The story of ESPN broadcaster Jemele Hill’s criticism of President Donald Trump has now become a story of ESPN’s management techniques and political philosophy, thanks to a second round of commentary from White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The background: on Monday, Hill called Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” ESPN apologized on Hill’s behalf, saying that her actions were “inappropriate.” On Wednesday, Sanders called Hill’s actions “a fireable offense,” and then on Friday, Trump himself jumped into the fray via Twitter, employing a bit of dubious reasoning in demanding an apology:
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
A reporter seized on Trump’s tweet Friday afternoon to ask whether the president would be apologizing for his own “untruth,” the idea that President Obama was born outside the United States. “I think the president has made plenty of comments on that front,” Sanders said, although the president has never actually apologized.
Sarah Sanders defends her claim yesterday that Jemele Hill should be fired from ESPN, calling for a 'fair and consistent standard' pic.twitter.com/pLBJR5ccEl
— Axios (@axios) September 15, 2017
Sanders, clearly prepared for a question on Hill, turned the discussion to a larger target: ESPN itself. “I think the point is that ESPN has been hypocritical,” she said. “They should hold anchors to a fair and consistent standard. ESPN suspended a longtime anchor Linda Cohn not too long ago for expressing a political viewpoint. The network’s public editor has said that there is a perception that ESPN has become political, and that has harmed the network. This [Hill’s tweets] is clearly a political statement. They should be consistent in whatever guidelines they have set themselves in that front.”
Sanders is fundamentally correct that ESPN hasn’t helped its own cause by appearing to be inconsistent with punishment. However, the Cohn situation isn’t as elementally political as she made it appear; Cohn appeared on a radio show in April and discussed the business back-workings of ESPN, noting that a perception of political bias “is definitely a percentage of [ESPN’s present struggles]. I don’t know how big a percentage. But if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”
Accounts of what happened next vary, with some outlets claiming Cohn was suspended and others saying she was given “a day off.” An ESPN source told Business Insider that the problem wasn’t so much Cohn’s political angle as her speculation on business issues.
Sanders tried to shut down any followup questions, but another reporter asked if she stood by her “fireable offense” commentary. “I do,” she said, “and I think they laid that out themselves by suspending one of their anchors for political comments.” The idea of the White House judging what should and shouldn’t constitute a “fireable offense” was worrisome enough that one political action group reported Sanders to the Office of Government Ethics for an alleged overreach of power:
— Scott Dworkin (@funder) September 15, 2017
Yes, we’re a long, long way from reporting the scores. This is the world we’re living in now, like it or not.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.