ESPN editor laments lack of diversity, resolves to hire more conservatives

Yes, you read the headline correctly.

An ESPN editor, in dealing with a Twitter storm and howls of outrage over hosts tweeting has come to the conclusion that ESPN lacks diversity…of conservative voices.

 

In the past year, ESPN’s internal and external political issues have been a hot topic, and one I have written about a few times. Yet it remains clear that the network is still publicly struggling to navigate the increasingly complex intersection of sports, politics and culture.

So, yes, Hill is a U.S. citizen who clearly cannot stand the president of her country. She’s far from alone in that view. But she’s also the high-profile host of a high-profile show on a high-profile network that is going through high-profile business and cultural challenges, and none of what’s happened the past few days has accrued or will accrue to ESPN’s benefit. With the salary and prominence ESPN provides Hill comes some responsibility to play by the network’s rules, and, in this case, she crossed the line set by management just five months ago, when ESPN released revised guidelines about political discussions.

Included in those guidelines was the following:

“The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions — such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW. Other exceptions must be approved in advance by senior editorial management.”

The tweet that Hill was responding to when she wrote her most noteworthy comments had nothing to do with politics. And for those who say that Hill’s personal Twitter account isn’t ESPN’s business — and I have seen a few suggestions to that effect — ESPN made it clear when I asked back in April that it considers social media accounts of its public-facing talent part of that policy. So although, in theory, Hill could have written a piece for The Undefeated that criticized the president – with editorial oversight — doing it on Twitter without a sports connection violated company guidelines, which also stipulate:

“The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.”

Now whether Hill violated this guideline is a tougher call. As I wrote in April, “What is a ‘personal attack’ and what’s considered ‘inflammatory’? As with many journalistic policy questions, those are subjective.” I stand by that. But while one’s definition of what is inflammatory or a personal attack depends to some extent on your world view, but it’s hard to argue that “white supremacist” isn’t pushing that line.

But here’s the thing: In newsrooms, guidelines exist to serve as a backstop for common sense. These were not tweets that served her or her employer well. And that’s why — as someone responsible for judging decisions like this through a purely journalistic lens – I think she made a mistake. It doesn’t have anything to do with my personal feelings about the president, my own life experiences, my opinion of Hill (who I think is a terrific talent) or anything else. I’m a public editor, not a public activist. In journalism, we’re expected to be cautious, thorough and thoughtful. And even though she is a commentator and not a news reporter, she’s still a journalist, and I don’t think she met that standard here.

And this isn’t Hill’s first brush with ESPN discipline, though, in fairness, the highest-profile one occurred almost a decade ago. In 2008, Hill wrote a column about the Celtics in which she said, “rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It’s like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan.” The Hitler reference drew ire — as it usually does. ESPN suspended Hill for one week, after which she wrote an apology for ESPN’s Page 2. So, between that and this week’s events, it’s probable that Hill is on the hot seat.

But in defense of Hill, she and all of ESPN’s public-facing employees have been put in a tough situation. ESPN, like all media companies, is grappling with new issues: Objectivity seems to be a dying ideal, and, in a crowded media environment, keeping your editorial volume at a moderate level isn’t always good for business. And, as I’ve written before, media companies are simultaneously asking many of their personalities to be active and engaging on social media but not partisan or opinionated. It’s a line that is, at best, blurry and, at worst, nonexistent.

As to the larger question of ESPN’s overall political climate, I still stand by what I wrote late last year: If you consume as much of ESPN’s content as I have for the past 22 months, it seems clear the company leans left. I don’t think anyone ever made an executive decision to go that route as much as the personalities the network has promoted into high-profile positions tend to be more liberal, and as their voices are amplified, the overall voice has shifted with it.

But I still think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed if ESPN plans to better navigate the intersection of sports, politics and culture, and if it wants to hold onto a larger share of its audience in these days of unbundling. Bringing back Hank Williams Jr. for Monday Night Football isn’t the answer; the answer is improved ideological diversity in ESPN’s overall products.

And that folks, is precisely the same problem that every media outlet in New Zealand faces.

Look at the line ups on most current affairs shows, news shows and talk back. There is no diversity and inside a year there will be even less.

 


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