ESPN changed its company-wide social media policy this week in response to the controversy surrounding host Jemele Hill’s inflammatory comments regarding President Donald Trump and the national anthem protests.
In the new policy, there are provisions for communicating with superiors prior to breaking news and similar procedures in place to temper any desire an employee might have for making political or social commentary.
This new policy is a travesty.
First and foremost, it flies in the face of conventional wisdom concerning breaking news. Personalities like Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski built up cult followings over a decade because they were able to break the biggest news about football and basketball before anyone else. ESPN’s new policy takes away the very platform upon which people like Schefter and Wojnarowski were able to really help the company.
There will be other journalists who report the news first and step into those shoes, meaning ESPN is harming itself with a broad-brushed social media policy intended to fix something that is not a problem.
The network made it into the mainstream by providing sports news on television, which was once the most important media platform prior to social media.
The policy specifically implores employees, “Do not break news on social media platforms,” which prevents many people from doing their job and allows other outlets to give people the news they once followed ESPN personalities for.
Hill received a short suspension for tweeting about the anthem protests because she had been warned only a couple weeks earlier when she took aim at Trump and refused to stick to sports. ESPN has been pushed into the political arena as national anthem protests have reverberated throughout the NFL, and their staunch ‘stick-to-sports’ is bad business sense. The network has a history of unceremoniously dropping or diminishing commentators who have used their platforms to comment on the politics surrounding our nation and our sports.
Bill Simmons, a respected ESPN personality for more than 15 years, was systematically shunned from the company after he expressed strong discontent with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Simmons utilized a more human approach to sports that allowed ESPN to endear itself to literally millions of fans.
ESPN has been financially flailing for an extended period of time now, with nearly 13 million subscribers lost in the past six years. At the same time, fees for licensing rights to Monday Night Football and other events continue to rise. The network responded to these grisly figures by cutting dozens of on air personalities after cutting 300 jobs in October 2015.
Personalities like Simmons know how to positively interact with their audiences by talking about the things that matter, which goes beyond balls, nets and uniforms sometimes.
The new social media policy doesn’t just limit what ESPN employees can say — it limits the appeal of an already crippled and antiquating entertainment leviathan to up-and-coming talent as well as any to any possible new consumers.
This new policy is an attempt by ESPN to distance itself from the quagmire of political commentary that is a part of our everyday lives. On the outside, it would make sense that a company heavily invested in the activities we rely on for escape from politics would also want to take a step back.
That perception, however, is not today’s reality.
Despite efforts from outlets like ESPN to filter content, everything is politicized. To pretend like there is a sphere in which politics do not matter is to be purposefully ignorant of our current reality.
Censoring very effective journalists like Schefter and Wojnarowski doesn’t make any sense, and asking employees to check in their tweets with upper management is an opportunity for blatant obstruction of free speech on a platform that encourages controversy and discussion. I understand the company has a rightful desire to express a nonpartisan front in order to appeal to the masses, but this policy will only drive away talent and water down the already-deteriorating content that the network is putting out.
Forcing their employees to abandon their beats or dilute their political views online will only exacerbate ESPN’s problems. The consumers will find different sources for breaking news in sports and insightful and uncensored analysis. In-house talent will find work elsewhere where they can do their jobs without excessive management of their online presences.
ESPN is choosing the low ground in a battle it was already disadvantaged in.
Jonah Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jonahpbaker