What makes corporate media corporate? A compulsion to update those always-inadequate social-media guidelines so as to control employees who think for themselves.
That’s what “SportsCenter” anchor Jemele Hill did in September, when she used Twitter to voice her conclusion that President Trump was a “white supremacist.” ESPN freaked out, orchestrating statements and scrambling to contain the collective scream from conservatives who view the network as a lefty company hiding behind a sports banner.
After another round of controversial tweets — this time about #TakeAKnee protests on NFL sidelines — Hill’s name was added to the long list of ESPN types who’ve been suspended for this or that infraction. Hers lasted two weeks. As the suspension wound down, Hill told an interviewer that she deserved her suspension for violating company policy but stood by what she’d communicated. “The only thing I ever apologized for is I put ESPN in a bad spot. I’ll never take back what I said,” said the anchor.
Well! If only the new ESPN social-media guidelines had been in place back in early September. Because this document advises employees, “Do nothing that would undercut your colleagues’ work or embroil the company in unwanted controversy.” That line is part of a freshly (and clearly) written preamble in the guidelines. Its last line reads, “We respect your intelligence, champion your creativity and trust your best judgment.” The preamble was written by Kevin Merida, a former high-ranking editor at The Post and editor in chief of the Undefeated.
Those looking to fact-check ESPN on its level of “trust” in its social-media users might look this provision in the guidelines: “Communication with producers and editors must take place prior to commentary on any political or social issues to manage volume and ensure a fair and effective presentation. These guidelines act in concert with all ESPN editorial standards & practices, including those governing social media and commentary, and apply on ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and other media.” That provision isn’t brand-new in the history of ESPN guidance, though it’s tweaked just a touch to emphasize social-media obligations.
According to ESPN public editor Jim Brady, President John Skipper said that the new look at the guidelines wasn’t “specifically” prompted by the Hill dispute. (Pause to chuckle). “I think it’s prompted by the moment that we are having right now, and the political time and the polarization,” the network president is quoted in Brady’s column.
There’s a considerable logical hole in Skipper’s remarks. Guidelines are principles and practices designed to address conduct in all circumstances. So there’s no reason the network’s pre-November 2017 guidelines shouldn’t have covered company imperatives vis-à-vis social media use before, during and after the Trump era. Have a look at the 2011 guidelines (which were altered modestly in 2012). “At all times, exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for colleagues, business associates and fans,” reads one of the provisions.
Why did such guidelines need a new round of oomph from on high? Look to President Trump. His racism is well established, and it’s hardly shocking that a black woman might wish to denounce it. Every news cycle these days furnishes more information that Trump is ill-suited — temperamentally, intellectually, philosophically, policy-ally — to holding his office. His excesses, overreaches and stupidities are astounding, as well as frightening. What many are decrying these days as examples of anti-Trump bias are often merely deductions from the towering public record.
Pressure on people like Hill to voice their feelings about it all, accordingly, will continue mounting. Pieces of paper from corporate types won’t much matter. For Hill and others, the controversy over her tweets about Trump wasn’t “unwanted.” It was urgent.