Taking it to task

In sports parlance, Bob Ley is a franchise player at ESPN, the longest tenured on-air employee at the network and an 11-time Emmy winner.

A versatile talent, Ley’s anchored ESPN’s signature show, SportsCenter, and he’s currently host of ESPN’s investigative program, Outside the Lines. But Ley is savvy – and humble enough – to honor and recognize the crucial contributions of many who aren’t in front of the cameras.

Ley respects few colleagues more than Carolyn Hong.

“We couldn’t be at the level that we’re at without Carolyn,” Ley says. “Her attention to the stories, and the spirit she brings to our show, and her expertise and drive; everything we put on the air is a reflection of what she brings to us everyday.

“It’s a joy to work with her.”

Hong’s official title is coordinating producer of ESPN’s enterprise unit, but her job description is circuitous and complicated – just like her road to the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

After her parents emigrated from Korea, Hong grew up in Maryland suburb outside of Washington, D.C., and then she attended Reed College in Portland, OR. She worked for a law firm and a First Amendment lobby group before immersing herself in journalism, including her first big “break” at WBAL-TV in Baltimore, where she worked 50 hours a week… for free.

Carolyn with ESPN colleagues at duPont award ceremony, 2014
Carolyn with ESPN colleagues at duPont award ceremony, 2014

But at each stop, she endeared herself to colleagues with her fun and quirky personality but, more importantly, a reputation for her fearless – and relentless – reporting.

Her pursuit of “The Story” – whichever she and her team deem a service to the community at large – has included her going undercover to highlight illicit drug sales in the rave culture, her diving into dumpsters to find confidential patient documents improperly disposed of by pharmacies and her taking a mammogram to expose a shady doctor.

“Carolyn is that rare person in the industry who is smart, journalistically savvy and also has such a good, ethical compass on her,” says David Wagner, news anchor at NBC Charlotte. “But she loves to dig, and dig and dig.

“She truly is an investigative producer at heart.”

Tiger and Orioles

Carolyn Hong is convinced her mother was the original “Tiger Mother,” a term developed and popularized by author Amy Chua to describe the strict and relentless approach that defies Western parenting principles.

After graduating at the top of her class at an elite women’s university of Korea, Hong’s mother Kwi Jin Lee-O’Mara, who spoke four languages, earned two masters degrees, and became an economist for the World Bank. She set high academic expectations of Carolyn and her brother Nathan, enrolling Carolyn in French classes before middle school and regularly assigning both children extra work on top of their homework.

Hong admiringly watched her father work long hours at a neighborhood convenience store so she and her older brother could attend good schools.

“Mom would say, ‘Your father isn’t working 14 hours a day on his feet for you not to succeed,’ ” Hong recalls.

Though she applied to Ivy League schools, Hong decided to move west and attend Reed College in Portland.

“I didn’t know a thing about the school except that it was clear across the country,” she recalls. “I thought this would be an opportunity to go across the country and blaze my own trail.”

After her first year there, Hong was homesick, but her father convinced her to persevere. She chose to work toward an English Literature degree, and her first job was as an editor at a law firm. She quickly realized she wasn’t suited to work with lawyers, and she returned to metro Washington, D.C., working for the advocacy group, People For the American Way. While writing an article for the group’s newsletter against the ban of books, Hong recognized her passion for writing and storytelling.

But she had a problem.

“I felt, ‘This is what I want to do, but I had no skills,’ ” she says.

So Hong enrolled in a two-year graduate program in journalism at Boston University. She helped produce shows at BU – featuring topics such as panic disorders and racism – and she was hooked.

She thought, Everyday I get to learn something new!

But Hong needed experience, and she applied for an unpaid internship at WBAL-TV in Baltimore. Her advisor’s advice: “Just go and learn everything you can.”

At WBAL, Hong learned how to write for television, with producers challenging her daily to write 15-second stories and providing extensive critiques.

Though an unpaid intern, Hong enthusiastically embraced every assignment, often working between 40 and 50 hours a week.

When her internship was over, Hong was offered a full-time position.

Sometimes, Hong would practice stand-ups on camera, but she didn’t feel that was something she would excel in. Some of her favorite aspects of reporting were the unglamorous things, like filling out paperwork to get access to public documents or pre-interviewing potential sources and subjects. She reveled in the challenging of boiling down meaty stories into 15-second slots.

“I was fascinated by all the things behind the scenes that you don’t hear about,” she says. “And I loved writing.

“What I wrote could really shape a newscast. That was really exciting to me.”

She also thrived on the chaos and unpredictability of news reporting, such as prepping a story for the evening newscast then tearing it up because of breaking news.

Job opportunities emerged in Virginia, Philadelphia then back to Washington, D.C., where she worked at the Fox affiliate. At WTTG, she worked on the investigative team, where long-form stories might actually earn six minutes on-air, rather than 15 to 30 seconds.

Her first major assignment was immersing herself into the rave culture, spending four consecutive weekends undercover, observing and attending the dance parties.

Carolyn on Emmy night back in DC days
Carolyn on Emmy night back in DC days

In her reporting, Hong discovered that uniformed D.C. police officers moonlighting at the raves were ignoring drug deals.

The city enacted emergency legislation because her report revealed that a mistake in the city’s drug law didn’t make Ecstasy illegal, allowing for many cases to get dismissed because of a loophole.

“It was unbelievable,” Hong says. “How many people can go undercover, with a camera, and bust the bad guys? It was such an intriguing, fun and useful way to make my career.

A two-part investigative report compelled the city to overhaul its antiquated 911 response system, which dubiously included an average ambulance response time that was about double the national average.

“It gave me meaning,” Hong says of the 911 report.

In Cincinnati, while working with Wagner, Hong showed that she was literally willing to get her hands dirty.

She and Wagner pulled up to a dumpster outside of a pharmacy that they suspected didn’t properly dispose of patient information. In his suit, preparing to go on air later in the day, Wagner watched Hong jump into the dumpster and start weeding through the trash.

“I sat in the car and marveled at her as Carolyn got down and dirty,” Wagner recalls. “And the trash wasn’t just records; it was a lot of junk too.”

So was Hong afraid or apprehensive?

“You have to have a backbone to do these things,” she boldly says. “You have to be fearless. You’re not doing it for glamour.

“It’s not a job for everyone.”

Cream of the Crop

During her career, Hong has earned seven regional Emmys, a regional Edward R. Murrow award, as well as recognition from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Seven years ago, Hong was hired as a coordinating producer to oversee ESPNews and SportsCenter shows.

A few years ago, senior coordinator producer Dwayne Bray – the former deputy managing editor at the Dallas Morning News – conducted a national search to fill one of his two coordinating producer spots for the enterprise unit.

Emmy Night WLWT Cincy
Emmy Night WLWT Cincy

Bray said he had at least 18 qualified network and cable producers to choose from, but he was impressed with Hong’s experience, intelligence and her doggedness.

“Hopefully, we get to add to the journalistic credibility of ESPN, as a network that does more than highlights and discussion shows,” Bray says. “It’s not all fun and games. We do serious stuff that affects people’s lives and careers.

“I take it seriously and I know Carolyn takes it seriously.”

Annually, the enterprise unit will produce about 70 investigative pieces, with Hong handling half of them.

At any time, she may be juggling 10 projects at once, from the idea conception, to the field reporting, all the way through the entire editing process. Because some of the investigative pieces are long – perhaps up to eight minutes – the reporting, writing and editing may take up to two weeks.

Hong is the point person at every step.

She must be resourceful, she must have a knack for gaining the trust of sources and subjects, she must be highly organized, she must be a strong leader, and she must have very sound decision-making skills.

“Everyone thinks it’s glamorous to work at ESPN, it must be a dream job,” Hong says. “But this is one of the hardest jobs I’ve done in my career, because there’s so much at stake.”