Jemele Hill Dared ESPN to Fire Her. ESPN Blinked

When Jemele Hill, a SportsCenter anchor for the ESPN network, tweeted a message to the public that she thought President Trump was a “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists“, her action was no emotional spontaneous outburst made in an angry heat of the moment. It was cold calculation; a move made with the peculiar calculus of U.S. race politics in mind, where controversial tweets and blog posts by non-black reporters and anchors at ESPN earn swift dismissals and harsh rebukes from management, but similar screed from self-activist black reporters and anchors do not.

This sort of calculus has become tenable at ESPN because the network has embraced outspoken personalities of all persuasions in an effort to sustain waning viewership. Originally a network focused on just sporting event broadcasting and sports news reporting, ESPN has become instead more of an entertainment network–the “E” in ESPN for those readers too young to know what the acronym actually stands for. As Millennials and Gen-Y increasingly opt for selective Internet programming rather than expensive cable bundles, and sports leagues offer their own events in alternative formats, ESPN (and in turn  Walt Disney Co.) has been in a race to generate sticky content that will attract additional subscribers.

Content generated by ESPN blogs and programs like Five Thirty Eight, The Undefeated, E:60, Outside the Lines, Grantland, Mike & Mike, First Take, Around the Horn, and 30 for 30, all offer opinion-laden and often self-righteous blather that often preaches to niche audiences that ESPN is hoping in aggregate to build into a sustainable viewer-ship and to head off similar programming from competitors like Fox Sports and Comcast Sports.

Whether the current U.S. president is a bigot or white supremacist in fact if not through selective inaction is hardly the point. For the Walt Disney Co., the point is whether or not it wants its reporters and anchors making such statements as a matter of implied policy (1). For that matter, do the large media companies like Disney, Comcast, Viacom, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, and CBS Corporation want to be in the business of smearing public officials and unpopular public figures rather than just providing entertainment? Does this sort of thing make any business sense, where offending large swaths of potential subscribers runs full in the face of strategies intended on thwarting disruptive technologies in the offering of content?

Jemele Hill could care less about any of that. She’s betting that ESPN won’t dare to fire her (1), with the hope that such a public and outrageous comment will provide cover for more controversial statements to come, bringing additional attention to herself and her show. And if she gets a little perceived social justice along the way? That’s just gravy.

(1) One wonders if ESPN has been given a little too long of a leash by Disney and CEO Bob Iger, or if ESPN’s embracing of controversy is by design.

(2) Now that the White House has come out and suggested that Hill should be fired over her tweet, the odds that ESPN does so is close to zero.

9/19/17 update: ESPN’s president released new guidance after the Hill tweet that made it clear such tweets were against policy, although any terms of punishment for violating the policy were not specified.

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