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Reimer: ESPN tries to appease its unappeasable critics with lame Jemele Hill apology

Alex Reimer
September 13, 2017 - 2:29 pm

ESPN’s decision to publicly admonish Jemele Hill for calling Donald Trump a white supremacist is an example of the crisis currently facing the network. Confronted with dwindling subscription numbers, and a catalog of conservative critics who blame the station’s decline on its alleged radical liberal bias, risk-averse executives are trying to appease their detractors. But the strategy is failing. Instead, ESPN is emboldening its agitators, while alienating others.

In a Twitter exchange Monday, Hill said President Trump is a “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” The outcry came swiftly. Clay Travis, who’s turned railing against “MSESPN” –– get it? –– into a cottage industry, called for Hill to be fired. 

“I like Jemele, think she's very talented. But @ESPN has fired conservatives for less than she Tweeted about Trump tonight,” he tweeted.

The pile on quickly ensued. My pal Gerry Callahan even joined the fray, calling Hill’s comment an “incendiary lie from a spoiled, pampered, self-important little brat with lousy ratings and gutless bosses.”

On Tuesday, those “gutless bosses” chided Hill for her commentary in a statement. “The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate,” it reads.

The finger-wagging only amplified the outrage. 

Critics lambasted ESPN for not reprimanding Hill more severely. Sideline reporter-turned-conservative firebrand Britt McHenry mocked her former employer, which laid her off earlier this year. “For those saying ‘that's not a ‘true statement.’ Yes, it is. I worked there and was reprimanded for conservative-leaning tweets I favorited,” she tweeted.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also weighed in, calling the pundit's words a "fireable offense."  

ESPN finds itself in the center of our culture war, often pilloried as representing the absolute worst of PC culture. It’s lumped in with the evil mainstream media such as CNN and the New York Times, whose journalists have been dubbed “enemies of the American people” by the President of the United States.

As political analyst Thomas Frank notes in his best-selling book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” modern-day conservatism thrives off the creation of a boogeyman. Though Republican leaders control the federal government and most state legislators, they must still find ways to propagate the culture wars that rile up their base. ESPN has emerged as the perfect punching bag. The omnipresent sports network routinely lauds social progressivism, most notably when it gave Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYs. The following year, it fired Curt Schilling for sharing an anti-transgender meme on Facebook.

Since then, Schilling has shrewdly portrayed himself as a victim of the militant left, proof that its mission to debase the white man is succeeding. Schilling’s dismissal is commonly cited as Exhibit A in the case to prove ESPN’s left-wing tilt.

“The consistent thing, of course, would be to fire (Hill),” Kirk Minihane tweeted in reference to Schilling. “That precedent has been set.”

There are differences between Schilling’s transgressions and Hill’s inflammatory political commentary. For starters, ESPN has changed its social media policy. Last year, the network issued a memo to employees, advising them to refrain from “political editorializing, personal attacks or ‘drive-by’ comments” regarding then-candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But this April, three months after Trump’s inauguration, the WorldWide Leader opened things up. Now, commentators are given leeway to express their views if the topic is “related to a current issue impacting sports.”

That’s a broad directive, considering almost every major political or social issue impacts athletes in some way. 

Schilling’s anti-transgender meme was also bigoted. The image featured a burly man dressed in drag, which is pretty much the most offensive stereotype of the transgender community. The writing plastered on the image was equally crass. "Let him in! To the restroom with your daughter or else you're a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving racist bigot who needs to die!,” the message says.

Thoughtful stuff.

Labeling Trump a white supremacist is a stretch, but there’s evidence that supports the gist of Hill’s polarizing speech. Trump refused to explicitly condemn neo-Nazism and other white nationalist hate groups after Charlottesville, blaming the violence on “both sides.” In addition, he’s surrounded himself with hoards of advisors whose policies are openly hostile to minorities: Attorney General Jeff Sessions (denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s due to accusations of racism), ex-chief strategist Steve Bannon (founder of Breitbart, the platform for the alt-right), senior advisor Stephen Miller (architect of the Muslim travel ban) and former advisor Sebastian Gorka (linked to a Hungarian neo-Nazi group) –– just to name a few. 

Trump’s personal history also reflects some prejudice towards African-Americans, or at least an appetite for exploiting it in others. Keep in mind, Trump’s political career was launched on the Birtherism lie, a myth invented to delegitimize the country’s first black president. 

But these dissimilarities largely go unnoticed in the outrage vacuum of social media. ESPN fired Schilling for his incendiary posts, and hasn’t disciplined Hill. It’s easy to point out the apparent double-standard.

So for ESPN’s detractors, the Hill condemnation didn’t go far enough. And for others, it was an example of an intimidated network abandoning one of its employees. Deadspin said the apology was “craven,” while GQ accused ESPN of placating Trump supporters. Author Jeff Pearlman went all-in, saying he’s “never seen a place with less courage than ESPN.”

Reality seldom changes preconceived narratives. It doesn’t matter that ESPN has brought back Obama-hating Hank Williams Jr. to play the “Monday Night Football” theme or hired Rex Ryan, who campaigned with Trump, as one of its lead NFL analysts. Much like CNN and the New York Times, a certain segment of the population now considers it to be the enemy. Pandering statements aren’t going to change hearts and minds.

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