SBJ/Sept. 18-24, 2017/Media

Angst grows at ESPN after new miscues

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The mood in Bristol, Conn., last week was a strange mixture of embarrassment and frustration following a series of public missteps that culminated with the spokeswoman for the United States president calling for one of ESPN’s highest-profile anchors to be fired.

The embarrassment came from what several ESPNers, both current and former, described as a series of self-inflicted wounds over the last few months that never should have happened. These missteps have been picked up by large, mainstream media companies, some of whom have cast the sports network as an egregious example of liberal media bias.

For a network whose mission has long been to “serve sports fans,” the root of these problems had nothing to do with serving sports fans, some longtime current and former ESPNers complained last week.

From the Robert Lee-Charlottesville debacle to the Sergio Dipp-“Monday Night Football” fiasco to Jemele Hill’s viral anti-Donald Trump tweets, the crises have kept ESPN on the defensive and detracted from noteworthy stories that would have painted ESPN in a brighter light, several said.

Take Dipp, the sideline reporter who appeared tongue-tied and unprepared when he appeared on screen at the beginning of the “Monday Night Football” Chargers-Broncos game last week. One ESPNer bemoaned the fact that social media missives were focused more on Dipp’s foibles than the historic debut of Beth Mowins, who became the first woman to call a “Monday Night Football” game that night. Mowins’ call was praised widely, but many in Bristol believe those raves were muted among all the ridicule that was directed at the less than polished Dipp. One ESPN executive lamented that the network blew a chance to be the focus of a positive story coming out of the NFL season’s first week.

Outside of recognizing that these situations could have been avoided, there is also a growing belief among ESPN stalwarts that some of the problems are not all self-inflicted. Some believe that 21st Century Fox is orchestrating attacks against ESPN to bolster the fortunes of rival sports channel FS1.

This was evident by a comment over the summer by Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling, where he did not call out a network by name but it was clear he was referring to Fox.

“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,” Magnus said back in June.

A 21st Century Fox spokesperson forcefully dismissed such a contention last week, saying it “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

What some would call corporate paranoia, ESPN insiders instead pointed to the Lee and Hill dust-ups as examples of these attacks — stories that started online, were amplified by some of Fox News’ most popular shows and eventually picked up by other big media outlets.

Lee was scheduled to call a game at the University of Virginia, but ESPN pulled him because he has the same name as the Confederate general. A recent neo-Nazi protest at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville had turned violent, and ESPN did not want to risk its announcer becoming the subject of any internet memes that may have been created online.

Hill created controversy last Monday when she tweeted that Trump was “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists.” In another tweet, Hill said Trump’s “rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”

Fox News wasted no time highlighting those tweets. Fox News host Tucker Carlson opened his Tuesday show with a discussion of Hill’s tweets, interviewing one of ESPN’s chief antagonists, Clay Travis, who hosts a show on Fox Sports Radio.

The next morning, Fox News’ morning show “Fox and Friends” brought on another ESPN antagonist, FS1 host Jason Whitlock, who has written tough editorials about ESPN on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page. Sure enough, Whitlock blasted both ESPN and Hill. At the end of the segment, the “Fox & Friends” hosts asked Whitlock to plug his FS1 show, with one of the Fox News hosts saying, “We’ll be watching you now.”

Each Fox News segment contrasted ESPN’s tepid response to Hill, who had been reprimanded, to ESPN’s more forceful response to Curt Schilling, who was fired in 2016 after posting conservative memes on social media.

For some in Bristol, Fox News’ role in hyping these stories is an examples of a rival putting its main competitor in a poor light — going so far as to plug its sister sports network. Fox News shows continued to cover the Hill story throughout the day and into its highly rated prime time.

Several former and current Fox employees pushed back. They say they have never heard of such a directive at either 21st Century Fox or News Corp., saying it would be virtually impossible to get such diverse groups at 21st Century Fox to buy into such a directive. Each pointed to Hill’s story — a well-known, high-profile African-American woman making an impolitic tweet about a Republican president — as “cat nip” for Fox News viewers. The decision to focus on Hill, they say, had more to do with generating ratings for Fox News than helping one of its sports channels.

But, as several close to Bristol implied, the fact that Fox News was even talking about ESPN was evidence that ESPN did something that had nothing to do with its mission of “serving sports fans.”


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