ESPN wants its reporters out of the political commentary business.
Speaking at “The Talent Gathering ’17,” a meeting of the 450 “forward facing” or on-air employees, executives of the sports network announced a new social media policy that seems designed to respond to viewer complaints and the sharp drop in viewership that has accompanied the network’s entrees into liberal political commentary.
“ESPN is a journalistic organization – not a political organization,” Kevin Merida, a former managing editor of The Washington Post and now a senior vice president and editor in chief of “The Undefeated,” an ESPN online offering, said as he introduced the new policy. “We should do nothing to undermine that position.”
Basically, the policy is to avoid commenting on social media on any topic related to politics, although officials made clear that if a politician wades into sports, employees are free to comment on that.
“ESPN’s focus is sports,” Merida said. “By and large, we are not experts on politics, healthcare policies, terrorism, commerce – that’s not what we do. Our audience is not looking for our opinions on the general news of the day. And believe me, I get it. It can sometimes be difficult to control impulses or ignore trolls, but that’s what we’re called to do for each other.”
Merida pointed to a clause in the social media policy where management reserved the right to take action if staffers violated it.
He said he had “spoken to on-air staffers who are active on Twitter” – including Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain and Scott Van Pelt, who moderated the event – to get feedback on their social media experiences as part of the process of revising the policy. In introducing Merida, Van Pelt had pointed to the fruitlessness of engaging trolls on the Internet.
The new policy was developed in response to a series of events in which ESPN personalities have taken to Twitter to criticize President Trump. Jemele Hill, who appears on one of the SportsCenter broadcasts, was suspended twice in a six-week span – once for calling President Trump a white supremacist in the wake of the Charlottesville riots and once for calling for a boycott of advertisers who support the Dallas Cowboys after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he would bench any players who “disrespect the flag” during the playing of the national anthem before games.
Asked in the question-and-answer session about the sexual harassment policy, John Skipper, president of the network, said ESPN has a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and does not to his knowledge have a major problem with sexual harassment but that employees should contact him directly if problems arise.
The first hour of the meeting was devoted to countering the notion that the social media policy and other apparent leftist political bias by the network was contributing to a decline in viewership and the financial future of the company is strong.
“At the end of the meeting, I want you to be confident about the future of ESPN. I want you to feel proud about working here, and I want you to feel that your best efforts are needed for that future and to feel that pride,” Skipper said.
Skipper said the network plans to purchase even more rights to liver sporting events, maximize distribution through traditional channels – which should involve improving relations with cable distributors – launching a direct-to-consumer service and “continuing the company’s focus on the breadth and depth of storytelling and strong journalism.”
“I want to lead an ESPN that strives purposely and confidently into a new world which is not scary but exciting.”
Connor Schell, the network’s executive vice president for content, then revealed that ESPN had produced 65,000 hours of live programming this year, covered 16,000 events, produced 98,000 digital videos, written 105,000 articles of various descriptions, posted on social media 2.6 million times and created 20,000 hours of original audio programming.
“Between live studio content and live events, we are producing 7 ½ hours of live programming for every hour in a day,” he said.