As ESPN lays off more accomplished reporters each year and works to cut investment deals with America’s biggest sports leagues, former ESPN host and writer Dan Le Batard wants the Worldwide Leader to cut the nonsense and say the quiet part out loud: It is no longer a journalism company.
“It’s hard to argue that it’s that much of a priority when you’re going into business with all of the leagues and the leagues control some of their content,” Le Batard said on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz on Thursday.
“That is a conflict of interest of the highest order,” he added.” The comments begin at the 8:34 mark.
Le Batard read recent comments from ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro to The Athletic in which he attempted to affirm ESPN still cares about great sports reporting. Yet ESPN is also reportedly pursuing investment from its sports league partners.
Le Batard continued by acknowledging building a profitable large-scale business around journalism is incredibly difficult today. He would know that as the founder of Meadowlark Media, a sports content company that still largely produces journalistic work.
More from Le Batard:
“When it applies to sports and when it applies to business and customers, the state of Disney right now selling off pieces with maybe ESPN being one of them, they don’t have to choose journalism as a business. The reason I was surprised is not because I think Pitaro is lying, but you don’t have to say that. You can move away from it.
“And I don’t think anybody would have an issue with you simply saying, ‘hey we’re not in the journalism business anymore. We’ll do some well-reported stories, but we can’t with these partnerships … that’s antithetical to journalism. That is a conflict of interest of the highest order if you have to succumb to the dollar. I don’t know why you can’t just say that.”
Beyond the business conflicts, ESPN’s personnel decisions run afoul of their purported commitment to journalism as well.
In just the last decade, the company cut funding for Grantland and FiveThirtyEight after buzzy launches focused on hard and fast journalism. ESPN The Magazine and Outside the Lines are gone. Great journalists like Howard Bryant, Kate Fagan, Pablo Torre, Eli Saslow and Le Batard himself got fewer chances to write or left the company altogether.
This move has been a long time in the making. Maybe Pitaro just doesn’t want the public relations hit of admitting it.
Of course, current ESPNers like Seth Wickersham, Don Van Natta, Wright Thompson, Katie Barnes, Bryant and many others continue to produce great work. But it’s hardly ESPN’s primary focus or the largest spend on the balance sheet.
Le Batard seemingly just wants Pitaro and ESPN to atone for the choices they deliberately made.