Sports Media & Political Bias

On Election Day, a long piece by ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady was published about the edgier political content and commentary coming from the sports media giant’s on-air talent and journalists. It’s gotten curiously little play in sports media circles, and I think it’s not just because of the dramatic reaction of the presidential results.

Brady, who once covered sports for The Washington Post, suggests that while politics can’t be taken completely out of sports, there’s a diversity issue that isn’t being addressed:

“I don’t think the answer is to try to stifle those with strong viewpoints; rather, it’s to make sure a broader range of voices are heard.”

Brady talked to many people, some of whom would not go on the record. ESPN president John Skipper and high-profile ESPN personality Jemele Hill did, and their definition of “diversity” and “tolerance” is strikingly different than the reader comments at the end that I encourage you to read.

Likewise, the diplomatic reaction from ESPN “Outside the Lines” host Bob Ley is equally telling:

“We’ve done a great job of diversity. But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”

This topic has really taken off since Election Day, with many in the media indulging in some harsh navel-gazing about the shortcomings of their profession. President-elect Donald Trump’s appeal to white, conservative, working-class voters has been a cold shock to media, political and cultural elites. The media disconnection in sports has been a growing concern for me, long before Trump hit the campaign trail.

Last year I reviewed “Bias in the Booth,” by a conservative talk show host. While the topic is especially noteworthy now, and author Dylan Gwinn makes some valid points, he undermines his arguments with his own bias. He condemns “all of ESPN” for many things, and he is hardly alone.

There is a deep corporate and institutional problem here, and I think Skipper’s defense of the network’s regrettable firing of Curt Schilling reflects this. As Ley later remarked in Brady’s piece, there’s nothing “nefarious” about the social and cultural leanings of some ESPN employees with a platform to air their views; instead, it’s a bias that’s “in the water supply.”

As a journalist with more than 30 years in the business, I concur wholeheartedly with that. My Facebook feed has been flooded since Election Day with emotional outpourings from my fellow reporters and editors, whose worldviews have been shattered. They take Trump’s victory (and Hillary Clinton’s loss) personally, probably more than they should.

I don’t essentially agree with Brady about allowing broader voices to foment politically on ESPN. That’s not why people watch, or go to its website. Many of us want to get away from politics, and the increasingly toxic national conversation — or should that be yelling matches? — that stemmed from this election, and the aftermath that rages on.

Some in the sports media elite enjoy bashing their own readers who want them to “stick to sports,” a journalistic response that is as condescending as it is stupid. By all means, make sport of and run off the people you write for, and good luck finding some other work in the current media environment.

This isn’t an ode to sports as escape, but a plea to rise above what we’ve been sold. The reason we’re so divided as a nation (or so we’re told) is because almost every aspect of society has been politicized, and in overheated fashion.

Do we really want to politicize sports like we have so many other things? Was it only a few short weeks ago that those of us who love baseball were marveling at the majesty of the best World Series in a generation? Did that not make you feel like a kid again, immersed in the beauty and the pure joy of sports? Too many sports media voices these days want to rob you of this sentiment, and they must be vigorously opposed and defeated.

Call me naïve, but I don’t think we’re as divided as our media and political establishment are making us believe. The week before Thanksgiving I attended an Ecumenical service in my community, which was started by a local rabbi and imam as a response to discord prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

To hear the Muslim call to prayer in a synagogue in a safe American suburb may seem superficial and symbolic to some who see everything through a stark political lens.

But I’m like the rabbi, who calls himself “a passionate moderate.” As a white Southerner who twice voted for Obama, I feel like an outlier in a media environment drowning in ginned-up political outrage.

As Trump prepares to take office, some otherwise reasonable people I know — especially journalists — have seemingly lost their minds.

This was an election, not Sept. 11. It’s frightening to see my fellow journalists come unglued as so many have, and not just for professional reasons. I truly worry about those who pour their entire emotional well-being into the results of a political campaign. A very nasty, ugly one at that.

As North Carolina sports journalist Art Chansky wrote this summer, beleaguered by the political overtones at the ESPYs, there’s a sense that there’s no place to hide.

Not even by turning on ESPN.

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