ESPN, Twitter, and the myth of objectivity

Charles Pierce’s Sports Illustrated defense of Jemele Hill, the ESPN anchor who posted on her Twitter account that President Trump is a white supremacist surrounded by white supremacists, is a takedown of the news industry that is about as blistering as it gets.

Yesterday, a White House spokesperson said Hill should be fired for her point of view.

Gene Denby, NPR’s Code Switch blogger, recommended it via Twitter last night. You’ll have to forgive language used in the point he makes: “objectivity is bull****.”

I’ve stated as much in this space for years — without bovine references. Journalists are chasing an impossible ideal and, in the process, becoming timid in their coverage, unwilling to upset anyone and risk being called unobjective. The “brand” must be protected at whatever cost.

Here’s the money section of Pierce’s essay:

Suddenly, all of us had to be concerned about “the brand.” We were warned not to do anything that might damage “the brand.”

Often, “the brand” was camouflaged as the publication’s “credibility,” but anyone over the age of five knew that “credibility” translated into don’t write or say anything that might cost us a couple of dollars or get us screamed at by the talk-show lunatics on the radio.

I once was severely disciplined by my newspaper for having called Newt Gingrich “a doughy fraud” in another venue. I mean, honestly, if you can’t call a doughy fraud a doughy fraud, what the hell is the fun of being in showbiz?

We already have gone too far down the road on which our employers presume to have some sort of right to control us in our off hours. journalists, that ought to mean that our employers have no right to get hysterical for anything we write that’s outside the institution that pays our salary.

Writers think. Writers write. And, in 2017, that means that they share their thoughts in writing with the world in what has come to be the equivalent in cyberspace of the old town square. To threaten someone’s employment for something they wrote in their personal time just because it drew you some angry phone calls is not a labor strategy. It’s extortion.

So, in conclusion, and in the spirit of an earlier Boston alternative journalist named William Lloyd Garrison, who told a sleeping country, “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” So, in that spirit, let me say the following:

Jemele Hill is a tribute to the people who raised her and an ornament of great value to her profession.

The President of the United States is a white supremacist and a racist, just like his odious father was before him.

So, is there a problem with objectivity here? No, Denby argues after declaring the concept “B.S.”

Her bosses talked to Hill and told her the tweet in question was unacceptable. She has, judging by ESPN’s statement, seen the error of her ways.

That itself is not a neutral nor “objective’ stand, Denby argues.

“The idea that reporters should not explicate white supremacy in a conversation about elector politics is not a neutral decision,” he says. “Whiteness is not neutral. Neither is leaving it unexplicated. There are consequences for making it plain, and consequences for not doing so.”

Last evening, Hill issued this statement that sought to protect ESPN’s brand.

Her original tweet is still there.

From the archive: The ‘objectivity’ v. ‘fairness’ debate (NewsCut)

  • John

    I’m not sure if this is on topic enough, but I have a question:

    Did Trump effectively protect her employment by saying she should be fired?

    In other words, until Trump said she should be fired, ESPN more or less could have fired her with no issues – private company, no free speech guarantee, etc. Once DJT came out saying she should be fired because she said something mean about him, in my mind, as a government official saying she should be fired because of what she published, he crossed the first amendment line.

    I think ESPN wouldn’t be liable for it (maybe? this is new ground for me), but if they fired her, would she likely have a First Amendment claim against the government?

    • *ponder*

    • John

      update: Since (if I’m thinking about this right) ESPN wouldn’t be the one liable if she were to lose her job, maybe it’s less that Trump protected her employment, and more that he opened himself/the federal government up to the possibility of high profile litigation.

      • ESPN can do whatever they want with her for whatever reason they want to come up with.

        Now if the Trump administration were to, say, use the FCC to restrict the network’s ability to use public bandwidth over this, then I think there’d be an obvious issue. But Huckabee Sanders having a different opinion from Hill isn’t a violation of anything.

        • BJ

          >FCC to restrict the network’s ability to use public bandwidth

          I wonder if a simple inquire into how espn is licensed would be enough.

          • It’s not licensed as a station because it’s not an over the air product. It uses bandwidth and spectrum, however, in the transportation of video and material, however.

          • BJ

            Radio. They own a ton of Radio, right?

          • Beats me.

          • BJ

            Looks like they only own 4 currently, the rest (several hundred or more, to many to count) are affiliates.

          • Barton

            Yes, ESPN owns a ton of radio stations. “The ESPN radio network.” I hear it each week during the college football season.

    • Regardless of ESPN’s actions, she has a First Amendment claim against the Trump administration. Once again we see that GOP reverence for the Constitution begins and ends with the second half of the Second Amendment.

      • I don’t think she does. There was no law proposed or enacted infringing upon her right to speak. Sanders just exercised hers.

        • As a spokesperson for the President, her words are more than just opinion, unless she specifically stated that she was speaking in an unofficial capacity and that part of her statement is being left out. Sanders didn’t just say the statement was unacceptable, she said it was a “fireable offense.” I expect the ACLU to act on this and I will be disappointed if they don’t. This smells like the Trump administration trying to influence ESPN on the matter, and I don’t think that should be taken lightly.

          I do think the statement was foolish, if not particularly inaccurate. I also think that ESPN has the right to fire her if they choose to. Whatever they do, DJT should have no say in the matter.

      • Jim in RF

        Don’t think this has anything to do w/the First.

  • Barton

    Thanks for sharing.

    I think we are reaching the point that media figures (journalists, athletes, actors/actresses, musicians) aren’t allowed personal opinions separate from their perceived professional stance. And while that is sad, it is also something they’ve seemed to contribute to, as their twitter feeds (as an example) are an extension of their on camera personality for the most part. Many use them as networking tools, looking to get the next step up in the career. Both are understandable.

    But then we the people seem to be unable to separate that media figure from the real, actual person. And therefore they aren’t allowed to have personal thoughts beyond what would be allowed for their media figure persona. It just kinda sucks. Then again, it is part of the job, I guess.

    Just random thoughts this morning.

    • Denby’s point, it seems to me is that personal opinions -and experiences are reflected in each organization’s editorial offerings. That’s why critics decry them not being objective. Denby’s right. They do. And they should. And they shouldn’t apologize for it and they shouldn’t bend over backwards to insist they don’t and they shouldn’t put out stenographic mush to try to create the illusion that they don’t.

      There’s a greater and more noble mission that journalists have: speaking truth to power. You can’t do that while simultaneously being afraid of power.

      Or being in bed with it.

      • Mike

        Agreed, but every time a journalist grants anonymity to a government source to make some murky claim on a poorly understood issue, journalistic credibility is sacrificed just a bit more. This is rampant in reporting on military or national security issues in particular. There is virtually no speaking truth to power in the mainstream media on those topics.

        And the reason those journalists do it is because they’re playing the “access” game. If they don’t play nice to certain sources, then those sources won’t speak to them. That might make sense in certain contexts, but mostly they’re providing a platform for gossip or misinformation. No one can be held accountable for false or propagandistic statements because “no one” made the statement.

        I’d like to see far more journalists actually express skepticism – and even ridicule, when appropriate – about statements by people in positions of power, and I’d like to think I’m open-minded enough to judge those writers by their intelligence and consistency, even when I disagree with their opinions.

        • // And the reason those journalists do it is because they’re playing the “access” game. If they don’t play nice to certain sources, then those sources won’t speak to them. That might make sense in certain contexts

          It actually makes sense in almost any context UNLESS the information supplied is false, in which case the source was poorly vetted.

          But the government has been cracking down on employees for years trying to prevent leaks of CORRECT information. It’s unreasonable to ask someone with legitimate information to sacrifice his job, life and freedom . Sure, that happens. But legit news organizations rarely will run a story based on a single source and very rarely would take a source’s word — not verifying the veracity first .

          So what’s a journalist’s responsibility here? Easy. Take the information to the people in power and ask if it’s true. The people in power can either say it is or it isn’t.

          But if their response is simply to whine about the source being anonymous, that’s just a distraction for what is then obvious: it’s true.

          • Mike

            Oftentimes it’s not exactly clear cut. When the U.S. government says, “These airstrikes killed important terrorists in Country X,” it’s hard for someone who doesn’t have access to the same information to judge the veracity of that claim.

            We’ve been killing “terrorists” in Afghanistan now for 16 years. Perhaps it’s time for journalists to openly express skepticism about the entire project of the U.S. occupation of that country instead of just the day-to-day scorecard.

            The “credibility gap” that was defined with respect to LBJ and Vietnam is so wide now that no one even pays attention to it anymore. The press mostly just nods every time the Pentagon says it’s doubling down on a stupid, neo-imperialist strategy of subjugation through armed force.

            I don’t see how multiple unnamed sources who simply repeat what various factions of the government want the public to hear has any integrity at all. So what if there are more than one?

            The government is perfectly happy to leak information that’s flattering; it only goes after the unauthorized leakers (like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden) who tell the public things they’re not supposed to hear.

          • // I don’t see how multiple unnamed sources who simply repeat what various factions of the government want the public to hear has any integrity at all. So what if there are more than one?

            Your describing a different construct now from your original point of anonymous sources. Anonymous sources are almost NEVER granted to someone who is merely parroting the line of official spinmeisters of the government. It’s granted to people who have information — usually firsthand information — that the power doesn’t want you to hear.

            What the government tries to do is convince you that the fact it’s anonymous makes it untrue. That rarely is the case.

          • Mike

            //Anonymous sources are almost NEVER granted to someone who is merely parroting the line of official spinmeisters of the government. It’s granted to people who have information — usually firsthand information — that the power doesn’t want you to hear.

            I literally have no idea how you arrive at that conclusion. Many mainstream press articles about military actions abroad – or surveillance state issues at home – are burnished with quotes from “Pentagon/intelligence officials” or some such construct making vague platitudes about how effective this or that strategy is, or past action, or whatever. There may be some named sources thrown in the mix as well, but reporting on these issues is rife with anonymity, and virtually never of the sort that’s justified (meaning they’re contradicting the government line).

          • You mean like “senior White house official.” Those are people speaking on background which is different from the traditional discussion of the use of anonymous sources.

            “On background” means you can use my stuff but you can’t quote me. And you’re right, it’s a stupid game.. The senior White House official is a chief of staff. The senior State Department official is usually the Secretary of State.

            It’s a game…and mostly a political one more than a journalistic one.

            Sure, it’s in the mix in the discussion of anonymous sources, but it’s a minor part of the broad discussion on the granting of anonymity.

          • Mike

            Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. To me, it’s not so benign. It allows officials to hide behind statements that range from misleading or very biased to outright false. If that’s what it takes to get statements from officials, I would say that in many cases it’s not worth it. I’d like to see a lot more emphasis on what the government actually does, rather than what officials say.

          • Jay T. Berken

            “It allows officials to hide behind statements that range from misleading or very biased to outright false.”

            Do you go on the record of scoop of the workings within your work organization?

          • If they’re hiding behind false statements, that’s a fault of the reporter, not so much the anonymity. Any source has to be properly vetted.

            But, yeah, there are disciples of a brand of journalism that thinks the job is merely reporting whatever someone says.

      • Barton

        I agree with you and Denby. But also recognize that we mere mortals sometimes cannot (or refuse to) distinguish the face we see from the organization they represent.

        • That’s the “branding” that Pierce speaks about. That everything is part of the brand and must therefore assimiliate to the brand.

          • Rob

            As the Borgs on Star Trek so famously said: “You will be assimilated.”

      • Bob Sinclair

        “Speaking truth to power” – thats what the prophets in the Old testament did and they died for it. Not any different today.

  • Gary F

    One of many reasons ESPN is tanking, She can say what she wants. We also don’t have to follow ESPN. The marketplace is taking care of this already.

    • Sure. People can simply turn it off. There’s 10,000 places to get scores and video, which, for the record, is why ESPN is tanking. Same reason every other form of media is tanking.

      • Gary F

        ESPN has veered away from sports and gotten too political.

        • Or, should that also read: “Every sports radio station has veered away from sports and gotten too political.” 😉

          • jon

            Everything has gotten way to political…
            It’s what happens when people insist that everything be remade to fit their political beliefs… it’s a sign of a divided country… Type of thing you’d expect before a civil war, or the like…

        • “Gotten too political” = “says stuff I disagree with.”

          • Gary F

            Yes, correct. Goes both ways. Stick to sports ESPN and leave your left leaning opinion out of it. Many reasons why ESPN is tanking, one of them is they’ve lost their focus. They can have. I just don’t need to listen to it.

          • BJ

            Actually rating fell hardest after the most noticeable left leaning guys left the station. So maybe it wasn’t the ‘left’ leaning – maybe they hired cheaper talent and had an inferior product. All while the open market had better options for getting sports clips and scores.

          • RBHolb

            It’s a common theme among conservatives that the traditional media is faltering solely because it is too left leaning.

          • Traditional media is so irrelevant that it seems to be all people can talk about. :*)

          • Where a lot of this tension comes is when white men — the backbone of sports — begin to cede (often over their objections) the dominance that their perspective has held in sports coverage to others. They simply don’t want to. That’s generally what Denby is also pointing out. There is a perspective toward sports that mirrors a life that a lot of white men don’t know and don’t want to know.

          • The other thing you’re ignoring in this is that the woman didn’t make her comment on ESPN. She made her comment on her personal twitter account outside of her job of reporting sports scores.

          • Jim in RF

            That’s the biggest point.

          • Rob

            So even sadder that she issued an apology.

        • Denby’s response on that assertion were on the mark, too.

          “But sports is abt labor. In some places, it’s essentially the civic religion. It is abt the per”formance of gender. It’s abt race.”

          “It’s abt whether a city should allocate $ to a new stadium or its schools. The Raiders moving to Las Vegas is a politics story.”

          “A media organization going the “STICK TO SPORTS!” route is making a political choice.”

          Sports is the intersection of life and entertainment. We’re fond of saying that sports is a metaphor for life. Well, you can’t really say that and say ‘stick to sports’ at the same time because you’ve already acknowledged the intersection.

          You can just stick to games and scores and for that you can just read the paper or look at an app in the smartphone. Why on earth would you need ESPN?

          Sports Illustrated, in the days before ESPN, made it s name doing this. I’m thinking in particular of profiles of athletes like Kirby Puckett. Maybe some people wanted the typical local-paper profile of the guy. Instead, we got a look at the side of him we’d rather not see.

          The hero-worshipping around sports involves a series of lies. Some people would rather sports journalism just stick with the lie and the hero worship.

          Some people want more.

          Ultimately, you get to make the choice which world you want. That’s what the on/off button is for.

          • Gary F

            Same reason why I haven’t watched or even cared about a Hollywood awards show on TV, or even paid full price for a movie.

          • The odd thing is that almost all of your comments here are of a political nature. Even comments on posts that don’t have anything to do with politics; during the campaign you worked mightily to weave in an anti-Clinton meme.

            I get it; that’s your thing. That’s cool. You bring perspective to the joint that’s valuable. I’m just curious where you draw this magical line in life where politics can and should not exist, when it’s pretty clear so much of yours is dominated by it?

          • X.A. Smith

            Yes. This is the difference between journalism and a pro wrestling broadcast.

          • Rob

            Hero-worshipping of athletes is what’s also known as jock-sniffing. Regardless of what we call it, it’s way unhealthy.

        • Rob

          Life is political.

    • Jerry

      Sure, that’s why. Not that fewer and fewer people use cable.

  • MikeB

    The corporatization of mass media had delivered a watered down product. Like Pierce says Twitter in some ways is a return to the media’s swashbuckling traditions, although it’s the modern version, not the saltier version from earlier last century.

    It is ridiculous that the White House gets involved in this but the quest for political power makes people do stupid things. But our political lives are searching for a new normal. Many will go too far as always is the case. But stating the obvious is not a fireable offense in a journalistic enterprise, something that ESPN sometimes claims to be.

  • Trevor Henry

    Great opportunity to bring up Dave Zirin. He is sports editor at The Nation. He has a website called Edge of Sports. I think he went to Macalester. His books are worth reading.

  • Rob

    I’m confused. If a POTUS talks and walks like a white supremacist – and surrounds himself with a bunch of people who talk and walk like white supremacists – and a reporter calls the POTUS a white supremacist surrounded by a bunch of white supremacists, isn’t that the textbook meaning of objectivity? For my part, I expect nothing less of reporters than to call ’em as they see ’em.

  • lindblomeagles

    I’m still unclear why and how Hill’s comments offended anyone. Trump certainly made a white supremacists’ remarks during his political campaign. He certainly hasn’t dismissed connections he has with white supremacists, or the awful actions they engage in, since taking over the Oval Office. And all of us know for a fact Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Cabinet Minister, owned a white nationalist newspaper, Breitbart News, which, Bannon is now back at. Reasonable people can draw a reasonable conclusion that Trump, at the very least, IS supportive of some of the things white nationalists stand for. Do we really need full self-disclosure from Donald Trump to verify what reasonable people can conclude with the weight of the evidence before us?