As we transition to a new President, ESPN’s Public Editor Jim Brady looked at the Worldwide Leader’s changing political landscape. Acknowledging its apolitical past, Brady said if the perception is that ESPN has been taking stands in recent years. And Brady has talked with several staffers who have brought up how the change has taken place:
One is the rise of social media, which has led to more direct political commentary by ESPN employees, even if not delivered via the network’s broadcast or digital pipes. Another is ESPN’s increase in debate-themed shows, which encourage strong opinions that are increasingly focusing on the overlap between sports and politics.
Some of the perception has been due to including awarding reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner in the ESPY’s last year, ESPN’s parent company Disney’s decision to move a golf tournament away from Donald Trump’s golf course and the network’s doling of suspensions over controversial statements.
And conservative employees of ESPN told Brady that their opinions aren’t respected:
“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].”
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?”
ESPN President John Skipper told Brady he doesn’t feel conservatives are being left out at the company:
“Vigorous debate and opinion are important to us, and no one should be concerned about expressing an opinion as long as it is not personal nor intolerant.”
Brady also cites that between 2012 and the present day, there were 104 individual political contributions made by ESPN employees to various political causes. He said 80% went to Democratic candidates, committes or PAC’s and 20% went to the GOP.
Brady says as the times are changing, ESPN has to change with it. Part of that is embracing diversity and inclusion. Another is being open to the LGBT community and also welcoming all opinions.
“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.”
“Tolerance is not a playing-it-down-the-middle issue or a journalism standard,” Skipper said. “It is a cultural imperative at our company. Regarding our reporting and journalism, again, our intent is not to be political but to be fair and accurate.”
Brady suggests that censoring political views is not the answer, but be more open to political discourse and find a balance. We’ll see it it can achieve that in the coming months and years.