- In Media Circus, TNT's Ernie Johnson opens up about his comments on Donald Trump and religion. Plus, the best journalism of the week, thoughts on First Take's move and more.
There are many reasons why I consider TNT’s Inside the NBA the best studio show in history—apologies to the College GameDay lovers out there—and near the top of that list is the show’s fearlessness. One of the things I think sports viewers particularly appreciate about Inside the NBA is that the on-air talent and producers have never shied away from issues beyond basketball, particularly those on race.
Last Thursday, as expected, Inside discussed the most divisive U.S. presidential campaign of our lifetime. The show produced a 10-minute, 17-second segment on Donald Trump winning the presidency, with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith and host Ernie Johnson weighing in for 2 1/2 minutes or so each. The entire segment is here. As part of the segment, Smith decried Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric, saying he crossed a “moral line ethically” with his “misogynistic and racist remarks.” Barkley and O’Neal both said they were shocked Trump won but would move on, respect the Office of the President, and give Trump a chance.
But more than Barkley, Shaq and Smith, it was Johnson’s comments that struck a chord on social media. The Washington Post’s Matt Bonesteel transcribed Johnson’s comments in full and I think the reason they went viral was Johnson admitted who he voted for (a write-in for Ohio governor John Kasich) and invoked Jesus in his words, something rarely done on sports television.
Said Johnson, “I know you’re not supposed to talk about politics and religion but we’re already talking about politics so I’m gonna go the ‘R’ direction, too: I never know from one election to the next who’s gonna be in the Oval Office, but I always know who’s on the throne. And I’m on this earth because God created me, and that’s who I answer to. I’m a Christian. I follow a guy named Jesus, you might have heard of him. And the greatest commandment he gave me was to love others. And scripture also tells us to pray for our leaders, and that’s what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna pray for Donald Trump, I’m gonna pray for all those people right now who feel like they’re on the outside looking in, who are afraid at this point. I’ll pray for them, too. In short, I’m praying for America, and I’m praying that one day we’re gonna look back and we’re gonna say: ‘You know what? That Donald Trump presidency? That was all right.’ But I’m praying.”
Through Sunday, according to Turner Sports PR, the clip, between the NBA on TNT's Facebook and Twitter accounts, had 95 million social media impressions and 16 million video views. That’s the most social engagement any NBA on TNT segment has ever had.
“I didn’t do this with the intention of getting response on social media,” Johnson said in an interview on Friday. “All we were doing was what everyone in this country was doing, processing this election. And the way I processed this election, because it is who I am, I had to include my spiritual take on this. That’s what’s given me perspective on this. I believe whoever is in the White House, God is in charge. That’s me. And I voiced that on TV.”
Turner Sports executives were aware that its talent would want to talk about the election. After a string of emails between the producers and talent last Wednesday, everyone decided on a 10-minute segment, including bringing in Barkley, who was in Miami as part of the on-air crew calling the Bulls at Heat. There were no rehearsals. That is how the show works. No one knew what the other cast members would say.
Johnson said he thought about what he wanted to say throughout Wednesday and early Thursday, and how he could synthesize those thoughts into the 150 seconds he would likely get on air.
“I could have taken a safe way and said I did not like the choices and that maybe there will be a difference from Campaign Trump and the President Trump,” Johnson said. “But that’s not the only way I processed the election. I processed it by, no matter who is the President of the United States, I serve the God on the throne, and that’s me. If I am not bold enough at that point to say what I said, then I have failed. I realize we have a basketball show but in this case it was more than a basketball show. It was one of the biggest events we will ever see and this is how I processed it. Did I think if I went down this road, some people will be mad? Yes. That is the way it is. I was just being me.”
You can respect and admire Johnson's authenticity and honesty as I do and tweeted as such, while not blindly agreeing with his choices and approach for this election (which I do not). Among sports figures, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich came closest to how I feel about Trump’s rhetoric.
I note this only because it was interesting to watch the mentions on social media regarding Johnson’s segment. The majority of those who commented were positive toward Johnson (let’s mention here that no social media feed is representative of the entire U.S.). But there was also a group that found Johnson’s words naive at best, and dangerous at worst. The two that stayed with me were broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who responded directly to my praise of Johnson: “Well, @TurnerSportsEJ is a lovely man and I'm sure he means this sincerely. But this is as naive as it comes. Prayer does not stop fascism.” Also, there was Greg Howard, a writer for The New York Times: “Homie spends his nights squeezed in between three black men and came with ‘trust issues,’ ‘I voted for Kasich,’ and ‘I’m praying for the USA.’ The Klan is literally dancing in the streets, Mike Pence is in the White House and Ernie’s out here still waiting for that Donald Trump pivot.”
One of the reasons I enjoy talking with Johnson is that you can ask him questions about difficult subjects and he does not take them personally. I read him the tweets above and asked what he thought about some saying that he threw away his vote and legitimized racism and sexism by going easy on Trump’s campaign words.
“Here’s the deal: If Keith feels that thinking that prayer makes a difference is a naive thought, that’s his opinion and that’s fine,” Johnson said. “That’s not where I come from. I wasn’t on there trying to say I am going to have an altar call here. This is me, Kenny and Shaq talking about how we processed the election and this is how I processed mine. If someone wants to think that is naive, fine. There was a time in my life that I thought prayer did not matter either. There was a time earlier in my life where I did not give God a second thought. Those things all changed for me when I was 41 years old. And I’m 60 years old now. It comes down to people’s belief system.
“I even laid out that I cannot support Donald Trump because his inflammatory rhetoric was indefensible and incomprehensible to me. My wife has fought child sex trafficking for the last seven years in Atlanta and the objectification of women is something that just from her line of work I have learned is so dangerous. I saw Trump mocking a guy’s handicap and I am sitting here right now talking to you dressing a 28-year-old guy (Johnson’s son, Michael, who Johnson and his wife, Cheryl, adopted from Romania) who is on a ventilator and who has trouble speaking. When I see that, I can’t say that guy has my vote. So that’s where I am. I am hopeful there can be change. I am not going to say people cannot change. I know people have strong feelings and say this guy will never change. I believe people can change and I believe through the power of prayer, God can change people and people’s outlooks. That’s where I was coming from, and I totally expect people to disagree.”
Johnson said there was nothing unusual about the conversation off-air between he, Smith and O’Neal after TNT went to the Bulls-Heat game. But when he got to his office later that night, Johnson saw that his Twitter account had exploded. It continued over the weekend. He could not respond to all the mentions. There have been too many.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. Sports Business Journal associate editor Austin Karp illuminated the NFL’s ratings problems this week by running the numbers on pregame shows—every show is down (with one small caveat) through Week 9. The network that has suffered the most? ESPN. Karp reported that Monday Night Countdown was down 22% in viewership while Sunday NFL Countdown was down 15%. The 10 a.m. ET window of NFL Insiders: Sunday Edition was also down 13%. Karp reported that if the mornings during which London games aired were excluded from ESPN's averages, Sunday NFL Countdown would be down 9% and NFL Insiders would be down 11%.
Karp also reported NBC’s Football Night in America was down 18%, Fox NFL Sunday was down 6% and CBS had a 3% drop for The NFL Today. The NFL Network’s four-hour pregame show was down 1%. The one shining light was Fox NFL Kickoff, which airs in the 11:00 a.m. ET window for Fox. The show is up 15%, but Karp surmised some of that lift may be due to more affiliates carrying the show in 2016. Either way, that has proven to be a wise move by Fox to add a lead-in show to Fox NFL Sunday.
1a. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that the league was looking at a variety of ways to shorten game broadcasts, including trimming some advertising.
2. I wrote a feature last Tuesday on SEC on CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist after spending the weekend with him in Baton Rouge for his call of Alabama’s win over LSU. Hope you enjoy.
2a. On Saturday Brent Musburger called the first half of the Ole Miss-Texas A&M game on the SEC Network by himself in the booth. Why? Well, last week Musburger was given the Vin Scully Award by Fordham University (Scully’s alma mater) and a group of ESPN and SEC Network executives thought going solo would be a nice tribute to both. Musburger agreed, as long as usual partner Jesse Palmer was still part of it and it would only be the first half. So Palmer worked the first half on the sidelines (along with Kaylee Hartung).
2a. College Football overnight ratings:
Iowa-Michigan (ABC): 4.0
Pittsburgh-Clemson (ABC): 3.3
Auburn-Georgia (CBS): 2.9
Alabama-Miss St. (ESPN): 1.8
Ohio St-Maryland (ESPN) 1.7
South Carolina-Florida (CBS): 1.6
2b. With Rob Stone assigned to U.S.-Mexico soccer and Mike Hill subbing for Stone as a host on Fox’s college football desk, Anthony Masterson, who does voiceovers and research for FS1 and is also the Long Beach State men's basketball play-by-play announcer, made his national broadcast debut doing college football updates for FS1 on Saturday. Exciting moment for him.
3. Episode 88 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Daniel Dale, the Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star. In this podcast, we discuss Dale's coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign; how he approached his assignment; why he started to do daily fact checks of Donald Trump’s comments; the number of states he traveled during the campaign; how reporters regain the trust of citizens who distrust them; whether the truth matters in politics; why the pollsters were wrong; whether Canada's Conservative party is positioning itself like Trump; the most disturbing thing he witnessed over last 16 months; his coverage of Toronto’s City Hall from 2010 to early 2015, including former mayor Rob Ford; how being a Canadian reporter in the States impacts his coverage of the election; his role for the Star heading forward, and much more. A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3a. Episode 86 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features free agent NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz, the co-author of Eat My Schwartz: Our Story of NFL Football, Food, Family, and Faith, along with his brother Mitchell, who plays offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In this episode, Schwartz discusses how a pro athlete approaches making the transition to working in the sports media; how big city media is different than smaller city media; the impact of talking about religion and politics on Twitter; why he and his brother decided to write a book; being one of the greatest Jewish offensive lineman ever (yes, it is a small list), navigating being honest with viewers as a former player, and much more.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• Via David Maraniss: The middle-American voters who moved away from Hillary Clinton.
• From Chris Arnade of The Guardian: What I learned after 100,000 miles on the road talking to Trump supporters.
• From The New York Times: The story of the Paris attacks by those who lived through them.
• Via The Nieman Lab: The forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse.
• The American Conservative on Trump and poor white people.
• Via Washington Post: An oral history of how Trump won from Trump insiders.
• Via George Will: The task ahead for today’s conservatives.
• From Michelle Ye Hee Lee of the Washington Post: What covering the 2016 election has been like for me—a female, Asian fact-checker.
• Via Jenna Johnson: 'Something Is Happening That Is Amazing,' Trump Said. He Was Right.
• David Plouffe ran Obama’s 2008 campaign. Here's what he thinks he got wrong about this election.
• “Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.”
• Via The New Yorker’s William Finnegan: Venezuela, a Failing State.
• Via Hamilton Nolan of Deadspin: The Only Thing That Makes The Media Better Is Diversity.
• The NYT staff photographer Damon Winter documented Donald Trump for a year.
• From The Conversation (UK): Hallelujah: how an ignored Leonard Cohen song became a modern legend.
Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Tim Layden, on the election that showed Americans don't really know each other and why sports have been teaching that forever.
• John Risher has been recording statistics as a volunteer at Virginia’s home football games since 1963. He’s 106.
• From Nicole Auerbach of USA Today: The Butler basketball community has experienced back-to-back-to-back tragedies in 2016. Inside those stories.
5. The final viewership totals for HBO’s Any Given Wednesday.
5a. Editorial staffers who work for USA Today as well as the owned and operated sites for Gannett (which includes The Big Lead website and For the Win) were warned not to share their political opinions on social media in a recent email from Patty Michalski, USA Today’s managing editor of digital, standards editor Brent Jones and social media editor Anne Godlasky. From the email: “While personality and conversational language are encouraged, let’s keep in mind that no one outside of those who are paid here to share opinion should express political views on personal social media accounts, even if your account is private and even if you don’t report on politics.”
Given so much of sports is immersed in politics, from Colin Kaepernick’s protest to what Popovich said about the election, it must be disheartening to those journalists who work in sports for Gannett or its O&O’s to cede their voice on such important issues—not to mention there’s an argument to make that one’s personal and private Facebook feed is just that, and not owned by Gannett.
5b. Here’s Fox and FS1’s college basketball commentator lineup, including the addition of longtime CBS and ESPN broadcaster Len Elmore.
5c. ESPN's 30 for 30 division announced that “This Was the XFL” will air on Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. Look for a lot of Vince McMahon in the doc, which is directed by Charlie Ebersol, the son of former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol.
5d. NFL Network's Andrea Kremer on gun violence in Baton Rouge.
5e. FS1 college football analyst Brady Quinn has a foundation, 3rd and Goal, that raises money and builds homes for displaced soldiers.
5f. Sports Media Watch reported that NBC has topped 900,000 viewers just once so far this EPL season, compared to five times at a comparable point last year.
5g. Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand reported last week that ESPN will move First Take from ESPN2 to ESPN on Jan. 3. The shifting of networks corresponds with the show’s free fall in viewership from the days when Stephen A. Smith and former host Skip Bayless were threatening NBA MVPs, defending domestic violence abusers and playing misogyny games by comparing All-Star male athletes to female pop stars from England. ESPN executive John Skipper and other ESPN execs have long looked the other way on the stench of First Take because it over-performed in a time slot where 500,000 viewers is considered wildly successful. Most importantly, it made the company money (an estimated $10 million to $20 million). The new guard at ESPN continues to support the show, as do the same PR operatives who claimed multiple times over the years to Sports Illustrated that SportsCenter was the official sports show of record in all of sports media.
What used to be on ESPN in that time slot—the Hannah Storm interview show SportsCenter Face to Face and the Cari Champion/David Lloyd-hosted SportsCenter Coast to Coast—now gets jettisoned to ESPN2. That’s a bummer because Champion and Lloyd used that slot to put on voices you often never saw on SportsCenter.
Part of this move is personal: Bayless has launched a competing show, Undisputed, on FS1, and FS1 execs trolled ESPN via friendly media and their own marketing to push the the narrative that Undisputed is somehow a hit. What is true is that First Take’s viewership is down 33% compared to the previous year, according to the website SportsTVRatings.com. The show has averaged 307,000 viewers since last Labor Day. No doubt Bayless-land has taken some viewers from First Take, but the real truth is fewer viewers are watching debate in that time slot by a count of more than 60,000. FS1’s Undisputed had averaged 101,000 viewers through last Thursday, or 241,000 fewer viewers than reruns of the Andy Griffith Show draws on TV Land within the same time window.