Public discourse is taking a beating, descending to a level that allows little room for compromise and no leeway for opposing views.
Forget politics. I’m talking about our fun and games, discussed with a passion and gravity better-suited for world famine.
“Kevin Durant is weak for going to the Warriors!”
“Tim Tebow is an elite NFL quarterback!”
“John Wall is a moron for doing the Dougie!”
“LeBron James is too rich to experience racism!”
Hot takes has had a cooling effect on moderation and reason. The more outrageous a stance, the better for attention-fueled provocateurs. All matters merit at least an 11 on scales of 1-to-10.
One person deserves most of the credit, or blame, for the epidemic of sports’ shoutfests: Jamie Horowitz. If you have an affinity for his brand of programming – “Embrace Debate” – you might be disappointed that Fox Sports abruptly fired him last week.
But if you think “Embrace Disgrace” is a more-appropriate slogan, Horowitz’s dismissal might be reason to cheer.
I suspect the few dozen FoxSports.com staffers he laid-off a week earlier are tempted to raise a glass. His final act as head of sports programming was to rid the website of original and re-purposed content that didn’t revolve around his star hires and their TV shows.
Beginning in mid-January, according to an exhaustive AwfulAnnouncing.com report, FoxSports.com no longer provided a home for quality written work. It was replaced by ghost-written pieces under the bylines of on-air personalities like Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd. The site also was littered with recaps of opinions stated on “Undisputed,” “Speak for Yourself” and other programs, forcing some writers to watch hour upon hour of FS1.
The final indignity coincided with the layoffs, when FoxSports.com transformed into a video-only site with content exclusively from Fox Sports shows.
“This is all driven by ego. Jamie’s huge ego,” an anonymous employee told Awful Announcing. “He’s not only ruining Fox’s reputation on television, but he’s spreading it like cancer to digital. They’ll can his ass when they realize the emperor has no clothes and he’ll find another place to ruin.”
Indeed, Horowitz was fired within a week.
But apparently it had nothing to do with his strategy.
According to multiple reports, Horowitz was done in by sexual harassment allegations, the same charges that led Fox News to cut ties with Roger Ailes last July and Bill O’Reilly in April.
“Everyone at Fox Sports, no matter what role we play, or what business, function or show we contribute to – should act with respect and adhere to professional conduct at all times,” Fox Sports president Eric Shanks wrote in an email to staffers, announcing Horowitz’s departure without citing a reason. “These values are non-negotiable.”
I hope the organization is open to shifting its direction under the next leader.
We don’t need more fire and fury from frenetic hosts in fabricated feuds, even though the genre clearly has an audience. ESPN reports that “First Take” with Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman just posted its best June in history (403,000 household impressions).
Horowitz was the architect at ESPN. He made “First Take” appointment viewing for some sports fans, background noise for others and an abomination for the rest
After leaving for Fox, he tried to replicate the formula by luring Bayless for “Undisputed” with Shannon Sharpe. Horowitz also paired Cowherd and Jason Whitlock for “Speak for Yourself.” The offshoots have struggled to compete. Bayless and Sharpe averaged 113,000 viewers for the first quarter of the 2017. Cowherd and Whitlock have drawn fewer than 50,000 viewers on occasion.
Unfortunately, wholesale changes are unlikely. Opinions delivered with volume are less costly then news gathering. Highlight shows have become nearly obsolete with the proliferation of mobile devices. Sports television has become increasingly dependent on personality-driven fare, with more stars debating the facts and fewer reporters gathering them.
The challenges for ESPN and FS1 aren’t unique to sports. Cord-cutting is an industry-wide problem, the equivalent of print journalism’s conundrum with the Internet. Answers don’t come easily. But Horowitz thought he had a solution to the traditional news and highlighting programming that filled the void between live games.
He envisioned sports talk fashioned after cable news programs like “Crossfire,” which aired on CNN from 1982 to 2005, and again from 2013 to 2015. The nightly current events show featured a liberal challenging the views of a conservative.
But such formats often award points for style over substance. And when commentators like Bayless and Cowherd sign contracts worth $6 million annually, theatrics are part of the deal.
Proponents argue that these programs are simply forums for debate. Comedian Jon Steward had the best counter, during a blistering appearance on “Crossfire” in 2004. His analogy works today for “First Take” or “Undisputed.”
Calling either a debate show is “like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.”
I say it’s better to be honest and call them what they are:
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.