ESPN's "White Supremacist" Trump Uproar Is Only Beginning (Guest Column)

Robin Marchant/Getty Images
ESPN's 'SportsCenter' anchor Jemele Hill

The network’s fumbling response to Jemele Hill’s "white supremacist" comments expose its growing vulnerability, writes a top news analyst.

ESPN has rules for social media use by those it calls its “public-facing talent.”

Public facers are not supposed to represent themselves online in any way that contradicts or undercuts how they present themselves on air. Their social media presence must be a seamless extension of their on-camera presence. In the case of SportsCenter co-anchor Jemele Hill, if the producers at SC6 decide that it is taboo for her teleprompter to spell out the words “white supremacist,” as she did Sept. 11 when referring to Donald Trump, then the same rule applies for her tweetdeck.

These rules are the norm for most mass media organizations. They are logical and sensible. Not controversial.

For most journalists, the easy way to apply this rule of seamlessness is to use their Twitter feed in a reportorial tone of voice. Instead of using tweets for emotional personal expression, they are used for observation, analysis, insight, monitoring newsworthy developments, mostly confined to the reporters’ beat and their area of expertise. Thus the standard protocol for raising the possibility of Trump’s white supremacism would be, for example, to link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ persuasive essay published in The Atlantic last week, "The First White President," rather than flat-out label Trump a bigot, as Hill did.

No media organization would reprimand its reporters for raising the issue with such a link, and no reporter would have to apologize for doing so. In fact, it would have been an exemplary use of social media.

Such a protocol does not apply to Hill, however, since she is not a beat reporter. As ESPN ombudsman Jim Brady pointed out in his assessment of the brouhaha her tweets caused, she is an on-air commentator and as such “she is allowed to express opinions as part of her job.” Brady’s was an understatement: for Hill, expressing opinions is not allowed; it’s required.

As a commentator, her role has to be more personalized, less observational. On-air she speaks in the first person more than the third person, so obviously her social media persona must be an extension of that. For her, the rule of seamlessness requires that she project a persona that is fearless and outspoken. Furthermore, as Bryan Curtis explained in his profile of Hill and her co-anchor Michael Smith for The Ringer, the explicit remit of SC6 is to situate the day’s sports headlines in their cultural context. Thus Hill’s journalistic beat consists of the whole of popular culture.

So it is not clear at all that Hill violated that norm of seamlessness when she tweeted about Trump’s racial politics. Read her Sept. 13 apology carefully and you will see her make the distinction. She did not apologize for her multiple scathing characterizations of the President — not only did she accuse him of white supremacism, but she also leveled the same charge at many of his aides, and on top of that she called him ignorant…and offensive…and unqualified…and unfit…and a bigot…and incapable of leadership: “And if he were not white, he would never have been elected.” Her final sentiment, at least, is incontrovertible.

Her apology was of a different order. It was for making her personal beliefs public in such a way as to paint ESPN in “an unfair light.”

The explicit rule of ESPN that Hill violated states that political discussions should touch an a topic “related to a current issue impacting sports,” ombudsman Brady pointed out, which turns out to be a loophole large enough to fit an offensive lineman in. It was her implicit violation that caused all that trouble: she implied that white supremacism was ESPN’s considered editorial position with regard to the President.

In its official response to Hill, ESPN leaves us with confusion: does it believe Trump is not a white supremacist? or does it wish to have no opinion on the matter? Unofficially, you can bet that it would prefer to have no opinion and leave it at that.

This yearning for a safe harbor, unbuffeted by the winds of the culture wars, is a hallmark of the Disney Corporation writ large. Its theme parks seek to embody nothing but happiness. Its animated movies present relentless multicultural positive role models for wannabe princesses. Even its World News Tonight newscast on ABC downplays contentious, partisan issues such as health care and the environment and the economy, to focus on the weather and transportation accidents and true crime.

So, ESPN in its heyday was the quintessential safe harbor. Advertiser-friendly young men of all sociological stripes would tune in to watch the non-ideological worldwide leader in sports: white Southerners and urban blacks and Hispanic immigrants may vote differently, but they each found the same spot on the dial for their college football and NBA playoffs and major league baseball.

The Sept. 15 note by ESPN president John Skipper issued at the end of his controversial week dripped with nostalgia for this safe harbor: “ESPN is about sports. Last year, we broadcast 16,000 sporting events. We show highlights and report scores and tell stories and break down plays….” Only then did he admit that “of course, sports is intertwined with society and culture,” which was the point of hiring Hill for SC6 in the first place.

ESPN’s hegemony is now eroding. The fees it pays for rights to televise live action have eaten into its bottom line. Cord cutting is shrinking its audience. Price resistance is removing it from cable operators’ discounted skinny bundles for channels. ESPN is no longer Disney’s automated teller machine. It no longer has the swagger of a worldwide leader. This is the context with which to understand the confused reaction to Hill and her tweets: ESPN both wants to branch out to project a personalized, culturally grounded take on sports; simultaneously it wants to remain cocooned in the culturally noncommitted safe space of its glory days.

Yet the culture wars are spreading. Sports is being riven by the ideological fissures that split television journalism when Fox News arrived. ESPN has to address all those football fans who cannot imagine a team signing Colin Kaepernick at the same time as those fans who cannot tolerate his being blackballed. Imagine how differently the term “white supremacist” sounds to those two factions.

Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.