ESPN's News and Opinionist Guru

ESPN's News and Opinionist Guru

ESPN

ESPN's News and Opinionist Guru

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Chuck Salituro, who, in disclosure, is a friend of my father’s as they’re both  Wisconsinite sports fans living in Connecticut, is celebrating his 25th anniversary at ESPN on February 7th. As this story will detail, he is revered by many of the reporters and opinionists he’s worked with as an editor in those years. Some testimonials of people he’s worked with are in the video above.

There’s a recurring bit on the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz where they talk about how you think of ESPN as this gargantuan institution, backed by Disney. But, they joke, in actuality it’s all just driven by Chuck Salituro on a bicycle in the basement of Bristol. He sends emails with “flashpoint” topic selection up and down the company all day and night and serves as something of a journalistic Yoda for opinionists, who rely on him to make sure their news arguments are on stable ground and to anticipate derivative reactions.

If there are any other topics or people that Tony Kornheiser, Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless (now at FS1), Keith Olbermann, Dan Le Batard, Jon “Stugotz” Weiner, and Will Cain universally agree upon, you can probably count them on one hand: But they all love Chuck Salituro.

Salituro contributes up and down the daily lineup, but his anchor property is First Take, where he’s been going to the morning meeting every day since 2013. He makes sure that everyone on the program is on top of all the details on news stories — what’s known, who first reported. Will Cain, a frequent contributor to the show, calls him an “advice-giver — a source of reason and experience.” Stephen A. Smith describes him as an editor, protective of both the talents and the ESPN brand, who’s about “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” adding that Salituro “always makes sure that we know the story, that we know all the angles, that we know all the information and the facts that are associated with each and every single story.”

“He doesn’t miss anything,” Smith says. “He’s on top of everything. He’s on top of the news, he’s on top of all the facts that are associated with the news — he’s on top of everything you can imagine … The greatest compliment that I can possibly give him is the mistakes that myself or anybody has ever made on that show — it certainly wasn’t because of him. It’s usually because we’re speaking extemporaneously and off the cuff. Sometimes we might ad-lib and feel the need to say something that we feel as opposed to just sticking to the information at hand — which happens with everyone when you’re talking.”

Skip Bayless says that, in all his years of working in media before ESPN, across six news papers, he’d never met a person with better journalistic instincts or a better person than Salituro: “It was just incredibly fulfilling to me to work on a daily basis with the best journalistic [instincts] coupled with the best heart I’d ever encountered in all my years.”

“Believe it or not, Chuck was a reason why it was so hard for me to leave ESPN,” Bayless says, of leaving for FS1 in 2016. “He really was a component. When I would make my list of pros and cons, it would always be a big con to leave because I wouldn’t be working with Chuck. Not that I don’t love my people here, because a lot of the people I worked closely with at ESPN are now at FS1, but I miss Chuck, and I do keep in touch with him on a personal level because I care about him and his wellbeing.”

Salituro graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1976. He had been sports editor at the Daily Cardinal and worked part-time for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, working on the copy desk and occasionally covering high school sports. After school, he got hired by the Milwaukee Journal where for a couple years he covered high school football and various oddball sports like fishing and bowling. In 1979, he was promoted to the Bill Cofield-era Badger basketball beat, did that for a couple years, and ultimately also added the UW football beat to his responsibilities.

Eventually he switched to Marquette hoops for two years, which at that point in time was still a more prestigious beat at the paper than Wisconsin football. Hank Raymonds was the coach, and Rick Majerus was an assistant with whom he had a good relationship. The program was seeking to live up to the Al McGuire era but couldn’t quite get there. “There was more an edge to it in covering a program that was trying to live up to its former coach,” Salituro says. There was a spell where players wouldn’t speak to him, and he says Majerus helped him through it.

In 1981, Salituro was given the Packers beat full-time. He replaced his friend Dave Begel on the beat, which he says made waves in the state. Salituro competed with Cliff Christl and Bob McGinn, who at the time were reporters at the Green Bay Press-Gazette (both of whom would later work under him at the Journal). “We respected each other as colleagues and friends, but we competed so hard every day,” Salituro says. “That was among the toughest competition I’ve ever had in my life.”

He was on the Packers beat, then as now far and away the most significant sports beat in the state regardless of their or any other teams’ performance, for four years — Bart Starr’s final three seasons as head coach, and Forrest Gregg’s first. In 1985, he was promoted to assistant sports editor, working with reporters on all the beats. In 1989, he became sports editor for about five years before he joined ESPN. He had a weekly Sunday column in his last two years in that position, and also appeared on local talk shows.

While he was sports editor and columnist, Salituro had some friction with then-Brewers owner Bud Selig, who became acting MLB commissioner in 1992. “I respected him — but Bud’s belief was Milwaukee was a small market, and regardless of the stakes we always had to consider that when we covered the team,” Salituro says. “My perspective was [that’s] true, but we can’t use that as an excuse for anything.”

Salituro clarifies that there weren’t any “big blowups,” but that as a columnist he was critical of some moves made by GM Sal Bando as the team had Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, but had a prolonged playoff drought following their 1982 World Series appearance (this was before the Wild Card era). Salituro also put his former rival Cliff Christl on the beat with the direction to cover the Brewers aggressively, like they did the Packers. “Yeah, Bud and I battled philosophically,” Salituro chuckles.

In 1994, John Walsh (who had a legendary 30-year run at ESPN), Vince Doria (who also had a long run, and prior to that had been executive editor at The National and sports editor of the Boston Globe), and Jim Cohen (who had a large role in launching Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, and Cold Pizza — which eventually morphed into First Take) were looking to beef up the news desk. Cohen had been Salituro’s boss at the Journal and Doria had familiarity with him from having been in the newspaper industry.

As Doria explains, ESPN had an assignment desk that handled clearance for various audio and video usage from local affiliates, arranged satellite time, and handled other technical work. “There’s a lot of responsibility for the job, but it wasn’t really a content job,” Doria says.

“Content was handled by the individual show units,” Doria continues. “They sort of did what they thought was right for their show. But ESPN and its various sub-networks were growing, there were more shows coming into being, and we thought we needed a news desk to sort of be the central vetting operation for the stories that we were going to report on-air, for direction for reporters, to achieve a consistency of what we were doing, to make sure that we were doing everything we could, not only to report the stories that we would generate, but to do further reporting on stories from other entities that were going to be reported. Do we want to report this? What exactly are we going to say?”

Keith Olbermann, via email, recalls being in the building the day Salituro got to Bristol. They quickly got along quite well. “In his first year, Chuck was still trying to put some editorial firewalls in place to preclude nonsense from getting on the air,” Olbermann writes. “Around then I got a call from a ballplayer friend who was a regular (and superb) source of mine and told me his team’s manager was being fired and he was giving me the exclusive. I called Chuck and he said while he didn’t know me that well, he was confident neither my source nor I were making it up, but because he just had to standardize the rules for all sourced stories, I needed a second source.”

“My player friend called back, saying — with real annoyance — that he was watching ESPN and hadn’t seen his ‘scoop’ mentioned. I explained it to him and he said, ‘The General Manager has called a team meeting in 25 minutes. I’m in the manager’s office. He’s putting his stuff in boxes. You hear that?’ He paused and I could hear wrapping tape coming off the roll. And then he shouted at the manager, ‘Can you be Olbermann’s second anonymous source on your own firing?’ and the manager laughed and said sure and ‘Hey Keith, sources close to me say I’ve been fired’ and I called Chuck back and Chuck laughed and only then did we put the story on.”

“So not long after, this rapport really helped,” Olbermann continues. “I walked in the day after the Simpson murders in ’94 when I took a peak at our 6:30 script and it read ‘O.J. is flying home to Chicago and police say they will talk to him after his return. He is, of course, not a suspect’ and my jaw dropped because I had worked seven years in LA and thus unlike everybody else in the non-LA part of sports, I knew firsthand what a bastard this guy was. So I went to Chuck and said ‘Don’t approve this script. Give me a chance to make a few calls’ and I guess he had come to respect my standards by then. I called a few LAPD guys I knew and some news people and came back and told them they had all said we couldn’t use any of the details, but, basically ‘not a suspect? He’s the only suspect!’ And Chuck managed to get all the sympathetic references to Simpson stripped out of the script. Pretty soon he was asking me very quietly to check Simpson scripts and call for background info.”

The news desk was growing fast and Salituro ultimately assumed managerial control. He worked with reporters in the bureaus — for example: Andrea Kremer in Chicago, Shelley Smith and Mark Schwarz in Los Angeles, Jeremy Schaap in Dallas and later New York — and coordinated with the assignment desk at how to integrate breaking news and “spot coverage” into all of the shows. He also worked with insiders like Chris Mortensen, John Clayton, and eventually Adam Schefter.

“We established what was called a hot list, which gave each show a list of stories they had to run, and how the reporting should be worded, particularly on sensitive stories,” says Vince Doria. “Chuck was the guy doing most of that.”

Salituro’s initial foray into opinionist consultancy came in 2010 after Tony Kornheiser was suspended for comments he made on his DC radio show about Hannah Storm’s wardrobe. Salituro became tasked with monitoring the show from Bristol, and served as sounding board counsel on various topics. Salituro relished this role outside of news filtration because it exposed him to Kornheiser’s wit and creativity, and Kornheiser was mutually appreciative. He said in an email: “In a time when newspapers are disappearing and honest news coverage is being discarded in favor of screaming and clicks, Chuck is the news conscience of ESPN, and therefore, more important than ever.”

Nevertheless, Salituro has not shied away from association with the screaming and clicks content, which from a business perspective is essential for ESPN and everyone else who must sustain in the sports media business. Rather, his role has evolved to provide the professional arguers with facts and perspective, particularly on sensitive stories.

Salituro got inserted into the First Take morning meetings after Rob Parker called RGIII a cornball brother in 2012, and right away developed a close, symbiotic relationship with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.

“Immediately, Stephen A. and Skip took to Chuck,” Doria says. “Tony, Stephen A., Skip, and Chuck all had newspaper backgrounds. They were kindred souls. He was somebody they respected and they could relate to easily.”

Soon thereafter, as ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Radio embraced debate up and down the lineup, Doria repositioned Salituro from the news desk manager into essentially being the debate czar across all properties, to vet arguments and ensure they were fact-based. “Chuck crafted the job,” says Doria. “He made it work because these guys saw him as a kindred spirit. He always had a great grasp of journalistic principles. He could see things [in advance] that would maybe be mistakes.”

One of the things that came up time and again was how much the opinionists appreciate that Salituro doesn’t exercise veto power. Olbermann, on working with him on commentaries for his ESPN2 show in 2013, writes, “His help was invaluable, and I can’t recall him ever pushing back against the commentary part, nor did I ever push back against him for any of the factual or editorial changes he suggested.” In Olbermann’s third run at the network, they continue to work together on SportsCenter commentaries, including one that will come out soon about Spring Training.

“And most importantly,” Olbermann writes. “I’ve worked with a lot of ‘fact professionals’ over the years and found a large percentage of them get very pedantic and have troubles with forest-versus-trees scenarios. Not Chuck. He won’t sell precision out, but he understands the dynamics of an operation like ESPN and starts with the premise that you work with him, not for him. It’s how you last and how you maintain friendships for a quarter century, and I admire him for both.”

Le Batard has a similar viewpoint: “He’s just a gentle conscience. If I’m afraid I’m going up against a line I shouldn’t be — he’s probably the only person in the company I’d call.” 

Bayless cannot recall Salituro ever being a “naysayer” or having had a “chilling effect” on topic selection. As Will Cain puts it, he doesn’t “wrangle” talents: “There’s so many words that I could choose, but they’d be inappropriate, because I don’t think Chuck wrangles me. I don’t think that Chuck wrangles Stephen A. or Dan Le Batard. I don’t think anybody could.”

“Chuck and I have different sensibilities, and different viewpoints, and different prisms through which we view the world, and it doesn’t matter,” Cain says. “In my case, it probably helps me. But I think the overarching thing of having … all of those big egos and all of those big opinions and all that big personality, and everyone respects him is really honestly self-proving. It becomes obvious.”

Salituro confirms that he’s “not in the opinion-changing business.” He added: “When I know what Skip or Stephen A. or Max [Kellerman’s] opinions are, I don’t try to change them. I want them to be as genuine as possible. What I try to do is provide them with how they can state their opinions as journalistically soundly as possible.”

An example of the tightrope that Salituro must walk as the intermediary between talents and suits: Last week, regarding the blown call that cost the Saints their season, Roger Goodell said (or, at least, appeared to say) that he’d talked to Sean Payton and Saints players about it. Saints receiver Michael Thomas disputed that he’d talked to them. It’s been established since the days of Bill Simmons that calling Goodell the L-Word is a third rail for ESPN’ers, but it’s nonetheless a topic that fans expect shows like First Take to be passionate about. It thus becomes a challenge for Salituro pertaining to the nuance of the wording the talents can and can’t use. Ultimately, the NFL “clarified” via ESPN reporter Mike Triplett that Goodell had in fact not talked to the players, and claimed there was a misunderstanding of the punctuation, which changed the meaning of what he said.

An obvious question that readers may have is how everyone here is praising the journalistic bona fides of an editor for a show like First Take, in which the hosts are frequently engaged in WWE-style feuds with athletes and/or fanbases. The answer, which may be satisfying to some but not others, is that there is something of a roving separation of church and state, wherein the actual sports conversations — legacy, trades, blame, credit, etc. — are the entertainment portion of the menu but the sensitive topics involving race, social justice, crime, etc. are treated with journalistic rigor.

“One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is I don’t necessarily have to agree with everything or endorse it, but I recognize that the landscape changed,” Salituro says. “One of the things I’ve prided myself on is my ability to adjust. Journalism in 2019 is different than it was even three years ago, let alone 5-10-15-20 years ago or in the 70s. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, but it is what it is and you try your best.”

He continues: “I try my best to keep them within parameters, to make them as compelling and journalistically sound as possible. I don’t agree with everything that’s said on the air, but I’m there to be somebody they can bounce something off of and provide boundaries when needed. We have discussions afterwards when things don’t go perfectly, but that was always the case, even before we got to this point. That’s what editors are there for.”

Salituro also went out of his way to praise Skip Bayless for his work ethic and also his understanding of how “flashpoint” topic selection drives engagement. “I loved working with Skip,” Salituro says. “I know what opinions people might have of Skip. No one works harder, no one is more locked in, and Skip taught me something about a term he calls ‘flashpoints’ — stories with flashpoints are what interest people these days. If you watch CNN or MSNBC every night as I do you see stories with flashpoints. That’s what people are talking about.”

There are a few ways that Salituro’s flashpoints permeate the company. Working under the content umbrella of ESPN VP Dave Roberts, he contributes to Get Up and 6PM SportsCenter. Get Up has its own staff that mostly works autonomously, but Salituro still provides some topic selection and will work with them to pivot on a dime if news breaks during the show, like Urban Meyer officially leaving Ohio State or Josh Gordon stepping away from the Patriots. With 6PM SportsCenter, you can see how over the past year it has evolved to look more like cable news, with flashpoint chyrons and Sage Steele and Kevin Negandhi soliciting thoughts on them from various reporters, analysts, and opinionists.

And then there’s the emailing. Salituro scours the planet day and night to send flashpoint topic selection emails across the company. They can come from everywhere: Internally, it could be a Schefter scoop or an Aaron Rodgers interview on Le Batard show that can be spun into discussion on another program, or it could come from the outside, such as Charles Barkley urging Adam Silver to block Anthony Davis from being traded to the Lakers.

While Dan Le Batard lovingly mocks Salituro’s relentless emailing on the show from time to time, he also appreciates it, noting that ESPN is so “sprawling” and has so many “tentacles” that Salituro effectively serves as an aggregate content center to see if they’ve missed anything.

Le Batard’s co-host, Jon “Stugotz” Weiner, appreciates how supportive Salituro has been of the show and the characters, and jokes endearingly, “As much as we love him, we’re concerned about Chuck! I’m telling you, I’ll get a buzz at 2:33 AM with some of the most meaningless — I wouldn’t even call it news! — at 3 AM you don’t need to send an email to the entire on-air staff that the Pelicans aren’t picking up a call [from the Lakers about Anthony Davis]. Go to sleep!”

Hence, the metaphor from the beginning where the two joke about Salituro keeping ESPN afloat on a stationary bike. Le Batard says he steers the ship with a “sound journalistic rudder” amidst all the noise, a survivor from when ESPN raided all the newspapers. Meanwhile, Stugotz counts Salituro as one of the three people on the planet who make him happy every time he sees them, along with Papi Le Batard and radio show contributor Greg Cote.

“He’s just evolved across many different generations of ESPN, and you’re not going to hear an unkind word about him,” Le Batard says. “He’s an ally, he’s a helper, and he’s not in it for any kind of glory. He’s not sitting here trying to get into the trade magazines or win awards or show you how much power he has as an executive … ESPN the Magazine exists in the form that it’s in, which isn’t the magazine heyday. We have some journalists — the Don Van Natta’s and the Outside the Lines — but many of the journalists have become like me — loud, court jester gasbags. That’s just not Chuck in any way.”

While the emailing can be manic, there is also a responsiveness level that is very much appreciated by those he works with. Stephen A. Smith said that the typical response time to a text message or email is “minutes at the most. Sometimes seconds.” The phone is nearly always answered, Smith says, and on the rare occasion it’s not, Salituro will call him back within a minute. Morning, day, or night. Once or twice, he says, it’s taken five minutes.

“He just cares,” Stephen A. Smith says. “When you’re successful in this business, it’s because you care to be successful. People can acquire a level of success in a fly-by-night fashion where BAM you’re on the scene et cetera, but in order to have any kind of sustained success in our business it can’t be a job to you. It’s got to be a livelihood. It’s got to be a career. It’s got to be something more than just punching a clock and doing your job. And that’s Chuck — he cares. He cares, tremendously so. Some would argue too much, but I don’t. I just think that when you consider what we have to do for a living: being in the public eye, having to deal with the things that we have to deal with, having to be under the microscope that we’re under. When you have somebody that’s off-camera, that’s behind the scenes, but cares about as much as you and cares about you as much as he does I just think that speaks volumes about the kind of man and the kind of professional that he is.”

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