The question isn’t why Jemele Hill said what she said. The question is why ESPN isn’t saying the same thing.
ESPN, which is not known for having the most perspicacious and nimble PR department, got into hot water again this week for its treatment of Sports Center host Jemele Hill. And the way in which it handled the situation raises some questions about ESPN’s perceived and actual roles in our media culture and what it owes the people, predominantly people of color, who make ESPN possible.
Now, this is a fact, as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post points out in a short but damning bill of particulars:
As a candidate for president, Donald Trump retweeted bogus statistics massively exaggerating the rate at which blacks murder whites. When asked about that move by then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump replied, “Bill, I didn’t tweet, I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert. … Am I going to check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people @realDonaldTrump. All it was is a retweet. It wasn’t from me.”
As a very public private citizen, Trump appealed for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York after the Central Park rape case made headlines. “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” wrote Trump in a 1989 ad that ran in various newspapers. The “Central Park Five” — a group of black and Latino teens — were later convicted of the crime, and years later exonerated. After the Central Park Five reached a settlement with the city in 2014, Trump wrote an opinion piece calling it a “disgrace.”
As a publicity-seeking reality TV star, Trump led the “birther” campaign against President Barack Obama, one of the most racist escapades in this century. As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump said in September 2016, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
As a brilliant self-taught campaign strategist, Trump said at his kickoff event, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Pressed later by CNN’s Don Lemon about the offensiveness of those comments, Trump responded, “Somebody’s doing the raping, Don.”
One could question whether it’s appropriate for Hill, who co-hosts a sports show that generally doesn’t touch on politics, to raise that point, at least on company time, but, yes, it’s a fact.
That fact notwithstanding, the right-wing media Wurlitzer picked up on the item and started demanding that Hill be fired. ESPN publicly went only so far as to issue a statement Tuesday saying only that
The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.
But Hill’s fact drew the attention of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who declared on Wednesday that Hill’s remarks constituted “a fireable offense” (video).
(Fun fact: Title 18, Subsection 227 of the U.S. Code makes what Sanders did a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. She should go to prison. But I digress.)
While there’s no evidence in the public record that ESPN has threatened to fire Hill, we do know that the network intended to substitute for her in her regular 6 p.m. timeslot on Wednesday. And in a move that’s cynical even by the standards of cable networks, they tried to find another person of color to replace her.
At 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening, just three hours after the White House encouraged ESPN to fire her, Jemele Hill sat next to her co-host Michael Smith on the set of their daily SportsCenter show and, after a warm welcome to her live broadcast audience, began discussing the Cleveland Indians’ historic 21-game winning streak.
Hill — who was caught in the middle of a firestorm of controversy that began on Monday night when she tweeted that President Donald Trump was a white supremacist, which escalated when ESPN issued a statement on Tuesday reprimanding her comments and which exploded when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Hill’s tweets were a “fireable offense” — was calm and composed throughout the hour, and the show went on as usual.
However, two sources familiar with the situation told ThinkProgress that this was not the original plan.
ESPN originally tried to keep Hill off the air on Wednesday evening, but Smith refused to do the show without her, the sources said. Both sources also said that producers reached out to two other black ESPN hosts, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, to ask them to serve as fill-ins for the show — but Eaves and Duncan did not agree to take the place of Hill and Smith, either. …
Faced with the possibility of having to replace Hill and Smith with white co-hosts, the sources said, ESPN then called Hill and asked her to come back on her show.
(It’s worth noting that while Hill has apologized for putting ESPN in the position she did, she has stood by her remarks about Trump.)
Now, given a nascent revolt by announcers of color, one would think ESPN might rethink its position on this issue. And one would be wrong, even though I would argue that they should.
Because here’s the thing: Although most people see sports as entertainment — which is what the “E” in ESPN stands for — ESPN has fashioned and marketed itself as a journalism outlet. It also has executed some respectable journalism, too, particularly, although not exclusively, on the show “Outside the Lines.” And it takes itself seriously enough as a journalism outlet to have created the position of public editor. Typically, in a news outlet, the public editor, or ombudsman, advocates for the reader/viewer, seeking answers to questions that audiences have about coverage and explaining why the outlet does what it does from a journalistic standpoint.
The incumbent at ESPN is Jim Brady, and to judge from his tweets this week, he has not covered himself with glory on this issue. Give him credit for engaging deeply with his audience, but he’s trying to have it both way on the question of journalism and even on the question of whether Trump’s a white supremacist.
But here’s the thing: ESPN’s whole existence is based on athletes, particularly in major sports like football, basketball and baseball, who are disproportionately people of color. It can’t call itself a journalism outfit, and don the trappings of one, and then ignore societal conditions that place those people at a disadvantage, particularly when the president of the United States might be the most formidable obstacle to addressing those conditions.
Yeah, there probably are a lot of racist white people who watch ESPN, and with its audience already dwindling because of such factors as cable cutting and concern about brain injury in football, the network obviously doesn’t want to contribute further to the fall-off. But those people aren’t the only ones in ESPN’s audience; doesn’t it owe something to its audiences of color? Moreover, sometimes journalism means telling your audience something they need to know but don’t want to hear.
And yes, ESPN’s a business, and it doesn’t want to alienate advertisers when its audiences, which set the rates advertisers pay it, are dwindling. But you know what? Sometimes, if you’re a journalism outlet, you have to publish stuff your advertisers don’t like. Tough; they don’t get a vote in the newsroom (or, at least, they shouldn’t).
I don’t expect ESPN to report on, say, the crisis with North Korea. But many stories out there — immigration and race relations (which are related), to name just two — offer ESPN a way to carry out its journalistic mission while remaining true to its sports mission. It can report on the effects of trends and retrograde policies on athletes, coaches, and audiences of color. It can look into what led Las Vegas police to arrest and threaten to kill Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett when he and others in a crowd were fleeing gunshots. It can resist political pressure. As a network, it can do its job in a way that would lead Jemele Hill to think that anything she could add on Twitter would be superfluous. And if it’s going to continue to think of itself and market itself as being in the journalism bidness, that’s what it needs to do.