A long piece by Jim Brady presents evidence that complaints have resonated, even inside its executive boardroom, that sports cable network ESPN has become far too liberal.
In his piece Brady tries to grapple with charges of the network’s emerging and extreme left-wing bias and suggests ways to address that perception. In his November 8 piece, Brady spends much time insisting there is no left-wing bias at ESPN even as he argues that the network hasn’t done enough to assure customers and sports fans that the network welcomes all political views.
Though Brady doesn’t even broach the situation, some wonder if the massive loss of subscribers ESPN has suffered may be the most obvious evidence of that shift leftward. Earlier this year it was estimated that the sports network lost 3.2 million subscribers in just over a year. It is also said that over the last few years ESPN has been losing 300,000 subscribers a month on average and, worse, lost 621,000 subscribers just in October alone.
This, in part, is apparently what Brady hoped to address with his article.
Brady begins by noting that it would be nice if ESPN could build a wall of separation between sports and politics, but this isn’t the real world. Besides, he points out that sports have always been a platform for political activism.
But the separation of sports and politics has always been a fantasy. Sports has frequently served as a vehicle for positive social change. Whether it’s Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Pat Tillman or Colin Kaepernick, history is full of athletes who made an impact that extended beyond their athletic accomplishments.
The idea of sports as escapism, while understandable, increasingly feels like a relic of the past. Athletes are taking more frequent and stronger stands on political and social topics. Health issues relating to on-field play are increasingly important to many fans — not to mention to the leagues themselves. Off-the-field criminal behavior or drug use isn’t just news because it happens; it’s also news because it frequently affects a player’s ability to compete.
Brady does seem to recognize that there is an awful lot of left-leaning political discussion on his network and one problem he pinpoints is the advent of social media in which on-air (and even behind the scenes) employees can connect with fans instantly and constantly. He notes that an employee’s social media is notoriously hard for a company to monitor or affect. Brady also points out that the on-air commentators are not journalists but are instead opinionists.
But Brady admits that there are other signs that the network is leaning increasingly to the left.
There have also been concrete actions that have created a perception that ESPN has chosen a political side, such as awarding Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYS despite her not having competed athletically for decades, the company’s decision to move a golf tournament away from a club owned by presidential candidate Donald Trump and a perceived inequity in how punishments for controversial statements were meted out.
Brady also mentions the growing list of commentators who have been fired or punished for expressing conservative ideas. Noticeably absent are liberal commentators, who haven’t been sanctioned by the bosses.
Despite this lopsided fact, one ESPN anchor told Brady that he thinks everything is going wonderfully at ESPN, but maybe there are some small problems.
“We’ve done a great job of diversity,” said longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley. “But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
Brady added to that thought by saying he has spoken to many who think things are not going so well behind the scenes.
Many ESPN employees I talked to — including liberals and conservatives, most of whom preferred to speak on background — worry that the company’s politics have become a little too obvious, empowering those who feel as if they’re in line with the company’s position and driving underground those who don’t.
“If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers,” one conservative ESPN employee said. “There’s even a fear of putting Fox News on a TV [in the office].”
Still, ESPN President John Skipper insisted there is no problems at all at the network. “Vigorous debate and opinion are important to us, and no one should be concerned about expressing an opinion as long as it is not personal nor intolerant,” Skipper insists. “[Recently,] Randy Moss and Trent Dilfer offered very different points of view relative to Colin Kaepernick’s actions [protesting during the national anthem], and I believe both were comfortable doing so.”
Anchor Bob Ley chimed in, too, insisting that there isn’t anything nefarious, at least intentionally, at ESPN.
“It’s in the water supply,” Ley said. “There’s no cabal gathering in a dark chamber.”
Still, Brady revealingly points out that most of the money ESPN staffers donated to politicians went to Democrats.
As with any news organization, it’s hard to know the political makeup of the staff. According to Federal Election Commission data, between 2012 and today, there were 104 individual political contributions from ESPN employees to identifiable partisan entities. Of those, 80 percent went to Democratic candidates, committees or PACs. Only 20 percent went to Republican candidates, committees or PACs.
Brady also noted that there could be a reason fans are getting sick and tired about sports intruding on ESPN’s political programing.
“So why is politics such a hot-button issue for ESPN?” Brady asks. “Some of it might be a reflection of this particular moment in political history, and thus potentially ephemeral. But the most common explanation is simpler: Sports is escapism, and when politics intrude, the outcome is frustration among consumers.”
Brady, though, says the bosses aren’t too worried about politics upsetting viewers.
Overall, though, [Barry Blyn, ESPN’s vice president of consumer insights] said the political makeup of ESPN’s audience isn’t a major focus. “It’s not something we spend much time on,” he said. “We spend more time tracking fan reaction to our sports reporting. That reporting only occasionally intersects with political themes.”
The writer next notes that the perception ESPN is driving hard to the left is because the network bought the liberal FiveThirtyEight blog and launched its politically leftwing effort “The Undefeated.”
As to FiveThirtyEight, Brady claims the site isn’t liberal and only “uses data to produce those projections, as it does with almost every story it produces. Saying Trump is behind is not a political position; it’s largely a consensus view.” (Never mind that Trump was not behind and actually won the election.)
And for “The Undefeated,” Brady admits it is liberal but then dismisses the fact because that is what it was made for in the first place.
He also joined his bosses in proclaiming the network’s airing of an Obama town hall event doesn’t make ESPN liberal.
Some conservatives have claimed that The Undefeated’s recent televised town hall with Obama was a sign of ESPN’s bias. I disagree. There are few media organizations that would turn down an opportunity to interview the sitting president of the United States. Similarly, criticism of ESPN’s airing of a 30 for 30 short about President George W. Bush’s first pitch during the 2001 World Series was also silly.
The assertion that giving a president airtime is a tacit endorsement is a symptom of today’s absolutism. The world is still as gray as it’s always been, but tolerance for gray seems to be rapidly fading.
But he did admit that it smacked of political activism when the network moved its ESPY Celebrity Golf Classic from Trump National Golf Club back in July.
… yes, many of Trump’s statements — including the ones that led to the relocation of the tournament — have been outside the pale of traditional political discourse. But when a company as influential as ESPN picks up and moves an event because of statements made by a presidential candidate, it’s hard to see how it can be read by anyone as anything other than a political statement.
As he neared the end of his 4,000 word discussion of his network’s political problem, Brady decided to accept the basic idea that ESPN has gone too far to the left and that the perception that center right views are unwanted on its airwaves is a pervasive feeling among sorts fans.
Even as he continued to insist that there isn’t any real problem at ESPN, he went on to describe what should be done about it all.
Reader Ryan McShane sums it up well: “The easy answer is to of course not touch politics at all, but in today’s landscape they have become too intertwined with sports to ignore. I think ESPN as a whole handles it well, however any company based almost solely on both coasts needs to take an additional step of making sure the opinions of middle America are represented as well, even if no malice is intended.”
I don’t believe there’s malice intended, either. But, in talking to people in the course of reporting this piece, it is clear that ESPN has a challenge in front of it. I don’t think the answer is to try to stifle those with strong viewpoints; rather, it’s to make sure a broader range of voices are heard.
Why, some might ask? Because, at heart, ESPN is a business. And based on a Gallup survey on political affiliation from mid-September, 44 percent of the country identifies itself as either “Republican” or “leans Republican.” That’s less than the 49 percent that identifies itself as “Democrat” or “leans Democrat,” but not by much.
To wrap it up, Brady noted that ESPN must make sure people of all views feel comfortable that their ideals are not being quashed by the network’s bosses.
“If ESPN continues to let its personalities debate the issues of the day but finds a way to better balance those conversations, it will be richer for it. In more ways than one,” Brady concluded.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.