Commentary: ESPN must fix pervasive racing issues

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The best black voices keep leaving ESPN for a reason.

The latest symptom of a deep-rooted problem was propelled into national limelight when The New York Times reported Sunday that Rachel Nichols, who is white, was filmed, suggesting that ESPN shouldn’t have selected Maria Taylor, who is black, rather than her to host a prestigious pre-game NBA playoff show.

“If you have to give [Maria] more stuff to do because you feel the pressure about your long-standing diversity record – which by the way, I know personally on the female side – like, go ahead, ”Nichols said during of a telephone conversation, according to a video recording obtained by The Times.

The call was captured by an ESPN camera in July 2020 while Nichols was in quarantine in his hotel room in the NBA bubble. Video of the conversation was stored on ESPN servers and soon shared by company employees who were upset by the suggestion that Taylor had not earned her role.

Nichols has repeatedly apologized for the conversation, most recently Monday at the start of “The Jump,” the daily NBA show she hosts. On Tuesday, ESPN announced that Malika Andrews would replace Nichols as secondary reporter to “stay the course for the NBA Finals.”

Nichols had not previously been sanctioned by ESPN for her remarks. Taylor asked that she not be forced to work with Nichols on camera according to the New York Times report. The request was granted, but it was frequently reviewed and Taylor had to defend his position.

It is a model familiar to the network.

“ESPN has a consistent history of undervaluing black talent,” former ESPN presenter Jemele Hill told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Monday. “It’s not a Rachel versus Maria story. It’s a story about why they didn’t appreciate Maria enough to allow her to take full ownership of the job.

“ESPN collects black faces, but it seems like when those black faces turn into black voices, that’s a problem.”

The combination of ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s initial tenure, economic stress accelerated by a global pandemic, and a national reckoning with race created hostile working conditions for journalists of color at ESPN.

Like most business leaders at the height of Black Lives Matter’s protests last year, Pitaro is committed to improving the culture of the workplace. He relaxed restrictions on political speech, especially following the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. But these adjustments were not widely adopted, and Taylor was criticized by some colleagues for her comment after Floyd’s death.

Pitaro and ESPN’s senior management unfortunately did not keep their promise.

Five sources at different levels at ESPN confirmed the New York Times report on the intense stress and unhappiness of many black employees and other journalists of color. It’s not just limited to Taylor, Hill and other on-air talent, with senior producers and support staff behind the cameras being frustrated as well.

“ESPN collects black faces, but it seems like when those black faces turn into black voices, that’s a problem.”

Jemele Hill

National Association of Black Journalists President Dorothy Tucker posted on Twitter Sunday that the only person sanctioned for the incident was a black producer who told human resources she shared the video with Taylor. The woman was suspended for two weeks without pay and given less desirable tasks. She recently left ESPN.

“I have concerns: The black ESPN employee was punished for revealing the incident, but no action was taken against the white ESPN talent for insulting the black talent? There will be a follow-up after the holidays, ”Tucker wrote.

ESPN spokesperson Josh Krulewitz told The New York Times: “A diverse group of executives thoroughly and fairly reviewed all of the facts related to the incident and then dealt with the situation appropriately. “

Many focused on the unsettling conversation between Nichols and LeBron’s adviser James Adam Mendelsohn, who himself apologized for suggesting during the conversation that the Me Too and Black Lives Matters moves led him to exhaustion.

But as Hill notes, this conversation is a symptom of a much deeper problem.

It’s not difficult to do the right thing, and yet ESPN management has repeatedly failed to support black female journalists.

Taylor has been described to the Los Angeles Times by current and former ESPN employees as a “perfect reporter.” In addition to her talent on camera, she is known internally for working hard, mentoring young journalists from all walks of life, and building a foundation to support women and journalists of color.

She deserved clear and unambiguous support in the face of a diversity-tired hiring smear.

The overwhelming majority of journalists of color have heard some form of this attack relayed either on their faces or on their backs. You have filled their quota. You are hiring diversity. You are only here because of your gender or your race.

This can take the form of jokes and is sometimes leveled off casually, as if it isn’t a bomb that can destroy the target’s confidence or cause them to do more work in an effort to prove their worth. .

Why did Nichols seek advice from Mendelsohn? Why didn’t she think her concerns about her own role would be assessed fairly? Why was her language not clearly handed over to staff and, at a minimum, training provided to emphasize why this was unacceptable no matter how it was revealed?

ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stands on the field before a 2020 game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

(Mike Ehrmann / Pool Photo via AP)

Yes, that was an accidentally taped conversation, but it was with someone who has a direct impact on how Taylor does her job. This is public defamation, no matter how the conversation has been shared within the company.

ESPN proudly boasts that it has hired more women and journalists of color than any other media company, but it also has the most jobs – the most premium jobs – available. Support for its diverse staff is weak. ESPN has few female executives of color with the leverage to resolve conflict based on their clear understanding of the depth of the issues.

NBA Countdown producer Amina Hussein, a 17-year veteran and one of ESPN’s top-ranked female executives and journalists of color, left in December.

“I only worked with one other African American woman at ESPN and that was Julaine Edwards as part of the SEC network,” Taylor said. Forbes in December 2019. “So having Amina involved is everything for me.”

Hussein’s departure had a direct impact on how ESPN’s fractured NBA team have responded to the current conflicts.

This is an issue in all media, which denounces inequalities in other spaces, but has not yet fully addressed it in its own ranks. This includes the Los Angeles Times, which has made strides, but rightly recognizes that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Racial inequality in the media is frequently highlighted, but real progress requires investment in training diverse managers – including women of color – and empowering them to lead. Until companies invest in these leaders, they will continue to be embarrassed.

Why is this important?

Failure to invest in truly diverse leadership will erode the ability to tell the best stories in a competitive space, accelerate audience loss, and hamper long-term income opportunities.

You are just going to lose in any way you can.

Until companies invest in [cultivating diverse leaders], they will continue to be embarrassed.

How do you fix this?

It takes more than hiring journalists of color from other companies, saying journalism conferences are important and sponsor diversity.

Do it, but also cultivate and raise diverse voices within your team. Listen to them, give them a chance to lead, and give them the opportunity to learn from failure.

ESPN has never had to be in this position. He has to listen to incoming calls from the National Association of Black Journalists. But more importantly, he needs to start listening to calls for change coming from his own offices.

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