“ESPN is not a political organization….ESPN is about sports,” network president John Skipper said in a Friday afternoon memo to staff. Except ESPN became one of this week’s biggest political stories when one of its anchors, Jemele Hill, called President Donald Trump a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists and argued Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of her lifetime, adding that his rise is a direct result of white supremacy, is unqualified and unfit to be president, and empowered white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Skipper did not directly address Hill’s remarks today, carefully tip-toeing around “recent events” he said should “remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.”
“We have issues of significant debate in our country at this time,” he acknowledged. And, employees, being citizens, “appropriately want to participate in the public discussion.” But, he cautioned, “social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN.”
Back in April, ESPN issued new guidelines — in the form of a 1,400-word treatise — that cover its employees’ discussing politics “in any public-facing forum.” There are separate ground rules for staffers working on news stories and those who provide commentary, but the even if Hill is in the latter category, her remarks at least are open to interpretation as being against the Worldwide Leader’s rules.
Here are ESPN’s guidelines for commentators:
Here is Skipper’s memo from today:
I want to remind everyone about fundamental principles at ESPN.
ESPN is about sports. Last year, we broadcast over 16,000 sports events. We show highlights and report scores and tell stories and break down plays.
And we talk about sports all day every day. Of course, sports is intertwined with society and culture, so “sticking to sports” is not so simple. When athletes engage on issues or when protests happen in games, we cover, report and comment on that. We are, among other things, the largest, most accomplished and highly resourced sports news organization. We take great pride in our news organization.
We have programs on which we discuss and even debate sports, as well as the issues that intersect with sports. Fans themselves love to debate and discuss sports.
ESPN is not a political organization. Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express.
At the same time, ESPN has values. We are committed to inclusion and an environment of tolerance where everyone in a diverse work force has the equal opportunity to succeed. We consider this human, not political. Consequently, we insist that no one be denigrated for who they are including their gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual identity.
We have issues of significant debate in our country at this time. Our employees are citizens and appropriately want to participate in the public discussion. That can create a conflict for our public facing talent between their work and their personal points of view. Given this reality, we have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN. At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal.
We had a violation of those standards in recent days and our handling of this is a private matter. As always, in each circumstance we look to do what is best for our business.
In light of recent events, we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.
We also know that ESPN is a special place and that our success is based on you and your colleagues’ work. Let’s not let the public narrative re-write who we are or what we stand for. Let’s not be divided in that pursuit. I will need your support if we are to succeed.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.