The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

ESPN should broaden political discussion instead of banning it

Sally Jenkins: ‘What, pray tell, is ‘pure politics,’ anyway? It’s a convenient pressure-seal, a user-friendly escape hatch.’ (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

ESPN is a complicated place where coliseum spectacle and hot takes intersect with high-sensitivity microphones, and the network’s leaders don’t really expect to keep all controversies at bay in that arena, just the inconvenient ones. Dan Le Batard broke ESPN’s blockade on politics with his condemnation of a racist chant at the president’s political rally, but the idea that the “worldwide sports leader” could ever be some kind of sealed off compartment, an airless pocket where contentious outside affairs don’t intrude, was always insincere. ESPN is more than happy to make stars of braying opinators, as long as the main thing they say is “Boom!”

To care about ESPN’s supposed no-politics policy, you first have to believe that it’s a “network” and that therefore its stance on politics really matters. It doesn’t. It’s a hybrid content production and distribution vehicle owned by Disney, and its president, Jimmy Pitaro, who came straight from there, is trying to have it not two ways but three or four ways, just as its cartoon-art movies do.

Its platforms have to court new and old viewers alike, to combine a swirling stew of entertainment and scorekeeping, edginess and tradition, sharp reporting and documentary film with slavering mythic hero worship, all in one place. It simultaneously covers, uses and “partners” with sports leagues, and it’s really, really good at all of those things. It’s hardly surprising that with so many agendas and viewers to satisfy, the network feigns to be some kind of air lock where politics don’t intrude. Le Batard called this “cowardly” and “weak ass” on his radio show, but it just is what it is: commerce.

ESPN again faces a mess after Le Batard rips network’s no-politics policy

After Le Batard condemned President Trump for instigating “racial division” at a rally in North Carolina, where crowds chanted “Send her back!” at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the network circulated a memo to employees Friday reminding them that it’s against policy to discuss “pure politics” on air. But what, pray tell, is “pure politics,” anyway? It’s a convenient pressure-seal, a user-friendly escape hatch, a phrase that can be bent any way the upperlings see fit, depending on the popularity of the offending broadcaster.

Is “pure politics” different from, say, “gender politics”? Apparently and conveniently so. Which is why the network continues to make a wealthy man of Stephen A. Smith, who has hazarded the opinion that women should do their part not to “provoke” domestic violence and who chats with Snoop Dog about his favorite female body parts. “I’m a bottom feeder,” he said.

Somehow, nothing Smith shouts on camera is ever deemed quite as offensive as the political takes of Curt Schilling or Jemele Hill or as dangerous as the frank observation of Linda Cohn, who was among the first to point out that the network’s increasing lean to the left was “putting old school viewers in a corner,” for which she was suspended.

ESPN’s anti “pure politics” edict is just following the dictates of its focus group research. “Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” Pitaro told the Los Angeles Times. While that may be smart business, all it does is make for dumb discussion. It ensures that when a broadcaster goes politically rogue, there won’t be accompanying intelligent discussion.

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If Le Batard really wants to get into the problem of “divisive” discourse and who’s driving it, then he should get all the way in. Open up the whole subject, include the fact that Omar has played her part by voicing anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as calling congressional support of Israel “all about the Benjamins.” As it is, Le Batard’s discourse, while brave, was so one-sided it’s just another forming of quarantine, another inarticulate cry of “That’s not my America!” It will do nothing to persuade those viewers who complained that ESPN was becoming a bastion of liberal political correctness.

If Le Batard really wanted to be bold, he would launch a serious bipartisan discussion of why Trump’s approval ratings remain so high, to the point that a hamburger may have a better chance of taking out Trump in the next election than any Democrat or Republican and what role his sports baiting has played in that.

Here is the problem with audience “data”: It can lead to a sameness and predictability that are the opposite of entertaining. Fox News commentators, predictably, want the U.S. women’s soccer team to shut up and dribble. The real problem with that isn’t that it’s supercilious or patronizing but that it’s boring and doesn’t lead to any kind of discovery.

There is a reason entertainment products so often fail, despite reams of viewer and listener feedback. Audience “data” fails to reflect the audience’s wish to be surprised — or to hear and see something entirely new — that it never suspected it could be engaged by. Go by “data,” and there might never have been a novel about a schoolboy and a philosopher’s stone. It’s likely that ESPN’s audience wants to hear something fresh and unexpected that it didn’t know it wanted. It’s just possible that audience would be open to politics, as long as it’s smart and not one-sided.

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