I am breaking a rule here. Usually, I just cover sports media. If sports media stray into non-sports topics, as happened with John Amaechi and Don Imus, for example, that’s fine. The focus is still on sports media. But, today, I am going to violate that rule (sort of) by talking about Newsbusters, a non-sports website devoted to exposing what it believes to be liberal media bias. Their topic: Keith Olbermann, and NBC”s announcement last week that it was hiring him to co-host its Sunday night football studio show - Football Night in America. The Newsbusters headline: Liberal Bias Invades NFL.
Sports Media Watch covered the story when it broke, noting that the reaction was generally positive but also flagging some of the criticism, particularly from right-wing sources that dislike Olbermann’s politics.
Among those sources is Newsbusters, which begins by warning that “football
fans can probably expect some liberal bias in the upcoming NFL season.”
Newsbusters complained that, back in 2000, when ABC was considering putting Rush Limbaugh in the booth for Monday Night Football, that possibility “horrified the Washington Post and other Liberal Media outlets.” I should stop and note that it’s a measure of the state of our discourse that the Washington Post, which strongly supported the invasion of Iraq and has repeatedly written dishonest editorials advocating social security privatization could be reflexively called “liberal,” but this is a label readily applied to any media outlet that is not a reliable mouthpiece for Republican talking points. But, Newsbusters focuses on the comments of Tom Boswell, longtime sports columnist for the Post, who did disparage Limbaugh when ABC was considering hiring him. Newsbusters then suggests that one need look no farther than the comments of “well known leftist” Bryant Gumbel, when he criticized the 2006 Winter Olympics for its lack of Black athletes, for a likely taste of what football fans would get from Olbermann.
Newsbusters also pointedly (it thinks) asks whether the Post and other “liberal media outlets” will decry Olbermann’s selection.
Newsbusters frequently relies on the use of labels as substitutes for actual arguments on
the merits. So, calling someone a liberal or leftist, and then repeating what they said,
without actually explaining the presumptive flaws in the arguments they’re “exposing” is
typical of the website. Therefore, once the labels are affixed (however accurate), all
that’s left for Newsbusters to do is to find some limp comparisons and call it a column.
There was, of course, strongly negative reaction to Gumbel’s comments in much of the
media but, more to the point, Gumbel’s comments came on his own show on HBO, where he obviously has a degree of editorial latitude that one would simply not find on something like a network football telecast. So, as a guide to what Olbermann might say on NBC, this example is all but worthless, unless you think that calling Olbermann a liberal and Gumbel a “leftist” is the only conceivably relevant information from which to draw such a conclusion.
Given the demographic realities of who consumes sports media in America, including
football, a network is making a better bet to pick a political conservative than a
political liberal. That’s just a simple, inescapable fact. It follows from that
inescapable fact that NBC, though clearly interested in Olbermann because he has become a multi-platform celebrity, has little to gain by having Olbermann talk his brand of
politics during football broadcasts. And, Olbermann has made clear that he expects to
talk football, not politics, on Sunday nights.
Furthermore, it’s striking that Newsbusters dodges the most obvious flaw in their
ridiculous little expose - Olbermann was an acclaimed sportscaster for many years,
regarded by many as one of the most talented men ESPN has ever hired. And, Olbermann had that reputation long before he became known for his political views. In other words, though Olbermann’s current profile is undoubtedly appealing to NBC, the hire is a no-brainer because of his obvious talent as a sports guy. By contrast, when ABC considered hiring Limbaugh (and ESPN eventually did, a fact that, curiously, Newsbusters never mentions) it did so not because it had reason to believe that Limbaugh would be a great sportscaster.
Limbaugh earned his fame and reputation talking politics, not sports. And, ABC thought
that it could cash in on his general celebrity. Yes, Limbaugh’s a sports fan. No, he’s
not a professional sportscaster. Disney liked the demographic profile it thought Limbaugh
could appeal to and hoped that his football knowledge would be sufficient. That’s a very
different kind of calculation than the one NBC is making.
Newsbusters, by the way, also neglects to mention that Dennis Miller, whose political
views have clearly tacked right the past few years, was in the Monday Night football
booth not so long ago. But, such omissions are necessary to maintain the trope about
liberal bias. As an aside, Sports Media Watch noted Al Michaels’ political contributions
to the Republican party in 2004. What SMW did not mention, but is of relevance here, is
that Michaels made a snide reference to John Kerry as a flip-flopper in the Fall of 2004.
I wouldn’t argue that this is the end of the world and Michaels is, of course, entitled
to his opinion. But, given that the flip-flopper charge was probably talking point number
one for the Bush campaign that Fall, it’s noteworthy that the play-by-play announcer for
the number one regular sports broadcast in America repeated the charge.
This is classic stuff - the sports world is, of course, a predominantly conservative
place, and football is, without a doubt, a predominantly conservative world. But
newsbusters thinks politics is only an issue in that world when one well-known liberal -
whose sports qualifications are beyond reproach - gets hired for a sports media job for
which he’s obviously far more qualified than Rush Limbaugh ever was. (And, yes, I know
that Limbaugh had a job, almost thirty years ago, in media relations with the Kansas City
Royals. Sorry, I’m not impressed).
As an aside, I have never been a big fan of Olbermann as a sportscaster. His too-clever-by-half attitude isn’t my cup of tea and I don’t like his style any more now when he’s on the Big Show with Dan Patrick than I did when he was a sportscenter anchor a decade ago. But, what’s the bias exactly: that NBC would hire an obviously highly qualified sportscaster to do sports coverage and who happens to be liberal (which is of dubious value given their target demographic)? Or, is it that criticisms of Limbaugh, however valid, are presumptively out of bounds? Either way, that liberal bias sure has run amok.