On Friday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted this: “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!” He was referring to comments made on Twitter earlier in the week by ESPN anchor Jemele Hill in which she labeled the President as – among other things – a “white supremacist.” Hill later apologized for airing her views publicly – and ESPN accepted that apology.
The White House weighed in when press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about it Friday.
“ESPN has been hypocritical,” she said. “They should hold anchors to a fair and consistent standard.”
But, the whole episode has re-ignited a debate about what the politics of ESPN are – and what they should be. It’s also reaffirmed how politics – and Trump – are inescapable in American culture at this moment, and how media companies (and the rest of us) are adjusting to that fact. There’s also, obviously, the element of race here. Hill, an African American woman, accused Trump of being a white nationalist. Trump, in his campaign and in his White House, has repeatedly dabbled in racially-coded language and sometimes overly apologetic language about white supremacists – most notably in his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In hopes of shedding some light on both of those points, I reached out to see if CNN media reporter Brian Stelter might have an email conversation with me about it all. He agreed. Our exchange – edited only lightly for flow – is below.
Chris: The whole back and forth between ESPN and Jemele Hill – and, now, Donald Trump – reinforces something that I think is super important: How EVERYTHING and EVERYONE has become political in the age of Trump.
I remember (I am old) when Michael Jordan reportedly refused to take a stance on anything even remotely political for fear it would hurt shoe sales. But, now, it’s surprising if LeBron James doesn’t say something about a major controversy like Charlottesville. (Remember, too, that he led his Cavs teammates in wearing “I can’t breathe” t-shirts during warmups in honor of Eric Garner.)
We also have football players – led by Colin Kaepernick – refusing to stand for the national anthem. And players on championship teams opting out of coming to the White House (with Trump in it) to be honored.
With everything so political, it seems to me that the media world has been slower to adjust to this new reality – and is still playing by the rules where sports and politics should never meet.
Where do you come down on it?
Brian: Whether or not Jordan ever really said “Republicans buy shoes, too,” the adage still rings in the ears of ESPN executives. The network is in an incredibly difficult position here. Millions of people – devoted Republicans and dedicated Democrats and lots of people who don’t care one bit about politics – turn on ESPN for games and highlights. ESPN execs know that. But they ALSO know that “stick to sports” is a hollow talking point.
You know it’s a popular line in conservative media circles – ESPN should just “stick to sports.” This argument has been going on for a couple years. “Stick to sports,” they say, don’t push your social justice agenda through your programming. But there’s a three-word comeback: “Sports is political.”
That’s been true for a long time. It’s true every time a city gives a tax break for a new stadium and every time an athlete takes a knee. It’s even more obvious right now, in the Trump age, when emotions and fears and resentments are running high.
But look, folks have been fighting about ESPN’s political bent for a while. I’ll leave that to the sports media critics. Going back to the difficult spot ESPN is in… even IF the network is able to produce an apolitical product every single day, free of any perceived political bias on the air … even if that is the IDEAL product, and I’m not saying it is … a tweetstorm by one of ESPN’s thousands of employees can still provoke a presidential response.
Chris: But, ESPN also – of late – appears to be embracing the need for personalities on its air. After jettisoning people like Bill Simmons for being too outspoken, it created this feature SportsCenter around Jemele Hill and Michael Smith for the very reason that they HAVE personality and are willing to stir it up. Ditto the (smart) move to give Scott Van Pelt his own dedicated hour in a midnight edition of SportsCenter.
In the age of Twitter, the highlight shows that ESPN built its brand on when I was in college – I used to watch SportsCenter reruns three to four times a day – are dying. It seems to me that only by embracing personalities and, excuse me for saying this but, #brands can ESPN transition to the new business model for TV and content more generally.
So, why does ESPN still act mostly like a monolithic, unfeeling Borg-like entity in an era in which everything is political?
Brian: Is ESPN acting like a monolith? I think they’re trying to be a middle of the road consumer brand… appealing to everybody… while staving off subscriber losses… while introducing the opinion heavy programming you’re describing. And those goals are occasionally in tension. When you employ lots of people for their opinions, they’re sometimes going to say things that shock and offend other people.
So Hill tweeted something – “Trump’s a white supremacist” – that is accepted wisdom among many of her fans, but unacceptable and unthinkable to many other folks. This is the kind of thing that violates social media guidelines at lots of media companies. But it happens from time to time.
So ESPN tried to stay on the middle of that aforementioned road … by disavowing her comment but declining to take dramatic disciplinary action … and the network satisfied absolutely no one. I suppose you could argue that ESPN should have encouraged her to have this debate on air – “Is Trump racist? Why do so many people think he is? Let’s talk about it.” But aren’t people turning on ESPN to hear about the Windians?
I don’t envy ESPN executives. This is tricky.
Chris: I think this point – “aren’t people turning on ESPN to hear about the Windians?” – is absolutely key. ESPN, I think, believes they are. I am less sure – though far from sure they’re wrong.
I compare it to my own experience in political journalism. For decade upon decade, political reporters studiously avoided putting any personality or tone into their articles for fear of being labeled “partisan” by one side or the other. I think that’s a totally outdated model. I think viewers/readers tune in to political journalism now to learn not just the facts and context but also a – for lack of a better word – “take” on why it matters and what is coming next.
If you break journalism into three basic buckets of “what”, “so what” and “now what” (“Pardon the Interruption” executive producer Erik Rydholm came up with that one) then I think lots of media companies are still WAY too tilted resource-wise (and mind-space-wise) to “what” when our readers/viewers want much more “so what” and “now what.”
When you hire people – like, presumably, Hill – to go beyond just the “what,” you have to accept they have views that might not align seamlessly with your corporate ethos.
Brian: Lemme pretend to be Tucker Carlson for a moment. Carlson and several other opinion hosts on Fox have been crusading against ESPN. I think Carlson would say: Sure, ESPN hosts should express their views, but there should be a greater number of conservative voices in key roles at the network.
And I think some – not all, but some – ESPN viewers only want the “now what” coverage to be about the Indians winning streak, not about the president.
Yet there are millions of other viewers who fully agree with Hill, who believe the President is a threat to the country, and who want to hear more from her about it.
I find myself wondering: How do we get the people who think Trump is a white supremacist and the people who think saying that is a “fireable offense” to hear each other? To understand each other? And is ESPN the right place to have that conversation?
Chris: I think that’s a good place to end. Always end on a question!
The only thing I’ll add: I think we have to have that very conversation wherever we can. Whether that’s on ESPN or a podcast about TV or a political blog. Because we live in such a fractured media environment, there’s nowhere we can convene a national conversation anymore. (Unless we can somehow have a national conversation about race via “Game of Thrones.”) Instead, we have to have a series of smaller conversations in whatever place or platform people are actually willing to listen – and not just turn the TV off or close the web browser.