Since Disney executive Jimmy Pitaro (previously that company’s chairman of consumer products and interactive media) was named as ESPN’s president earlier this month, there’s been some speculation about his plans for the network, especially when it comes to hot-button topics like ESPN and politics. Pitaro addressed some of that during a meeting with ESPN employees in Bristol Wednesday, which was also available via live stream to the company’s employees around the globe.
ESPN’s PR blog Front Row has a recap of the meeting, and Pitaro’s comments about politics are perhaps particularly interesting to an outside audience:
In response to an employee question regarding the perception of liberal bias at ESPN, Pitaro said, “I do not believe that we are a political organization. I know that a lot of conversation has happened within this company in the past year and I believe that we netted out in the right place, which is we are a sports media company. Of course, there is going to continue to be an intersection of between sports and politics and we’re going to continue to cover that. We’re going to cover it fairly and honestly. But we are focused on serving the sports fan.”
That’s not that different from previous company lines, especially when it comes to the new social media policy rolled out in November. That policy said those involved in hard news reporting “should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders” and even commentators’ political and social opinions should be limited to “a current issue impacting sports, unless otherwise approved by senior editorial management” and “communication with producers and editors must take place prior to commentary on any political or social issues.”
However, that policy certainly hasn’t been implemented to the full letter of the law. Anyone who follows ESPN employees on Twitter knows there’s still some social and political commentary out there, with some of it not specifically around sports and much of it presumably not “approved by producers and editors.”
So an interesting question is going to be about how Pitaro plans to implement this “not a political organization” plan, and if the status quo of only reacting to particularly notable statements will remain, or if the new ESPN management will crack down on their employees’ speech a bit further (which could cause some backlash). And another interesting question will be just how the company will cover the intersection of sports and politics under Pitaro; “cover it fairly and honestly” sounds great in theory, but we’ll see what that actually leads to in practice.
Something else interesting along those lines comes from Pitaro’s comments about ESPN’s relationship with the NFL. That relationship has come under some scrutiny this week, with NFL execs anonymously bashing the network to Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand. Particularly notable there were execs who “pointed to stories on ESPN.com and “Outside the Lines” that they felt went out of their way to portray the NFL in a bad light.”
Rightsholder coverage of a league is always challenging, especially when it comes to league pushback against valid reporting, and it will be worth watching if and how Pitaro stands up for his reporters or if he makes concessions towards the positive coverage the NFL wants.
Here’s what he had to say on that front Wednesday, something that didn’t make the Front Row recap but was noted by Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead:
Pitaro on NFL cont'd … "and days when we don't agree. There is a very very solid foundation that exists between ESPN – years and years of success – and also, on top of that, trust."
— Ryan Glasspiegel (@sportsrapport) March 14, 2018
Pitaro on NFL cont'd… "Yes, fast forward to day there have been issues. It would be ridiculous to say there haven't been. The leadership team is focused in moving that in the right direction, including me."
— Ryan Glasspiegel (@sportsrapport) March 14, 2018
As with the politics comments, that isn’t necessarily saying much, but it’s notable to have Pitaro on record as “focused in moving that in the right direction.” And it will be worth watching to see what that actually entails. One other comment from Pitaro’s remarks that particularly stood out was his discussion of staff philosophy and the need to eventually come to agreement:
“When we have staff meetings, I have a saying – discuss, debate, decide, align,” said Pitaro. “So I want to make sure we have an opportunity to discuss the important, meaty topics, that we debate them. Ultimately, we decide and if we can’t, then I decide. Then the time for questioning is over; we align and we move on. And I think that is a natural extension of being part of a team.”
That could just be corporate-speak that doesn’t create many actual implications, but it could also represent some changes for ESPN. The network has previously seen some public disagreements between its employees and between employees and management, as well as some high-ranking executives’ opposition to particular moves like the NBA deal appearing in outlets like SBJ.
None of that’s ever been publicly approved, of course, and there have even been some substantial suspensions for criticizing other ESPN personalities, so maybe this won’t actually be a change. Or maybe it means we’ll see less public dissent from ESPN employees and executives.
Overall, none of Pitaro’s comments here are actually impactful policy statements, and they’re all somewhat subject to interpretation. But it’s interesting to hear what he has to say to his new employees, and to have him on the record on a few of these subjects. And it will be well worth watching how ESPN acts in some of these areas going forward.
Maybe Pitaro is going to make substantial changes on things like NFL reporting, politics discussion and ESPN-on-ESPN discussion, or maybe he isn’t; either approach seems possible from these comments. Either way, though, his moves on these fronts will be worth keeping an eye on.
[ESPN Front Row; photo from Allen Kee/ESPN Images]