Why ESPN has to stand up for Jemele Hill

Sanders: ESPN host's tweet a 'fireable offense'
Sanders: ESPN host's tweet a 'fireable offense'

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Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: It's good that ESPN stands by its anchor Jamele Hill, despite Trump administration call for her firing
  • But ESPN should go further in face of this bullying: forcefully defend the free speech rights of its employees, he says

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)The White House's outrageous suggestion that ESPN sports anchor Jemele Hill should be fired for calling President Donald Trump on Twitter a "white supremacist" was reckless and probably futile. Hours after Trump's spokeswoman Sarah Sanders termed Hill's Twitter comments "a fireable offense," Hill was back on the air at ESPN, hosting the 6 p.m. show as usual.

Beyond the pale as it is, the overreach by the White House is wholly in keeping with Donald Trump's long history of suing, insulting or otherwise trying to punish journalists who say or write things he doesn't like.
Hill's tweet was harsh and to the point. "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists," she said. That's an oversimplification of Trump's long, troubled history of lending verbal aid and comfort to racists and extremists.
    From his years of promoting the racially tinged lie of birtherism to his string of inconsistent statements about ex-KKK leader David Duke and his equivocations about the torchlight march by racists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which one person died and many were injured, Trump has given us all reason to be concerned about his relationship to the poisonous ideology of white supremacy. I began calling it out publicly during the campaign.
    White House: ESPN host's tweets 'a fireable offense'
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    But a public discussion is more complex than any serious observer -- especially Hill, a sports commentator -- can cram into 140 characters. If a topic is serious enough to take up with an audience of thousands, it's serious enough to approach with care and conviction.
    Hill went off half-cocked, and later apologized: "My comments on Twitter expressed my personal belief. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional."
    That skirts the issue. Hill's apology was only to ESPN and her colleagues, not to Trump, which suggests that she does, in fact, consider the President a white supremacist, for which he has tried a ham-fisted form of retaliation.
    The attempt at payback is not surprising. Politicians have been trying in vain to silence negative commentary about them since the dawn of the republic.
    George Washington himself said in 1796 that one reason for not seeking a third term as president was that he was "disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers." Jefferson ruefully lamented that "the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers."
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    But Trump's history of lashing out at journalists takes him to a level never reached by his White House predecessors.
    As far back as 1979, he threatened to sue my friend and mentor, the late investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, and subtly tried to bribe him with an offer to help Wayne land a nice apartment in New York, Barrett said.
    Since then, Trump has frequently gone after individual journalists (as well as public figures) critical of him. According to the Columbia Journalism Review: "In the past decade alone, he's sued a former Times journalist who wrote a book about him that he later admitted he didn't even read; he's threatened to sue former 'View' host Rosie O'Donnell for allegations that have been shown over and over again during this campaign to be correct; he's sued HBO's Bill Maher over a joke bet that involved proving he was not, in fact, born an orangutan."
    Back in 2015, Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, famously threatened a young reporter pursuing a line of questioning Cohen wanted shut down. "I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we're in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don't have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know," Cohen said. "You're going to have judgments against you, so much money, you'll never know how to get out from underneath it."
    That threat turned out to be hot air: Cohen never sued the reporter or the Daily Beast.
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    But ESPN is more susceptible to pressure. "From 2015 to 2017, ESPN has seen its number of subscribers fall 7.4% to fewer than 88 million," according to Vanity Fair. "Its ratings have faced an even steeper decline, with average total viewers falling 19.2% from 2014 to 2016. Wall Street has noticed."
    Given that grim economic reality, it's no wonder that ESPN issued a bland statement dissociating itself from Hill's Twitter criticism of the President: "The comments on Twitter by Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes that her actions were inappropriate."
    It's fine for ESPN to stand by its anchor. But like any other news organization, ESPN should go further and forcefully defend the free speech rights of its employees.
    The White House should be told, in no uncertain terms, that who ESPN hires or fires will be determined by the company itself, not some outside politician. As in any case when dealing with a bully, the key to success is to stand up to the bully early and often.