In an inevitable collision between ESPN’s business and journalistic goals, there’s a report that top MLB executives complained to ESPN management about the recent Dan Lebatard interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
Here’s the interview, if you missed it:
The Big Lead is reporting MLB went to ESPN to complain about the treatment Manfred received from Le Batard, which included Le Batard immediately asserting Manfred was lying about the league’s knowledge of the payroll-slashing plans being enacted by Miami’s new ownership.
After the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz had a contentious interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday, MLB officials complained about the spot to the highest levels of ESPN management, The Big Lead has learned.
In confirming that these discussions took place, ESPN spokesperson Ben Cafardo passed along the following statement from Burke Magnus, ESPN Executive Vice President, Programming and Scheduling: “We have a terrific relationship with Major League Baseball and we’re in constant communication at all levels, so it’s not uncommon that we would discuss both issues and opportunities in the course of that communication.”
This episode underscores the delicate balance ESPN must strike between its journalism and its broadcast rights partners, and the extent to which the former can make the latter uncomfortable.
As TBL notes, there’s an inherent conflict within ESPN as it strives to both keep its content partners happy on the television side while also providing newsbreaking and other journalism. Le Batard exists in a sort of nexus of entertainment and journalism, the nexus in which ESPN built its brand. As Le Batard himself notes, he understands the problem:
Le Batard, who was scheduled for time off today and all of next week, opened his radio show Thursday by saying, “It might be the last show of the year, or it might just be the last show forever, because this has been unpleasant.”
He admitted that his tone was bad and that he was too emotional — he has had an emotional week since his friend and boss John Skipper resigned abruptly Monday, citing substance addiction– and that he should have just stuck to facts as opposed to pounding the table: “ESPN has a partnership with baseball and when you do something like that in public it doesn’t feel like being a very good partner. Rob Manfred is pretty used to safe spaces with his interviews. He’s probably never done an interview quite like that.”
Of course, there’s also the matter that Le Batard was essentially right; the Miami Herald had reported on the Jeter-led ownership’s plan to cut payroll at least as far back as September, and in the immediate aftermath of the interview, Herald reporter Barry Jackson pointed out the league’s ownership all knew of the Marlins general payroll plans.
So what’s ESPN supposed to do in this kind of situation? The answer is likely found in their past treatment of talent that went after their broadcast partners. Bill Simmons was infamously suspended after calling Roger Goodell a liar. Simmons’s final straw at ESPN was when he went after Goodell again, and after the fact Simmons claimed ESPN told him to go easy on the NFL because Bob Iger someday wanted to own a franchise.
Of course, Bill Simmons isn’t the perfect analogue to Dan Le Batard, who has generally not gone after his own employer with the same willingness as Simmons. And in this case, Le Batard’s actions weren’t as reckless as Simmons, and are much easier to defend, given all of the facts on the table. It’s a fine line, but it seems like it should fall on the acceptable side of ESPN’s judgment. Plus ESPN is paying MLB, which is not an arrangement that should result in a broadcast partner’s unceasing loyalty.
Whether ESPN management takes the same view remains to be seen.