If ESPN Continues to Pick Sides, So Will Fans

Tony Perkins is President of Family Research Council. This article appeared in CNS News on  March 16, 2018.

While college teams vie for basketball’s biggest prize, it looks like ESPN is trying to do some rebounding of its own. After more than two years of bleeding profits, the Disney-owned network wants to prove that it can do better. Pitching politics instead of baseball has been a costly decision for the company, which has been a financial drag on parent company Disney for the last several months. Left without viewers (or options), ESPN decided to downsize, laying off at least 100 staffers to try and make up some of the company’s losses.

None of that seemed to work. Commentators like Jemele Hill were still calling Republicans “white supremacists” on air and the network’s over-the-top defense of the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick was almost as regular as the box scores. With viewership down as much as 32 percent on ESPN’s affiliates and subscribers still looking for the exits, Disney finally decided to make some changes.

First up? Hiring a new president, former Disney exec James Pitaro. If anyone understands what it’s like to inherit a mess, it’s him. Not only is he stepping into a flailing company, but he has the unenviable job of tackling two years’ worth of frustrations from shareholders and fans. Inside the office, employees have been just as angry. ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady told management last year that the environment was surprisingly hostile from “the company’s perceived move leftward.” According to him, it’s had a “stifling effect” on discourse even inside the company.

Outside the company, the ideological intrusion has been just as unwelcome.

“An obsession with politics didn’t doom ESPN,” argued The Federalist’s Sean Davis, “but it’s going to make it extremely difficult for ESPN to dig itself out … People in this business know you have to pick a side. That works in political news. It doesn’t work if you have a bipartisan mass media audience … ESPN ended up communicating to half its audience that it didn’t respect them. How? By committing itself entirely – not to political news, but to unceasing Left-wing political commentary. You want to watch the Lakers game? Okay, but first you’re going to hear about Caitlyn Jenner. Want some NFL highlights? We’ll get to those eventually, but coming up next will be a discussion about how North Carolina is run by racist, homophobic bigots.”

No one knows exactly how Pitaro will try to rebuild the network’s image, but it will take some honest soul-searching to undo the damage. During his first few days on the job, that certainly seemed to be on the new president’s mind. Asked by an employee about “the perception of liberal bias at ESPN,” Breitbart recorded Pitaro’s response:

“I do not believe that we are a political organization. I know that a lot of conversation has happened within this company in the past year, and I believe that we netted out in the right place, which is we are a sports media company. Of course, there is going to continue to be an intersection between sports and politics, and we’re going to continue to cover that. We’re going to cover it fairly and honestly. But we are focused on serving the sports fan.”

The NBA and NCAA had a taste of that pain in ticket sales when it pulled out of states with common-sense privacy laws. If ESPN continues to pick sides, you can rest assured – so will fans.