ESPN navigating uncharted political, social and controversial waters

The uneasy relationship between Jemele Hill and ESPN spilled into public view again Monday, as the network suspended the SportsCenter anchor for two weeks after a series of tweets over the weekend in which she criticized a few NFL team owners and suggested a boycott of Dallas Cowboys advertisers.

ESPN announced the suspension with a Monday afternoon tweet.

While the statement wasn’t at all specific, it’s clear the tweets about an advertiser boycott were the trigger. It’s not hard to put the pieces together and interpret ESPN’s position: Hill’s mentioning of an advertiser boycott and criticism of league owners reflected negatively on ESPN, hence the suspension.

First, here are some of the tweets that sparked this latest controversy.

This is the second time in the past month that Hill’s tweets led to action on ESPN’s part. In a pair of tweets on Sept. 11, Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists” and “the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”

After those tweets, ESPN put out a statement criticizing Hill’s comments, and, the next day, Hill apologized -- not for her opinion but for putting ESPN in a bad position. But Hill didn’t miss a broadcast of SC6, and although the controversy stayed in the news for a few more days, eventually things returned to some semblance of uneasy normalcy.

As I wrote a few days after Hill’s tweets became a national controversy -- one stoked by Trump and the White House -- I believe she made a mistake. Although she’s a commentator, she’s also still a journalist. The job of a journalist is to present facts and let consumers come to their own conclusions, not to skip over that step by resorting to name-calling and inflammatory labels. Whatever one thinks of ESPN’s political and election guidelines, she also clearly violated the policy about avoiding political commentaries unless they are related to sports.

But when it comes to this latest action by ESPN, I am a bit perplexed.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand exactly what it is that upset ESPN about Hill’s actions: One of its highest-profile personalities suggested an advertiser boycott that would impact an important network partner, and she did so on Twitter, the same platform she used to call out Trump. And, make no mistake: Many of the NFL’s advertisers are also ESPN advertisers. Additionally, the calling for a boycott -- or, at least, a strong encouragement of it -- treads close to activism.

But it’s not the job of Hill -- or any other ESPN journalist, for that matter -- to concern herself with the network’s business relationships. In fact, the separation of “church and state” is a longstanding core concept in any news organization worth its salt. So it shouldn’t matter whether Hill’s comments put ESPN in a bad position with the NFL, any more than with the network’s excellent reporting on concussions that has done the same. I’m not suggesting that months long investigative reporting efforts and tweets are of equal importance; they’re not. But both should be treated the same when dealing with the impact on ESPN’s core business relationships.

ESPN has dozens of journalists who spend much of their time chasing stories that don’t reflect well on the network’s business partners, and the network has done a good job defending its journalists in those cases. That’s why the company’s reaction to Hill’s tweets should be worrisome to other journalists at the company.

Some may wonder why I would come down on Hill for her Trump tweets, yet not so much in this case. It’s simple: There’s a big difference between a journalist putting ESPN in a journalistic bind and putting it in a business bind. Hill’s Trump tweets were raw meat for those who feel ESPN has drifted too far left politically, and they raised questions about how far ESPN journalists should go when expressing their personal views. But Hill’s Sunday tweets trod into a sandbox journalists aren’t supposed to worry about -- the one that houses ESPN’s business relationships.

I’m also not sure what part of ESPN’s social media policy Hill violated. Her Trump tweets clearly violated ESPN’s political and election guidelines, which say ESPN journalists should not tweet about politics unless there’s a connection to sports. Many readers disagreed with my focus on those guidelines, suggesting it was akin to convicting Al Capone of tax evasion. But guidelines exist for a reason, frequently to serve as a backstop against overreach, and it’s clear to anyone who does an honest read of those guidelines that they were violated by the Trump tweets. Here, there’s nothing I can find that suggests Hill’s NFL tweets were in violation of any specific guideline.

The best clue to an answer comes from ESPN’s own statement, which said: “All employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences.”

My problem with the phrase “reflect negatively on ESPN” is, ironically, the same I had with Hill’s Trump tweets: It’s a generality in which specificity would serve everyone better. ESPN has created a guideline that’s so broad that almost any statement it chooses could be considered a violation. In the case of the Trump tweets, Hill could have known she was violating a specific company guideline. I’m not sure how she could have contemplated the same with Sunday’s tweets.

None of this means that it was necessarily a good idea for Hill to poke the bear, again. After all, it has been only a month since the Trump tweets that kicked off the first controversy, and -- even sans a clear policy that prohibited the most recent tweets -- it seems reasonable to assume that someone as smart as Hill understood the risk of suggesting a boycott of an ESPN business partner. In fact, she seemed to have recognized it by early Monday afternoon, when she tweeted: “Just so we're clear: I'm not advocating a NFL boycott.” But, by then, it was likely too late, based on the suspension announcement just a few hours later, probably because the Sunday tweets, if not calling for a boycott, certainly encouraged it.

That said, ESPN’s suspension of Hill might make boycotts more likely, at least based on the early public reaction to the network’s decision. More important, it also puts ESPN in a tough place, for a few reasons.

The first is that, despite issuing a statement, the network really hasn’t been transparent about why Hill was suspended, beyond the nebulous “reflect negatively on ESPN” language. If ESPN acted because she roiled a major partner, say so. If it did so because suggesting a boycott was viewed as a move out of journalism and into activism, say that. But, by being unspecific, ESPN lost any chance to get ahead of the PR mess it finds itself in -- again.

In the aftermath of the Trump-Hill controversy last month, ESPN President John Skipper sent a note to employees. It included this paragraph:

In light of recent events, we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.

Not long after, Skipper also sent a note to senior management that included this (emphasis mine):

Given recent events, below is a reminder about ESPN’s fundamental Principles:

    • ESPN is about sports

    • ESPN is not a political organization

    • We are committed to inclusion and an environment of tolerance, and find these values to be human, not political

    • Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express

    • However, we have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN

    • We are a journalistic organization and we should not do anything that undermines that position

    • We need to embrace that what makes us different is what makes us great as we seek to serve all sports fans

    • ESPN is a special place. Let’s not let the public narrative re-write who we are or what we stand for

Defending ESPN’s journalistic integrity and promising not to tell people what views to express are both completely logical and appropriate positions. But Hill’s suspension seems to suggest that journalists should consider ESPN’s business relationships before speaking out, and that, in turn, does undermine the independence of journalists.

There’s no question that the relationships between ESPN and its league partners are complicated, and that Skipper has one of the most difficult jobs in media. He should also be commended for being a major driver of ESPN’s efforts to expand its investigative and enterprise teams, and as I wrote in August, the network does produce an impressive amount of high-quality journalism. But one of the tests ESPN -- and every journalism organization -- faces each day is to make sure its business relationships don’t impact its journalism. In that regard, the lack of an explicit explanation is not a good look.

If creating problems for ESPN’s business partners is something the network expects to discipline its journalists for going forward -- although I sincerely do not believe it does -- those who work there have a right to know that via a clearly stated policy guideline. Because, as I stated in my last column:

In defense of Hill, she and all of ESPN’s public-facing employees have been put in a tough situation. ESPN, like all media companies, is grappling with new issues: Objectivity seems to be a dying ideal, and, in a crowded media environment, keeping your editorial volume at a moderate level isn’t always good for business. And, as I’ve written before, media companies are simultaneously asking many of their personalities to be active and engaging on social media but not partisan or opinionated. It’s a line that is, at best, blurry and, at worst, nonexistent.

ESPN's Dan Le Batard addressed Hill’s suspension on his radio show Tuesday, and he focused more on the platform than the statement: "If you’re going to get in trouble at ESPN, they’d prefer you get in trouble on their air -- at least things are vetted there,” he said. “Twitter has created something here where everyone’s got a voice on things that can be interpreted as political, and the company doesn’t want you in political waters on this stuff. ... Jemele Hill is not being suspended specifically for what she said. She’s being suspended for the same thing that got Curt Schilling fired [by ESPN], which is heading into these waters on Twitter.

“What she is punished for is not specifically what was said, but now she is a repeat offender in getting in trouble in social media. You’ve got to be careful about what you’re doing on social media now. Curt Schilling got fired not because of his politics... It was not his politics, it was that he kept doing it, kept giving these opinions outside of sports in places that were outside of ESPN. They told him to stop, he wouldn’t. Jemele Hill has walked into these waters before, and while you might not find what she said objectionable here, understand why it’s difficult for the business of ESPN."

Hill is clearly quite an engaging, thoughtful presence in social media, and her strong opinions and passion in expressing them are part of the reason she’s so popular. But, in an increasingly tense environment for political discussion within ESPN, it seems that the network’s goals to have strong, engaging voices on social media and to avoid political controversy are increasingly irreconcilable.

The Trump Tweets

Returning to my position on Hill’s Trump tweets, I did a lengthy Twitter Q&A after my previous column posted on ESPN.com. Beyond a few admittedly poorly worded tweets, I stand by my position. And I suspect that those who disagreed with me then still do now. But I want to use a forum that’s better for coherence than Twitter -- meaning, basically any -- to explain my position on objectivity and fact-based journalism a little more deeply.

My point of view on Hill’s “white supremacist” tweets is that it’s always a bad idea for journalists to use inflammatory labels when they can use facts to try to make their case. Despite the claims of some, I never defended Trump or even addressed whether he’s a white supremacist. I have no idea, since I’m not inside his brain. But there are things Trump has done that have provided evidence for that impression, such as his reaction to the Charlottesville riot, his embrace of birtherism, his being a defendant in a major rent discrimination lawsuit, his actions relating to the Central Park Five, etc.

But it’s not the job of journalists to skip past facts and go straight to inflammatory labels. We lay out facts and let consumers come to their own conclusions. We show a lack of respect for our consumers when we decide they need to be told what to think instead of letting them absorb agreed-upon facts and make their own call. Obviously, commentators such as Hill have more latitude than the average news reporter, but I still think that latitude ends before inflammatory labels are stated as indisputable facts.

If you think Trump is a white supremacist, that’s your right. But it doesn’t make it a fact, no matter how definitively you say so on Twitter. New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in a Sept. 18 column, wrote:

Is Trump himself a white supremacist? This question is almost unanswerable in the absolute, but there is mounting circumstantial evidence pointing in a most disquieting direction.

When journalists report on a trial, we don’t state the defendant is guilty because of “mounting circumstantial evidence.” We merely lay out what the evidence is, just as Blow did in his column. In the end, he concluded:

Either Trump is himself a white supremacist or he is a fan and defender of white supremacists, and I quite honestly am unable to separate the two designations.

That’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion, especially as it comes at the end of a thoughtful opinion piece. Ironically, Hill did the same before the tweets that got her in hot water. She laid out a series of facts about why she believes Trump is a white supremacist, but she did it in the disaggregated world of Twitter, where 140-character posts can easily be separated from broader, better-argued points. If Hill had stopped before the two tweets that got her in trouble, I am guessing she would have survived the scrutiny of ESPN -- not to mention Trump and the White House. “Show, don’t tell” is a time-honored journalistic cliché for a reason. If that makes me a dinosaur, proudly sign me up for T-rex duty.

The response of many to my stay-true-to-our-values argument is that this is a unique time and Trump is a unique president. Both statements may well be true -- and coverage of this administration acknowledges that every day. But there’s a difference between reporting on the uniqueness of an administration and changing longstanding journalistic practices in response to that uniqueness. The former means doing our jobs the way we always have; the latter means rethinking our values.

There’s a wonderful exchange in the film, “A Man for All Seasons,” that effectively sums up today’s journalistic challenge. It comes when Sir Thomas More -- imprisoned for refusing to take an oath declaring Henry VIII the head of the Church of England -- refuses to recommend the arrest of an enemy because he has broken no laws.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Journalism ethics are tested every day, and our ability to make an impact with our work depends on constantly passing those tests. This administration consistently and relentlessly attacks the media as dishonest and dangerous -- in fact, Trump himself has criticized both Hill and ESPN in various tweets over the past month. So, yes, this administration does indeed present unique challenges.

But the way to address those challenges isn’t to rethink our values, ethics and processes; it’s to put our heads down and do what journalists do. We report, find out what we can, share that information as widely as possible and let the natural order of things take its course. Skipping past that process to tell people what they ought to think is not what we do, as much as some would like to claim it is.