[Update] Silver Lining in ESPN’s Vindictive Sword Swing Against Bruce Feldman

This post is not necessarily directly related to UCLA athletics but it does concern coverage of UCLA football. Especially it concerns one of the best writers in college football, who has always done a great job in covering the Bruins from a national perspective.

I woke up this morning and found my inbox exploding over a media firestorm around Bruce Feldman, one of the best sports writers (and a blogger) in the country, who covers college football for the tWWL. Feldman has always been one of my favorite reporters, who have always made effort to cover a story  beyond just cutting and pasting press releases from athletic department staffers.

Apparently ESPN has suspended Feldman for helping Mike Leach write his recently released biographySwing Your Sword - even after Feldman reportedly had permission from the networks. This has led to an all out firestorm in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse. We think there is a huge opportunity for a happy ending if Feldman just tells ESPN to take a hike and come over where he really belongs - bloggers at SBNation. Let me lay it out after the jump.

In late 2009 before Texas Tech had fired the flamboyant Leach, Feldman had signed on to help him out with putting together a biography for Leach. Leach was of course fired because of the complaints stemming from his treatment of the son of ESPN college football blowhard analyst Craig James (who is not apparently running for the Republican nomination for the Texas Senate seat in 2012). Anyway after the Leach/James saga erupted, it became unclear whether Feldman was going to continue to write that Leach biography. According to SportsByBrook  Feldman indeed received permission from ESPN to participate in the project. Well the book - Swing Your Sword - is out and it is not kind to Craig James, exposing him as a total jerk. As SBB noted:

Since the book was released on Monday, Feldman has deliberately avoided any personal promotion or mention of the Leach book. (You will find no mention of the book on Feldman's Twitter account and ESPN blog.)

Despite those facts apparently ESPN was too insecure to face a little bit if reality and ended up suspending Feldman.  From Adam Jacobi (an SBN colleague of ours) on Sportsline.com:

Yet, based on what we know now, Feldman didn't do anything wrong. He helped write a book that a whole lot of people really wanted to see written, and it wasn't even that one about ESPN itself that so many past and present ESPN employees gave testimony for -- under their own names, no less.

No, instead, ESPN is apparently degrading its PR standing (to say nothing of its paid Insider product, to which Feldman actually contributes) in order to punish Feldman and push this notion of ESPN as a faultless company that virtually zero of its consumers actually believe. It's extremely difficult to find a benefit to the company itself in this decision. The product is worse. The public perception is worse. The journalistic freedom within is now demonstrably worse. Exactly what is ESPN trying to accomplish here?

The appearance is that Craig James used his position at ESPN to force enough public pressure on Leach to be ousted from Texas Tech, and is now using his position within ESPN to force Feldman from the ranks at Bristol. If either is inaccurate and James would like to see Leach or Feldman restored to their previous statuses, by all means, we'd be glad to document such a statement. If not, it's hard not to think that ESPN is being used as a bully pulpit, and if that means a college football world without heavy involvement from Leach and Feldman, then college football is worse off for it, and that's no role for ESPN or any other major college football media organization to hold.

Jon at Corn Nation, who has worked with Feldman before has more background on this.

Anyway you look at this, ESPN comes across as a petty, vindictive and an extremely insecure network. They also showed an unbelievable ignorance about how media works in the current digital world which no longer is a top down landscape where few people can control all the flow of information. This story has completely blown up. Bruce Feldman is a trending topic on Twitter with hashtags such as #FreeBruce  - egged on by tWWL's competitors. It has become a total PR nightmare for ESPN and a PR  bonanza for Leach's Swing Your Sword.

For our part, we are signing on to an SBN wide movement - #FeldmantoSBNation. It just makes a lot of sense for someone like Feldman to become part of a network, which is only getting stronger and is not concerned with pushing corporate driven agendas down the throats of sports fans (via its employees) across the country. So if you have time today and are on Twitter, please consider RTing this:

RT @BruinNation PLEASE RT @BruceFeldmanESPN needs to leave #ESPN and join @SBNation. Bruce! Bruce! Bruce! #FeldmantoSBNation

Let's bring Feldman where he belongs - a network that has been built by real sports junkies, who are passionate about their teams and are more interested in substance than the MTVized coverage of ESPN.

GO BRUINS.

[Update - P]: Mike Leach was on a Miami sports radio station this morning promoting Swing Your Sword, and in response to a question asked by the show's host, confirmed that Bruce Feldman had been authorized by ESPN to collaborate with Leach on the book:

Joe Rose: "Mike I wanted to ask you about Bruce Feldman. I see he’s been suspended by ESPN for his affiliation with the book, what’s your thoughts on what’s taken place with Bruce?"

Mike Leach: "... and furthermore Bruce had permission ahead of time to do this book from ESPN. The guy that put the car in the ditch for them is Craig James, not Bruce Feldman."

As Nestor noted, Feldman's suspension has already drawn a great deal of attention in the sports media world, from consumers and writers/bloggers alike. Spencer Hall (of EDSBS fame) wrote a story for the SBN mothership this morning with his thoughts on the suspension as well as his take after having read Leach's book. It is very much worth reading; both in review of the book, and in light of suspending Feldman, ESPN does not come out good from this.

I read the book on the plane Thursday night, and unlike every other piece of evidence cited by ESPN in their coverage of Leach's firing from Texas Tech, Leach's claims are documented. It's all right there in a series of emails included in an appendix, and in the sworn testimony collected from depositions. Like a good reporter or litigator, Leach builds his case, a case heard on CBSSports.com, CNNSI.com, SBNation.com, and a hundred other sites. One of those sites not listed is ESPN.com.

There are reasons for this. ESPN is excoriated in the book for shoddy reporting, particularly Joe Schad, the on-air personality who regurgitated whole chunks of the narrative offered by Spaeth Communications -- the PR company Craig James hired -- without scrutiny or suspicion....

.... Feldman's suspension -- and this is purely guesswork -- came about out of the sheer incompetence and breakneck ignorance an organization as big as ESPN/Disney/Matsumoto Fishing Concern produces. By structure, ESPN as a whole owes nothing to journalism, or even the act of stating fact, an inherent tension between the "E" in their name and the news it presents. When the two come into conflict, the one attached to cable subscriptions and the pipeline of cash wins, and everything else is thrown into a snowbank of indifference.

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