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The Facts —
- ESPN President John Skipper wrote an email to employees on Friday, four days after ESPN anchor Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter.
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
He is unqualified and unfit to be president. He is not a leader. And if he were not white, he never would have been elected
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 12, 2017
- In the letter obtained by Sports Illustrated, Skipper discussed ESPN’s dedication to sports and covering the intersection of sports and culture.
“[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.
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.”
- Skipper also said ESPN would handle the media controversy surrounding Hill as a “private matter.”
“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.”
The Context —
- ESPN has not publicly announced what, if any, punishment Hill will receive.
- ESPN’s public relations Twitter account also released a statement regarding Hill:
ESPN Statement on Jemele Hill: pic.twitter.com/3kfexjx9zQ
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) September 12, 2017
- According to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in US politics, individual employees of Disney (ESPN’s parent company) and the company’s PACs donated nearly $1.1 million to political campaigns during the 2016 election cycle. Of that, the top three recipients were Hillary Clinton ($395,886), Bernie Sanders ($40,041), and Kamala Harris ($38,485).
- The top Republican recipient was Jeb Bush with $14,060 donated to his primary campaign.
- Donald Trump’s campaign received a total of $5,573.
The Politicization of ESPN —
- ESPN updated its policies in 2016, allowing on-air talent to interject personal beliefs. ESPN’s public editor, Jim Brady, wrote about the policy updates in December 2016.
“Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers — both liberal and conservative — that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.”
- Jemele Hill told The Ringer on 13 September:
“There’s a certain crop of people who’s not trying to see ESPN get more ethnic, more gender-balanced. As a discredit to all of us, they use words like too ‘liberal’ or too ‘politically correct.’ As if there’s ever been this widespread movement in television to just give black people and women shows. No, it’s been the exact opposite.”
- The New York Times reported, “An ESPN-commissioned study last October found that 28% of the network’s consumers believed it was politically biased, according to figures provided by ESPN. Of that 28%, 56% believed the network was biased in a liberal direction, while 37% said it was biased in a conservative direction.”
- In April 2017, Jim Brady followed up his previous work with another article about ESPN’s updated on air policy, “Like it or not, ESPN isn’t sticking to sports.”
- He explained that, by allowing anchors to interject political opinions, ESPN was reflecting the intersection of sports and culture, arguing that neither could exist in a vacuum.
“Those of you who have not held your tongue about ESPN’s move away from an all-sports-all-the-time mantra also should not hold your breath waiting for a change.
ESPN has made it clear: It’s not sticking to sports.”
- Brady also added that some ESPN employees are hesitant to support the company’s embrace of political issues.
“Many ESPN employees I talked to — including liberals and conservatives, most of whom preferred to speak on background — worry that the company’s politics have become a little too obvious, empowering those who feel as if they’re in line with the company’s position and driving underground those who don’t… If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers,’ one conservative ESPN employee said.”
- Veteran ESPN anchor Bob Ley told Brady:
“We’ve done a great job of diversity. But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
- In April, ESPN host Linda Cohn told the Bernie and Sid show that ESPN’s politicization has turned off some “core” viewers.
“I felt that the old-school viewers were put in a corner. And not appreciated with all these other changes. They forgot their core. You should never forget your core. And be grateful for your core group.”
Supporters of Hill and ESPN —
- Colin Kaepernick tweeted his support for Hill.
We are with you @jemelehill
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 13, 2017
- Golden State Warriors’ forward Kevin Durant told TMZ:
“I’m behind Jemele. I support her. That’s what it’s all about. She’s standing up for what she believes in. I’m with it.”
Critics of Hill and ESPN —
- President Trump responded to Hill’s comments with a tweet.
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
- Fox News host Tucker Carlson opened his program on 12 September saying that instead of “Entertainment and Sports Programming Network,” ESPN now stood for “Endless Stupid Political Nagging.”
- Former Major League Baseball player Johnny Damon told Fox News:
“I want to watch sports for sports… If ESPN turns into a political arena, I know a lot of people just won’t watch.”
William Spruance contributed to this report.