ESPN Flap Shows People Can’t Even Agree On What They’re Arguing Over In Trump Era – NPR
D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York
Race is again proving to be the sharpest dividing line of the Trump era.
This week, President Trump and conservatives went after ESPN, the cable sports network, for comments made by Jemele Hill, who hosts of one of the flagship SportsCenter shows.
It all started on Monday when Hill, who is black, tweeted in reply to someone else: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Hill’s comment a “fireable offense.”
Then, Trump himself weighed in on Twitter, calling on ESPN to “apologize for untruth” and claiming the network “is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers.”
ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017
There’s evidence that ESPN is not losing subscribers because of its politics. And it is very unusual for a White House to use the bully pulpit to call for the firing of someone at a private company because that person said something it didn’t like. (An anti-Trump Super PAC has brought an ethics complaint against Sanders, citing federal law that states executive branch employees cannot act “with the intent to influence, solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation, an employment decision or employment practice of any private entity.”)
But conservatives and some journalists even within the network have been unsettled by what they see as an increasingly liberal bent from the network’s commentators without balancing their perspectives.
Hill, who plays a dual role of host and commentator, has not been fired or suspended for her tweets. (In other tweets, she called Trump a bigot, who is “unqualified” and “unfit” to be president.)
The network said Hill’s comments were inappropriate and that it had talked to her. Hill put out a statement via Twitter apologizing — not for the content of the tweets — but for them being seen as a reflection of ESPN.
The network’s public editor, Jim Brady, wrote Friday that he thought the tweets were ill considered. For those who believe Twitter and the broadcast are separate, Brady points out that ESPN doesn’t view it that way. Like at other networks, public-facing employees’ Twitter feeds are considered reflective of the company they work for. And plenty of people have been fired for inflammatory comments on the medium.
The irony isn’t lost that the president is one person who hasn’t been punished for his own incendiary tweets.
Lacking ‘diversity of thought’?
Brady sees what happened as a bigger problem at ESPN. “If you consume as much of ESPN’s content as I have for the past 22 months, it seems clear the company leans left,” he added. “I don’t think anyone ever made an executive decision to go that route as much as the personalities the network has promoted into high-profile positions tend to be more liberal, and as their voices are amplified, the overall voice has shifted with it.”
ESPN veteran Bob Ley, host of the vaunted Outside the Lines program, told Brady in December, when Brady was exploring how ESPN was trying to adapt to current social and political upheaval, “We’ve done a great job of diversity. But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
Not too long ago, ESPN was facing criticism for its lack of diversity. There weren’t very many female anchors or people of color in front of the camera. And there certainly weren’t many black women on the air in prominent positions.
So the network set out to change that. Hill’s show, SC6, also known on the network as The Six, was part of that change. She hosts the show with Michael Smith, a former Boston Globe reporter, who is also black.
The show is different — intentionally so. It’s not the standard SportsCenter of highlights mixed in with anchor quips. Smith and Hill have a natural chemistry, express their opinions and mix in pop culture. That’s what ESPN wanted, and it knew what it was getting with Hill. She’s not someone in the traditional journalism mold; she has opinions, writes about them and expresses them on air sometimes while questioning professional athletes on her program or reacting to what she just heard.
She’s never shied away from sharing her perspectives. And, yes, that includes on race. That’s also gotten her in trouble before. ESPN suspended her in 2008 for writing that “rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It’s like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan.”
Hill, a Detroit native, wrote of her hatred of Boston: “Admittedly, to some degree it was about race. Detroit is 80 percent African-American, and as my colleague J.A. Adande stated in a fantastic piece on the Celtics earlier this season, the mostly white Celtics teams of the past had a tough time being accepted by black audiences. Boston was viewed by African-Americans as a racially intolerant city.”
She apologized then, writing, “I let you down. Just because I’m a black woman doesn’t mean I’ve got an automatic sensitivity chip for cultures outside of my own. Just because I’ve written extensively about race doesn’t render me incapable of making the same mistakes as the people I’ve written about.”
Almost a decade later, Hill is in hot water again for expressing a view felt by others, especially African Americans.
Conservatives, though, see the seeming slap on the wrist for Hill in this latest controversy as a double standard. They point to, as one example of ESPN’s inconsistency, Curt Schilling. The former Red Sox pitcher was fired last year as an analyst at ESPN for social media comments he made against transgender people.
“A man is a man no matter what they call themselves,” Schilling wrote. “I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, the men’s room was designed for penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.”
That was accompanied by a meme showing an overweight man dressed in women’s clothing, a wig and a shirt that showed his chest with the words: “LET HIM IN! to the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow-minded, judgmental, unloving racist bigot who needs to die.”
ESPN responded in that case by saying it was an “inclusive company” and fired Schilling.