New York Magazine: Why Jason Whitlock failed with Undefeated

Reeves Wiedeman of New York Magazine filed a long and extensive report of what happened with Jason Whitlock and his now past involvement with Undefeated.

Wiedeman writes:

On May 26, Skipper visited the Undefeated office to check up on the site. I was supposed to go to L.A. that week, too, after ESPN and Whitlock agreed to a profile of Whitlock and his site. I was to join Whitlock at an annual Memorial Day barbecue at his mother’s house, in Indianapolis, then fly on to Los Angeles, to visit the Undefeated’s office. My flights were booked when Whitlock called from an unknown number 12 hours before my departure. Half an hour later, he had uninvited me from both trips for reasons that were off the record, but did little to convince me that others I spoke to who have worked and interacted with him, at ESPN and elsewhere, were being overly harsh in describing him as paranoid, dismissive of young writers, and difficult to work with.

Perhaps Whitlock simply saw the writing on the wall: Three weeks after that call, Skipper removed Whitlock from the site he’d been hired to create, before that site had even launched. It’s difficult to say exactly why ESPN let Whitlock go. (Both sides declined to comment on the record for this story.) The Deadspin article was read throughout Bristol, but several people at the company said the problems had been well-known for some time. ESPN has so far insisted that both of its L.A. outposts have bright futures, though the trajectories of both are less clear without their founders at the helm. The Undefeated’s aborted lift-off is instructive in understanding both the difficulty of the task at hand — a massive sports media organization creating a website examining the most pressing social issue of the day — and the precarious position of such “affinity sites,” including Grantland and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, in the ESPN universe.

A telling passage:

But many black journalists were less than excited about the Undefeated. “Jason’s a great columnist, and columnists are supposed to elicit response, move the needle, so he can say whatever he wants,” one black journalist at ESPN told me. “But at what point does that disqualify you as a guy who’s gonna run a website that’s all about connecting with an audience that you’ve offended so many times?” When Whitlock’s hiring was announced, a number of ESPN employees went to Skipper and other executives to express reservations about Whitlock. One black editor at a prominent digital publication — many black journalists declined to speak on the record, citing some variation of the fact that, “This is a very small world, and we all have to work in it for another 30 years” — told me he viewed the site the same way he looked at Tyler Perry’s movies: Employed black writers were better than unemployed ones, but the site under Whitlock only seemed likely to set back to the cause.

And this:

Whitlock’s initial attempts to staff the site suggested as much, as he set about trying to hire everyone from traditional sports reporters to those who covered criminal justice. But he quickly found that many of his targets weren’t interested. Some were content in their jobs; others were hesitant about working for him. Resources were not a question — the site recently sent one of its reporters and a film crew to South Africa for a story on Josiah Thugwane, the country’s first black Olympic gold medalist — nor were salaries. Whitlock’s top target was Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlanticwriter whose “The Case for Reparations” Whitlock held up as the standard to which he wanted his site to aspire. Whitlock offered to triple Coates’s salary, but Coates still turned him down. A friend of Coates’s said the idea of potentially running such a site would have appealed to Coates, but he had little interest in working for Whitlock.

Many potential hires said they weren’t convinced they would be able to report and write the types of stories they wanted, and some were concerned that working for Whitlock would put them on the wrong side of history. Whitlock’s response to the protests in Baltimore had been to tweet that “Children need committed parents. Gotta rebuild the home,” and a few days later, he linked to an article arguing that the string of young black men killed by police had been an overhyped story, because almost as many people were killed each year by lightning strikes and dogs. “A lot of us feel as if we’re writing things at a particular moment in history that people are going to look back on, so it’s extremely important that the tone and confection of these pieces are right,” one reporter who covers race told me. “Being the guy in 1960 saying Martin Luther King Jr. was not all he’s cracked up to be would have gotten you a lot of newspaper readers, but it’s not about getting clicks now. It’s ‘Are these going to hold up to the scrutiny of history?’”

There’s much more. Still waiting to hear Whitlock’s version of what happened.


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