SBJ/June 26-July 2, 2017/Media

ESPN executive calls out competitor for giving voice to claims of liberal bias

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ESPN’s decision to present Caitlyn Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award rankled some conservatives.
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One of ESPN’s top executives accused Fox Sports of advocating what he called a false notion that the network operates with a liberal bias.

“The whole narrative is a false one that was seeded and perpetuated primarily by a direct business competitor,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “We have no political agenda whatsoever.”

Fox Sports has given voice to many of the accusations of ESPN’s liberal bias. For example, Fox Sports 1’s afternoon studio show co-host, Jason Whitlock, wrote a May 7 editorial for The Wall Street Journal in which he accused ESPN of adhering to a “strict obedience to progressive political correctness.”

Whitlock is a former ESPN employee who spent two stints with the Bristol-based company before leaving for Fox. Fox Sports and The Wall Street Journal share a corporate parent in News Corp.

SBJ media writer John Ourand speaks with Executive Editor Abe Madkour and senior writer Bill King about his reporting of the ESPN story.


Another Fox Sports personality who continually questions ESPN’s business model has also taken on the ESPN-as-liberal topic several times. In an April post on his Outkick The Coverage blog, Fox Sports personality Clay Travis wrote, “ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.”

These types of commentaries have become a popular topic in traditionally conservative media, where political websites like Breitbart News have started covering ESPN heavily.

When ESPN replaced one NBA “Countdown” host (conservative leaning Sage Steele) with another (liberal leaning Michelle Beadle), Breitbart’s headline read, “Pro-American, Non-PC ESPN Host Sage Steele Removed From NBA Countdown Show In Favor Of Michelle Beadle.”

The blowback around Steele became so intense that ESPN President John Skipper found himself in the unusual role of having to publicly defend one of his on-air hosts, saying that Steele “definitely has a bright and long-term future at ESPN and my complete support.”

Sure enough, Steele signed a new deal in May to host “SportsCenter: AM” from 7-10 a.m. ET.

“It would be foolish in the business that we’re in to take sides on the political arena,” Magnus said. “Our business competitor perpetuates this narrative because in this highly partisan time, it suits them to highlight this distinction, even when it doesn’t exist.”

While some see a liberal point of view in the “SportsCenter” commentary or on the social media feeds of on-air personalities, others cite larger examples. Many of the liberal bias complaints go back to 2015 when ESPN gave transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs. The 7.7 million viewers who tuned in to ABC that year still is the highest viewer number in that show’s history, but the choice still rankles some conservative voices today.

A few months later, in April 2016, ESPN fired Curt Schilling after the conservative on-air analyst posted a social media meme that his ESPN bosses found to be offensive.

ESPN executives say the people who focus on a liberal bias ignore things like the recent rehiring of Hank Williams Jr. to sing the “Monday Night Football” opening or the 2013 firing of the liberal leaning Rob Parker who infamously asked on-air whether NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III is a “cornball brother.”

But this also comes amid reports and speculation that Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger is considering a run for president in 2020.

While ESPN executives dismiss the notion that the company is too liberal, sources said ESPN President John Skipper, himself a liberal-leaning executive, has made a point to meet with employees to let them know that nobody at ESPN will be punished for holding a political viewpoint.

ESPN has political guidelines that have been developed and shared with on-air talent. The challenge has been trying to figure out when sports stops and politics starts. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem last NFL season illustrated that problem, as ESPN executives note it became both a sports story and a political story that was debated on the network’s studio shows.


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