This week’s BCC Interview is with legendary sports journalist Bob Ley. Ley spent decades at ESPN before retiring last year – I’ve been honored to count Ley as a Fourth Watch newsletter reader, and was glad he agreed to the interview last week.
We emailed about the various ways the sports media has changed in recent years, the role of “advocacy journalism” in 2020, Twitter and more. And then, with all BCC Interviews, I published it in full, below. Check out past BCC Interviews with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or Ben Smith of the New York Times, and subscribe to Fourth Watch here. Read the full interview below…
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Bob Ley
Thanks so much for doing this – I’m such a huge fan of your work. Let’s start with where things are in 2020. You retired from ESPN last year after a legendary 40-year career at the network. Now that you’ve been outside the sports media world, what stands out to you as where the industry is? What’s changed over the past few decades? I’m curious how much of what people think about ESPN today is a symptom of editorial choices made by executives, and how much is simply a sign of the times – shifts in viewing habits, audience churn, cord cutting.
In some ways it seems the media landscape is fuller than ever – but perhaps more segmented. There are upstarts like Outkick that have pulled top tier talent away from more traditional outlets and are certainly doing things differently and bringing in a different perspective. And you have other digital-first outlets like Barstool that seem to be thriving, and growing through a dedicated audience away from the traditional models (with focuses on podcasts and other newer mediums). Who do you think is doing it right? Who are you intrigued by, and where do you think we’re headed?
And feel free to throw any questions my way…
From: Bob Ley
To: Steve Krakauer
First as a fan of your column, it’s a gas to trade emails with you. You asked about sports media. Just stepping away from my role as an active conspirator in committing media, period, I find myself – simply as a citizen, much less a journalist – watching this nation and this society enduring a confluence of crises unique in our modern memory and wondering why so much potential journalism is spectacularly squandering the moment. When there’s never been a greater need for informed, nuanced and critical reporting, the predominant ethic is the subjective, and the inflammatory. There are serious people, some of whom I respect, advocating the abdication of objectivity and the valiant need for advocacy. Much of this driven by the bloodlust for clicks, likes, retweets, and ratings points. And the rest is driven by partisan emotion. Stir in a soupcon of Cancel Culture seasoning, and sports media might resemble Switzerland during WWII. (And so many of us are Steve McQueen, gunning that Triumph motorcycle to jump the border fence. And remember how that ended.)
What used to be sports broadcasting is now the sports entertainment industry, and its hold on our culture has never been more pronounced. Just think back to March. Which two events truly awakened the U.S. public to the exploding reality and danger of the pandemic? They occurred on the same day. First, America’s Dad, Tom Hanks announced that he and wife Rita Wilson had each been diagnosed as positive with COVID19. And the clincher, which moved this from a celebrity story to a national wake up call, was Commissioner Adam Silver’s enlightened decision to suspend the NBA regular season. Sports matter.
That they do is the cultural bedrock upon which ESPN has built its cathedral of business operations since 1979. It was, admittedly, fascinating to watch from the inside, as the the initial popular wonder of this phenomenon of 24 hour sports was soon transformed into the network’s identity as a staple in not just sports, but the American landscape. Over the past 10-15 years, as the digital revolution reshaped the reporting and delivery of events and sports news, I saw proof of the adage that it’s tougher to stay on top than get to the top. The emergence of a new generation of sports consumer, not dependent on his big-screen Sony (now, Samsung) or anything approaching ‘appointment viewing’, was matched across the marketplace by the emergence of new platforms and approaches. To be sure, ESPN innovated and expanded and thrived in this most competitive environment, but it was ironic for those us dating from the prehistoric One-Network, SportsCenter at 11pm Age (which brought great viewer identification and loyalty) to see that history swept aside by younger fans, hungry for the best product out there. To be clear, ESPN’s brand identity, and that of SportsCenter, is the envy of the media world, but now that continued success must be earned and affirmed every single day. That shouldn’t bother anyone, because that’s exactly how the mountain was ascended in the first place.
All of this, against the backdrop of ( cue the appropriately reflective music) ‘these unprecedented times’, where the alleged rubric of ‘stick to sports’ ain’t gonna cut it. Not that these were the instructions, per se. I’m curious how you’ve viewed the past months of social activism, political upheaval, and sports journalism. Is the larger media ‘advocacy over accuracy or balance’ movement just as pronounced in sports?
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Bob Ley
As you know, I share your frustration about the state of the larger media, particularly as we face very serious challenges as a country and world. I started Fourth Watch in December with the thought that much of the time I’d be talking about how everyone in the media is taking themselves too seriously – then the pandemic hit, and I wonder why there is not more sober, serious journalism happening. There’s a craving from the public for more sensible, responsible, media coverage of such a serious topic, rising to the moment – and yet at every twist and turn we’ve been let down (obviously there have been exceptions, and I’m generalizing, but still).
From the sports side, I agree with you – “stick to sports” is gone forever, and frankly, I wonder if that’s a good thing (or if not a good thing, a more honest thing). To me, sports – the athletes, the leagues, and yes the media – have become far more reliant on signaling opportunities (from both sides of the proverbial aisle) than simply presenting a distraction from daily life. I wonder how much that’s been a turnoff for the average fan – who are not being driven away from the NFL or NBA in droves, but I wonder…how many are gritting their teeth through the activism to just get to the scores and plays. At the same time, this social justice moment in America has put sports in perhaps the largest cultural spotlight possible. Something feels different in 2020. Do you think we’ve crossed over into a new sports moment? And how will the media that covers sports have to adjust? I’ve been feeling increasingly strongly that perceived “neutrality” has gone from a positive to a negative in the media – sports, and otherwise. Do you think there’s a place for neutrality?
There’s also another element to all this – Twitter (and other forms of social media). I know you’re active on Twitter… maybe more as a consumer than a broadcaster in that sense. I think Twitter is both great and terrible, but the ways in which it’s terrible – particularly when it comes to the way the media uses it, to the way it has become corrosive to our discourse – are going to have significant reverberating effects. What do you think? How has Twitter contributed to where things stand in media (and in our cultural moment)?
From: Bob Ley
To: Steve Krakauer
So we’re having a perfectly rational and delightful colloquy on our profession and you spoil it with the “T” word. Twitter. I confess to having a verified Twitter account, and posting the occasional item or two of late, but largely used the platform to promote our program, and also to curate work product from opinion leaders and reporters. But if there is, on balance, a socially redeeming feature to Twitter, it has eroded, corroded and dribbled away. Twitter is the petri dish of the Cancel Culture, and, it is the great window onto the barely suppressed partisan soul of so many members of the mainstream media. You’d think that 11 years into Twitter, individuals would have learned that ‘words mean things’, and utterances and exclamations on Twitter expressing virulent opinions should call into question those same folks’ work on their bread-winning platforms. Twitter is a vial of nitroglycerin, and 2020 is a landscape of uneven sidewalks and crumbling curbs. Navigate at your peril. Or show maturity and largely abstain, or observe, wearing a United Nations blue helmet.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with honest, heartfelt emotions. They lie at the center of every great story, and they are the foundation of the appeal of sports. And when the issues on the table are truly existential for highly visible and intelligent men and women who understand the power of their position through the stratospheric growth of their sports industries, then the stories are personal and powerful. I believe you’re right, Steve. 2020 is different. Just as the pandemic will insure that our lives will again never be exactly what they were in February of this year, so too has this confluence of social, political and financial events insured that the fabric of sports is now more complex.
Much was made by some of the booing heard on NBC’s telecast of the season-opening NFL game in Kansas City during the pre-game ‘moment of unity’ between players on the Chiefs and Titans. Was that reaction indicative of red state antipathy towards something perceived as a political statement? Or an outburst as simple as anxious fans of the Super Bowl champs wanting the lengthy pre-game ceremony and reflection to just freaking end so we can finally get our football? I think there may have been some of each, and I believe the sympathy, agreement and tolerance of fans for visible political statements in and around their games has a limit. All of this puts a burden on members of the media from the executive suites, down to the production assistants cutting highlights, to be better informed, more educated and accurately plugged into not only the causes at stake, but the place of the game in the national mindset. In for a penny, in for a pound, if you’re going to produce, announce or analyze the involvement of athletes making political statements, even boycotting games, as the Milwaukee Bucks did recently. This current ‘hot’ moment may cool somewhat, but we’re not going back to where we were. Which means a lot of media folks have to raise their game. And dig down to ask the hard questions, objectively, about the how leagues, teams and players are managing this new freedom.
From: Steve Krakauer
To: Bob Ley
Ok I apologize for bringing up Twitter (and bringing the conversation down!). I totally agree on your last point – advocacy is going to become a bigger element of sports, like it will be in all aspects of our culture. But what is viewed as acceptable advocacy becomes the next frontier… and reveals some pretty glaring hypocrisy.
Let’s stick with some positive points to end up on. First, we talked about where the media – and sports media more specifically – is headed in the new media landscape. The tectonic shifts in the move from traditional to digital. But I’m curious about your own consumption, first. Are there podcasts you like, and find yourself going back to? And, in “retirement”… is there room for you to consider…starting your own (or something else)? I think we need your voice out there still…
And let’s end with this – as you look out across the landscape, who do you find interesting or exciting in the media, and specifically sports media? Are there people that stand out to you as unique and representative of the best of what was viewed as great in the “old” media and what’s exciting about the “new” media?
Thanks so much for doing this, and please keep in touch,
From: Bob Ley
To: Steve Krakauer
When you find yourself no longer living on multiple daily to-the-second deadlines, it is rather astonishing how your consumption habits change. Begin with cutting the cord (the mere mention of which at my former place of employment would put you in the brig), which not only slices and dices your monthly expense, but forces you to assume more responsibility for locating the outlets (news and entertainment) you want to consume. I’ve often believed if you’re an information and informed opinion junkie, then among the more important decisions you make are the settings for the alerts on your smartphone. So, yes, the obvious – TheNY Times, Wash Post, Wall Street Journal, and, living in FL half the year, the Miami Herald (doing some really good work), and voices such as Jason Gay and Peggy Noonan of the Journal, and Ross Douthat of the Times. Axios is impressive in not only its breaking news ability, but the breadth of analysis on display, and Kendall Baker provides a one-stop must-read morning hit for this old SportsCenter anchor. The Athletic consistently has good context, and the loyalists who went down with the ship at the old Deadspin have reconstituted as Defector, and there are a lot smart folks there.
Yeah, I haven’t mentioned a lot of television. Frankly, consuming electoral, COVID, and Trumpian developments from among the cable 24/7’s is often only useful in noting the Parallel Universe phenomenon among them. How a development which has CNN or MSNBC on Defcon 1 is barely a blip at Fox. Curious for a while, even perversely entertaining, but ultimately not productive.
Podcasts are the daily soundtrack for my exercise walks, or longer drives. The guiltiest of pleasures is the ongoing “Talking Sopranos” with Michael Imperioli (Chris Moltisanti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Bacala) from the best television series ever produced. Putting aside my devotion to this epic shot in my tribal homeland of Essex County, N.J., there’s my wonder at the entertainment value of this podcast, and the fact they’ve captured absolute magic and the rarest commodity — these guys make their commercials entertaining and stop you from arrowing past them. That’s absolute gold in the frantically overcrowded podcast market. I enjoy Nate DeMeo’s “Memory Palace”, so well written and presented, and my friend Jim Miller’s newest “Origins” series is devoting this season to the 20th anniversary of the film “Almost Famous”, and so far it’s beguiling. “The Axe Files” with David Axelrod, and Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing” are also at the top of the menu.
I appreciate your kind words of encouragement to stay in the game, and I’m having some conversations about some projects that may bear fruit. I enjoy spending time working with college students, especially at my alma mater Seton Hall University, where I work closely with Professional In Residence B.J. Schecter. This month alone, I’ve addressed undergraduate and graduate classes at three different Universities, and I really enjoy the dialogue that develops. My main message, especially today: keep your eyes and ears wide open, because the media have never been in such a position, and opportunities abound for the ambitious.
And when I read my former colleagues Don Van Natta or Seth Wickersham, or Mark Fainaru-Wada or Steve Fainaru, or watch and listen to Jeremy Schaap’s mastery of story, I know that the old school values translate well to the new platforms. Mina Kimes is so fiercely intelligent and focused, that anything she’s fronting, I’m in. Our mutual friend Will Cain, originally the house conservative at ESPN (and that’s one lonely gig, let me tell you), has a new playing field at Fox where his reasoned intellect will flourish. Here’s hoping there’s a calling for thoughts and viewpoints that may require some nuance, compound sentences, and more than 280 characters. A boy can wish.