Charges of media bias are nothing new. In the last two decades, as new online outlets have featured more free-wheeling, provocative content, those complaints have been revived.
Namely, that coverage of political, social and cultural matters is slanted in favor of a liberal perspective. These grievances extend to sports media, where topics that hit the prevailing cultural touchstones are regular fodder on all platforms.
What is new is how pronounced those politically-charged discussions have become, whether they’re about the religion of Tim Tebow, the sexuality of Michael Sam, the gender of Mo’ne Davis, the nickname of the Washington Redskins, the violent crimes of male athletes against women and more.
“Now sports, like everything else, has been conquered by political tribalism,” wrote New York magazine columnist Will Leitch, a rare observer of this development in an otherwise incurious sea of sports media criticism.
Conservative sports talk radio host Dylan Gwinn has been taking note of this as well. His book, “Bias in the Booth: An Insider Exposes How the Sports Media Distort the News,” is a broadside against a sports media realm that he claims has a “desire to advance a political agenda.”
An army veteran and former New York City firefighter from a liberal family, Gwinn writes that he wants the sports media “to talk about sports, not politics. In short, I want the media to do their job.”
The problem with his book is that his reflexive biases and cheap shots diminish any chance of engaging readers who may be open to hearing him out:
We’re fast approaching a point where there’s going to be no real difference between Bob Costas and Rachel Maddow. Except one of them is a man. I think.
Although I am a secular, traditional liberal, I’m also discouraged that many on the left and in my own media profession have become too doctrinaire. While demanding tolerance and diversity, they often demonize those unlike them, especially political, social and religious conservatives.
Therefore, it’s disappointing how Gwinn has so thoroughly undermined his own thesis. He’s not out to persuade, but simply to rail. His only prescription is to “shut off the bad guys and tune into the good guys.”
Which is a shame, because a book of this kind is needed. The liberal sentiments that upset him are firmly entrenched in the media, especially coverage of race, gender and sexuality.
Another review panning Gwinn’s book contends that “for most of the 20th century . . . sport was a tool for reinforcing heteronormative masculinity.” That’s the kind of bias, and vocabulary, available only in a gender-studies class.
Gwinn employs troubling excesses of his own, resorting to name-calling and guilt by association. “All of ESPN” is condemned for many things, including how it “actively discriminates against Christians when they are engaged in non-partisan civic activities.” Leading sports journalists, sometimes called out by name, are interchangeably labeled as “leftists” and “amoral.”
He provides little evidence for these and other sweeping claims, and makes no distinction between a political stance and a cultural sensibility. They’re not necessarily the same, even in a media environment in which cultural identity issues are becoming more prominent.
I agree with Gwinn in several ways. The Trayvon Martin saga “should never have become a sports story.” Tim Tebow has come in for mean-spirited ridicule for his religious beliefs. Coverage of NFL prospect Michael Sam’s disclosure of his homosexuality was vastly out of proportion to public interest in the subject.
But diving into the details, Gwinn too often dishes out lazy, simplistic and incorrect assertions:
Professional sports leagues are keenly aware that gay activism has become the new liberal cause célèbre, and they want to be at its forefront.
They do? Did Gwinn ask any pro sports official or do any basic research to back this up? The truth is that few pro sports leaders, often ripped by journalists as being too conservative, have been at the “forefront” of this movement. For the most part, gay athletes who want to be open face a very lonely journey.
“Bias in the Booth” can be read as an expansion of conservative writer Daniel Flynn’s “The War on Football,” which Gwinn cites frequently and even borrows from on occasion, including the word “wussification,” coined by and used in right-leaning media.
Gwinn goes after Pearlman—a self-admitted liberal Jew—for writing that he wanted Tebow to fail in the NFL because of his professed Christianity. But the author ignores others in the media who countered that Tebow has every right to evangelize publicly, even in a controversial pro-life Super Bowl ad.
Even when Gwinn is on solid ground—recounting despicable media attitudes about Duke lacrosse players even after rape charges against them were fabricated—he’s not there for long.
Gwinn accuses the media of a racial double standard in its coverage of rape allegations against Heisman Trophy-winning Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. Unlike the white Duke athletes, Gwinn writes, there was “no rush to judge” Winston, who is black and was never charged. This is ridiculous.
Winston was presumed guilty from the very start, just as the Seminoles prepared to play for the national championship. An examination of a flawed Tallahassee police investigation by The New York Times fed a familiar media narrative that has continued since that paper’s dreadful journalism about the Duke case.
Regardless of what can be proven, the narrative is this: That police and prosecutors drag their feet when star athletes are accused of sexual crimes, and powerful institutions, including universities and sports leagues, protect these players and intimidate female accusers.
Gwinn writes about a discussion along these lines on espnW, a female-focused web vertical, after prosecutors declined to indict Winston due to a lack of evidence. ESPN did this, he claims, “to cover their liberal behinds with their feminist fellow travelers.”
And yet he thinks Winston got a break from the media? Once the Duke players were exonerated and the prosecutor was disbarred, the media drifted away.
Nearly a decade later, the media’s rush-to-judgment habits have accelerated, even among conservative pundits. This includes presuming that athletes who aren’t convicted get away with rape and domestic violence.
This is the most insidious kind of media bias, and Gwinn doesn’t consider it.
Perhaps the use of the word “bias” is problematic in an age in which journalistic objectivity is being challenged. But there is a need for transparency in admitting those biases, and a policy of fair-mindedness toward those with different views.
After “Bias in the Booth” was published, Pearlman gave Gwinn an open forum to rant further. If Gwinn had extended that courtesy to the journalists and media entities he decries, his book might have been more compelling.
It might have fostered conversation that can broaden understanding between people with different perspectives, even if they ultimately agree to disagree.
For all of Gwinn’s pleas for the media to take the politics out of sports, they are unlikely to be heeded. Not necessarily because of liberal bias, but because he’s unwilling to do the same thing.