Disney's Iger Says 'Empathy' Led Him Not to Punish ESPN's Jemele Hill Over Tweets

By Ben Fritz and Joe Flint Features Dow Jones Newswires

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger was personally involved in the decision not to discipline ESPN's Jemele Hill after she tweeted that President Donald Trump was a "white supremacist," the CEO said Tuesday, adding that he felt that recent political events outweighed the company's social-media strictures.

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"We've got to take into account what we're seeing societally and what people are feeling," Mr. Iger said at a conference hosted by Vanity Fair magazine.

Ms. Hill, who co-anchors the 6 p.m. edition of ESPN's popular show "SportsCenter," tweeted on Sept. 11 that Mr. Trump and those he has surrounded himself with are white supremacists. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that tweet and others by Ms. Hill represented a "fireable offense." Mr. Trump also blasted ESPN, saying its politics were costing it viewers and revenue.

Disney-owned ESPN said Ms. Hill had violated its social media policies and that her tweets were inappropriate and didn't represent the views of ESPN. However, she wasn't suspended from her "SportsCenter" duties.

Mr. Iger said recent events have angered many Americans, particularly those who are black. "A little empathy in that regard would go a long way," he added. "I felt we needed to take into account what Jemele and other people at ESPN were feeling at this time. That resulted in us not taking action on the tweet that she put out."

The Disney CEO addressed criticisms that ESPN has become too political and should stick to sports and highlights.

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"They're covering sports as part of our society, that's part of ESPN's charge, we've given them license to do that," he said.

Mr. Iger also spoke out on the controversy about National Football League players who don't stand during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Mr. Trump went after football players for not standing, saying team owners should fire them. Many black players have knelt or raised a fist during the anthem as a protest toward police brutality.

Mr. Iger, who described himself as "pretty patriotic," said he would prefer people stood up for the national anthem but that he understood why some of players don't.

He commented on gun control in the wake of Sunday's mass killing in Las Vegas. After noting that one Disney employee was killed and two more were injured, Mr. Iger rattled off statistics about gun violence in the U.S. and said that he disagreed with those who believe Americans shouldn't discuss potential policy issues in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy,

"I don't think this is politics at all," he said. "I think this is a huge crisis for our country."

Mr. Iger didn't advocate for a specific gun-control policy, but said: "We should be demanding a dialogue about this from our politicians and demand some productive action to stop these things from happening."

Mr. Iger, who in June quit a presidential business council when Mr. Trump decided the U.S. should exit the Paris climate change accord, has privately mused about going into politics after his planned retirement from Disney in 2019, people at the company have said. He didn't comment at the Vanity Fair summit when asked about his post-Disney plans, including whether he might run for president. Moderator Nick Bilton, a Vanity Fair correspondent, asked the audience if he should run. Mr. Iger wasn't overwhelmed by the scattered applause that followed, joking that it was a "tepid response."

Politics is a complicated topic for Disney, America's largest media company, given the broad global audiences it reaches with its channels, movies and theme parks. The company has been drawn into political issues recently through ESPN, though, as sports and politics have become more intertwined.

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com and Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 03, 2017 19:48 ET (23:48 GMT)