Brow Beat

“We Are Just Openly Shilling”

ESPN’s tongue bath for Disney+ is a fatal blow to the network’s vanishing integrity.

Photo illustration of the ESPN logo covered in Disney logos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Disney and ESPN.

Disney’s long-awaited streaming service Disney+ debuted Tuesday to tepid reviews from users who found the product glitchy and Star Wars enthusiasts confused by Greedo shouting “Maclunkey!” But in Bristol, Connecticut, home to Disney-owned ESPN, the sun was shining.

The Worldwide Leader, which has pointedly made a show of sticking to sports over the past year and a half under company president Jimmy Pitaro, has not done so this week. The halftime show of Monday night’s NFL game was given over to Scott Van Pelt to announce the launch of the streaming service. The “Top 10 Plays” segment on Tuesday morning’s SportsCenter featured only clips from The Simpsons, the first 30 seasons of which are featured on the app. On Golic and Wingo, Jason Fitz admitted to “openly shilling” as his partners, the Mikes Golic, delivered their NFL superlatives using Disney movie themes. On his radio show, Dan Le Batard expressed curiosity about the original content Disney was going to make. Hannah Storm shoehorned a plug for The Incredibles into her SportsCenter segment. SportsCenter hosts Cari Champion and David Lloyd even presented an E:60 piece by Jeremy Schaap about The Simpsons as if it were actual news. ESPN continued to plug the service throughout the day and during its evening college football and college basketball coverage.

Video by Dan McQuade

Meanwhile, Disney-paid ESPN reporters, perhaps not wanting to miss out on Bob Iger tapping his nose at them at a company party, took breaks from tracking the news on their beats to express reverence and excitement, and generally let their followers know just what a good deal Disney+ is:

If there was any hint of real shame in any of this, you could only detect it in those last two grimly identical tweets, which read as if they were composed by people who couldn’t be bothered to do more than copy and paste half-assed talking points.

This clumsy marketing blitz is an embarrassing exercise that turns ostensible reporters into stooges. It’s also a stark example of just how flimsy ESPN’s editorial vision has become.

It’s easy, and not altogether wrong, to point to ESPN’s groveling coverage of a streaming service as hypocritical, given the network’s highly public efforts to orient itself toward traditional sports coverage that focuses on sports and sports only. Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina did so, writing, “Funny how when Dan Le Batard mentioned that ‘Send her back’ chants are worrisome on his ESPN radio show, it caused a Code Red in Bristol because everyone is under strict orders to STICK TO SPORTS, but STICK TO SPORTS clearly goes out the window when you need to get $6.99 a month from people for a streaming service.” But the issue here isn’t quite hypocrisy: Pitaro has made clear that he wants to steer clear of politics (“politics” here meaning anything that would upset the kind of people who burn their Nikes while throwing tantrums over Colin Kaepernick), not The Simpsons. What the sweaty Disney+ promotions actually represent is a new inflection point in the network’s long, steady decline from legitimate if compromised journalistic institution to pure entertainment company.

Over the past few years, ESPN has downgraded or done away with a lot of what gave it a claim to being more than the marketing arm of the leagues, with which it has broadcast deals. It shuttered sports and culture site Grantland in 2015; laid off about 100 journalists in 2017; sold data analytics news site FiveThirtyEight to sibling ABC in 2018; killed off its print magazine earlier this year; and just last month cut Outside the Lines, its renowned investigative program, from daily to once a week. During this time, it has also been shedding what little respect it once had for basic journalistic ethics. Adrian Wojnarowski this year became a corporate shill for a watchmaker that is a main sponsor for the NBA, the league he covers. Ramona Shelburne wrote a long story about Kevin Durant’s ESPN+ show about Kevin Durant’s brand. Adam Schefter does ads for a main sponsor of the NFL, the league he covers. Jessica Mendoza actually works for the New York Mets, a team she covers as her role as Sunday Night Baseball analyst. And Pitaro himself has made it a top priority to cozy up to the NFL, a league that calls out for aggressive coverage now more than ever as it tries to screw dying former players and their families out of money they’re owed because of legal settlements. ESPN has always been compromised, but it at least used to try to grapple with those conflicts of interest. Now, it’s leading the charge to blur the line between journalism and advertising.

All of this, highlighted by the slobbering over Disney movies, is more or less disappointing for sports fans, depending on what kind of sports fans they are. But when taken along with local affiliates of Disney-owned ABC News all over the country turning their news channels into billboards for the streaming service, all plastering the same exact press release on their sites, it shows Disney executing an especially nasty trick: trading on the credibility of the news organizations it owns to make money, and turning them into in-house advertising firms in the process.

None of this is entirely unexpected. The PR campaign for Disney+ is so big that it has its own PR campaign. Disney exec Ricky Strauss bragged to the New York Times in late October, for example, that the rollout would be “a synergy campaign of a magnitude that is unprecedented in the history of the Walt Disney Company,” which is to say in world history. As the Times wrote:

Walt Disney World in Florida has more buses (many of which are being wrapped in Disney Plus ads) than the city of St. Louis. Disney Cruise Line carries more than 12,000 passengers at any given moment, and sneak-peek screenings of the Disney Plus show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” are being offered onboard. Disney Store locations, which still number in the hundreds, will host “pep rallies” for the series. Starting on Nov. 12, more than 7,000 of Disney’s retail employees will be wearing lanyards emblazoned with a QR code; shoppers can scan the code with their smartphones and connect directly to a Disney Plus sign-up page.

Plastering ads on buses and cruise ships and in stores to sell subscriptions is one thing—call it good marketing. Leveraging the credibility of reporters and journalistic organizations to do the same thing is something different. And when those reporters and journalistic organizations comply, it’s called selling out. In this case, ESPN sold out for no good reason: According to a UBS consumer poll reported by the Times, 86 percent of respondents had already heard of Disney+ by mid-October.

I asked ESPN about the fleet of precisely worded tweets ESPN reporters sent out Tuesday morning. Mike Soltys, a flack, issued a statement in response: “It is a major company initiative, and as part of that we provided accurate and useful information to our people, so that if they chose, they were able to inform fans about available content and products.” He declined to answer a follow-up question about who the information was provided to and who provided it. Several well-known ESPN employees told me they received no such information. One major on-air personality who wasn’t directed to hawk Disney+, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, wondered whether to read any implications from this into who the network considers top talent—the kind worthy of being sent “accurate and useful information” about major company initiatives.

Soltys also did not answer a question about how this cascade of cross-platform ads for a Disney streaming service fits with ESPN’s stated mission to cover sports. He wouldn’t say whether Disney had asked the network and its employees to promote Disney+.

But it doesn’t really matter if Disney asked or demanded that ESPN fall in line with the Disney+ hullabaloo, or just how strongly ESPN suggested to select talent that they direct their followers to buy Disney+. It probably doesn’t even matter if the voracious and all-consuming Disney is willing to destroy the credibility of news organizations to achieve corporate goals. What matters is that everyone—be it reporters or executives or people interested in watching The Mandalorian or sports fans who would just like to know about the Astros cheating scandal—is getting the message loud and clear.