Pat McAfee Show Aaron Rodgers Credit: The Pat McAfee Show

There’s been a lot of criticism lobbed at Pat McAfee over his continued platforming of Aaron Rodgers’ anti-vaccination stances, conspiracy theories, and more.

Some of that has merit. But in a wide-ranging interview with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on All The Smoke this week, McAfee gave perhaps more insight than usual into his rationale for treating Rodgers the way he does. His comments there, especially about what is and is not “journalism,” are worth considering in light of the full history of “journalism,” which goes well beyond what many often think of it as.

Here’s the episode: McAfee’s comments on this come around the nine-minute mark.

The larger focus of our writeup last week was on McAfee’s comments on ESPN executive Norby Williamson, which took place throughout the episode (but particularly flared up around the 50-minute mark). But we also included a transcription of the Rodgers discussion, because it is notable. Here it is again:

“Like, people are thinking we’re going to get kicked off of ESPN this year already, people are assuming it’s not going to work, it’s not going to last, because Aaron started a war with Jimmy Kimmel on our show, Jimmy Kimmel, obviously ABC. And on the COVID stuff, calling out Fauci on our show, it was a lot. The block got real hot for about three weeks.”

…”The stuff Aaron’s talking about, he’s very passionate about. He firmly believes that. And there’s a lot of people in the world that believe that, whether you hate that or not, that is a fact of life. I don’t know that world, though, I’m not educated in that world, and there were a lot of times where I’m like ‘Do I deserve to have this platform if I don’t know everything about everything, so that this s*** can’t happen and people don’t end up hating us?'”

“There was nights I couldn’t sleep, I’m like ‘Am I f****** this up completely?’, and then I got back to like ‘We’re having conversations with people.’ You can disagree with them completely, but at least you learn and know where Aaron’s at.

“Like, this is a Mount Rushmore quarterback in the history of the NFL. In real time, you’re learning about him completely. I feel like that’s a form of journalism as well, even though people won’t really talk about.

…”Whenever there’s documentaries made about Aaron Rodgers later in life, which will happen, they’re going to use so much of our show. Is that not journalism? So it’s like although there are wars that we get into, and Aaron will defend himself, he’s a friend of ours, he does his thing, I mean, I’m vaccinated, and in the middle of this, I was getting sworn at in like 30 different languages and people were saying that I was the worst human on earth.

“I think we’re just a different style of programming; we’re a conversationalist, we have no idea where we’re headed, we don’t have scheduled questions, I don’t prep anybody when they’re coming on, I don’t have a list of questions. I’m just having a conversation with people. And boy, it has certainly got us into some s***, but it has also got us some magic that not a lot of other places have. So it’s a weird dynamic, that’s for sure.”

McAfee has a point there, perhaps especially when it comes to “a form of journalism as well” and to “they’re going to use so much of our show.” Something that often gets lost in discussions of “journalism” is that the term as a whole covers much more than hard-hitting TV or print investigations, and incorporates many more people than just those who have graduated from prominent journalism schools and worked at major newspapers, magazines, or broadcast news outlets.

And the history of journalism is much wider and messier than a lot of the popular depictions of it might have you think. That includes such alleged lines as “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” from William Randolph Hearst, and the similar “emphasis on sensational stories: human-interest, crime, disasters, and scandal” from his 1890s New York “yellow journalism” rival publisher Joseph Pulitzer (yes, the one the journalism and beyond prizes are named for). What McAfee has been doing with Rodgers is far from as unprecedented as some portray it as.

A Brief History of the Friendly Interviewer

A long-running discussion in journalism has been about the idea of a “friendly interviewer.” There have been a lot of different versions of that, from early “sob sisters” through the journalists actually ghostwriting athlete columns, books, or Players Tribune pieces with no credit.

Other options include serving as a writer or broadcast host/reporter for a team, writing for a league website, or hosting a show on a third-party media outlet that has a reputation as being an easy place for guests. At ESPN, Roy Firestone’s 13-year hosting of Up Close took criticism there, especially around the infamous 1992 O.J. Simpson interview. But it’s far from the only one. There have been a whole lot of people, outlets, and programs known for soft-focus interviews over the years, or for relaying athlete perspectives, whether that’s Jim Gray hosting The Decision or Let’s Go or the as-told-to pieces in Sports Illustrated around Jason Collins or LeBron James.

None of those “friendly interviewer” roles are inherently bad. And there’s major variation within all of them. Two people with the “same” role may treat it very differently. The best ethics discussion is focused on the particular circumstances of a case rather than anything overarching. So none of this is to position McAfee and his Rodgers interviews in particular as exactly equivalent to anything else. But it is worth noting that his approach here is neither unique nor unprecedented, and that many worthwhile things have come from some form of the “friendly interviewer” approach over the years.

The largest argument for a “friendly interviewer” idea is in the value of having material on the record. That’s what McAfee is touching on when he says documentaries are “going to use so much of our show.” As McAfee says, Rodgers’ perspectives on a range of fronts are notable.

Rodgers’ perspectives are not necessarily correct or factually supported. And there’s a debate about whether a network with the prominence of ESPN should be broadcasting them to its audience without pushback or fact-checking, which we’ll get to. But “What Aaron Rodgers thinks about X” is notable for the current and historical record.

For books, documentaries, or any other coverage of Rodgers now or in the future, it’s good to have what Rodgers thinks at a point in time on the record. This has always been true. There’s a reason diaries are cited in many historical works; they convey the thoughts of the figure in question at a specific point in time. And in our modern age, while people certainly can and do still keep diaries, there are also video, audio, and digital records (“On day X, subject tweeted Y”) that matter for understanding where they’re at at a particular moment.

There’s unquestioned value for anyone covering Rodgers either now or in the future of having access to his particular comments on any issue at a particular time. That doesn’t imply any endorsement of his comments; it’s valuable for even Rodgers’ critics to see and hear his views, similarly to how it’s notable to hear about athletes with anti-science views. That provides a fuller picture of the person and adds context as to whether teams and brands should work with them. Rodgers holding these views but keeping them to himself seems worse, as that would lead people covering or working with him to have a less full picture of him.

The way those comments are broadcast is a somewhat different question. If Rodgers was simply offering these takes in monologues on his own podcast, there would be much less of a debate here. Those takes would then be covered elsewhere with editorial and fact-checking context (or not, depending on the outlet). And if he was offering those takes to McAfee in an independent podcast, that would also spark less discussion of ethics. There are a million podcasts out there, all of which have varying standards on fact-checking, ethics, and more, and not all of them would even necessarily claim the “journalism” label.

The ESPN Quandary

There are fair criticisms to be offered of ESPN’s role in publicizing Rodgers’ comments largely unchecked and thus granting credence to them. ESPN does that through their licensing of McAfee’s show. And that’s in contrast to the rest of the material that appears on their network (which is much more specifically under their control, and which goes through additional editorial layers).

There’s absolutely an argument that ESPN should not do business with McAfee at all if this is the content he’s going to choose to feature. There’s also a case that they (presumably, ESPN chair Jimmy Pitaro and Disney CEO Bob Iger, the only people McAfee was willing to even give some level of “boss” attention in his All The Smoke comments), should insist on him pushing back on Rodgers more when outrageous claims come up.

No one at ESPN seems likely to do either of those things at the moment, but people absolutely can argue that they should. Everyone wants different things from ESPN, especially when it comes to discussions of ethics. And it seems highly unlikely they’re going to end their deal with McAfee or have him change his deal with Rodgers significantly any time soon.

So, there are differing public goods at play with Rodgers, particularly when it comes to his controversial comments. While ESPN giving him a platform largely without fact-checking through their licensing of McAfee’s show can be questioned, there is a public benefit to having those remarks out there and knowing where he stands. And that impacts everyone choosing to buy his jerseys or not, support his endorsers or not, or be one of his endorsers or not.

Does Offering a Platform Necessitate Responsibility?

The truth is that those remarks might not get out there without McAfee. There’s a reason why the “friendly interviewer” approach has existed in various ways for so long despite the criticism it’s always taken. Any sort of interviewer, even “friendly” ones, can draw out remarks the subject might not have put in something they wrote or recorded themselves. A subject who’s feeling comfortable often reveals much more than they would in a hard-hitting interview. Not everything is the Frost/Nixon interviews, and the Nixon White House tapes provide evidence of just how much wilder comments that man would make when he wasn’t talking to an adversarial interviewer.

With McAfee himself, it seems likely Barnes and Jackson got far more poignant comments from him in an All The Smoke podcast, as he drank Coors Light and talked about marijuana, than a “serious interviewer” ever would have. Those comments are useful: McAfee is a media figure of note, and it’s notable to know where he stands. And his comments can be met with context and fact-checking elsewhere. That doesn’t necessarily have to be from the people interviewing him.

But the counterargument is that when you grant your platform to someone, you’re responsible for what they do with it. This wasn’t an issue with All The Smoke: McAfee’s comments there may not be agreed with by everyone, but there’s certainly not much downside to having his comments out there. But there is more of an issue when it comes to Rodgers.

That’s specifically true around Rodgers’ comments on public health discussions like vaccination and accusations of people like Kimmel being “on the Epstein list.” There’s definitely an argument that it’s negative for both McAfee and ESPN to be promoting those claims without pushback. McAfee seems to even be considering that line of thought at times, with his remarks here like “Am I f****** this up completely?” And, notably, there’s been a significant indication that both McAfee and his fans sometimes grow tired of Rodgers’ non-football takes.

With Great Power Comes Potential Responsibility

The ultimate answer to McAfee’s “Is that not journalism?” is likely “Maybe.” The platforming of Rodgers without pushback or fact-checking certainly doesn’t meet some definitions of journalism, but it does also fit within some practices labeled as journalism over the last century-plus. The “friendly interviewer” tactic has some merit (which is why it’s hung on so long in various forms despite criticism). It is valuable to know where Rodgers stands.

However, many debates can be had around McAfee’s specific approach to Rodgers and whether it should be modified or not. The critics of McAfee’s Rodgers interactions in particular have quite a few worthwhile points. But that’s also something McAfee should consider with “Is it not journalism?”

Even things completely and undisputedly recognized as “journalism” spark plenty of debate on how they’re conducted. So McAfee likely has a point that he’s receiving outsized criticism, a criticism that doesn’t really consider the long history of “friendly interviewers” in “journalism” (many of which drew much less flak than he’s getting). But even if his conversations with Rodgers were fully recognized as “journalism” (which is unlikely to happen), that would not put them beyond debate.

Journalistic ethics are always under debate and discussion, and there are many diverging views on acceptable practices. Some of those views don’t find what McAfee does with Rodgers to be acceptable at all, and that’s okay. There’s room to lobby him or ESPN for change. (Although, if there is change, it seems much more likely to come from him than from the corporation).

It’s worth considering McAfee and his Rodgers conversations in the entire context of journalism’s history. Nothing here is unprecedented. While it may or may not be a net positive for society or acceptable within the definition of “journalism,” it is just the latest addition to the broad tapestry of what has been discussed as actual or potential journalism over the years. And all that context is worth keeping in mind with Rodgers.

[All The Smoke]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.