Dan Le Batard and the Twilight of the "Former Journalist" - The longtime ESPN radio and TV star is moving on, and with him the glory days of the sports network's talent strategy

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Dec 11, 2020, 5:32:20 PM12/11/20
It’s no surprise Dan Le Batard is leaving ESPN. The news was so
inevitable that if Le Batard saw it on a radio rundown, his own
contrarianism would make him pick a less obvious topic. Did you guys
see this Cris Collinsworth thing … ?

But his move is still revealing. When Jemele Hill made a Le Batard–
style leap to TV, she dubbed herself a “former journalist.” Former
journalists were print stars. A decade ago, in an odd twist of fate,
they were handed the keys to ESPN. Former journalists had the run of
the network; it was their playpen, their ATM machine. Not every former
journalist has left ESPN for Substack yet. But Le Batard’s exit makes
it clear their golden age is over.

In hindsight, it might seem obvious that ESPN would turn its creative
engines over to print veterans like Tony and Mike, Michael and Jemele,
Dan, Bomani, and Pablo, and the cast of Around the Horn. At the time,
it wasn’t obvious at all. It seemed kind of weird, like an inversion of
the typical TV hierarchy. That’s part of what made it so exhilarating.

Back in the ’90s, ESPN added news-breaking reporters like Chris
Mortensen and Ed Werder. Under former magazine publisher John Skipper,
who became ESPN’s president in 2012, the network hired more columnists.
The idea was that their clippings gave their TV opinions credibility
and weight. They could flash the names of their old newspapers like a
detective flashes a badge.

Hill, who was an Orlando Sentinel columnist before joining ESPN, was
once told by a producer: “I can’t teach you how to have an opinion. But
I can teach you how to be on TV.” Thus, a former journalist was born.

If ESPN filling its daypart with ex-writers wasn’t the obvious move, it
wasn’t clear writers wanted anything to do with ESPN, either. “Print
people did not want to be on TV,” said Hill. “We looked down at
television people. We considered ourselves to be the real intellectuals
and journalists, not people who were on television.”

In time, print people realized that to make seven figures they had to
(a) write the next Moneyball; or (b) find a TV gig that was less
embarrassing than the 11 p.m. sports. “Once people started to figure
out that with the radio and TV you can make a shitload of money, then
that’s what changed the game,” said Hill. “It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. I
can still write, but I can get paid a few thousand dollars on the side
to do television?’” According to the New York Post, Le Batard earned
about $3 million per year.

ESPN cast some of its former journalists as pure assholes. (In such
cases, there was a direct correlation with the writer’s eagerness to
first cast themself as an asshole in print.) Even so, the former
journalists’ salaries and reach grew massively.

A handful of former journalists found paradise. They got an ESPN show—
usually produced by Erik Rydholm—that was an extension of their
personality. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon got that kind of show.
So did Michael Smith and Hill, at least with His & Hers. Le Batard
might have discovered it in its truest, weirdest form.

Le Batard made his relationship with his dad, Gonzalo (a.k.a Papi), the
central conceit of a daily ESPN show. Highly Questionable’s other cast
members were people Le Batard called friends. The ethos of Le Batard’s
radio show, as described by TV writer Mike Schur, was “to mock the
concept of sports radio—to make you feel bad for ever liking sports
radio, or thinking it was worth your time.” The show’s brushback pitch
to the uninitiated—“You don’t get the show!”—was a reminder of just how
much Le Batard was getting away with.

Being a former journalist could be so fun that it disguised a few
things. One was that TV hosts got the glory of slinging opinions with
few of the messy side effects. “The truth is, I wasn’t writing pieces
and having to walk into a locker room every day and answer for what I
wrote,” said Hill. “I didn’t have to talk to any coaches or any

“Once you get to TV and you have so much more distance between the
people you’re actually talking about, you become an entertainer.”

Moreover, the TV hosts’ old papers were crumbling. Tim Cowlishaw has
noted that he beamed in to Around the Horn from a newsroom that was
being thinned by layoffs and buyouts. ESPN wasn’t just a final,
lucrative destination for newspaper writers anymore. It was becoming—
through its website, ESPN the Magazine, and later Grantland—one of
their few stable homes.

Then ESPN began to shrink. The decline of the cable model led to
several rounds of layoffs, the most recent of which claimed Le Batard
producer Chris Cote. (Le Batard, who called the way the network handled
the layoff “the greatest disrespect of my professional career,” gave
Cote a new job and paid the salary himself.)

After taking over in 2018, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, who may not
share Skipper’s interest in print stars, put guardrails on what his
hosts could talk about on-air. That caused an eruption from Le Batard,
who asked why he had to wait for an athlete to have a political opinion
before he could have one himself.

There’s a story about ESPN and politics there. There’s also a story
about control—a type of control ex-columnists weren’t used to at their
newspapers, much less at ESPN. In August, Le Batard lamented that ESPN
had cut an hour from his radio show just as the sports world was
dealing with the issues he specialized in. “Noon Eastern, beginning
Monday, Mike Greenberg,” he said. “I just want you to absorb that.”

Pitaro insists he values journalism, like Skipper. It’s more precise to
say Pitaro doesn’t put the same value on words—and, by extension, the
people that write them. Or wrote them. ESPN still offers great forums
to former journalists like Tony and Mike, Stephen A., and Woj. But when
ESPN goes searching for credibility and weight, it’s more likely to
seek out Peyton Manning than a columnist.

The twilight of the former journalist comes at a horribly ironic time.
The pandemic added 50 miles per hour to print’s rate of decline.
Writers are pivoting to Substack. To podcasting. To … well, if you have
another idea, be sure to tweet it out. Going multimedia is no longer
the capstone of a print career, as it was for Le Batard; it’s a way to
save your career from oblivion. These days, a former journalist is what
you call a journalist who needs a job.

Joe Biden went from stealing someone’s wife, to stealing speeches, to
stealing money, to stealing an election.

He has really grown as a politician.

-- Michael Moore

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