The NBA controversy in China this week over a tweet from a Houston Rockets executive has now affected America's leading sports network.
ESPN's critics have accused the company of kowtowing to Beijing by not discussing the politics at the heart of the country's showdown with the NBA. But a source at ESPN says it is simply following an editorial and programming strategy that focuses on sports, not politics.
The firestorm began over the weekend when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, prompting Chinese organizations and firms to suspend relationships with the American basketball league.
On Tuesday, sports blog Deadspin reported that Chuck Salituro, a senior news director at ESPN, issued a memo "mandating that any discussion of the Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues."
The memo "explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong," Deadspin's Laura Wagner reported.
That approach sparked a wave of disapproval of ESPN, owned by Disney.
"While the NBA finds its backbone to resist China's censorship, ESPN caves in, insisting that its journalists describe the controversy without mentioning the pro-democracy Hong Kong protests at its foundation," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted.
"This is pathetic. Yet another American company that's allowing China to dictate their actions," tweeted US Senator Rick Scott of Florida. "@espn (and it's parent company, @Disney) should use its platform to shine a light on Communist China's oppression of the people of Hong Kong, not shy away from it."
ESPN declined to comment. But a source at the network pushed back on the contention that it was doing anything surprising or unusual.
While there was no all-staff memo, there were a few guidance emails sent to key staffers, the source said. And the guidance was essentially a reminder to cover the NBA story through ESPN's typical sports lens, in line with what the network has been saying publicly for 18 months — that pure politics is not in its lane, but the intersection of politics and sports is.
This approach has been described as a no-pure-politics policy. It was instituted after a series of controversies involving ESPN and politics and ensuing debates about whether the network was turning off conservative sports fans.
When Jimmy Pitaro took over ESPN as its president in 2018, he sought to change what he called a "false narrative" about ESPN that portrayed the network as a "political organization."
Pitaro told the Washington Post that "I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely."