ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady on Election Eve surveyed complaints that the sports network had gone overboard with liberal pieties, frustrating long-time watchers by injecting politics onto the playing field. He agreed with conservative complaints that ESPN had shifted leftward, though the company brass and at least one outspoken lefty personality didn’t see a problem: "One notion that virtually everyone I spoke to at ESPN dismisses is what some have perceived as unequal treatment of conservatives who make controversial statements vs. liberals who do the same."
....ESPN is far from immune from the political fever that has afflicted so much of the country over the past year. Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers -- both liberal and conservative -- that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing product. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.
Newsbusters has documented that more activist liberal strain infecting ESPN Magazine.
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Brady accurately observed:
For most of its history, ESPN was viewed relatively apolitically. Its core focus was -- and remains today, of course -- sports. Although the nature of sports meant an occasional detour into politics and culture was inevitable, there wasn’t much chatter about an overall perceived political bias. If there was any tension internally, it didn’t manifest itself publicly.
But with social media branding and the rise of debate shows that stir up strong opinionizing, ESPN has gotten more political. He summarized the problem neatly.
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 talked to ESPN President John Skipper, who painted the progressive politics as noncontroversial tolerance:
Inside ESPN, however, some feel the lack of tolerance of a particular political philosophy is a problem.
"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."
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].”
He went to ESPN leftist Jemele Hill, co-host of "His and Hers," who waved away any concerns of speech squelching.
But Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN2’s His & Hers, isn’t buying that. “I would challenge those people who say they feel suppressed,” she said. “Do you fear backlash, or do you fear right and wrong?”
Ley doesn’t believe there is anything nefarious going on, just that the bias is somewhat ingrained. “It’s in the water supply,” he said. “There’s no cabal gathering in a dark chamber.”
Brady dug into the FEC data and found ESPN employees donated more money to Democrats than Republicans by a ratio of 4-1.
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.
But while liberals tend to be critical of ESPN’s positions on specific issues, when the subject comes to broader political bias, the complaints come from conservatives.
“Why do you think there are almost no conservative political voices at ESPN, or its related properties?” asks reader Eric Danis. “ESPN seems to almost exclusively feature liberal writers and on-air personalities who are quick to share their political opinions in print, on television and via their social media accounts….
Reader Jim Harding agrees: “I remember when ESPN was the epitome of sports reporting. I grew up watching Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann host SportsCenter and absolutely loved them. Back then, Olbermann kept his radical left-wing opinions off the air. If he could do it for so long, the rest of the sports journalists can do the same. Or they can find jobs for political organizations, shows or publications. They have no business at ESPN.”
Another reader referenced Curt Schilling, the baseball analyst ESPN fired earlier this year after he posted an message on social media regarding transgender bathroom laws. ESPN issued a statement at the time that read: "ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated."
Brady hit on the notion of unequal treatment between offending conservatives and liberals.
One notion that virtually everyone I spoke to at ESPN dismisses is what some have perceived as unequal treatment of conservatives who make controversial statements vs. liberals who do the same. Many reader emails have focused on the firing of baseball analyst Schilling, the perceived demotion of NFL analyst Mike Ditka after sharp criticism of President Barack Obama and Colin Cowherd’s departure for Fox Sports not long after being suspended for a controversial comment about Dominican baseball players. Those I talked to felt that each of the situations was unique and not part of any formal attempt to stifle conservative speech.
Hill approved of Schilling’s firing:
“ESPN is in an uncomfortable position,” Jemele Hill said. “They don’t want to suppress anyone’s beliefs, but some would say, ‘You can say that, but Curt Schilling got fired.’ But the values Curt Schilling was trying to promote didn’t line up with what ESPN wants to be as a company.”
Brady had a problem with ESPN pulling an event from the Trump National Golf Club.
....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.
So let’s take the next step and assume that ESPN has moved leftward and that the cat is out of the bag in terms of on-air discussion of politics. Because I believe both of those things to be true. How does one guarantee ideological diversity in that scenario? I think that’s the key question for ESPN going forward in these intense political times.