There has been plenty of talk this month about media blind spots and coastal elitism, about Twitter echo chambers and what happens when America pulls a big ol’ surprise on its pundit class. I know, I know, stick to sports. But after years of immersing myself in the Redskins name debate, this all felt more than a little familiar.
The comparison isn’t perfect, and the stakes of a presidential election are a bit grander than those of an NFL branding debate. But I think there are real similarities, and perhaps a few lessons for the media. How staying tight with your own like-minded set can make it harder to sense what’s happening outside that bubble. How things that seem obvious and indubitable in Northwest D.C. or Brooklyn could play a bit differently elsewhere. How calling someone a racist might feel accurate, but might not be the most persuasive tactic for rallying support. Ditto with insisting that you’re on the right side of history. And how a wave of media and celebrity unanimity in a contentious debate not only doesn’t guarantee success, but in fact might have the opposite effect.
That last thought is particularly resonant this week, with the Redskins starring on “Sunday Night Football.” Because the most polarizing moment of the entire Redskins name debate might have been during a 2013 “Sunday Night Football” broadcast, when Bob Costas joined the then-growing chorus of voices calling for a name change.
“It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent,” he said, in halftime remarks that were covered by just about every sports outlet in the country.
Was this Daniel Snyder’s Walter Cronkite moment? It felt that way in real time. In retrospect, it appears close to the opposite. Defenders of the name still cite Costas as a prime example of what they are fighting against: a late-coming outsider without a real stake in the game. An out-of-touch blowhard trying to tell them how they should think and what they should believe. A know-it-all elitist dictating for the simple masses what is right and what is wrong.
Just look at some of the comments on our initial Costas story.
“It’s like an English class competition with these guys, who can find the most soaring rhetoric, the most self-righteous ways to justify their cause of the moment,” one dissenter wrote.
“Costas must think he will be part of the ‘in group’ with a seat at the table of the elites,” another wrote. “Dan Snyder, continue to stand your ground.”
“Costas and his merry band can rant on all they want,” a third wrote. “Danny Snyder deserves credit for ignoring the PC Posse and malcontents and effectively telling them to . . . whatever.”
“Dan Snyder — Be nice but as Churchill said ‘Never give in,’ ” a fourth wrote.
“Now we all know Dan Snyder is far (far, far, far, infinity) from perfection,” a fifth wrote. “However, all Redskin fans can relate to the love of our team, and team name. . . . Give credit to Dan Snyder for standing up for it.”
How many minds did Costas change? And how many others did he convince to do the unthinkable: defend the oft-loathed team owner. Sure, many mocked and detested Snyder’s hard-line stance, but has he ever been as loved by hardcore fans as when he refused to back down from people such as Costas?
Think now of that widely-shared post-election piece by CBS News’s Will Rahn, who reflected on the “unbearable smugness” of the political press, and how “profession-wide smugness and protestations of superiority” have lessened the media’s power. Think of how Trump never backed down from his attackers and instead picked fights with his critics — his version of Snyder’s “NEVER — you can use caps.”
“The more they try to attack him, the more we love him,” one Trump supporter told the BBC, and to a lesser degree that happened with Snyder. Both men remained unpopular, but the notion that they were under attack seemed to generate some level of sympathy.
Because it wasn’t just Costas going after the team name. It was “The View” and “The Daily Show,” “South Park” and the ESPYs, Peter King and James Brown, Larry King and Terry Bradshaw. It was the local newspapers that stopped using the Redskins name, and The Washington Post’s legion of anti-name columns. At least five Post sports columnists either spoke out against the name or stopped using it, as did at least two Metro columnists, a Kids Post columnist, at least four op-ed columnists, several guest contributors and the paper’s editorial board (repeatedly).
Which reminds me again of the election: of Beyoncé and Springsteen, of LeBron and Lena Dunham, of John Oliver destroying Trump and Samantha Bee disemboweling him, of the overwhelming array of newspapers that endorsed Clinton, of the Quinnipiac University poll that found almost 9 of 10 Republicans believed that news organizations were biased against Trump, of the Washingtonian headline about how The Post didn’t employ a single pro-Trump columnist. Even members of the conservative intelligentsia (Charles Krauthammer, Kathleen Parker) crossed over to the progressive path on both issues, leaving blunter voices (Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin) to stand up for the other side.
And instead of settling the matter, the elitist consensus led to at least some hopes of a comeuppance.
“BUT THE INTERNET AND BOB COSTAS TOLD US THAT WE SHOULD ALL BE OUTRAGED BY THIS!!!” one happy Redskins defender wrote after a 2016 Washington Post poll found that most Native Americans were not offended by the team name.
“As Trump cleared each hurdle during the campaign, and I saw how the media, the establishment and celebrities tried to derail him, my hope began to grow that I would be able to witness their collective heads explode when he was successful,” one Trump supporter told The Post. “Tuesday night was beyond satisfying to watch unfold.”
“The liberal media’s made-up controversies divide our country,” Palin said of the Redskins debate.
“After months of going back and forth, I decided to listen to [Trump] directly and not through minced and filtered quotes from the mainstream media,” another Trump supporter told The Post.
“You people in the media, and the little circle of elite know-it-alls from D.C., are breathtakingly stupid,” a Redskins defender wrote on another anti-Redskins staff editorial.
“Surprise! There is a whole other part to this country outside of your newsroom walls that actually thinks differently from the mostly liberal ideas that most news outlets put out there,” a Trump supporter told the Guardian after the election.
The issues actually converged, with Trump speaking out in defense of the team name, Hillary Clinton advocating a change, and a pro-Trump super PAC running local ads about their disagreement.
“I’m no fan of Trump, but if you wanted to understand why he is on the rise, you could do a lot worse than reading this article,” wrote one Post commenter on a Redskins name story, months before the election.
No, the issues aren’t identical, starting with the fact that a large majority of Americans say they support the Redskins name, while a minority of registered voters supported Trump. My liberal friends might argue that Trump winning an election and the Redskins triumphing in the polls doesn’t mean history won’t ultimately be on their side.
I just remember the years of arguments I’ve had with Redskins defenders, people with whom I might not ordinarily debate serious societal issues. They saw a concerted and outrageous media effort to tip the scales. They insisted that my friends — who just about uniformly believe the team’s name should change — are out of touch. (My local precinct went 86 percent for Clinton, and I’d guess a vote on changing the team name in upper Northwest wouldn’t be terribly different.) They told me that media Twitter wasn’t the real world, that it created a phony idea of consensus for a stance that wasn’t actually ascendant. And they argued that a politically correct onslaught from big-city elites would only strengthen their convictions.
On that last score, anyhow, they may have had a point.