One of the biggest recent criticisms of ESPN has been the line that they’ve been “too political,” something even stated by President Trump at one point (after Jemele Hill’s tweets about him). While there’s substantial debate about if that is a fair criticism and if it has anything to do with the business challenges they’re facing, it’s certainly become part of the narrative, and ESPN has done a whole lot to try and get away from the idea that they’re political in any way. That’s especially true under new president Jimmy Pitaro, who told employees in March “I do not believe that we’re a political organization.” (Something predecessor John Skipper also said in a September memo after the Hill incident, but it was notable to have Pitaro restate that message in a more significant forum, and without any clear flashpoint requiring it.)
It appears that approach is endorsed from the very top. Disney CEO Bob Iger recently took part in a The Hollywood Reporter conversation with THR editorial director Matthew Belloni (after THR named Iger the most powerful person in media), and answered a general question about ESPN by talking about how Pitaro’s “brought back some balance”:
You’ve had shake-ups at the various businesses this past year. How has ESPN changed specifically, if at all?
I have nothing but praise for the job Jimmy Pitaro has done at ESPN. There’s been a big debate about whether ESPN should be focused more on what happens on the field of sport than what happens in terms of where sports is societally or politically. And Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right. And it’s something, by the way, that I think John Skipper had come to recognize as well. But Jimmy coming in fresh has had the ability to address it, I think, far more aggressively and effectively. He has brought back some balance.
That’s the kind of statement that can be either logical or concerning depending on the specifics of how it’s implemented. Obviously, sports are heavily about what actually happens on the field, and no one’s going to say “Let’s ignore the actual games to only cover political and societal issues.” Even at points where ESPN was most heavily criticized for politics (say, last September with Hill’s tweets about Trump), those comments weren’t being made on her actual SC6 show, and while that show did sometimes dive into societal and cultural conversations associated with sports, a majority of its airtime was still covering the on-the-field news. And the wider picture of all ESPN coverage at that point definitely was much more about on-the-field than “where sports is societally or politically.”
But Iger’s pendulum analogy here isn’t a bad one. There is a balance of how much societal or political content should be worked in to straight-up sports talk, some did feel it was too much (even if at its peak, it was still a small fraction of everything ESPN was doing), and they appear to be doing less on that front now without completely eliminating it. Maybe it’s swinging the society/politics balance from five percent down to three percent (we don’t have actual numbers, obviously, but it would be interesting to calculate the total tonnage of comments on anything “away from the field” on ESPN and how that fits in with the massive numbers of comments on things on the field), and maybe Iger and Pitaro’s quest for “some balance” isn’t the wrong approach. And maybe that will help avoid some of the self-inflicted politics disasters, such as the comments ahead of “Get Up” that led to people completely misunderstanding the show, and couldn’t be corrected despite all the efforts to do so.
With any balance, though, there’s a chance of overcorrecting and pushing it too far the other way, and where that would become a real issue is if ESPN gives in too far to the “stick to sports” crowd and becomes hesitant to address major sports stories with off-field elements. And this is where Iger is smart to keep his comments measured; this is a less dramatic comment than something like Sportsnet’s Scott Moore’s infamous quote to AA back in 2014 about how their hockey coverage would change from TSN’s.
“We’re taking what I call a ‘Stars First’ editorial philosophy. Talk less about the business of the game, and more about great stars and great storytelling.”
That’s a comment with the same general “we’ll focus on what’s on the field” idea as what Iger’s saying here, but it was and is far more problematic because of how it’s seemingly saying they’ll emphasize positive stories and minimize negative ones. And that quote has been referenced with every controversial thing Sportsnet has done since then, from how slow they were to cover the NHL concussion emails to their lack of coverage of the Marcus Stroman/Arash Madani incident to the memo that made waves this week with an apparent emphasis on positive stories about the Blue Jays. (Good luck with that one.)
The advantage of Iger’s approach is that there’s nothing as easy to seize on in this quote. (Shockingly, the CEO of one of the biggest media companies out there is pretty good at giving answers that hint at strategy without specifically pinning him down.) Also, he specifically references coverage of “where sports is societally and politically” rather than positive or negative stories. He also doesn’t say anything about reducing off-field business stories, which actually might be the biggest conflict–of–interest worry with ESPN (especially with all the talk about a closer relationship with the NFL), and one that occasionally extends beyond ESPN to other Disney properties (see ABC/Blackish.)
And this isn’t a clear indication that all of a sudden, ESPN’s going to focus on only talking about players’ statistics and ignore big off-the-field stories; in fact, their smart handling of the Mavericks’ sexual harassment saga this week was a good point in favor of the network’s journalism, even when it comes to covering a business partner like the NBA. And yes, when it comes to political and societal issues in sports, it’s probably better to touch on them when that arises naturally instead of forcing it, and there’s nothing here to indicate that ESPN won’t continue to do that.
But at the same time, while quotes like these from Iger aren’t necessarily explosive or problematic in their own right, they’re something that should be very much kept in mind while watching and analyzing ESPN. And if the network does swing too far and does start downplaying or ignoring off-the-field stories, especially those with societal or political connections, they should be criticized for that. This isn’t a clear indication that will happen, but it is a sign of ESPN’s current thinking. Maybe that will find the correct balance and reduce the criticism they get, or maybe it won’t. But it’s certainly useful to have Iger on the record about it (especially considering that he cited this as a specific example of changes at ESPN without being directly asked about it), and this is a quote worth remembering if problematic coverage changes do show up.