Why Was the New York Times the Bearer of Bad News on Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock?

Ryan Glasspiegel
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Last week, for the second Friday in just over a month, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times broke major news about ESPN. The removal of Jason Whitlock as head of The Undefeated — a website nearly two years in the making since his return to ESPN in August 2013 — was a media shocker, though not quite on par with the stunning public execution of his colleague, Bill Simmons. The Whitlock news leaked shortly before the formal PR announcement. Whitlock will stay at ESPN to write and do some TV and radio appearances, but his wings have been clipped.

From an inside-media perspective, it was compelling that Sandomir and the New York Times, his home for nearly 25 years, were a common thread. In early April, Sandomir wrote a generally positive piece on Jason Whitlock and The Undefeated. While the story did acknowledge Greg Howard of Deadspin’s June 2014 missive (a second one, which was almost certainly the death blow, would come less than a month after the Times piece), as well as an allusion to Whitlock’s past dismissal from ESPN, a bulk was comprised of quotes from Whitlock and network president John Skipper

The New York Times story on Whitlock from a couple months ago follows a regular framework for Sandomir. He doesn’t explicitly take one side or another with his prose, but uses quotes that tie together a narrative that ultimately paints the subject favorably. Skipper’s words from the piece may look strange in retrospect given that Whitlock’s out of the project two months later, but Sandomir hedged himself enough that none of his own text can really be picked out and used against him.

This type of Sandomir piece is not unique to ESPN — you’ll also see similar straight news items about ventures from FoxCBS, and NBC, complete with executive brand talk. While this is not to say that Sandomir is never critical of networks, his ire typically seems to be directed at individual broadcasts or announcers:

Sandomir wrote a piece on sports documentaries in March. While it covered the work of other networks, a majority was devoted to 30 for 30. Connor Schell of ESPN films was interviewed for the story, as were directors Jonathan Hock and Errol Morris. But, Simmons — a co-creator of the series — was not quoted or even mentioned by name. (In fairness, Sandomir did briefly reference Grantland in the documentary piece, and 30 for 30 in his eulogy of Simmons’ ESPN career.)

While this was in no way specifically directed at Sandomir, SI media reporter Richard Deitsch remarked in an appearance on Jason McIntyre’s radio show last month (49-minute mark): “[Simmons] was a founding member of 30 for 30 — even if ESPN PR wants to scrub him off of that.”

Sandomir, Simmons, and Whitlock all declined to comment for this piece.

Last November, Simmons and Schell appeared on a panel about storytelling, and it was largely about the documentary series they spearheaded together. On a tangent about biases in the media, Simmons said: “I think everybody has alliances. I think I’m transparent about mine, and it’s become part of what I write about. If you listen closely and read people, everybody’s got sources they protect.”

As Simmons alluded to on that panel, reporting is a relationship business. You can sense alliances in any number of transactional reports, especially on the NFL and the NBA. If one kept a scorecard, it would be fascinating to see which scoops from which agents, teams, and league offices most frequently go to which reporters. Unsurprisingly, you also see a lot of it in media reporting on media.

Sandomir, through his long tenure at the New York Times — which, for all real or perceived attrition, remains a preeminent national journalistic institution — has access to the most powerful network executives, and vice versa.

[Related: Jason Whitlock to Bill Simmons: “I’m Going to Be Doing a Black Grantland at ESPN]

Ostensibly firing Simmons through Sandomir and the Times was a Machiavellian move for ESPN to get out ahead of the story. By reporting the news without contacting Simmons first — the abruptness was so severe that he learned of his own effective firing on Twitter — Sandomir also ensured that he wouldn’t lose the scoop to somebody else. While the stakes were never this high, seeking confirmation from the subject has cost our site stories before (though I’ve also heard that we’ve been the recipients).

Amplifying one’s message through the New York Times, or other outlets of record, is hardly unique to sports media coverage. News of Simmons and Whitlock is broken by Sandomir presumably for a similar reason that NYT’ers were on-site in Switzerland for the FIFA arrests. Those reporters maintain that they followed a trail of bread crumbs — and that they did not receive a handout — but they were in the position because their individual work and prestige of their publication gave them some form of access. (It’s possible, though less likely, that Whitlock, and not someone up the ladder at ESPN, gave Sandomir the news before it was released by ESPN).

With Simmons, there were certainly broader issues at ESPN that led to his exit. It was a combination of resource allocation and insubordination, which we’ve covered ad nauseam. As we said earlier, the writing was on the wall with Whitlock when Deadspin’s Greg Howard wrote an extensive piece — his second major Whitlock takedown in under a year — that collected myriad audio and email correspondence, as well as multiple accounts, that portrayed him as an abrasive and overbearing manager. In one email, he likened himself to a head coach, whose orders should therefore be followed enthusiastically, which is an ill-advised leadership model to replicate with millenial writers and editors.

[Related: Bill Simmons Was the Subject of a Graduate Business School Study at Northwestern]

Many know that Whitlock has a lot of history with this site. A scorched-Earth Q&A with our founding editor Jason McIntyre got him fired from his first stint at ESPN, and his return was first reported here. Whitlock has publicly and privately praised and criticized our work. While this isn’t a defense of some of what was reported about him, nor to say I agree with everything he writes, I personally was rooting for Whitlock to succeed in fostering an evocative staff.

What Simmons achieved at Grantland and what Whitlock sought to do at The Undefeated was to employ dozens of writers at a living wage — subsidized by ESPN — and enable them to pursue original ideas without the burden of pandering to fickle Google and Facebook algorithms. The goal was to focus on building a community, rather than a vehicle to pad stats of mobile users who stop by for five seconds and never return. While ESPN president John Skipper says these sites are positioned to survive without their anchors, how many of these jobs will still exist a year or two from now?

While Whitlock remains at ESPN, it will be interesting to see where he fits in the fold going forward as a standalone personality. Will his columns be featured on the front of the web site, and get discussed through various television and radio platforms? Or, will he essentially be writing for an audience comprised mainly of his Twitter followers?

With both Simmons and Whitlock, a lot more than is currently out there transpired behind the scenes. Non-disparagement clauses ensure their sides of the story remain largely untold. And, again, their respective situations are vastly different. But, if and when they decide to talk to reporters, we’re all ears.

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