In the wake of ESPN’s mass firings, news of which continued into Thursday, some joked that it might be easier to list network employees who weren’t fired. Others took the next step by pointing out certain ESPN figures who they would have preferred to see laid off.
Given that Stephen A. Smith is arguably ESPN’s best-known personality and, less arguably, its most polarizing, it was inevitable that his would be a prominent name pointed out by those arguing that, if the network had to let some people go, he should have been among them. It was also inevitable, given Smith’s personality, that he would use one of his platforms to fire back.
On his ESPN radio show Thursday, Smith took issue with one source of criticism in particular: Jeff Pearlman, an author and former writer for Sports Illustrated and ESPN. On Wednesday, Pearlman posted a short essay claiming that by firing so many reporters while keeping Smith and his “$3.5 million-per-year salary,” ESPN was contributing to “the decline of good journalism.”
“Our zest for a well-reported story has been overtaken for the mindless carnival barkings of hacks like Stephen A. and Skip Bayless,” Pearlman wrote. Well, there was no way Smith was going to take that lying down.
I just saw what @jeffpearlman had to say about me. Can't wait to respond on my radio show in a few
— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) April 27, 2017
Smith began by saying that he hesitated to “address contemporaries in our business,” adding, “I respect my colleagues too much to go tit-for-tat with anybody.” But, he said, “I’m going to ask Mr. Jeff Pearlman, and all the Jeff Pearlmans of the world, a simple question: Why are you focusing on me? There are people in our business who actually get paid more, who do less and produce less. Why are you not talking about them?”
At that point, Smith began to get more agitated, his voice rising in a manner familiar to viewers of “First Take.” His aim was to highlight what he saw as “hypocrisy.”
“Like when they say to me, ‘Screamin’ A.’ — I’m the only dude on the air who’s loud?” Smith said. “I know plenty of white dudes who are screaming and going off. They’re called passionate. I’m called loud.”
Pearlman had made clear in his essay that his ire was mainly at ESPN, saying, “This is not Stephen A. Smith’s fault.” Noting Smith’s “long and storied career as a reporter,” Pearlman wrote that Smith simply “adapted to the times, surrendered his integrity card and went full-blown Ringling Bros. And it worked. He’s getting paid; … he’s The Man — even if that status is flimsy, transparent and utterly void of substance.”
“Your numbers are wrong, Mr. Pearlman, but that’s beside the point,” Smith said in his rebuttal. “The real issue at hand is, what you’re bringing into question are my qualifications.”
Smith then listed his many steps to “First Take” stardom, touching on his education, professional internships and climb up the journalism-industry ladder, “ultimately becoming one of only 21 African American columnists in the history of this country.” He barked, “That is a résumé!”
Smith made a point of listing some of Pearlman’s professional accomplishments, saying, “I’m not going to hate on his credentials and act like they’re nonexistent.” He suggested that Pearlman was “coming to the defense” of his friends at the expense of others and claimed that he was not going to use ESPN’s firings “as an opportunity to talk about who should be gone and who shouldn’t.
“But if I were to be that lowlife,” Smith continued, “at least I would have the decency to recognize someone’s credentials. I used to be a journalist? … I came up in this industry at a time where you had to be a journalist. You had to break stories. You had to break news to elevate your career to get to a certain point and a certain level in this business, before you even had the license to give your opinion, especially if you were a black man.
“Mr. Pearlman’s not black, maybe that’s why he doesn’t understand where I’m coming from. Maybe that’s why he’s so quick to talk about what I have deserved. I gave y’all my résumé. … My credentials speak for themselves. I’m so sick and tired of people coming at me.”
Smith’s main contention was that he had “earned” his current position. He claimed that “what the Pearlmans of the world and others want to do is take a loudmouth black person and act like I’m just a loudmouth. They want to ignore the credentials.”
That didn’t actually appear to be Pearlman’s point. Rather, he was arguing that ESPN’s choice to retain a pundit such as Smith over “people employed to report, investigate, write,” represented “a shedding of quality.” Pearlman was bemoaning an environment at ESPN that encouraged the likes of Smith to engage in “yelling” and “screaming” and “stewing.” He ended his essay by saying of the ESPN firings, “This is an assault on the profession.”
Smith offered a different interpretation of the layoffs: “ESPN management made a decision: ratings equals revenue, obviously it influences advertisers, ad sales, things of that nature, and when those things are not flowing in abundance, business decisions need to be made.” He noted that “First Take” had very good ratings.
(H/T Awful Announcing)