Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

The ESPNization of War Coverage

Thesis: I propose the military could move towards a monopolization of war coverage in the way that ESPN is attempting to monopolize sports coverage. 

The attacks on Kabul today produced some stunning video.  The video was shot by ISAF media and immediately posted to YouTube.  It got me wondering, though, if this marks a change in the way war is covered.

ESPN deserves credit for doing, usually, a fantastic job of presenting live sporting events.  But everyone that watches ESPN knows that the hours between live sporting events are filled with relentless shilling for the most popular teams, the most popular sports, and the sports most often appearing on ESPN.  ESPN often makes news, and then spends the rest of the day talking about the news it made.  It isn’t sports journalism–it is an entity focused on controlling the flow on sports information and programming.

ESPN does such a comprehensive job covering sports that there is almost no competition left.  It has co-opted many of the best beat writers in major sports cities by developing websites for Boston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, and LA.  It produces online content tailored to each city.  I believe ESPN’s eventual plan is to be the only media enterprise that covers sports.  When costs for broadcasting games is in the multiple billions, not many can compete.  We are quickly getting to the point where ESPN is the only game in town.

One further example: ESPN and the University of Texas just debuted the “Longhorn Network.”  The “Longhorn” covers only the University and University activities.  Essentially, UT wanted to control its media coverage (BYU has done something similar), so, in partnership with ESPN, they set about developing a network to go straight to the consumer.  This is pretty rich, as many in Texas will tell you, UT already got highly favorable coverage from ESPN.

So when I saw the footage posted on YouTube today, literally minutes after the Kabul attack was over, I began to wonder if the DoD could pull the same trick.  Obviously, the DoD has unique access to the war, and the embedded journalist program was a huge success.  But why rely on unreliable journalists?  The DoD can get its message out by posting on YouTube or even creating its own broadcast outlet.  It seems to me that newspapers would happily go along–most publications are shutting down foreign bureaus, laying off employees, and are generally under assault from the “new” media.  The DoD will always control access to the information, so they even start in a better position than ESPN.*

I know it sounds conspiratorial, and maybe a little bit nuts.  But given the available outlets for information, it seems to me that the DoD doesn’t need the “old” media like it used to.  It can control the narrative (just like ESPN does–remember the four summers of Brett Favre?) because it controls the information.  Post YouTube videos of soldiers dramatically fighting off an attack (even if the video was, well, inconclusive).  Maybe they could even have retired generals come on to analyze and break down the day’s events (didn’t they already do this?).

The Pentagon, though, has probably decided that they need not take this route.  They are a public institution, accountable to the public, so it useful to play ball with the people acting as “watchdogs.”  And given the amount of “watchdogs” with little bite, the Pentagon can control the narrative, for now, without becoming WarESPN.

* One final point: ESPN is, for now, an “old media” entity, as it is mainly known for cable broadcasting.  However, if you look under the surface, ESPN has aggressively purchased popular sports blogs, branched out heavily onto the internet with its offerings on ESPN3, and pushed the envelope with ESPN3D. ESPN seems to know that the model is changing, and so far, to their immense credit, they are trying to change with it.


Written by keithboyea

September 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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