By Mathew Ingram
April 5, 2017

Thanks to the current super-charged political climate, discussion of political issues seems to pop up almost everywhere, even during coverage of football games. In recognition of that, ESPN has issued new guidelines for how and when its staff are supposed to mix sports and politics.

In a blog post about the new rules, ESPN public editor Jim Brady acknowledged that coming out with these kinds of guidelines is something that typically happens before an election, not after. But “we are living in unique political times,” he said, and so the Disney-owned network decided it was necessary to clarify the rules.

Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s head of global digital content and the chairman of the company’s internal Editorial Board, said that “given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines.”

The network’s managing editor of newsgathering, Craig Bengtson, said both the tense political climate in the U.S. and the changing media environment made it necessary for the network to revisit the topic.

“We have the convergence of a politically charged environment and all these new technologies coming together,” Bengtson said. “We wanted the policy to reflect the reality of the world today. There are people talking about politics in ways we have not seen before, and we’re not immune from that.”

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The ESPN executives said that no specific incidents that led to the changes, but the issue of politics and the sports network has been the subject of much conversation of late. Some conservative websites and news outlets have criticized what they say is a a left-leaning agenda at ESPN.

It’s not just external critics of the network that have raised the issue. As Brady noted in a blog post in November: “There’s a feeling among many staffers—both liberal and conservative—that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products.”

Brady quoted one conservative staffer at the time as saying, “If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers. There’s even a fear of putting Fox News on a TV.”

The network’s updated political guidelines state that “our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are paramount. Related to political and social issues, our audiences should be confident our original reporting of news is not influenced by political pressures or personal agendas.”

Despite this statement of intent, however, it could be difficult—if not impossible—for the network to convince its critics that it is not being influenced by political beliefs or agendas. In fact, even the act of issuing updated rules is being used by some sites as evidence that the network wants to become more political rather than less.

The new guidelines state that anchors and other journalists at the network are free to discuss political issues, but that they should be connected directly to a sports-related topic. And those who are in commentary roles are free to discuss politics if it’s relevant, the network says.

The Daily Wire said that the new statement of objectivity “isn’t going to help much: CNN believes the same, and their reporting is slanted heavily to the left.” The site added that the sports network engages in “selection bias” by choosing to cover stories with a political agenda, such as Caitlyn Jenner’s gender change.

The new rules boil down to “talk politics, so long as it’s leftist,” the Daily Wire said, arguing that former coach Mike Ditka “lost his job for speaking up in favor of Donald Trump and against Barack Obama on NFL Countdown” and other on-air personalities such as Curt Schilling and Chris Broussard have also been penalized for stating conservative views.

Commentator Sage Steele was also replaced on the network’s NBA Countdown show, something critics portrayed as payback for making statements that were seen as controversial politically, including a comment about Trump’s immigration ban.

ESPN may have wanted to clarify what is expected of its staff when it comes to political discussion. Yet in the process, it appears to have just given its critics even more ammunition with which to attack the network for its alleged political leanings.

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