Trump Wants an Apology as the Debate Grows Over Bias at ESPN

By Austen Hufford Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump on Friday demanded an apology from ESPN over a commentator's tweet calling him a white supremacist, and said the sports behemoth's business is suffering because of its political leanings.

Continue Reading Below

On Monday, Jemele Hill, a co-host of ESPN's flagship "SportsCenter" program, also said via Twitter that Mr. Trump had surrounded himself with other white supremacists. Her tweets sparked calls from some critics for Ms. Hill, who is black, to be suspended or fired. Others defended her.

On Friday morning, Mr. Trump tweeted: "ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!"

Asked about Ms. Hill's comments at a press briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the tweets were a "fireable offense" and were some of the "more outrageous comments that anyone could make."

ESPN had no comment Friday about Mr. Trump's tweet. Earlier this week, the network said Ms. Hill's comments were "inappropriate" and didn't represent the views of ESPN, adding that it had addressed the issue with Ms. Hill.

"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," the company said.

Continue Reading Below

Ms. Hill said Wednesday on Twitter that her comments "expressed her personal beliefs" but she regrets the "public way" she made them. ESPN said it accepted her apology, and Ms. Hill continues to appear on "SportsCenter."

The latest storm hits Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN at a particularly difficult time as the sports network struggles with years of declining subscribers and viewers.

Critics say the network has a liberal bent, and might be partly responsible for the declining audience. Mr. Trump's tweet echoed that assessment, though it was unclear if he was referring to ESPN's subscribers or ratings.

But analysts say the TV-and-internet sports programmer is being hit by broader forces affecting all major media companies, as more consumers cut the cable-TV cord, downshift to "skinny" bundles or shift to streaming TV services. Those trends date back several years to well before the start of Mr. Trump's presidential campaign.

In four years, ESPN has gone from about 98 million subscribers to about 87 million, according to Nielsen estimates. Including newer subscription streaming services that carry ESPN, the subscriber count was about 87.2 million in August.

So far this year, ESPN is averaging about 1.4 million viewers in prime time, down about 11% from two years ago, according to Nielsen. In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic coveted by advertisers, the network's ratings are down about 13%, the data show.

To help address viewers' shifting habits, Disney is starting a direct-to-consumer streaming ESPN service early next year. It will not have programming that airs on ESPN's TV channels.

At its shareholder meeting in March, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger defended ESPN when confronted with an accusation that the sports network was biased against Mr. Trump and catered to liberal audiences.

"The charge that ESPN is exhibiting significant political bias in its program is just completely exaggerated," Mr. Iger said. "Watch ESPN, you're not going to see political bias."

ESPN's policies for employees and social media state that commentators should refrain from overt partisanship and "avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric." It also states that a tweet is akin to being on the air.

Media companies increasingly are confronted with determining the fine line between inflammatory comments and personal expression and deciding when an employee's comments are private or directly related to their job.

Still, ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady wrote in December that the network has taken a "more identifiable political stance" as the company has increasingly aired debate-focused shows and talent uses the informal nature of Twitter to connect with audiences.

"Internally, there's a feeling among many staffers -- both liberal and conservative -- that the company's perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some," he wrote.

He pointed to ESPN's awarding Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYS, its decision to move a golf tournament away from a Trump-owned club and "a perceived inequity in how punishments for controversial statements were meted out," he wrote.

On Friday, Mr. Brady weighed in on the situation with Ms. Hill, saying she "made an error in judgment in those tweets" and reiterating his previous comments that the company "leans left."

Some, including the White House press secretary, point to the reprimand of another ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor, Linda Cohn, who was briefly suspended earlier this year after saying in a radio interview that some of ESPN's subscriber losses were due to viewers being turned off by political commentary, according to media reports. Her comments were made shortly after ESPN announced layoffs of about 100 employees, including on-air talent.

"ESPN has been hypocritical," Ms. Sanders said in a press briefing Friday, following Mr. Trump's tweet. "They should hold anchors to a fair and consistent standard."

Write to Austen Hufford at austen.hufford@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 15, 2017 18:18 ET (22:18 GMT)