ESPN awash in rising political tide

As public editor, I’ve referenced ESPN’s internal and external battles over politics and cultural coverage many times in the past 10 months. Despite public suggestions by some at ESPN that the issue is overblown, events on the ground constantly belie that claim.

This week’s nuclear example: The Monday tweetstorm by Jemele Hill -- co-host of ESPN’s heavily promoted 6 p.m. SportsCenter -- about President Donald Trump, with these two tweets drawing the most attention.

It wasn’t long before Hill’s comments departed the realm of social media and began to catch fire on conservative news sites. Presumably trying to get ahead of the issue, ESPN released this statement on Tuesday afternoon.

This statement made almost no one happy. To those who felt Hill should be fired for her comments, it was a mealy-mouthed half-apology with no real-life consequence. To those who supported Hill, it was ESPN caving in to those angered by Hill speaking what her supporters considered indisputable truths about the president. Hill didn’t add anything to the matter, tweeting a few times on Tuesday, but not about the growing controversy. Meanwhile, Hill, as scheduled, hosted Tuesday’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter with co-host Michael Smith.

But if ESPN was hoping the issue would blow over, Wednesday came as an unpleasant surprise. Instead of losing steam, Hill’s comments became a topic in the White House briefing room when, in response to a question from The Washington Post’s David Nakamura, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Hill’s comments were a “fireable offense.” (Putting aside the fact this is a somewhat remarkable statement coming from a White House about a private citizen’s employment status, it also almost surely guarantees Hill’s employment is safe for the time being.)

After the White House’s comment, ESPN coordinated another attempt at cleaning up the mess on Wednesday night, suggesting it might have realized it had blundered the first time around.

Hill went first, posting a statement on Twitter: “My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional."

Minutes later, ESPN issued its own statement: "Jemele has a right to her personal opinions, but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN. She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology."

This second round of statements were an improvement over the tentative, vague Tuesday versions, but it came too late to stop the bleeding. Friday morning, President Trump himself weighed in on -- where else? -- Twitter.

Wherever you come out on the issue of Hill’s tweets, it seems most agree on one thing: This controversy is a doozy, featuring a highly combustible mix of race, politics, freedom of speech and corporate policy. And, thus far, no one has come out of it unscathed.

But let’s look at the action that began it all: Hill’s tweets. Let’s dispense with the suspense: I think Hill made an error in judgment in those tweets. And, no, it's not specifically because of what she said; she is, of course, entitled to her opinions, and Hill’s opinion of President Trump is a mystery to precisely no one who has ever read her Twitter feed. And, no, it’s not because of the truthfulness -- or lack thereof -- of her statements, since, despite the claims of some, whether President Trump is a white supremacist is not something that can be stated with the same factual certainty as the sky being blue. It’s an opinion.

But even though Hill has a right to her opinion, and even though, as a commentator, she’s allowed to express opinions as part of her job, I still believe she erred by ignoring company guidelines and, as a result, put her employer in a difficult position. (In recent days, many have suggested that Hill owes ESPN nothing. But having talked to Hill a few times during my tenure about a wide range of topics, I think she’d be the first to say that’s not true.)

In the past year, ESPN’s internal and external political issues have been a hot topic, and one I have written about a few times. Yet it remains clear that the network is still publicly struggling to navigate the increasingly complex intersection of sports, politics and culture.

So, yes, Hill is a U.S. citizen who clearly cannot stand the president of her country. She’s far from alone in that view. But she’s also the high-profile host of a high-profile show on a high-profile network that is going through high-profile business and cultural challenges, and none of what’s happened the past few days has accrued or will accrue to ESPN’s benefit. With the salary and prominence ESPN provides Hill comes some responsibility to play by the network’s rules, and, in this case, she crossed the line set by management just five months ago, when ESPN released revised guidelines about political discussions.

Included in those guidelines was the following:

"The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions -- such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW. Other exceptions must be approved in advance by senior editorial management."

The tweet that Hill was responding to when she wrote her most noteworthy comments had nothing to do with sports. And for those who say that Hill’s personal Twitter account isn’t ESPN’s business -- and I have seen a few suggestions to that effect -- ESPN made it clear when I asked back in April that it considers social media accounts of its public-facing talent part of that policy. So although, in theory, Hill could have written a piece for The Undefeated that criticized the president -- with editorial oversight -- doing it on Twitter without a sports connection violated company guidelines, which also stipulate:

“The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.”

Now whether Hill violated this guideline is a tougher call. As I wrote in April, “What is a ‘personal attack’ and what’s considered ‘inflammatory’? As with many journalistic policy questions, those are subjective.” I stand by that. But while one’s definition of what is inflammatory or a personal attack depends to some extent on your world view, but it’s hard to argue that “white supremacist” isn’t pushing that line.

But here’s the thing: In newsrooms, guidelines exist to serve as a backstop for common sense. These were not tweets that served her or her employer well. And that’s why -- as someone responsible for judging decisions like this through a purely journalistic lens -- I think she made a mistake. It doesn’t have anything to do with my personal feelings about the president, my own life experiences, my opinion of Hill (who I think is a terrific talent) or anything else. I’m a public editor, not a public activist. In journalism, we’re expected to be cautious, thorough and thoughtful. And even though she is a commentator and not a news reporter, she’s still a journalist, and I don’t think she met that standard here.

And this isn’t Hill’s first brush with ESPN discipline, though, in fairness, the highest-profile one occurred almost a decade ago. In 2008, Hill wrote a column about the Celtics in which she said, “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." The Hitler reference drew ire -- as it usually does. ESPN suspended Hill for one week, after which she wrote an apology for ESPN’s Page 2. So, between that and this week’s events, it’s probable that Hill is on the hot seat.

But 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.

As to the larger question of ESPN’s overall political climate, I still stand by what I wrote late last year: If you consume as much of ESPN’s content as I have for the past 22 months, it seems clear the company leans left. 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.

But I still think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed if ESPN plans to better navigate the intersection of sports, politics and culture, and if it wants to hold onto a larger share of its audience in these days of unbundling. Bringing back Hank Williams Jr. for Monday Night Football isn’t the answer; the answer is improved ideological diversity in ESPN’s overall products.

This email from ESPN president John Skipper went out Friday afternoon to all employees:

I want to remind everyone about fundamental principles at ESPN.

ESPN is about sports. Last year, we broadcast over 16,000 sports events. We show highlights and report scores and tell stories and break down plays.

And we talk about sports all day every day. Of course, sports is intertwined with society and culture, so “sticking to sports” is not so simple. When athletes engage on issues or when protests happen in games, we cover, report and comment on that. We are, among other things, the largest, most accomplished and highly resourced sports news organization. We take great pride in our news organization.

We have programs on which we discuss and even debate sports, as well as the issues that intersect with sports. Fans themselves love to debate and discuss sports.

ESPN is not a political organization. Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express.

At the same time, ESPN has values. We are committed to inclusion and an environment of tolerance where everyone in a diverse work force has the equal opportunity to succeed. We consider this human, not political. Consequently, we insist that no one be denigrated for who they are including their gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual identity.

We have issues of significant debate in our country at this time. Our employees are citizens and appropriately want to participate in the public discussion. That can create a conflict for our public facing talent between their work and their personal points of view. Given this reality, we have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN. At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal.

We had a violation of those standards in recent days and our handling of this is a private matter. As always, in each circumstance we look to do what is best for our business.

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.

We also know that ESPN is a special place and that our success is based on you and your colleagues’ work. Let’s not let the public narrative re-write who we are or what we stand for. Let’s not be divided in that pursuit. I will need your support if we are to succeed.

More to come on this situation early next week. Many of you are raising questions on social media, and I'll address some of them then.