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Pardon the Examination

As ESPN’s public editor, Jim Brady focuses his journalistic eye on the “worldwide leader”

By Mike Unger

Caricature of Jim Brady

Who says sports fans are irrational? Take foxboro1212. That’s the online handle of (presumably) a guy who commented on a November 2015 Barstool Sports story announcing the hiring of ESPN’s latest public editor, Jim Brady—a man who does not hide his love for the, shall we say, less prosperous of New York’s two NFL teams.

“Being a Jets fan won’t affect his judgement? You’re a f*#@ing Jets fan, how good could your judgement be in the first place.”

Deep thoughts like that one from a New England Patriots backer (the Jets’ rival plays its home games in Foxboro, Massachusetts) pass for nuanced commentary in the world of sports opinion these days. Brady, SOC/BA ’89, who has the thick skin and bristly sense of humor of a native Long Islander, laughs off such typed tirades from partisan trolls because he knows that as the chief internal media critic of the global sports behemoth, his work must be slightly more . . . refined.

“Rabid sports fandom and journalism are not always a good fit,” Brady says. “One requires you to ignore anything that doesn’t fit your narrative, and the other one is all about making sure you can prove what it is that you write. Some fans are blind to reality, but a lot of emails I get are really smart assessments of ESPN’s coverage. I feel better about the average sports fan than when I started the job.”

As ESPN’s sixth public editor since it created the position in 2005, Brady is charged with critiquing and analyzing the company’s programming and news coverage on its television networks and digital, print, and audio platforms. He’s paid by the company to write columns, produce podcasts, and interact with readers on social media, and he does so without any interference from its executives. ESPN employees are “encouraged” to cooperate with him, but they’re not obligated to.

It’s a Ruthian task.  

 

The role of ombudsman was established in 1809 in Sweden to handle citizens’ complaints about the government, according to the cleverly-acronymed Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO). The first newspaper ombudsman in the United States began working for Louisville’s Courier-Journal in 1967. The position gained prominence when the New York Times added one to its staff following the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003, but its popularity has declined as the newspaper industry has shrunk. Numbers are hard to nail down, but Esther Enkin, ONO’s president and ombudsman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, estimates there are about 140 worldwide.

Employing an ombudsman “signals to your audience that you recognize you have amazing power, and that there is no mechanism for accountability, so you create this mechanism,” says Kelly McBride, vice president and ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. When a panel of faculty from the organization served as ESPN’s public editor from 2011 to 2012, she headed it.

“The thing about being the ombudsman for ESPN is they have so many lines of business, and so much of what they do is controversial,” McBride says. “You have to be thinking about it and consuming it all the time. The other challenge is it’s a contract position, as opposed to someone in residence. It’s very hard from a distance to develop the relationships and sources that you need to be effective. Given those restrictions the challenge is to select the right topic. I think Jim’s very good at sorting through everything and picking interesting topics. He’s got a really sharp mind.”

Always a rabid sports nut, Brady dreamt of a career as a sportswriter. When the Post hired him to be a part-time one in 1987 (he was a sophomore at AU), he quickly realized that his romantic notion of the job was way off base. Working nights and weekends, groveling for interviews with disinterested players, watching games alongside grumpy reporters in the hushed press box while fans cheered in the stands was hardly glamorous. The last straw came in Baltimore, where an Oriole’s sweaty jock strap nearly decapitated him.

“It whizzed right by my head,” he says, chuckling. “I was told someone was trying to throw it in the bin in the middle of the locker room, but they missed by five or six feet. If you’re throwing a jock strap into a bin every night for six months, I doubt you miss by six feet.”

After eight years at the Post, Brady began sensing that the media landscape was shifting. He jumped to the digital world, working for companies including AOL before becoming executive editor of WashingtonPost.com in 2004. There he instituted cutting edge features like comments and blogs that aggravated traditionalists on the paper’s print side but grew page views. When he left in 2009 to join TBD.com, WashingtonPost.com was among the most visited news destinations in the country.

In 2014, Brady used a sizable chunk of his own coin ($500,000, according to Philadelphia magazine), to start Spirited Media, a mobile-focused local news company that owns and operates sites in Philadelphia (BillyPenn.com) and Pittsburgh (TheIncline.com). Its target is the 40-and-under demographic, which he believes is being ignored by traditional media. 

“They want news on their phone, and they want to go somewhere they can get everything in one place,” he says. “They want things to be simple, they don’t want to fight through four pop-up ads and an auto-play.”

Like any new venture, let alone a dot.com one, success is far from guaranteed, but sitting in the living room of his Great Falls, Virginia, home in July, Brady seems confident about the future. His affinity for jeans, which he’s wearing, will likely be one of three character quirks mentioned in his eulogy, along with his love for Diet Coke, which he’s sipping steadily from a Shaquille O’Neal-sized Double Gulp cup. The third? The Jets, of course.

 

Brady attended every home game from 1974 to 1985, and fall Sundays are still sacred, reserved for watching Gang Green with his dad and graying beagles, Hank and Fred. This almost evangelical devotion to sports is why, despite running a startup, he couldn’t pass up the public editor gig when ESPN offered him the 18-month post last year.

“I pitched doing the job a little bit differently, which was getting away from the daily police blotter kind of stuff. I wanted to get the readers into it more,” says Brady, who started Twitter and Facebook accounts for the public editor. “I’m fascinated by ESPN. They have these massive contracts with these leagues at the same time they have to cover them. That’s the inherent conflict they deal with every day, and that’s part of what I’m trying to get at.”

Of the topics he’s covered, none has received more attention than the network’s handling of Deflategate, the almost farcical Patriots football-deflating scandal that resulted in a four-game suspension for golden boy quarterback Tom Brady.

“Inside ESPN, its Deflategate missteps are viewed as isolated incidents coming out of different departments on different platforms,” he wrote. “Outside ESPN, these missteps are viewed by many as part of a concerted effort to assist the NFL in impugning the Patriots. The difference between the two positions is that while the network’s critics have been consistently loud and persistent, ESPN has been largely silent. This strategy, in my view, has served the network poorly.”

Despite taking the network to task for some unfair treatment of the franchise, he received plenty of vitriolic feedback, much of it from New England fans. This is the dilemma of the job.

“If you write anything too nice about ESPN all the readers think you’re a shill, and if you write anything that’s too critical people inside of ESPN will get annoyed with you. So what?” Brady says. “Some people don’t quite understand the general concept. If you’re an EMT in Boston and some guy’s having a heart attack on a street corner wearing a Jets jersey, you don’t say, ‘Screw that guy.’ You save his life because you’re an EMT. My job is to evaluate the journalism; it is not even the vaguest of problems in my life to separate my Jets fandom.”

The irony of the fact that he shares a surname with the dimple-chinned Pats quarterback (who owns a 27-7 record as a starter against the Jets) is not lost on Brady. He implicitly understands the passion sports can elicit. So does his living room wall, which bears a permanent crack from a losing encounter with his fist following a heartbreaking Jets loss (aren’t they all?) in 2009.

Violent outbursts are a thing of the past, says Brady, who swears he’s mild mannered in all other facets of his life. As the journalistic watchdog of the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader,” Brady is keenly aware of the weight of his words.

“Even a company the size of ESPN is going to be in trouble if it doesn’t listen to what its consumers want and note how they react to the brand,” he says “I think [the public editor] plays a valuable role as long as you go into it knowing you’re never going to make everybody happy. I spent most of my high school life not being popular, so I’m used to it.”

Pretty heady stuff. For a Jets fan.