ESPN's Robert Lee Decision Should Be Wake-Up Call About the Perpetual Outrage Machines
Fringe voices shouldn't drive decision-making, even if they're loud.
ESPN has pulled announcer Robert Lee from doing the play-by-play at the University of Virginia's football home opener in Charlottesville this weekend. The channel says it made this decision while "the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name."
"In that moment it felt right to all parties," ESPN said in a statement. "It's a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play by play for a football game has become an issue." The outlet claims that the decision was mutual, and a network executive later commented that Lee could be "subjected to memes and jokes and who knows what else." The executive insists there were no "politically correct efforts" or race issues. "Just trying to be supportive of a young guy who felt it best to avoid the potential zoo," the executive wrote.
This ought to be a turning point in the debate over "PC culture." It raises the important question of how much it is the perception of potential outrage rather than the outrage itself that drives these disputes. Would there really have been enough anger over Lee announcing the UVa game to make removing him the more "politically correct" option?
Sure, there may have been some harmless jokes about his name, but so what? The ESPN executive said he was worried about memes, but ESPN loves memes and understands how trafficking in them can increase exposure and name recognition.
Someone, somewhere, might actually get mad about Lee's name. (Someone, somewhere, is always getting mad about everything.) But now people are mad that Lee isn't doing the play-by-play. (For a news organization to assume such a juicy piece of news wouldn't have leaked is naïve, to say the least.) The left-wing perpetual outrage machine has sparked a resurgence in the right-wing outrage machine, which is now running through the "ESPN pulled an Asian Robert Lee from Charlottesville" cycle.
Here's a better approach: Don't make decisions like this based on the memes people might pass around on Facebook. The outrage machines are noisy, but that doesn't mean they're big. A wise media outlet will never assume that the loudest voices are the most popular ones.