ESPN Has Lost Its Way

ESPN logo spinning out of control

ESPN logo shown behind trees, lost in dark woods
On February 27, 1968, after returning from a tour of southeast Asian battlefields, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite ended his nightly broadcast with an uncharacteristic commentary. In just three minutes of prepared text, the iconic newsman told us that the war in Vietnam was “mired in a stalemate”, and was unwinnable. He called for a negotiated settlement rather than prolonged fighting. Following that broadcast, President Johnson, whose administration was already besieged by youthful anti-war protesters, told a White House aide, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” One month later, LBJ announced he would not seek re-election.   

Back then Cronkite affected public policy at a time when viewers could only watch three networks. There were no iPhones, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no YouTube. Today, television anchors have all of those platforms available to them, but utilizing social media to affect public policy requires serious journalists to do so responsibly. Last week, ESPN sports anchor Jemelle Hill failed in that regard. In broadly commenting on the state of race relations in America, and the disparities in our criminal justice system, Ms. Hill tweeted that President Donald Trump was “a white supremacist”, who surrounded himself with white supremacists. She also said a few other choice words about Mr. Trump.

Unlike Cronkite who cleared his commentary with the bosses at CBS, Ms. Hill went rogue on Twitter, and her viral tweet quickly polarized the nation. And, unlike Cronkite who criticized a presidential policy, Hill criticized presidential character. Yet it was not so much Hill’s words that kept the story on the front burner, as it was ESPN’s lack of action about those words.

Reacting to the tweet, White House press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Hill’s comments “outrageous”, and said they constituted a “fireable offense.” In an effort to pre-empt any such termination, the Rev. Al Sharpton warned that Hill’s firing would result in a nationwide boycott of the sports giant. Not surprisingly, ESPN decided to retain Ms. Hill, and do so without punishment.  In the end, this wasn’t about a woman of color calling her president a racist, it was about a liberal anchorwoman being protected by what used to be a non-partisan sports network, which has gradually morphed into a left-wing, politically correct broadcast outlet. That transition became overwhelmingly evident in 2012 with the firing of Rob Parker.     

Parker, a noted African American journalist, was participating in ESPN’s First Take panel discussion when he was asked to comment on the plight of Redskin’s rookie quarterback Robert Griffith. Rob then related feedback he had heard about the black QB from a gaggle of conservative black men who felt that RG3 was more focused on his brand than on his team. “The guys I talk to at the barbershop say he’s black, but that he’s not really down with the cause. He’s not the guy you’d want to hang out with. He’s a cornball brother.” That remark got Parker suspended for one month, during which time he made a public apology. However, after a month, ESPN fired the veteran columnist. Imagine that. A black journalist was fired for answering a question, and relating information he heard from conservative men of color about a black athlete.

Curt Schilling was another victim of ESPN’s left-wing agenda. Last year Schilling, a white conservative and former MLB pitcher, was fired after he took to Twitter to compare Islamic extremists to Nazis. He also weighed in on the transgender bathroom controversy, tweeting, “I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, the men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s, not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.” Schilling was naturally critical of ESPN then, and has renewed that criticism now that the liberal Ms. Hill has retained her job despite her divisive tweet. “Disney and ESPN have stopped giving all pretense of objectivity, and they support a very intolerant, exclusive, liberal agenda,” Schilling told FOX News. “I think some of the most racist people in sports are on the station there now, and they have a voice.”

Jared Max, a former ESPN contributor and now a FOX Sports commentator, believes Ms. Hill should have received the same treatment as conservative employees. In an interview with Howie Kurtz for “Media Buzz”, Max said, “First day on the job at ESPN, I was told, ‘You are no longer Jared Max. You are ESPN’s Jared Max. If you do anything stupid, you get into any kind of trouble…you’re ESPN’s Jared Max.’ Jemelle Hill knew the score. There have been policies issued by ESPN that stipulate: ‘Do not insert personal, political opinions. Do not take disparaging shots at politicians.’ ”

So clearly that policy has not been enforced (with Hill),” Kurtz said.

Max replied, “She has not removed her tweets about our president, which is outrageous. Many others have lost their jobs or been suspended for much less.”

;When ESPN first went on the air in 1979 they relied on freelance reporters to keep them flush with content, and I was proud to have served in that capacity. But, over time, I have become disappointed in ESPN for its blatant political prejudices, and willingness to put political correctness before everything else. The night they gave the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner instead of a teenager who battled cancer, I knew for certain that ESPN had lost its way. If Parker and Schilling were fired for making conservative statements, then Hill should have been fired for making a liberal one. Clearly, ESPN will never deserve to receive its own Courage Award.

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