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Veteran sports journalists: Politics not exactly new to the game

Veteran sports journalists: Politics not exactly new to the game

By John Ourand, Staff Writer

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B
etween President Trump’s tweets about ESPN and the NFL, calls to boycott football games and the players’ responses to both, it feels like the act of covering sports has changed forever.

I called the people who, in my opinion, ran the two best sports sections in the history of newspapers for perspective. They both told me to calm down. This isn’t the first time that politics and sports have intersected, and it won’t be the last.

George Solomon, who was the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for sports from 1975 to 2003, recalled covering the Redskins for the Washington Daily News in 1971 when President Richard Nixon arrived at one of the team’s practices. In the middle of the Vietnam War, some players including offensive lineman Ray Schoenke, moved to the other side of the field to avoid shaking his hand.

“This happened. You had Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics. You can go on and on and on,” Solomon said. “Because of television, because of Trump’s persona, because of the internet coverage of everything, everything is magnified now.”

President Nixon caused a stir visiting Redskins players during the Vietnam War in 1971.
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Vince Doria, former editor of the Boston Globe in the 1970s and ’80s, sounded a similar theme. It’s impossible to compare eras because of the power of social media. “Watergate happened with no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no 24/7 cable news, no 24/7 talk radio,” he said.

But as someone who managed sports reporters for decades, Doria said he often had to deal with these kinds of issues. He pointed to 2012, when he was vice president and director of news at ESPN and several anchors and reporters, including Michael Smith and Trey Wingo, wore hoodies on their Twitter avatars in support of Trayvon Martin. ESPN first told them they could not make such a statement on Twitter but later relented.

“At ESPN, typically you tried to avoid the political aspect of things,” Doria said. “But it was difficult to avoid. Obviously there isn’t an easy answer to any of this.”

Both Solomon and Doria said that reporters and anchors should be allowed to discuss politics, even if there is not a strong connection to sports.

“If I was still at The Post and I had a columnist who wanted to do a piece on the current state of the United States and the presidency, I would say, ‘Go ahead,’” Solomon said. “With that, though, comes the responsibility of maintaining a civil discourse and the responsibility of representing the news organization …

“As long as it’s civil and as long as it’s in the norms of popular culture and accepted — fine. Go ahead. But have some sense of responsibility. Regardless, if you are tweeting or writing about the president of the United States, if nothing else, the office demands respect.”

Doria said the speed and ubiquity of social media — where anchors are encouraged to tweet — has hurt the long-standing journalism rule of maintaining objectivity.

“Tweets have to be opinion — what else could you be tweeting,” he said. “You’re not going to commit in-depth, long-form, explanatory or investigative journalism on Twitter. … There’s a lot of talk about the separation between journalists and opinion makers. I don’t know if you can draw that line anymore. It’s become too blurry. It was blurred when I was there. It’s become moreso since I left.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.



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