Last April, the New York Times’s Richard Sandomir wrote a soft-focus puff piece on Jason Whitlock and his then-role as head of ESPN’s The Undefeated. A month later ESPN president John Skipper told Sandomir exclusively that Bill Simmons wasn’t returning to ESPN, news Simmons himself found out from Twitter. A month later ESPN fired Whitlock.
These things are all related.
Today’s Times has another profile from Sandomir, this time of Jamie Horowitz, the man charged with lifting Fox Sports’s sagging ratings. As readers of this blog know, Horowitz developed First Take, SportsNation, and Olbermann while at ESPN. He’s now attempting to go back to the well of his Embrace Debate strategy, but a much more nakedly cynical version that involves recruiting the loudest, dumbest, and most boorish ex-ESPNers like Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, and Whitlock (“a combustible columnist known for his outspoken views on race,” in Sandomir’s words) to be the face of the reinvented Fox Sports.
Curiously, Sandomir frames his piece as upstart Fox Sports beating ESPN at its own game, rather than as Fox Sports pursuing a likely-to-fail strategy that ESPN has already decided is too dangerous and expensive to embrace fully. He spends an inordinate amount of words on SportsCenter’s falling ratings, yet curiously neglects to mention that Colin Cowherd’s ratings are no better than cheaper replacement-level programming. Sandomir also uncritically transcribes Horowitz’s spin on his time running NBC’s Today show, where he so incompetently managed talent that he was fired after just 10 weeks on the job.
And if Sandomir’s piece didn’t acknowledge that the millions of dollars already sunk into Horowitz’s strategy have so far shown no return—or that it took seven months to announce Whitlock’s pairing with Cowherd on the Pardon the Interruption rip-off All Takes Matter because, as we hear it, test shows for other Whitlock projects were disasters—you can be sure the profile doesn’t consider its own role in normalizing Fox Sports’s belief that racists and sexists are valid demographics worth pursuing.
Sandomir did not immediately respond to questions about the profile’s sympathies.
This piece, like much of Sandomir’s bloodless writing on sports media, functions as a beat-sweetener, a source-greaser. It’s not that scoops are necessarily explicitly promised in exchange for going soft, but that sympathetic profiles beget scoops which beget sympathetic profiles.
When writing about The Undefeated, Sandomir was shown Whitlock’s catastrophically insane “Playbook,” which to any clear-headed person exhibited a profound unfitness for management. Instead, Sandomir gently described it as mixing “[Whitlock’s] mission statement and his goals with quotations about journalism, truth, courage and risk-taking,” which is a true yet not remotely accurate description. (Our damning profile of Whitlock came out three weeks after Sandomir’s, and he had access to some of the same information we did, and access to Whitlock himself and ESPN, which we did not.)
It was this extremely favorable coverage that made Sandomir look like a rube when Whitlock was fired just two months later, but it was also what led to Skipper using Sandomir to announce Simmons’s firing in the Times before he even told Simmons. That terrible profile accomplished what it set out to accomplish.
The Times, which is one of the few outlets that its sources need as much as it needs them, could be above this. This should have been a story detailing how Fox Sports is flailing about for ideas and spending a breathtaking amount of money, paying a premium for ESPN’s leftovers, and doubling down on the one strategy that’s already failed by most metrics. Instead it’s portraying Horowitz as a savant, despite all evidence to the contrary. Not only has Sandomir’s source-greasing led him to place in front of the Times’s readers a profile that is unilluminating and fundamentally inaccurate, but he’s pumping the tires for a guy who’s pursuing a programming strategy that any conscientious media reporter should want to see consigned to the trash.
But when your animating impulse is to make sure you get those scoops five minutes before they’re publicly announced, you’re going to have to write a lot of puff.