A TV network is accused of political bias: Hardly a surprise in 2017. But what if the network is a sports broadcaster?
An unusual strain of partisanship — at least in the sports corner of the media — emerged last week after ESPN announced it was laying off dozens of employees. The public reaction included jeers at the network for what some viewers perceived as a leftward slant in ESPN’s coverage, a reflection of how the country’s raw political nerves and cultural divisions have spilled over into a world that many value as a pristine redoubt from worldly concerns: sports.
“It’s a sign of the times,” Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, said. “I think people are looking for bias, and opinion, and information that in some way involves some hidden signal or indication that there’s a political bias in one direction or another.”
It is not as if American sports and politics have never intersected. From Jackie Robinson’s breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier to Billie Jean King’s fight for gender equality in tennis to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, many moments and figures in sports history mark social mileposts.
And ESPN has had no shortage of political story lines to explore lately, including: the quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem in protest of what he saw as widespread American racism; the United States women’s soccer team and women’s hockey team’s raising issues of equal pay in labor disputes; and several members of the New England Patriots declining an invitation to the White House.
But for fans to detect a viewpoint from a mainstream sports broadcaster appears to be a novel development.
In some cases, ESPN has been accused of putting a thumb on the scale of social debates that are not settled. A galvanizing incident for critics was Caitlyn Jenner’s winning the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, ESPN’s annual award show, in 2015, after Ms. Jenner, an Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, came out as transgender.
In others, conservative writers like Ben Domenech have cast ESPN’s perceived political approach as flawed simply for its willingness to mingle politics and sports rather than preserving its TV channels and digital platforms as sports-only zones, an escape from society’s headier issues.
Even Linda Cohn, a longtime anchor of “SportsCenter,” ESPN’s flagship highlights show, blamed politics for some of the network’s woes. In a radio interview on Thursday, she said, “I felt that the old-school viewers were put in a corner,” adding, “if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”
The claim that the layoffs somehow resulted from disenchantment with political bias is likely untrue. Industry analysts have tied ESPN’s job cuts to radically shifting habits of media consumption, notably the fact that millions of people are turning away from cable TV, which for decades has been ESPN’s mother lode for revenue, and to other business-related factors.
“I’m not aware of a tangible connection that has expressed itself through any data,” said Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research, in reference to theories that a political slant helped cause layoffs. He added, “There are much more obvious things to point to.”
Still, some viewers seized on a rare moment of public vulnerability for ESPN to air their grievances, an echo of Gamergate, a heated dispute that escalated a few years ago when video game reviewers were accused of inappropriately infusing politics and biases on other subjects into their work, leading to a campaign of harassment against those who were derogatorily called Social Justice Warriors.
(It is difficult to discern, of course, whether the complaints lodged against ESPN on social media and other digital platforms represented a small or large portion of the network’s viewership.)
In The Ringer, the writer Bryan Curtis recently concluded, sympathetically, that sportswriting had become “a liberal profession.” Debates such as whether the Washington Redskins’ name and imagery are offensive, he said, are ones in which most sportswriters consider there to be only one right-thinking side.
The conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty responded in The Week that sports media’s “hegemonic liberalism” puts it “in an antagonistic position not just with fans, but with the entire sports culture beyond journalism.”
ESPN’s president, John Skipper, told the network ombudsman last year that ESPN and its parent company, Disney, were committed to “diversity and inclusion,” and that they “view this not as a political stance but as a human stance.”
But conservatives might disagree with Mr. Skipper’s parsing, and Bob Ley, one of ESPN’s longest-tenured anchors, perhaps hinted at one byproduct of ESPN’s “diversity and inclusion” when he told the ombudsman, Jim Brady, in reference to gender and racial emphases in personnel: “We’ve done a great job of diversity. But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
An ESPN-commissioned study last October found that 28 percent of the network’s consumers believed it was politically biased, according to figures provided by ESPN. Of that 28 percent, 56 percent believed the network was biased in a liberal direction, while 37 percent said it was biased in a conservative direction.
Two events in particular polarized viewers against ESPN, according to the study, which was conducted by Langer Research Associates: Ms. Jenner’s receiving her award; and the firing of the analyst Curt Schilling after he ridiculed transgender people in a Facebook post in response to North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill. The two incidents made 16 percent and 12 percent more viewers, respectively, feel worse about ESPN than better (the majority’s views were unaffected).
By contrast, coverage of Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an N.F.L. team, and a town hall in October with President Barack Obama both resulted in slightly more ESPN viewers feeling better about the network than feeling worse, according to ESPN.
Clay Travis, a Fox Sports contributor and editor of the website Outkick the Coverage, has labeled the network “MSESPN,” a reference to MSNBC, the cable news channel that frequently skews liberal in its analysis. Giving the courage award to Ms. Jenner, he said in an interview, smacked of “social engineering” on behalf of ESPN. He has also criticized what he called the “lionization” of Mr. Kaepernick.
Mr. Pilson, the journalism professor, said he believed that, amid the present political deluge, even sports media outlets could not help but get wet.
“People are either anticipating, expecting or microwatching sportscasters to see if they can detect any bias,” he said.
Barry Blyn, ESPN’s vice president for consumer insights, noted in an interview that ratings for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have not fallen off since November.
“The election isn’t over,” he said. “And because it isn’t over, everything is political.”