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Oppenheim: ESPN's Jemele Hill

ESPN is similar to cable news networks, where executives like personalities, people who go beyond merely reporting facts, but show passion, spout opinions and keep things lively.

Jemele Hill is the personality at the center of this most recent storm. Last February, she got promoted to co-host the flagship program - Sports Center. From that perch, where she gives analysis about sports, she tweeted about the President, pointing at his comments and behavior in the wake of Charlottesville.

She wrote: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.”

Where else but on Twitter, the President fired back: “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics and bad programming. People are dumping it in record numbers.”

And in this the President is echoing an old conservative theme. It’s not just CNN or MSNBC that’s too liberal. ESPN is too.

Recently, conservatives have attacked the network for being biased in its coverage of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who’s protested during the national anthem.

But the argument goes further to say that ESPN is hemorrhaging viewers because it’s politically correct. And it’s true that ESPN is struggling. They have 90 million subscribers, two million down from a year ago, 10 million down from 7 years ago.

But it’s a stretch to suggest it’s all politics. Across the cable industry, there’s a national cord-cutting trend in which people are now getting content, including sports, by streaming. So ESPN is reworking its business model and offering a direct-to-consumer service next year.

But what irks some on the right most, is that Jemele Hill didn’t get disciplined for what she wrote. Her bosses simply told her to cut it out.

It’s worth noting other people at ESPN have been suspended for making inappropriate comments. And while I may not disagree with the essence of what Jemele Hill said, I don’t believe there’s room in her editorial position to get that extreme.

If she wants a political soapbox, there may be a job for her somewhere as a pundit... but as a sportscaster, just like being a newscaster, there have to be some boundaries.

And when people argue ESPN should have suspended her, I would say on that, they score a point.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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