Fox Sports 1, the upstart 24–7 sports network hellbent on challenging ESPN’s throne in the sports world, announced Thursday evening that it had hired veteran Republican communications strategist Frank Luntz as an on-air personality. Luntz, according to the network, will serve as FS1’s “exclusive sports communications analyst,” a role that will have him contributing to the network’s nightly news show, Fox Sports Live.
Luntz will anchor a segment called “Sound Off,” in which he’ll host pre-recorded focus groups polling fans on issues in the sports world. The panels seem to be an offshoot of the political focus groups Luntz conducted on Fox News as part of that network’s coverage of the 2012 elections (those segments were regular features after Republican primary debates). Fox Sports 1 sounds excited. Executive Vice President Scott Ackerman cited Luntz’s expertise “in reading between the lines and assessing the validity and sincerity of what people say,” which the network says he’ll use to measure America’s “sports pulse.”
“It may surprise people, but sports are my passion, and I love the excitement and intensity on and off the field,” Luntz said in the release. “There is a right way and a wrong way to communicate to viewers, fans and players, and I plan to bring analysis and accountability to the language of sports and those who play them.”
Accountability? From Frank Luntz? For whom?
Luntz has never been about “accountability.” His job is to help his clients spin their way out of accountability. The motto of his strategy firm, Luntz Global, is, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”
Luntz is the guy who helped Republican politicians re-brand many problematic political issues — he turned “global warming” into “climate change” and the estate tax into the “death tax,” to name just two. His sports work seems to follow his political persuasion. He’s worked as a consultant for the National Football League, appearing on ESPN to talk about how he’d manage communications around its ongoing concussion crisis (whether he was paid to work with the NFL on that issue remains unclear). He helped the National Hockey League sell its 2012 lockout of players — in which owners demanded salary reductions while claiming (probably mythical) financial hardship — to the public. And as we’ve reported here, he’s been working with the Washington Redskins to help the team and owner Daniel Snyder craft messages defending the team’s name, which many Native Americans want changed, since at least June 2013.
Will Fox Sports 1 disclose those potential conflicts to viewers? Will it tell Fox Sports Live fans exactly what they’re getting when Luntz steps on screen? Will it tell them that his work in the past has primarily been on behalf of sports leagues and their teams, not on benign issues but on some of the most charged debates of the day? If the release or the first segment was any indication, the answer is no.
Luntz debuted “Sound Off” on Thursday night’s edition of Fox Sports Live with segment asking his focus group participants if they would draft Michael Sam, the University of Missouri player who came out as gay this month, if they were an NFL general manager. That’s a pertinent question for actual NFL general managers and personnel, like Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who appeared on the show just ahead of Luntz’s first segment and told the network’s viewers that Sam’s on-field ability, not his sexual orientation, would determine how the Cowboys evaluate his draft potential. It’s unclear from watching the segment, however, why there’s any news value in asking fans what they think, because most of five-minute focus group featured fans concern-trolling about Sam as a locker room or media distraction (repeating the points anonymous NFL personnel made in Sports Illustrated but ignoring both what most players and executives have said, not to mention basic media dynamics of a story like this) while others argued that not drafting Sam based on sexual orientation would be discriminatory:
Watch that segment, and it’s hard to see much value for viewers. None of these fans are going to be in charge of drafting Mike Sam. Fans in general aren’t going to be in charge of drafting Mike Sam. Their opinions aren’t unique or particularly illuminating and they are largely irrelevant…unless, of course, you’re an NFL owner or general manager who might be interested in selecting Sam but have concerns about how your fans would react to an openly gay player. As it was, this segment acted almost as a free focus group for those NFL executives, a cost-free if brief look at what fans might think about the prospect of an openly gay player. If this were performance art meant to show us all how easily manipulated we are and that the concerns of certain anonymous NFL executives had more power than the on-the-record comments of dozens of players and NFL teams, it might be interesting. But it wasn’t presented that way, and given Luntz’s client history, it’s almost impossible to see it as anything else but as easy product placement for Luntz — who plugged his own firm at the end of the segment — and a free look for NFL general managers into what fans are thinking.
Luntz won’t be the first person in the sports media to provide vapid and irrelevant segments branded as “insight.” And he won’t be the first person in the sports media with inherent and existing conflicts of interest. The television sports media is in and of itself a conflict of interest. We task networks like Fox and ESPN (and CBS and NBC too) with both acting as business partners with major sports leagues and covering them as news organizations. That leads to some major problems, like ESPN’s decision to pull out of its production partnership with PBS Frontline on the (now award-winning) documentary League of Denial, which chronicled the NFL’s history of ignoring and actively disputing the dangers concussions posed to football players. And it leads to easy-to-make claims that those networks cover some leagues more favorably than others or, at times, don’t give us a full picture of what’s going on.
That’s not to condemn the journalistic work these networks and many of the journalists they employ produce, because most of them do a fine job balancing business goals with journalistic responsibilities most of the time. But if there’s anything the world of televised sports news doesn’t need, it’s another on-air personality willing to act as a house organ for the leagues he or she is supposed to be covering. Someone who freely admits that “there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate to viewers, fans, and players.” That’s code for selling something, and media outlets already rife with existing conflicts don’t need anyone else to help them sell anything on behalf of their business clients. Especially not on-air.
Unfortunately, if Luntz’s history in sports is any indication, that’s what we’re about to get.