The Agony and Defeat of Entertainment and Sports Political Network

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2017/10/02/the-agony-and-defeat-of-entertainment-and-sports-political-network/

“We live in a political world
Everything is hers or his
Climb into the frame and shout God’s name
But you’re never sure what it is”

—  Bob Dylan, “Political World”

On a picture perfect late spring day in June 1972, before the days of social media, Elvis Presley, looking tan, trim and hip in powder blue leisure suit sans tie, took questions from live media during a press conference, in advance of four concerts at Madison Square Garden, dubbed the “World’s Most Famous Arena” for entertainment and sporting events. One curious reporter inquired, “Mr. Presley, as you’ve mentioned your time in the service, what is your opinion of war protesters and would you today refuse to be drafted?” 

To which The King of Rock and Roll, pitch perfect, calmly responded, “I’d just sooner keep my own personal views about that to myself ’cause I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.” Today, regarding politics, sportscasters at ESPN — entertainers in their own right, often masquerading as journalists — and the network they supposedly represent, all would be better off if they simply said, “I’d rather not say.” Instead, they’re characters in a political world. Elvis has left the building. And his example.

Substituting programming for politics, ESPN has become Entertainment and Sports Political Network. The network has slid head first into politics. But there is no home plate in this suicide squeeze play.

At issue is Jemele Hill, a host of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” known as The Six or SC6, and the most recent runner roaring towards home. On September 11th she tweeted that President Donald Trump is a “white supremacist” who “has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” After going viral, and facing the justifiable wrath of conservatives and The White House, her employer the next day tweeted that her comments “do not represent the position of ESPN.” That electronic reprimand also contained the obligatory line that her actions were “inappropriate.”

In the wake of the dust cloud, ESPN President John Skipper sent a memo to staffers about the network’s “fundamental principles.” He wrote, “ESPN is not a political organization. Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express.” He further added, “Let’s not let the public narrative re-write who we are or what we stand for.” Stop right there.

Where’s Skipper been? ESPN is a political organization.

Over the years, ESPN has seen a number of its employees go political. Greater-Boston sports enthusiasts may recall that political controversy is not new to ESPN. In 2008, as a writer for ESPN.com, Hill was suspended for this journalistic gem:  “Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It’s like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan. Deserving or not, I still hate the Celtics.” And, during a short tenure as a commentator for ESPN, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling made foolish statements over August-September 2015, before ultimately being fired by the network last year.

September wasn’t always a cruel month for ESPN. It began broadcasting — before CNN and MTV — on September 9, 1979, with the debut of Sports Center, when the idea of a 24-hour sports programming schedule was impossibly farfetched. On the first day (“The edge of tomorrow”), Lee Leonard proclaimed:  “If you’re a fan, if you’re a fan, what you’ll see in the next minutes, hours, and days to follow may convince you you’ve gone to sports heaven.” By the 1990s, from radio to restaurants, ESPN was indeed stratospheric.

But ESPN drifted down to sports hell. Pulled by politics.

At the height of its popularity, in 2011, the network was available in over 100 million homes. As of December 2016, that number had dropped to 88.4 million — a steady, inexorable decline. Today, ESPN is in approximately 87.4 million homes.

Writing earlier this year for pjmedia.com, Jeff Reynolds cites a number of reasons for the decline:  cable subscribers cutting the cord; bad programming; overpayment for rights fees; lower interest in live sporting events; and, finally, agenda-driven programming. On the last point, he noted, “The brass at ESPN has taken a decidedly leftward tack in its programming.” He also raised a good question, for which ESPN has no good answer:  “When you alienate half of your potential consumers, why should you expect their uninterrupted loyalty?”

Many were asking the same question after ESPN named Caitlyn Jenner the winner of the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award. That distinction prompted veteran sportscaster Bob Costa to say, “it is just a crass exploitation play.” ESPN claims the award is “one of the most prestigious in sports.” But that did not stop Jenner, who, on ABC television, vowed to do “whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated.”

Clay Travis, in outkickthecoverage.com, understands what ESPN’s Skinner refuses to:  “It used to be that sports was an escape from the real world. Now, increasingly, ESPN has made sports and politics inextricably intertwined. How else to explain the network’s fixation on Tom Brady’s friendship with Donald Trump? Did any athlete have to explain his or her friendship with Barack Obama? I don’t recall it.”

ESPN has failed not only in heeding the common sense of Elvis, but also of Lillian Ross. She died last week, after spending six decades as a reporter for The New Yorker. She embodied a style known as the “invisible author”; a form of literary journalism where the primary focus is on subject, not author. Her 1964 book, Reporting, contained a credo unrecognizable to those in sports journalism today:  “Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself.”

For media outlets, in general, and ESPN, in particular, this advice is bewildering.

Jemele Hill, for instance, is her own production company and suffers from — like many of her contemporaries — digital Tourette’s. In over nine years, she has amassed over 742,000 Twitter followers, has transmitted over 105,000 tweets, and posted over 5,800 photos and videos. She is now subject and journalist. Accordingly, she is no longer — perhaps she never was — an objective journalist. Even the title “journalist” may be generous. The show, SC6, seems primarily to be an extension of her personal forum, not a platform for ESPN. Or its viewers.

As theringer.com puts it, “Programming ESPN is like curating your Twitter feed: f ind the content that everyone’s talking about and craft the right joke.” This is what passes for “sports journalism” at ESPN.

Regarding Trump, Hill said, “My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light.” But her “personal” Twitter account is an ESPN billboard.

James Warren, chief media writer for the Poynter Institute, believes that editors are responsible for this kind of “unleashing” across the media spectrum. “They want it both ways:  their journalists as ‘brands’ with big online audiences and, at the same time, to not ruffle feathers of consumers and advertisers,” he wrote earlier this month.

Twitter, like all social media outlets, circumvents editors and is a “vehicle without filter of editing,” says Warren. “So everybody… now possess creative (or un-creative) rein to publish their thought bubbles on anything.” Leaving journalists free to screech nonsense. As Hill did when she tweeted that Trump’s rise “is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.” And his week, when she claimed the president is using “racial pornography” to “stir his base against NFL.” As the viewing public increasingly understands, those tweets are today symbolic of ESPN’s “fundamental principles.” And ESPN’s unraveling.

ABC’s anthology series, Wide World of Sports, was a kind of ESPN-precursor for broadcast television in the 1960s and 1970s, before ESPN perfected the sports programming model for cable television in the 1980s. (The Walt Disney Company owns both ABC and ESPN.) The series was memorable for its thrilling introduction. The alpine disaster.

That was the iconic 1970 footage of an uncredited daredevil tumbling off a ski-jump with the simultaneous voice-over by Jim McKay intoning, “the agony of defeat.” A 1997 retrospective on Vinko Bogataj’s spectacular crash was shown on ABC which included an old interview with the doomed jumper. But, in 2017, it is likely that the same piece with the Slovenian athlete would be peppered with commentary about the European sovereign-debt crisis, with the ESPN interviewer demanding to know Bogataj’s stance on the matter.

It is worth recalling the 1972 Elvis Presley press conference in New York City one more time. Another reporter tried luring the entertainer into divulging his political leanings by asking, “There are a lot of stars today joining politics … Are you campaigning or …?” Politely interjecting, Elvis simply said, “No sir, I’m not. I’m not involved in that at all, I’m just an entertainer.” His answer is still stirring. The entertainers at ESPN should follow Elvis’s respectable lead. Batter up.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.

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