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Home » Another scandal rocks ESPN’s lousy month

Another scandal rocks ESPN’s lousy month

It has been anything but a happy new year for ESPN.

Just two weeks in and the network has spent most of that time trying to navigate through stormy seas and avoid one rock after another.

First, as I’ve written about a ton this week, ESPN had to deal with several dust-ups arising from “The Pat McAfee Show.” Frequent guest Aaron Rodgers caused headaches by seemingly making a connection between ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Then McAfee blamed a senior ESPN executive for trying to sabotage the show by leaking misleading viewership numbers to the media.

OK, just that right there would be enough to ruin a public relations person’s month. But we were just getting started.

On Wednesday, the face of ESPN — Stephen A. Smith — went on a profanity-laced, nearly one-hour tirade about former ESPNer Jason Whitlock. Personally, I found Smith’s rant, which took place on his podcast, to be highly entertaining and, from all accounts, filled with facts. But it was nasty. Some may have found Smith’s personal attacks to have been too nasty.

Then came this bombshell Thursday from The Athletic’s Katie Strang. She reported that, since at least 2010, ESPN inserted fake names on entries for Sports Emmy awards, then took the awards won by some of those imaginary individuals, had them reengraved and then gave them to on-air personalities.

Here’s how it would work: Take ESPN’s “College GameDay.” The official entry for best studio show listed several people who supposedly worked on the show, but didn’t actually exist. On-air personalities are not officially eligible to win Emmys given to shows because they have their own categories. Emmy rules state that no one can “double dip” — that is, be eligible to win two awards for the same work.

So, ESPN would list fake names and then, after winning the award, they would take the trophies awarded to those fake people and repurpose them for the on-air talent.

Strang wrote, “Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Chris Fowler, Desmond Howard and Samantha Ponder, among others, were given the ill-gotten Emmys, according to a source briefed on the matter, who was granted anonymity because the individual is not authorized to discuss it publicly. There is no evidence that the on-air individuals were aware the Emmys given to them were improperly obtained.”

According to Strang’s story, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which runs the Emmys, uncovered the scheme that gave out some 30 statuettes to those who were ineligible to receive them. ESPN acknowledged it all, and it put out a statement that said, “Some members of our team were clearly wrong in submitting certain names that may go back to 1997 in Emmy categories where they were not eligible for recognition or statuettes. This was a misguided attempt to recognize on-air individuals who were important members of our production team. Once current leadership was made aware, we apologized to NATAS for violating guidelines and worked closely with them to completely overhaul our submission process to safeguard against anything like this happening again. We brought in outside counsel to conduct a full and thorough investigation and individuals found to be responsible were disciplined by ESPN.”

Strang reported, “While it is not known who orchestrated the scheme, Craig Lazarus, vice president and executive producer of original content and features, and Lee Fitting, a senior vice president of production who oversaw ‘College GameDay’ and other properties, were among the ESPN employees NATAS ruled ineligible from future participation in the Emmys.”

Fitting was let go last August after 25 years with ESPN.

Some of the fake names turned in were close to the actual names of ESPN’s on-air talent, according to Strang’s story. The fake/actual names including Kirk Henry (Kirk Herbstreit), Lee Clark (Lee Corso), Dirk Howard (Desmond Howard), Tim Richard (Tom Rinaldi), Steven Ponder (Sam Ponder), Gene Wilson (Gene Wojciechowski), Chris Fulton (Chris Fowler), Erik Andrews (Erin Andrews), Wendy Nickson (Wendi Nix) and Jenn Brownsmith (Jenn Brown).

As Awful Announcing wrote, “It’s so brazen and yet so obvious you almost have to marvel at how it could go on for years without being noticed. Were Harry and Marv from ‘Home Alone’ behind this?”

Again, to repeat, it appears the on-air talent had no idea they were getting awards they weren’t supposed to get. Brown, who left ESPN in 2013, told Strang, “This is all news to me and kind of unfortunate because you’ve got people who believe they rightfully had one. There are rules for a reason … it’s unfortunate (those were) abused and for so many years, too.”

Actually, it’s more than unfortunate. When you think about it, it’s pretty pathetic to go to such lengths just to give someone a trophy.

It’s certainly not the crime of the century, and it ultimately doesn’t impact ESPN’s bottom line in any way. But it’s a bad look.

By Tom Jones, senior media writer

On Wednesday, Pat McAfee said Aaron Rodgers’ weekly appearances on his show were over for the rest of the NFL season. Guess who was back on McAfee’s show on Thursday? Yep, Rodgers.

Technically, McAfee clarified Wednesday night that Rodgers’ regular weekly appearances were over for the rest of the playoffs, but McAfee said on X, “He’ll make random surprise welcomed pop ins during big events or offseason adventures but, it’s always been a season thing. I never said he’ll never be on the show again.”

With big news Thursday that legendary six-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick was leaving the New England Patriots, Rodgers hopped back on to talk football.

By Tom Jones, senior media writer

  • In a letter to staff, Houston Landing’s board of directors backed CEO Peter Bhatia’s controversial decision to fire founding editor-in-chief Mizanur Rahman and investigative reporter Alex Stuckey, Nieman Lab reported. The terminations, which took place Monday, shocked staff, who subsequently wrote to the board to share their opposition to Bhatia’s decision. In the board’s response, they praised Bhatia as a “principled man and a visionary journalist” and said he had been transparent about the Landing’s “path forward.” Bhatia has told staff and media that he fired Rahman and Stuckey as part of a larger shift in the company’s digital strategy.
  • NBC News started a round of layoffs Thursday that will affect between 50 to 100 people, Deadline reported. The organization, which has several thousand employees, was also hit with layoffs last January. The latest cuts are part of a “move to focus on areas of priority and invest in areas of ongoing growth,” a source told Deadline.
  • The death toll of journalists and media workers in the war between Israel and Hamas has reached 79, according to an update from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of the journalists who were killed, 72 were Palestinian, four were Israeli and three were Lebanese. In addition, 16 journalists were reported injured, three were reported missing, 21 were reported arrested, and there have been “multiple assaults, threats, cyberattacks, censorship, and killings of family members,” the CPJ said.
  • Russia is holding more than 25 Ukrainian journalists in captivity, according to the newly appointed head of the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on Freedom of Speech. “These are not combatants. These are journalists who were doing their job. And, according to the civilized rules of warfare, should not have been captured in principle, but the fact is the fact,” Yaroslav Yurchyshyn said in an online event on Jan. 10. As of Nov. 2, 75 media workers had been killed since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, according to the Institute of Mass Information.
  • The podcasting industry saw frequent shakeups in 2023 and, so far, 2024 looks to be no different. Slate announced Thursday that it had acquired the popular podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” hosted by Anna Sale, from WNYC Studios. The interview podcast about “the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more” launched in 2014. Sale will continue to host and will join Slate with other members of her team.
  • A World Economic Forum poll asked 1,400 experts about the biggest threats to the global economy over the next two years. The greatest threat, they said — ahead of extreme weather events, societal polarization and cyber insecurity — is artificial intelligence-driven misinformation and disinformation. Those polled said such misinformation could influence key elections, and they expressed concern that political disruptions caused by false information could lead to riots, strikes and crackdowns on dissent.
  • Republican presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis sparred — not an exaggerated term, in this case — in a Wednesday debate in Iowa that was broadcast by CNN. “In an often testy faceoff,” PolitiFact reported, “Haley repeatedly touted a new website, DeSantisLies.com, while DeSantis clapped back at Haley over Social Security, education and immigration.” PolitiFact fact-checked claims that the candidates made about immigration, LGBTQ+ issues, Social Security and more. Be sure to check it out.
  • Meanwhile, also in Des Moines, former President Donald Trump appeared in a notably friendly town hall hosted by Fox News. Trump “shared attention-grabbing anecdotes and recycled claims” and “focused more on the past, invoking his presidential record and strong poll numbers while attacking his campaign opponents, including President Joe Biden,” Madison Czopek and Sara Swann reported for PolitiFact. Czopek and Swann fact-checked four claims that Trump made in the town hall that stood out.
  • Media reporter Brian Stelter reports that Trump’s town hall averaged 4.3 million viewers between 9 and 10 p.m., while the DeSantis/Haley debate averaged 2.5 million in the same hour. “Both totals will be higher when repeats and streams are counted,” Stelter wrote on X, “but Trump is the clear victor.” Overall, CNN reported the debate delivered an audience on TV of 2.53 million total viewers. Stelter also tweeted, “For comparison sake, Fox’s town halls with Haley on Monday and DeSantis on Tuesday averaged 2.2 million viewers each. (Caveat: Those were at 6pm, typically a lower-rated hour than 9pm.)”
  • For The New York Times, Michael M. Grynbaum with “CNN and Fox News carry Trump’s fusillade in full, a reminder of his media advantage.”
  • For Vanity Fair, it’s Charlotte Klein with “How the Miami Herald Got the Epstein Documents.”
  • It was the greatest chewing gum ever made … for about 10 seconds. For The New York Times, Emily Schmall with “Fruit Stripe Gum, Famous for Short Bursts of Flavor, Is Discontinued.”
  • Subscribe to Poynter’s Friday newsletter, Open Tabs with Poynter managing editor Ren LaForme, and get behind-the-scenes stories only available to subscribers.
  • Lead with Influence 2024 (Seminar) — Apply today, Jan. 12, for the February program. Also, offered in June and Oct. 2024.
  • Transforming Local Crime Reporting Into Public Safety Journalism (Seminar) — Apply now.
  • Empower your storytelling skills with Beat Academy 2024 (Webinar series) — Feb. 1-Sept. 26. Enroll now.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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