By:
July 13, 2021

Stephen A. Smith is one of the faces of ESPN. He is seemingly on all the time — from his daily show “First Take” to “SportsCenter” to the network’s coverage of, among other things, the NBA.

He can be smart, loud, self-assured, fearless, funny and entertaining. All those things make Smith among the most popular and polarizing personalities on ESPN. And while Smith has his haters, I find him enjoyable to watch.

But among the pitfalls of being on the air constantly and feeling the pressure to be provocative and relevant — and earn every dollar of a reported $12 million salary — is that sometimes your “hot take” will get you burned. On Monday morning’s “First Take,” Smith’s comments about baseball star Shohei Ohtani drew more than a difference of opinion. They crossed a line and, ultimately, forced Smith to apologize Monday evening.

So what did Smith say?

With the Major League Baseball All-Star Game set for tonight, Ohtani is the featured star because of his rare ability to both hit and pitch — something that draws comparisons to the legendary Babe Ruth. But Smith questioned whether Ohtani being the game’s marquee player is actually good for baseball.

“Not to me,” Smith said as he began his commentary.

Smith raved about Ohtani’s talent, but said Ohtani, who is from Japan, might not be good for the game because he typically doesn’t speak English when doing press conferences or interviews. He usually uses a translator.

“I understand that baseball is an international sport itself in terms of participation,” Smith said. “But when you talk about an audience, gravitating to the tube, or to the ballpark, I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying … in this country!”

Smith didn’t stop there. He took it further by suggesting Ohtani might be bad for baseball.

“The fact that you got a foreign player that doesn’t speak English,” Smith said, “that needs an interpreter, believe it or not, I think contributes to harming the game to some degree, when that’s your box-office appeal.”

He then compared baseball to other sports, saying, “In other sports like basketball, you notice Dirk Nowitzki was German and Manu Ginóbili and others were from other places, and guess what … they spoke fluent English. You understood what they were saying when somebody was interviewing them. They didn’t need an interpreter. It goes a long way. For some reason with Major League Baseball, you’ve got these guys that need those interpreters and I think that compromises the ability for them to ingratiate themselves with the American public, which is what we’re really talking about.”

At first, when early partial clips of the segment started trending on Twitter, I wanted to be careful not to take Smith’s comments out of context.

What exactly was he saying?

Was he saying that Americans weren’t going to embrace someone who doesn’t speak English? Was he making a commentary — and perhaps even being critical — about those who are xenophobic? Was he actually saying the problem was with small-minded Americans?

Whatever his point was, he badly bungled the delivery — and the message. He came off as the guy telling foreign players to “speak English” if they want to be accepted and truly represent a sports league in the U.S. And that is simply unacceptable.

The social media backlash was swift and strong enough that Smith took to Twitter to explain his comments. As someone who was willing to give Smith the benefit of the doubt, I watched his response and was more confused than before his explanation. He didn’t apologize for or even really clarify his comments. He simply repeated them and, in doing so, doubled down on what he said.

He closed by saying, “But in the United States, all I was saying is that when you’re a superstar, if you can speak the English language, then guess what? That’s going to make it that much easier and less challenging to promote the sport. That’s all I was saying about anybody.”

It did sound as if Smith was saying that Ohtani’s talent and personality aren’t good enough, that he needs to learn English — for his good and the good of baseball.

The Sporting News’ Joe Rivera wrote, “It’s shameful that anyone considers this a problem.” Deadspin’s Jon Helmkamp wrote, “Smith’s rhetoric is overtly racist, and came at a time where hate crimes against Asian-Americans are rampant. It is entirely unacceptable and irresponsible. This xenophobic language — claiming the face of baseball, by default, must be a white player — is dangerous.”

By Monday evening, Smith, perhaps seeing the overwhelmingly critical reaction to his comments, returned to Twitter and, this time, apologized.

In a statement, Smith said, “Let me apologize right now.”

Smith said he never intended to offend any community, especially the Asian community and Ohtani himself.

He wrote, “As an African-American, keenly aware of the damage stereotyping has done to many in this country, it should’ve elevated my sensitivities even more. Based on my words, I failed in that regard and it’s on me, and me alone!”

Smith went on to praise Ohtani again and added that he “screwed up.”

“In this day and age,” Smith wrote, “with all the violence being perpetrated against the Asian Community, my comments — albeit unintentional — were clearly insensitive and regrettable. There’s simply no other way to put it.”

Smith said he was sorry again and hinted that he will address the matter on this morning’s “First Take.” That’s a good step because this requires more explanation.

Fact-checking the former president

Donald Trump’s off-the-rails Sunday interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, which I wrote about in Monday’s newsletter, continues to have aftershocks.

And since Bartiromo couldn’t be bothered to fact-check the former president, CNN did. This clip shows Brianna Keilar and John Berman flagging 12 lies just about the Jan. 6 insurrection alone that Trump said during the interview with Bartiromo. This doesn’t even include all the other lies Trump said in the interview, including pushing false claims of a rigged election.

Meanwhile, in a piece for The Washington Post, media critic Erik Wemple brilliantly dissects Bartiromo’s role in the interview with “Maria Bartiromo’s top 10 fails.”

Wemple writes, “After six years of protracted network sycophancy, there should be little that’s shocking about a top Fox Newser laying out the welcome mat for Trump’s mendacity. Yet somehow there is.”

Castro joins NBC News

Julián Castro, right, joins Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Julián Castro has joined NBC News and MSNBC as a political analyst. The announcement was made on Monday’s “Morning Joe.” Castro is the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, the former mayor of San Antonio, and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Castro jumped right into his role, talking about a variety of issues, including the Texas voting bill.

“When you look at what Republicans are trying to do here in Texas, I mean, it’s all tied into hundreds of pieces of legislation across the country, whether we’re talking about Georgia, we’re talking about Arizona, other states and I see it as trying to push back on a changing Texas,” Castro said. “The demographics of Texas have been changing for a while, everybody knows that. In 2018, Republicans lost 12 state house seats. They lost two congressional seats. They lost two state senate seats. And this is an attempt to try and make sure that they stay in power longer.”

The union wave

Be sure to check out this excellent piece by my Poynter colleague Angela Fu: “Not just a wave, but a movement: journalists unionize at record numbers.”

Fu writes, “In the past decade, workers at news publications have launched more than 200 union drives, and over 90% of them have been successful.”

And the movement continues.

Fu writes, “Last year saw at least 37 union drives where journalists asked formally for union representation; all of them were successful. Workers this year have already organized at least 29 union drives in the first six months of 2021.”

Lots of good detail in Fu’s story, so give it a look.

A silver anniversary

MSNBC president Rashida Jones, center, laughs while talking with Andrea Mitchell, right, during a celebration of MSNBC’s 25th anniversary in Washington on Monday. (Courtesy: NBC News)

This week marks the 25th anniversary of MSNBC. On Monday, MSNBC president Rashida Jones and Cesar Conde, chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, celebrated the occasion at the Washington bureau of NBC News. They were joined by MSNBC Washington-based anchors Joy Reid, Andrea Mitchell, Kasie Hunt, Hallie Jackson, Tiffany Cross, and Geoff Bennett.

Jones told the group, “I really want to make sure we’re all focused on what’s to come because we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of exciting opportunities ahead. I’m pleased that we get to do it together but the focus is real. We’ll be sharing some exciting news on how we’re looking ahead, on streaming and digital, long form projects, and more.”

She added, “What’s most important to me is our culture and our culture of inclusion. Cesar, a year ago, launched the 50% Challenge, which we’ve all been working towards and continuing to make a priority. This is something that will continue to be a priority for us moving forward.”

Conde told those gathered, “We have gone through some very difficult times, but I really do believe that we are coming out of this stronger not just as individuals, not just as a team, but as a news organization. So as we celebrate this 25th year of MSNBC I know we’re going to have another great 25 years ahead of us.”

Whaaaaat?

What you are about to read is real. It really happened. Someone went on TV and actually said this.

Normally, I wouldn’t link to something said on Newsmax because the network hasn’t proven itself to be anything more than a mouthpiece for Donald Trump and wild conspiracy theories. It certainly can’t be taken seriously as a legitimate news outlet.

So why link to this? First, because of the outrageousness of what was said and, second and more importantly, because this is how some Americans think.

Newsmax’s Rob Schmitt said, “Obviously, I’m not a doctor but I’ve always thought about vaccines, and I always think about just nature, and the way everything works, and I feel like a vaccination in a weird way is just generally kind of going against nature. Like, I mean, if there is some disease out there — maybe there’s just an ebb and flow to life where something’s supposed to wipe out a certain amount of people, and that’s just kind of the way evolution goes. Vaccines kind of stand in the way of that.”

There was one thing Schmitt said that made perfect sense — the part where he said, “Obviously, I’m not a doctor.”

Media tidbits

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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