ESPN Took The Easy Way Out On Jemele Hill Controversy

On Monday, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill posted a series of tweets that were sharply critical of President Trump and labeled him a white supremacist. Hill’s tweets were, naturally, met with significant backlash — the opening salvo came from Trump supporters, but as the controversy grew, so too did the list of people and administrations who admonished Hill. Things came to a head when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to Hill’s comments as a “fireable offense,” essentially calling for Hill’s ouster from ESPN.

That a Republican-helmed government entity saw fit to offer input into the personnel decisions of a private business is, of course, a perfect example of the selective nature by which the GOP adheres to the standards they espouse. Irony aside, however, this intrusion should be cause for alarm for anyone, not just for media employees and journalists.

As Paul Ryan and his ilk are so fond of saying, government shouldn’t play a role in private business; while I think there should be certain exceptions, the media is not one of them. In order for a press to operate freely and fairly, the firewall between journalistic or media outlets and the government should be considered sacrosanct. More to the point, why the hell does the White House care?

Since Trump’s inauguration, there has been no shortage of opinions about the various ways in which our Commander-in-Chief demeans the office of the President. This handwringing is most often seen when Trump attacks unsuspecting objects of his ire, using Twitter as a literal bully pulpit. Left unacknowledged are instances like the one we witnessed yesterday, where the White House calls for the firing of a media figure simply because the administration dislikes what they have to say. It may not be as attention-grabbing as, say, “Crazy Mika,” but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

It begs the question: What matters of national security, global stability, or other items of presidential importance are being mishandled or ignored in order for the administration to carve out enough time to settle the President’s personal business? And why is this behavior suddenly acceptable?

In March 2011, Donald Trump joined the ranks of the so-called “birther” conspiracy, echoing the long-held fringe sentiment that President Obama was not a natural-born citizen of the United States. The conspiracy itself has been repeatedly debunked, though for three years, President Obama himself remained mum.

Some took Obama’s silence as evidence of there being something more to the story; however, the more reasonable among us recognized the birther campaign as an old political move that dates back to the days of Lyndon Johnson. (LBJ once reportedly ordered his campaign staff to spread a rumor alleging that his opponent was a “pig-fucker”; his campaign manager responded “Lyndon, you know he doesn’t do that!” to which Johnson replied “I know. I just want to make him deny it.”)

When President Obama finally addressed the controversy and released his long-form birth certificate, did he publicly call for Trump’s firing from “The Apprentice” for publicly endorsing a vile, racist conspiracy theory? Did anyone in the Obama administration? No. Hell, even George W. Bush never concerned himself with the accusations from various media outlets that he is a war criminal. The office of the President of the United States has more important things to do with its time; at least, it used to.

To be fair, the Trump administration is not the only offender in this tale. The other is Hill’s employer, ESPN.

ESPN, the media monolith, could very easily have waved off this controversy, just as it did when its own personality Stephen A. Smith scoffed on Twitter at the accusation that Floyd Mayweather Jr. — a known batterer and abuser of women — had stolen the cell phone of one of his exes after physically assaulting her to prevent her calling for help.

The Worldwide Leader could have gone a step further by saying that Hill’s opinions are her own, and that the network does not wish to dictate what its employees think in their spare time. But though ESPN loves to pretend it is the premier name in sports journalism and broadcasting, it is little more than an advertising shop that happens to air sports.

So instead, ESPN abandoned Hill by offering an apology, putting its own interests ahead of the idea that what an employee thinks or does in their spare time is their own business. The network caved to pressure because it was the path of least resistance. Whether or not you agree with Hill’s statements, they should not be a fireable offense — she did not express her opinion while on air, nor did she use ESPN as a platform for her opinions. As a citizen of this country, Jemele Hill is entitled to her opinion, just as she is entitled to share it with whomever she pleases.

The most troubling aspect of the apology is ESPN’s concession that because Jemele Hill works for them, she is inextricably linked to their brand. Therefore, anything she says in her time as a private citizen can theoretically be tied back to the brand. With their apology, ESPN set the precedent that no matter who you are and no matter what you believe, your employer ought to be allowed to police your speech, even when you’re off the clock and at home. (The inimitable Charles P. Pierce wrote a great piece about this yesterday.)

Some have argued that there is a double standard at play; as evidence, they point to the firing of former commentator and once-upon-a-time athlete Curt Schilling, an outspoken conservative. But there is a clear difference — Schilling repeatedly took to social media to share, among other gems, a meme comparing Muslims to Nazis, and he was only fired after the network realized that the outrage generated by his constant racist and conservative tirades wasn’t worth the trouble for a guy who, by all accounts, sucked at his job.

Hill did not attack an entire class of people; she expressed her opinion about President Trump. You can argue the merits of Hill’s tweets, though the fact that her opinion has been supported by the actions of Trump himself might make that difficult. Donald Trump is not a class of citizen; he is not harmed by Hill’s assertion that he is a racist (a view already held by tens of millions of Americans). Anyone calling for her to be fired for expressing her opinion is doing so solely because they don’t like what she has to say.

ESPN could have defended Hill’s right to her beliefs; instead, they slunk away from a fight worth having. That’s what happens at the intersection of free speech and corporate interests.

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