How ESPN Fumbled the Jemele Hill Twitter Saga

Vanity Fair talks to sources within the company about its suspension of 'SportsCenter' co-anchor.

ESPN Faces Yet Another Controversy, This Time Courtesy of 'SportsCenter' Host
ESPN's SC6, Michael Smith and Jemele Hill interview Doris Burke before Game One of the 2017 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors on June 1, 2017 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Three weeks ago, Variety argued that ESPN had missed an opportunity with Jemele Hill and her tweet-gate saga—in which she referred to President Trump as a “bigot” and “white supremacist.” The idea was that all publicity is good publicity, even for a cable sports network bleeding subscribers and starving for attention.

But what the Hollywood trade didn’t realize was that the Hill saga was just getting started.

For one, ESPN had backed her up after her initial apology—which was directed at them, not Trump. She even wrote a first-person essay for The Undefeated reiterating her stance. But then, after a series of tweets critical of Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys’ advertisers, the SportsCenter co-anchor was suspended for two weeks. It made very little sense.

Just last week, as Vanity Fair noted, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger (they’re the parent company of ESPN) was asked at a conference what the logic was behind supporting Hill the first time around. He said: “It’s hard for me to understand what it feels like to experience racism. I felt we needed to take into account what other people at ESPN were feeling at this time, and that resulted in us not taking action.”

In speaking to sources within the company, Vanity Fair found that Hill had quite a bit of support. (Notably, SportsCenter co-anchor Michael Smith sat out Monday’s broadcast.) “We’re going through an unprecedented time right now. I don’t know if [ESPN management] is in an impossible situation or not, but it’s just a mess. I don’t know what the answer is,” said a source.

Also, it appears that ESPN’s social media policy is unclear, as reporters are encouraged to tweet, but told to “lay low” for a few days if any of their tweets engender controversy. Sources told Vanity Fair that Hill’s Jerry Jones tweets were likely not a breach of policy from a journalistic standpoint, but because they may have angered advertisers. “She was suspended for offending business partners, and that is a harder pill for journalists to swallow,” notes another source.

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