reporting they wanted to do. They had great aspirations for doing hard looks at every aspect of sports, including leagues that they're in partnership with.
FOLKENFLIK: Of late, Van Natta's reporting with ESPN's Kevin Van Valkenburg has deeply undercut the credibility of Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in their handling of a domestic assault case.
The ESPN report also found the team wanted leniency from prosecutors, for the player involved, Ray Rice. ESPN published that story online and gave it greater circulation on various programs, sending competing reporters scrambling. At a press conference, Bisciotti sought to discredit ESPN's reporting by attacking its sources.
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STEVE BISCIOTTI: Almost everything in there is anonymous. But it's clear from the subject matter that there's - it's Ray's attorney. It's Ray's agent. And it's Ray's friends.
FOLKENFLIK: Van Natta was able to fire back immediately on ESPN, though the sound quality wasn't too good.
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VAN NATTA: We talked to more than 20 sources. We have team sources - people inside the building - the Ravens building - talked to us, confirmed much of what was in our account. We talked to league sources. We talked to union sources - people that were in the loop.
FOLKENFLIK: The Ravens ultimately confirmed much of the article, yet Van Natta says it's hard for him and his colleagues to shake the following misperception.
VAN NATTA: That because ESPN pays so much money to the NFL that its journalists are not going to be allowed to do their jobs. And nothing could be further from the truth.
KELLY MCBRIDE: The people who work at ESPN will be the first to say that they are the largest walking conflict of interest that exists.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Kelly McBride, a former ESPN ombudsman who's vice president at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school.
MCBRIDE: It wasn't like this had to be uncovered or pointed out to them. But that said, they pay the NFL to buy rights to air their games and the highlights of those games. And then they also cover the NFL as a journalism enterprise, where they try and hold the powerful accountable. And there's no two ways about it.
FOLKENFLIK: And yet, McBride says, ESPN is home to some of the nation's best sports journalism. ESPN president John Skipper was traveling this week and unavailable for an interview. But as he recently told the digital media site Re/code, he's a big believer in the value of those huge contracts. There's another $1.5 billion in total that goes to major-league baseball, the NCAA for football playoffs and the NBA.
JOHN SKIPPER: This is that content that is more and more valuable. It's live. You've got to watch it. Ninety-eight percent of all the ESPN viewership is live.
FOLKENFLIK: Skipper has acknowledged the conflict but has said it's manageable. Yet two episodes have given critics and journalists pause. Last week, ESPN suspended the popular editor and commentator Bill Simmons for calling the NFL's Goodell a liar over the Rice assault case. Van Natta says Simmons' remarks went further than his own reporting would allow.
VAN NATTA: I can't call Roger Goodell a liar. I don't - I don't have hard evidence to make that conclusion journalistically.
FOLKENFLIK: Van Natta says he's truly been rattled only once - last year when ESPN withdrew from a partnership with PBS' Frontline to produce a documentary on the NFL and traumatic head injuries based on the reporting of two of his ESPN colleagues.
VAN NATTA: It was troubling. I was not pleased that the network decided to do that with "League Of Denial." But it really was unlike my own experience. It certainly was a sort of yellow light. I would have to say it did concern me somewhat. But as I say, since then there has been nothing but green lights.
FOLKENFLIK: Van Natta urges viewers to hold ESPN accountable for its actual reporting, not for their suspicions. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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