Bias isn't just ESPN's problem, it's yours too

ESPN. (Getty Images)

When’s the last time you sat down and watched SportsCenter? I mean, really watched it, not “caught a glimpse of a Top 10 on a bar TV” or “killed time waiting for my date to get ready.” A year ago? Five years? 10? 20? Did you stop watching because that damn ESPN got too liberal … or did you stop watching because sitting down for an hourlong highlights show in 2017 is as antiquated as checking out a VHS tape from Blockbuster?

The world’s changing in a hurry, and change sparks conflict. Like virtually every media outlet, ESPN has taken fire over the last year for its perceived “liberal bias.” But ESPN’s a special case, because ESPN is so many people’s escape from political reality. Seeing it “turn left” feels, to some, like a betrayal of the highest order … but how much of that “turning” is based in reality, and how much is in the eye of the betrayed? “ESPN’s gone liberal!” is a catchy headline, red meat for that slice of America always seeking another source of victimhood, but does it hold water?

A new ESPN survey says … kind of.

ESPN has released the results of a study conducted by Langer Research Associates on the network’s perceived political leanings. The survey contacted 1,423 adults from May 3-7, seeking their insight into whether ESPN evinces any political bias. It’s a PR move by ESPN, sure, but it’s an interesting new element in the ongoing narrative of media bias in America. And it starts to get at the key question of media bias: what’s the viewer’s responsibility in all this?

Dig into the numbers. One of the questions asked whether respondents detected any bias on ESPN’s programming. Thirty percent – that would be three out of every ten – detected bias, meaning the vast majority – 70 percent – detected no bias. Of the “ESPN is biased” group, 63 percent detected a liberal bias, while 30 percent detected a conservative bias. Boil that down:

• About 19 percent of ESPN’s viewers said the channel has a liberal bias.

• Ten percent of ESPN’s viewers think the channel skews conservative.

You can slice the survey’s numbers however you like to make whatever point you wish. (The survey results did not indicate whether the respondents approved of the bias, merely that they believed it existed.) One-in-five is a significant percentage of the channel’s overall viewership; on the other hand, one-in-five doesn’t begin to approach the percentage of voters who swung Democrat in the last election.

Here’s the thing about bias: you only tend to notice it when it conflicts with your own worldview. I’ve written stories about Tiger Woods, Colin Kaepernick, deflategate, and many other controversial us-or-them sports topics, and I’ve gotten accusations of bias from both sides, for the exact same articles. People see what they want to see, people get triggered—yes, even you—by different words, phrases, and implications in every article this side of a box score. Consider these two emails that arrived in my inbox within hours of each other on the story about ESPN hiring back Hank Williams Jr. to sing the Monday Night Football theme:

“ESPN should be ashamed in bringing this RACIST back on board. His comments on then-President Obama were RACIST. To bring him back shows that ESPN is in #45’s [President Donald Trump] pocket.” 

“ESPN has gone politically correct, but not in the matter of football … It has been six years since [Williams] was fired by ESPN, and believe me, political correctness was a total big mistake not only in firing him but for itself as a cable sports network. Mr. Williams is an American Patriot and therefore an American original, so welcome back Hank Williams Jr.”

See? Same exact story, two completely different “definitive” opinions on ESPN and, for that matter, Bocephus. (I received many more emails, but these were the most family-friendly.)

So much of what we call “bias” is, of course, just “news I don’t like”; one wonders how many people who complain about politics in sports feel about, say, national anthems, military flyovers, or troop family reunions, all of which are inherently political. One wonders how many people ardently supporting Kaepernick’s constitutionally protected free expression would do so if he were kneeling in support of gun rights.

ESPN is losing subscribers and shedding costs, yes. But as has been documented in so many places, ad infinitum, that’s because ESPN way overpaid for live broadcast rights and tried to soak cable consumers for ever-higher subscriber fees, regardless of whether those consumers even watched ESPN. Cord-cutters, spiraling costs, changing viewing habits (why sit through a full show of highlights when you can catch a tweet in five seconds?) – all of these have far more of an impact on ESPN’s bottom line than anything as amorphous and individualistic as “bias.”

Kneejerk responses to accusations of bias don’t help. You’re upset that ESPN doesn’t still have a roster made up entirely of middle-aged white guys peppering game recaps with cultural references you get? Sure, that’s frustrating. But if you’re in that category, and you celebrated ESPN hiring back Hank, an outspoken conservative yeller, you shouldn’t feel vindicated – you should feel manipulated. (By the same token, if you don’t want to believe ESPN has turned leftward, don’t go holding up an ESPN-funded survey as gospel that it hasn’t.)

Plus, let’s not forget the silent, satisfied middle. ESPN’s survey indicates that there’s a huge segment of viewers who either don’t see bias, or who just want to watch the freaking games. Me, I’m fascinated by the way sports can pave the way for society (Jackie Robinson integrated the Dodgers dugout 17 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and also lag behind it (a cashier at a fast-food joint isn’t keeping his job after an ugly domestic violence arrest, no matter how good he is at working the register). If you’re only interested in your team and your fantasy squad, great; skip the pregame show, grab a beer during Bob Costas’s often-political halftime monologue (to be fair, Costas is on NBC, not ESPN), and keep your blood pressure at healthy levels. Enjoy the game. [Update: Here’s a bit of my own bias at play: turns out Costas has only done two political monologues, one on gun control and one on the Redskins’ team name. The echo chamber of the Internet sure made it feel like more.]

But screaming about “bias” without considering the viewer’s role is like saying the Warriors are dominating the NBA Finals only because of Kevin Durant, a narrow and incomplete take. If you’re really concerned about bias, if it’s really the kind of thing that keeps you up at night banging out comments on Facebook and Yahoo, then isolating yourself in a self-reinforcing bubble is pretty much the worst thing you can do. My kids are biased against vegetables, but if I only listened to them, we’d have meals of nothing but Cap’n Crunch covered in chocolate syrup. Delicious? Sure. But over the long term, that’ll eat you up from the inside.

Not to preach at you, dear reader, but the Other Side likes sports just like you do, and the Other Side can on occasion make some pretty good points too. It won’t kill you to listen once in awhile. (You want to hate someone, hate the Patriots or Alabama football. You’ll find plenty of company across all political lines.)

Anyone with even a half-formed worldview is going to see bias everywhere they look, and in this beyond-polarized political environment, that’s not changing anytime soon. You can either stand on the shore and yell at the ocean, or you can learn how to ride the waves.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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