In 2015, while Jason Whitlock was still at ESPN but after he was pushed out as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, we opined about him being the equivalent of Silicon Valley‘s Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti, someone who’s constantly failing upward and winds up being paid a lot of money to sit around and not actually touch anything. Whitlock moved to Fox later that year, and the analogy’s perhaps only become more true since then; his much-hyped j.school site hasn’t published anything since April 25, 2016, he hasn’t written for Fox’s main website, and while he co-hosts the daily debate show Speak For Yourself, it gets next to no viewers and his takes have become so outrageous we disqualified them from This Week In Hot Takes back in February.
But more recently, Fox has seemingly found a use for Whitlock, tabbing him as an FS1 brand ambassador to conservative viewers. That’s seen through his on-air comments and tweets, but the larger change is how he’s been making frequent guest appearances at other Rupert Murdoch-owned companies. In particular, it’s how he’s been using many of those appearances to advance the preferred FS1 narrative about competitor ESPN failing thanks to their supposed shift into liberal politics.
The biggest example is Whitlock’s May 7 Wall Street Journal (owned by Dow Jones, a division of Murdoch’s News Corp, which also owns Fox) column titled “How a Gawker-Affiliated Website Made ESPN Politically Correct,” which saw him not only advance the “ESPN’s dying because they’ve become so liberal” narrative without any proof, but also link it to Deadspin (which he has a personal vendetta against thanks to their role in exposing his management failures at The Undefeated). Here’s a sampling:
What has truly impeded ESPN from overcoming its financial mistakes and inability to adapt to technological advances? The decadelong culture war ESPN lost to Deadspin, a snarky, politically progressive sports blog launched by Gawker’s Nick Denton in 2005.
…Deadspin significantly elevated the price of implementing change at ESPN. The often-caustic blog mastered search-engine optimization and Twitter ’s ability to gin up faux outrage. Its writers trolled ESPN talent and executives, getting plenty of attention along the way. The site particularly delighted in exposing alleged sexual malfeasance among ESPN employees.
…On the plus side, Deadspin’s exposure helped end ESPN’s sexually charged frat-house atmosphere. But it also extinguished the network’s risk-taking culture and infused it with strict obedience to progressive political correctness.
Yeah, none of that really adds up (unless you’re Whitlock and see shadowy “native advertising” and communist conspiracies everywhere), but it’s a useful take for Fox, one that not only criticizes ESPN but suggests to right-wing readers and viewers that ESPN is not a place for them to consume sports. (And by extension, competitor Fox is.) And it’s a theme Whitlock has hit on further across the Fox empire, particularly with appearances on Fox News and Fox Business. Here’s Whitlock on Fox Business on May 10:
Here he is on Clay Travis’ Fox Sports Radio show on May 10:
And here he is on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show May 25:
There are plenty of benefits to Fox regularly trotting out Whitlock to advance this storyline. For one thing, it promotes awareness of FS1 in general and Speak For Yourself in particular on the far-more-successful Fox News and Fox Business, and perhaps might convince some viewers of those channels to check out Fox’s cable sports offering. It’s a similar story with his WSJ columns; there’s a big potential audience there, and a lot of it doesn’t regularly watch FS1.
But even if SFY or FS1 overall didn’t gain a single viewer from these off-platform ambassadorial appearances, they might still be worth it for the larger company. The more you say something, the more people start to believe it. Continually shouting “ESPN is liberal!” may make some conservative viewers watch it less. (They probably won’t cancel their subscription, as the cable bundle means you generally would have to give up on Fox News as well as ESPN, something that belies the “ESPN is failing thanks to politics!” narrative. However, they might tune in to the network less, which would hurt ESPN’s ratings and thus their advertising revenues.)
Even if those viewers don’t shift over to FS1 (which many of them won’t; a lot of the ESPN critics out there have made it clear they don’t want FS1’s “Embrace Debate,” but are instead nostalgic for a supposed “Old ESPN” that’s not coming back). Advancing any narrative that hurts ESPN is still valuable for Fox. It narrows the ratings gap between the two networks (which is still quite giant; the more accurate competition for FS1 these days is ESPN2, which even some of their executives have admitted). And it means that the general narrative in sports media is about ESPN’s issues, not about FS1’s issues. The more everyone’s talking about negative things with ESPN, the less focus there is on where FS1 is at.
Whitlock is a useful tool for this kind of work as well. He’s a recognizable-enough name, especially thanks to his time with ESPN, and he’s one with a long background in the sports media world. That seemingly gives him more credibility to bash ESPN than, say, if Carlson just did it himself, even though there really isn’t a lot of evidence to support Whitlock’s arguments. But Whitlock has worked in this field, and has worked at ESPN, and he can be sold as an authority even though he isn’t. That makes him useful for advancing this “ESPN is liberal!” agenda.
There’s also perhaps more freedom for Whitlock to trash ESPN beyond Fox Sports’ platforms rather than on them. He doesn’t write for FoxSports.com, which AA has heard is a decision from management (Fox Sports did not return e-mails requesting comment), and his SFY appearances don’t tend to cover ESPN as much as what he’s saying in the WSJ and on Fox News and Fox Business. There may be a reason for that.
Having Fox Sports go directly at ESPN over politics not only makes FS1 more explicitly political (something they’re trying to avoid, especially while they’re advancing the “ESPN is failing thanks to politics!” storyline), but it increases the chances of return fire from ESPN; the companies have sniped back and forth in the media and at upfronts, but not so much on air, and that’s probably not a war FS1 really wants to start. Fox Sports commenting on ESPN’s business also is something that’s not particularly sports. But floating Whitlock out to these other Fox platforms provides FS1 a way to advance this narrative in more suitable forums, to many readers and viewers who eat it up, and without direct blowback for Fox Sports (he’s a FS1 personality, but he’s expressing his opinions beyond FS1).
It should be noted that Whitlock’s role as ambassador to conservative viewers goes well beyond trashing ESPN, and it’s something he does do on-platform as well. He’s floated plenty of ideas with some appeal to right-wing viewers, such as saying racial slurs on LeBron’s gate were not being a big deal because he’s rich, and promoted those off-platform as well (as with this WSJ column of “C’mon, LeBron, Your Emmett Till Analogy Is Simply Cavalier“), and while he’s taken some blowback (even from FS1 colleagues), he’s getting attention, which is FS1’s central mantra. It’s similar with his Twitter use; while his tweets are widely derided by much of the sports world, they’re embraced by some right-wing types (especially when it comes to him bashing “liberal ESPN”), and they go out to his 258,000 followers.
And that’s true even though his Twitter bio and pinned tweet suggest he thinks Twitter is “rigged” and has “ruined media discourse/analysis”:
In the end, is Fox getting their millions of dollars worth out of Whitlock? Not necessarily. His show draws no ratings, his j.school blog was a failure, and he doesn’t write for their site. But at the same time, “ambassador to conservative viewers” is the most useful role they’ve found for him so far, and he’s filling that decently. If he can write a few super-conservative WSJ columns and make appearances on Fox News and Fox Business each month, frequently trashing ESPN in the process and advancing the “ESPN is liberal” narrative, there’s some value there for Fox. It’s a similar story with Silicon Valley’s Big Head, who’s continued failing upward, and even occasionally managed to prove quite useful. But let’s hope that this doesn’t all end with Whitlock as a Stanford guest lecturer. Unless they open a Department of Cyberhuman Studies.