The New York Times Co acquired The Athletic earlier this year after a lengthy negotiation. Following the acquisition, The Athletic staffers were assured little would change, with the digital sports publication operating as a standalone unit.
But according to Laura Wagner of Defector, it took just six months for the New York Times to implement a major policy change on The Athletic. Stick to sports.
After speaking with multiple staffers and obtaining internal meeting notes, Defector reports The Athletic received new guidelines for a “no politics” policy from its new bosses. That policy is also reflected on The Athletic’s editorial guidelines page.
Defector states the policy change took place on June 8, with Chief Content Officer Paul Fichtenbaum providing the following example of how to adhere to the new guidelines:
We don’t want to stop people from having a voice and raising their voice for appropriate issues. But there comes a point where something that is a straightforward, “Hey, I’m concerned about guns in America,” for instance, right, that’s an apolitical statement. It becomes political when you say, “I’m concerned about guns in America and this political party is the reason why we’re having an issue,” right? That’s when it tips over. So again, we don’t want to stop people from having a voice and expressing themselves. We just need to keep it from tipping over into the political space.
Based on that explanation, it seems like journalists for The Athletic are permitted to talk about problems, but not their causes? Writers can present political issues, but they can’t acknowledge that the issue is political, discuss where the problem derives from or how to fix it. That would be too political.
The Athletic’s new ownership also updated their editorial guidelines page with a section on political opinions.
Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics even if those journalists cover sports, which increasingly intersects with politics. Staff members are entitled to vote, but they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Athletic. In particular, The Athletic staff members should not express their political beliefs on social media or any platform. Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by an Athletic staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the site is taking sides. Staff members can contribute to social causes although if that particular cause becomes newsworthy for The Athletic, that staff member will be forbidden from covering it.
The guideline change appears to do a better job of creating confusion around the new policy than it offering clarification, particularly with the last sentence, “Staff members can contribute to social causes although if that particular cause becomes newsworthy for The Athletic, that staff member will be forbidden from covering it.” This becomes particularly difficult in the current era of sports where social issues often intersect with covering leagues, teams and athletes. Because of that, the list of social causes that becomes newsworthy for The Athletic is long.
Are LGBTQ issues political? Are LGBTQ issues social causes that are newsworthy for The Athletic, therefore preventing interested writers from covering it? Is Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill political? What about Pride Month and the decision by five Tampa Bay Rays players to decline wearing a rainbow-colored Pride patch on their uniform? Under the above guidelines, a writer who advocates for LGBTQ equality would not be allowed to cover the Rays story. A person who supports Black Lives Matter would not be allowed to cover athlete protests and initiatives for racial equality.
Defector was told by one Athletic staff member, “The people who care the most about a particular issue, the people who are most informed about a particular issue, are now the ones who are banned from covering the issue.”
The Athletic launched in 2016, giving journalists full autonomy in hopes of using that policy to plunder the newspaper industry. Six years later, after being purchased by one of those papers they sought to see “bleed out,” The Athletic is being impeded by a policy masked as promoting objectivity.