The Long, Twilight Struggle For Independent Journalism

Bill Simmons has about as much clout as an individual journalist as anyone out there. Immensely popular, he is one of the few individuals who managed to get a big media company – ESPN – to give him his own sandbox, Grantland, centered around his personality and style. Of all the writers/bloggers/podcasters out there, he has an enviable degree of independence. But that independence only goes so far:

Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards. We have worked hard to ensure that our recent NFL coverage has met that criteria. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast, and as a result we have suspended him for three weeks.

That suspension is one week more than the NFL originally gave Ray Rice for knocking his fiancée unconscious. Simmons’ transgression was to call the NFL chief, Roger Goodell, a liar, on his podcast, and then to dare ESPN to come discipline him for saying so:

I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar, and I get to talk about that on my podcast … Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.

Tony Manfred notes that Simmons has been suspended twice before:

In 2013 he got suspended from Twitter for calling a “First Take” segment “awful and embarrassing to everyone involved.” In 2009 he got a two-week Twitter ban for calling the ESPN radio affiliate in Boston “deceitful scumbags.”

But the notion that Simmons only got suspended because he was tough on ESPN doesn’t quite hack it.

Maybe Simmons is a little paranoid, but his quote assumes that there is indeed a close relationship between ESPN and the NFL, and there is subtle pressure not to rock the boat too wildly. ESPN’s statement also cites a failure to meet “ESPN’s journalistic standards,” –  presumably because Simmons out-and-out named Goodell as a liar – without proof. But it was clearly an impromptu remark on a podcast and well within the contours of the kind of trash talk common in sports radio. I see the whole thing as a reminder that Simmons is not actually completely independent – even as he has an amount of freedom most sports hacks would die for.

And this much is true: as journalism, including sports journalism, faces a truly tough and continuing transition, as its bottom line keeps going down, as “sponsored content” dominates everything, and as media entities charge over $100 grand for a piece of native advertising, the whole idea of writers being truly able to say whatever they think is under increasing pressure. You need enormous clout and independence to get away with it – which is why South Park remains such a vital part of our public discourse.

For myself, I remain simply immensely grateful for the support of reader-subscribers. Every day, I remain aware of the privilege you grant me and my colleagues in trying to figure out the world without these kind of pressures or threats hanging over us. But every day, I look around and see how many fewer writers can still say the same.