Should sports broadcasters get political?
ESPN golf analyst Paul Azinger was publicly disciplined for his Obama tweet
Have your say: Readers weigh in on a variety of topics
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Last month, ESPN golf analyst Paul Azinger offered a 140-character analysis of President Barack Obama's job creation record, a zinger from Azinger that reverberated around the web. Tweeted the analyst:"Facts: Potus has played more golf this month than I have; I have created more jobs this month than he has: #Marthasvineyard
The network, when prompted for a response to the tweet by USA Today, reprimanded Azinger for his comments. Said an ESPN spokesman: "Paul's tweet was not consistent with our social media policy, and he has been reminded that political commentary is best left to those in that field."
But Obama wasn't the only politician to be criticized by an ESPN personality. In June, Kenny Mayne channeled his inner-Olbermann when he tweeted that he "almost rammed a car with Palin bumper sticker. with intent." Though not made public, ESPN executives spoke with Mayne about the tweet.
With the 2012 Presidential election season heating up, and more media members taking to Twitter and other social media outlets, Azinger and Mayne are unlikely to represent the last public intersection of sports television and politics. And with more than 1,000 front-facing commentators, ESPN has the trickiest terrain ahead.
For example, New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica has written a left-leaning political column for his newspaper for years. But Lupica also hosts a daily radio show on ESPN Radio in New York City and appears on ESPN2's The Sports Reporters. ESPN.com writer LZ Granderson is a frequent contributor to CNN and writes often on gay and lesbian issues relating to politics. Then there's ESPN talk-show host Stephen A. Smith, who has never been shy about jumping on political shows, once referring to GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani as "a dictator as far as I am concerned."
As for more direct political advocacy, college football analyst Lou Holtz is an GOP fundraiser who has worked on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Fellow college football analyst Craig James has long expressed interest in Republican Party politics. James also released this piece of political advocacy last year, featuring the handful of people not turned off by his broadcasting. Even as far back as 2004, former ESPN contributor Peter Gammons was tossing politics into his online ESPN.com column. Gammons, now with MLB Network, has a Twitter feed featuring political opinions.
To its credit, ESPN has issued a section on political advocacy in its overall editorial policy book. It reads:
"We should avoid active involvement or membership in any cause that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly. ESPN discourages public participation in matters of political advocacy or controversy among editorial employees, contributors and public-facing talent. There should be no endorsed support of a candidate or political position by any individual on any of our platforms, or in any other forum in which an editorial or public-facing staff or contract employee is acting as a representative of ESPN.
Correspondents, producers, editors, writers, public-facing talent and those involved in news assignments and coverage must avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues.
Staff or contract employees who nonetheless involve themselves in political advocacy may be reassigned to avoid their handling of news, coverage or other topics related to that issue or other coverage that could be impacted by such advocacy. Common sense should be applied. For example, the limitation on political activity."
What of other major media outlets airing sports? When asked by SI.com if it had a similar policy for its talent or bylined contributors, Fox Sports spokesperson Dan Bell said, "We do not have an official written policy, however, [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill has his own unwritten policy that he makes clear to all of our broadcasters each year, dating back to 1994. As a FOX Sports employee, you do not discuss race, religion or politics on our air or any other outlet."
CBS declined to comment on the issue through a spokesperson.
NBC has no formal policy on political advocacy but said via a spokesperson: "However, we regularly communicate with our talent about the evolving world of social media in a variety of ways, including in production seminars and meetings."
(The Time Warner (Turner Sports/SI) policy states in part, "In general. employees are free to engage in personal volunteer political activity and contribute personal resources to candidates and parties in any manner consistent with federal, state and local laws, as long as these activities do not occur during business hours or present a conflict of interest... If you have a personal blog, you should make it clear that your opinions do not necessarily represent the views of your magazine... Keep business and personal posts separate")
Former ESPN ombudsman Lee Ann Schreiber wrote an interesting piece on ESPN's coverage of the 2008 election, a year which famously saw the nixing of a Senator Obama-Bill Simmons podcast. The modern-day landscape is littered with sports broadcasters getting into hot water when offering political commentary. Asked about the gray areas of contractors such as Lupica and Granderson, ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said, "The policy is aspirational and each one is on a case on case basis."
Historically, at least with print journalists and broadcasters who cover politics, public neutrality is a job requirement. This space offers no perfect solution for sports media outlets heading forward, though we side on trusting its employees to be smart about how politically active they are in the social media space. Independent contractors such as Lupica and Granderson present challenges for all networks because those contractors might have primary employers who have zero problem with political advocacy. (That could be an issue for NBC come the London Games, when they bring on an army of freelance broadcasters.
For Holtz, James and others who become a direct part of the political apparatus, the line seems cut and dry. If you wish to be active in a campaign, you should take a leave of absence or jump into your new profession.
It's why, selfishly, I advocate James running for office immediately.
Of the many terrific sports-related features that aired surrounding the tenth anniversary of 9/11, ESPN's 13-minute piece on Welles Crowther, a former Boston College lacrosse player who was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center after leading people to safety, stayed with me the most. If you have not yet seen The Man in the Red Bandana,it represents the best of ESPN's storytelling capabilities.
ESPN feature producer Drew Gallagher called Bandana the most important piece of work he had done at the network. He first learned of Crowther's story shortly after 9/11 and filed it away as a story he wanted to tell. Gallagher said the group that worked on the story -- editor Tim Horgan, reporter and writer Tom Rinaldi, and camera persons Gregg Hoerdemann, Mike Bollacke, Aaron Frutman, Samson Chan -- did not approach it like another piece. "I think everyone put a little bit of themselves in it," Gallagher said.
Gallagher said he was hesitant to speak about the Crowther piece because "it's weird to accept accolades for a piece where someone sacrificed his life." He and Crowther attended Boston College and the two lived in the same dorm when Crowther was a freshman. Often for pieces such as these, producers care most about the reaction of family and friends. ESPN interviewed Crowther's parents, Alison and Jeff, at their home in late July, and Gallagher said he heard from them immediately after the ESPN piece first aired on Outside The Lines on Sept. 4. "They were so happy with how it turned out and that meant everything to me," Gallagher said. "As long as they were happy with how their son's story was portrayed, that was really all I cared about."