Key to Making ESPN Apolitical: “Money Talks”

As long ago as 2013, the National Center – through its Free Enterprise Project (FEP) – has been making the point to Disney CEO Robert Iger that Disney’s ESPN sports channel is too political.

At the 2013 shareholder meeting, Iger addressed our concerns about left-wing media bias at ESPN and ABC, conceding that “we have been guilty of making mistakes… we have, at times, either presented the news in… a slightly inaccurate way through mistakes or in ways we weren’t necessarily proud of.” Shareholders cheered FEP’s question.

Yet Iger was less than accommodating in 2017 when FEP raised the ESPN bias issue again. At that point, he called the assertion “completely exaggerated.” But later that year, Iger personally intervened to lessen the punishment for ESPN host Jemele Hill after she called President Donald Trump and his supporters “white supremacists.”

(Project 21, on the other hand, strongly rebuked Hill’s comments.)

Now, James Pitaro, the president of ESPN, has changed the network’s tune – proving FEP right. While he has echoed Iger within the past year, calling claims that ESPN is too political a “false narrative,” he also seems to be guiding on-air personalities away from politics.

Pitaro admitted in a recent interview:

Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics. My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.

Of course, liberal media commentators have suggested that ESPN is doing this to “keep the old whites happy,” but Project 21 member Jerome Danner says there’s a lot more to it.

In a commentary published by Western Free Press, Jerome says ESPN seems to have “paid the cost of having an employee of theirs be so outspoken at such a frenzied time.” Assessing the situation, Jerome suggests Pitaro “has learned from the network’s previous mistakes and is bound not to repeat them.”

Noting that politics and sports are not often a winning combination, particularly in an era when there are so many viewing choices for consumers, Jerome writes:

 [T]here are certain things that call for a zone of neutrality and inoffensive views being made, and sports commentary is that zone… The problem becomes when a certain view is continuously repeated without the opposing view ever being uttered or given the same amount of time on-air.

Jerome points out that people simply turning off the network appears to have had a profound impact on how ESPN is now dealing with political issues:

[S]ince the viewer has no real power to change television hosts, they can turn the channel off or cancel their subscription to the network. This was the case in previous years for ESPN as they lost a number of devoted followers.

Obviously, when you start losing money, it starts to be a conundrum of how much do you allow your employees (hosts or commentators in ESPN’s case) freedom when it comes to how vocal they can be with their political and social philosophies. As the old aphorism goes: “Money talks!”

To read all of Jerome’s commentary at Western Free Press – “ESPN President Statement Shows That He has Learned Something Valuable” – click here.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.