Unless you’ve been in a dark cave for the last year and a half, you may have noticed that we’re living in a slightly charged political climate that is seeping into every area of life, even those that used to be kept apart from political rancor and rhetoric. In spite of their repeated wish to be kept out of it, ESPN has been under the microscope recently about their involvement in politics, and the number of network personalities that have been speaking out on political matters. And now that microscope extends to the very top of the company.
At a shareholders meeting on Wednesday, Disney CEO Bob Iger was confronted by a question about ESPN and ABC News being politically biased against Donald Trump. While Trump has infamously and dangerously called the mainstream media “the enemy of the American people” ESPN has been swept up into the political climate with criticism of their politics coming from sources ranging from Sarah Palin (who once said terrorists were using ESPN to lead the American public) to Clay Travis and his regular rants that claims ESPN is doomed because of their liberal agenda (and his own math that is off by billions of dollars).
According to the LA Times, Iger said “The charge that ESPN is exhibiting significant political bias is just a complete exaggeration.” And according to USA Today, he also added “Watch ESPN, you are not going to see political bias.”
First of all, for the question to even come up and for Iger to respond in such a way means that the questions of a possible liberal bias at ESPN are definitely starting to gain traction. So much so in fact that it was the subject of the most recent column by ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady. He wrote this about the very real effect that’s taking place in Bristol:
As it turns out, 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 products. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.
So often it’s true that perception is reality, especially in the public space and especially in the media. While perception rages through social media and fringe blogs, the truth and the reality of ESPN’s politics is much more nuanced than anyone would want to admit in our polarized, debate-centric culture.
Do we really believe that John Skipper and ESPN and Disney execs would order a network-wide move to the left politically to alienate half of their audience? It’s a ludicrous conspiracy theory, but ludicrous conspiracy theories are all the rage these days.
You’re not going to turn on ESPN to watch the ACC basketball tournament and hear a lecture from an analyst on why the GOP’s new healthcare package is terrible in the middle of breaking down a 2-3 zone. To boycott Monday Night Football out of some inherent fear that you have a .0001% chance of hearing something you might politically disagree with is absurd.
Skipper defended the network t0 Brady saying that what some might view as progressive stances are “human” stances:
“It is accurate that the Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion,” Skipper said. “These are long-standing values that drive fundamental fairness while providing us with the widest possible pool of talent to create the smartest and most creative staff. We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy.”
That makes perfect sense from Skipper. However, if the reality isn’t that ESPN is offering a network-wide edict to move left that doesn’t mean that the perception doesn’t exist and is having a tangible impact. And that perception exists both inside and outside the network as Brady’s column makes clear. No matter how justifiable each political piece of the puzzle has been in their own right (like axing Curt Schilling), the bigger picture could lead conservative sports fans to believe that ESPN doesn’t share their views. On top of that, with more ESPN personalities speaking out on social media and espousing their personal political views (oftentimes liberal), it only adds fuel to the fire.
The issue for ESPN now is how to deal with the perception that exists, rightly or wrongly. Their on-air commentators aren’t going to likely be dialing back on social media anytime soon and their debate-style programming is going to invite going beyond X’s and O’s regularly. Furthermore, this administration’s policies don’t look to be getting any less polarizing over the next four years.
It might not be a comfortable place for the network to be at right now, but they have to figure out how to best deal with the delicate balance of the wall between sports and politics that has come tumbling down.