On the First Amendment, ESPN, & Modern Media

I don’t believe Jemele Hill should be fired for Tweeting Donald Trump was a white supremacist and for recently saying police officers are modern day slave catchers. I also don’t believe Curt Schilling should have been fired for what he said about the North Carolina transgender bathroom law or any of the other conservative political positions he’s adopted over the years. That’s because I’m a first amendment absolutist — the only two things I 100% believe in are the first amendment and boobs — who is also capable of doing something that most in modern media seem incapable of — distinguishing between a person’s public job and their private political beliefs. (Which are also public thanks to modern day social media.)

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s acknowledge an important fact — ESPN created this mess themselves by being overly solicitous of public opinion and caring so desperately about what people said about them on social media that they made a colossal error I see being repeated everywhere — they decided to police employee speech in an effort to avoid being criticized online.

One of the things I like to do in life is deconstruct how we get to the modern day disputes or conflicts we confront. If you’ve got a tough decision to make and don’t have very many good options, it’s probably because you made some bad decisions to get there in the first place. (This is why golf is a perfect metaphor for life. If you hit a bad shot your next shot is tougher. If you hit a good shot your next shot is easier. And to extend the metaphor ESPN president John Skipper hasn’t even been hitting the golf ball, he’s been swinging and missing in the tee box.)

So how did we reach the point where ESPN is having to issue this absurd and nonsensical statement?

“Jemele has a right to her personal opinions, but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN. She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology.”

What in the world does this statement even mean?

Let’s deconstruct it.

“Jemele has a right to her personal opinions” — that’s great, because otherwise she’d be a robot — “but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN.” What idiots saw those Tweets and thought she was speaking on behalf of ESPN? It’s not like she opened up SportsCenter by sticking up double middle fingers and saying, “Fuck you Donald Trump, you racist motherfucker.”

If she’d done that, I’d acknowledge that she was speaking on behalf of ESPN, but she didn’t use their network to broadcast her political beliefs. (You can argue that ESPN’s network has made people care about her opinions, but I find that argument nonsensical. Johnny Depp is famous because he plays Jack Sparrow — among other characters — in movies. Does that mean Disney is responsible when he says something stupid about politics? Of course not.)

What the second part of ESPN’s statement is essentially saying is that Jemele Hill can only have personal opinions in places where no one else can hear or see those personal opinions. She made her comments about Donald Trump on her personal Twitter page. Indeed, the only reason her speech is connected to ESPN at all is because, and this is an important part, ESPN set the precedent that they were in the business of policing political speech when they fired Curt Schilling for his political opinions.

So ESPN created the dynamic by which an individual’s political opinions are connected to the network and is now complaining about an individual’s political opinions being connected to the network. It’s mind boggling.

But this is what companies all over the country are doing in the age of social media.

Which leaves me with a big question no one else seems to be asking: when and why did so many people come to accept the proposition that companies are in any way endorsing the political speech of their individual employees when those employees make comments, political or otherwise, outside of work hours or outside of company business? Isn’t that a patently absurd idea? Hell, I don’t even speak for my entire household — my wife disagrees with well over half of all opinions I ever give — and I suspect that’s true for just about every person reading this column right now. If I tried to go on the radio tomorrow and say the Travis household believed anything my wife would be waiting for me with her hand on her hip the minute I got off the air. “I don’t agree with what you said at all!” she’d say.

Welcome to marriage.

Maybe some husbands still speak for their wives, but I sure as hell don’t.

And even if you do speak for your household, how many of you speak for your entire families at Thanksgiving? If your Thanksgiving Dinner is anything like mine, you have a vibrant cross section of political beliefs represented there. Good luck trying to hold a press conference after turkey is served and get your family to agree 100% on anything other than vacation days are better than work days.

So if we acknowledge that it would be absurd for any one of us to say we spoke for our entire family on political issues, how crazy is it for a company like ESPN to come to the conclusion that it has to be in the business of determining which political opinions are acceptable and unacceptable across their entire business?

ESPN shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what political opinions are appropriate and inappropriate, but when they fired Curt Schilling entirely for his political opinions nearly a year and a half ago they put themselves in the business of analyzing employee speech and determining what was permissible and what was impermissible. Rather than stand up to a left wing Internet mob that was upset with Schilling’s Facebook posts about transgender bathroom issues, ESPN could have simply said they disagreed with Schilling’s private beliefs, but didn’t believe those beliefs made him a bad baseball analyst.

After all, is there anyone out there who is going to trust Schilling’s opinion less on baseball because of his opinion on transgender bathroom issues? Every single person who is on air in any capacity in sports has an opinion on abortion. Mine is that abortion should be legal. You may disagree with that. But do any of you believe that my opinion on abortion makes me less qualified to have an opinion on who the best football team in the SEC is?

Of course not.

Despite what social media would have you believe, our political opinions don’t impact whether the vast majority of us are good or bad at our jobs. They are totally inconsequential.

So ESPN had an opportunity to establish an important precedent with Curt Schilling, they could have simply said this to the online social media mob: “While many of you on social media may find this shocking, we employ tens of thousands of people to talk and write and produce shows about sports. And not all of them have the exact same opinion about political issues. Rather than demand that our employees avoid discussing politics or having any opinions on important issues facing our country, we’ve instructed all of them that those political opinions should never appear on our airwaves. But in their private lives, they may advocate for whichever causes and opinions they deem just. What they believe in their private lives is not our business so long as they do good jobs at work. We’re in the business of sports, not politics.”

Boom.

This would have been a fantastic statement to make because it would have sent an important message — we all still have public and private lives. Left wing and right wing political junkies don’t need to police social media feeds to “catch” employees behaving inappropriately or sharing controversial opinions. Moreover, nor do any other employees. We don’t need modern day McCarthyism in this country. We need a robust marketplace of ideas, the full flourishing of political debate. (ESPN and other sports media employees receive more public attention for these issues, but tens of thousands of people across the country are fired every year for “offensive” Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat posts that go up in their free time. And almost no one questions that precedent at all. I think that’s insane.)

Once ESPN fired Curt Schilling, they set the precedent that they policed speech and from that point forward people have been waiting to see whether ESPN was biased in terms of the speech they police. That is, did they favor left wing speech over right wing speech?

And now that Jemele Hill has escaped punishment, it’s readily apparent that what I have been telling you for the past two years is true — ESPN supports left wing political speech and condemns right wing political speech.

Put plainly, that’s an untenable position.

I believe ESPN has two intelligent options in the wake of their collapsing brand and business —

1. Announce that henceforth they will not police speech that takes place off their airwaves or outside of their websites or print publications. That would leave people like Hill and Schilling free to advocate political causes they deem just in their spare time.

It would also leave ESPN out of the political business entirely and reestablish the principle that employees can have private lives that differ from their public life. A sports media member can be liberal or conservative or a radical moderate, there’s no need to worry about it because the entire spectrum of political belief, ideally, will be represented in a company.

I think that’s ESPN’s smartest option.

I’d also rehire Curt Schilling and apologize to him if I were them. This would go a long way towards ending the left wing narrative.

Their other option is this:

2. Announce that henceforth no employee at ESPN is allowed to publicly discuss politics on their social media feeds.

They can tell their employees that they pay them to talk about sports and if they want to spend their time advocating for political causes they can work elsewhere.

I think a lot of people would appreciate that position too, but I think it’s a more difficult position to adopt.

Otherwise ESPN is going to remain in an untenable position.

Because once you fire Curt Schilling for a conservative Facebook post, how can you allow Jemele Hill to retain her job for a far left wing baseless attack against Donald Trump. Remember, Hill didn’t just say Trump was a white supremacist she said, “if he were not white, he never would have been elected.” If a white person had Tweeted during Barack Obama’s presidency “if he were not black, he never would have been elected,” that white person would have been immediately fired.

Hill also said Trump was a white supremacist who had “largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” That’s just not true. Trump’s cabinet is made up of a black man, an Asian man, an Indian woman and multiple Jewish people. His daughter has converted to Judaism and many of his grandchildren are Jewish. Does that sound like someone who has largely surrounded himself with white supremacists?

It’s just a transparently stupid argument.

The ultimate truth of the matter is this — Jemele Hill kept her job and received no consequences for her speech because she has black privilege. She can call any white person she wants a racist and there are no consequences whatsoever for her. That’s because the way the modern media covers race issues today is stuck in 1968, only white people can be racist.

And there you have the biggest issue with ESPN’s response to Jemele Hill — they established that the rules of acceptable speech are different for a liberal black woman than they are for others in their company. They discriminated based on the content of the speech — liberal is allowed, conservative is not — and the color of the speaker. Which is, you know, racist.

Curt Schilling was fired for commenting on the North Carolina transgender bathroom bill, but he’s not alone. Doug Adler, an ESPN tennis analyst, was fired for saying the phrase guerrilla effect, as in guerrilla warfare, during the broadcast of a Venus Williams match.

ESPN said it sounded racist. Really.

Linda Cohn, a woman who has worked for 25 years at ESPN and done over 5,000 Sportscenters, was suspended for saying that ESPN shouldn’t talk about politics because it was bad for business. Yet Jemele Hill said the president was a white supremacist and so were his supporters — half the country, mind you! — and they didn’t do anything at all to her.

That’s because ESPN’s a left wing company and they protect left wing speech and punish right wing speech. That’s not just an insult to conservative viewers, it’s an insult to moderate viewers and to left-leaning viewers who haven’t succumbed to left wing hysteria too. Hell, it’s an insult to anyone who isn’t in the 25% of the country that believes Trump is a racist hell bent on destroying the country.

One of the biggest issues I have with the way speech is policed in this country today is that we’ve established rules that allow people of certain races or genders or religions or ethnicities or sexual persuasions to preface their speech with their titles as if they’re a member of royalty. Hence you will frequently read or hear someone say something like this, “As a transgender lesbian African-American woman of Jewish descent, I believe…”

Hold up, why does that entire preface matter? Why should I care about all those signifiers you just tossed out. Does it make your opinion any more or less valid? Not to me. America is not a country of royalty, yet this is our version of modern day titles, the 21st century equivalent of someone in old England saying, “As your majesty the royal courtier of St. James Palace and Duke of Edinborough sitting in perpetuity over the country of Wales and its principalities and derivative kingdoms forthwith, I believe….”

That’s why for years I’ve been mocking this by calling myself a gay Muslim on Twitter. Who has more freedom to tell the truth in liberal America than a gay Muslim? I’m the most discriminated person in the entire world!

ESPN has blown it yet again by adopting left wing politics over sane politics, but there is some consolation. Ultimately the market will decide these issues for ESPN if they don’t. And right now the market is soundly voting against the company’s left wing agenda. The business is collapsing and losing 10,000 subscribers a day. Within a few years ESPN will begin to lose money.

Why was Jemele Hill so angry that she lashed out at the president out of nowhere? Probably because the ratings for her show are awful.

On the three days before her Monday night tweetstorm attacking the president look at the ratings for her show compared to SportsCenter at the same time last year in the same week in 2016.

Wednesday

2016: 574,000

2017: 397,000

Thursday

2016: 537,000

2017: 457,000

Friday 

2016: 304,000

2017: 280,0000

Add it all up and that’s over a 20% ratings decline in one year, probably the worst ratings collapse in the nearly 40 year history of SportsCenter.

Jemele Hill’s opinion may be that the president is a white supremacist, but that’s just her idiotic opinion. The facts should be more alarming to her; people don’t enjoy watching her show on television. They’re abandoning her show in droves, at a rate never before seen in the modern history of ESPN.

But in the end this entire story may not matter very much when we reach the final chapter. And right now MSESPN’s the Titanic and they’ve already struck an iceberg. With this idiotic left wing leadership no matter what shows they put on, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The good ship MSESPN’s sinking, the only question left is how many get away on lifeboats before they drown. Jemele Hill’s attacks on Donald Trump weren’t about establishing her political opinions, they were a desperate cry for help from a non-sports network.

“Please,” she might as well have Tweeted, “save me from this disaster.”

 

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