Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, September 16, 2017 12:56 pm

ESPN, journalism, and what the network owes people of color

The question isn’t why Jemele Hill said what she said. The question is why ESPN isn’t saying the same thing.

ESPN, which is not known for having the most perspicacious and nimble PR department, got into hot water again this week for its treatment of Sports Center host Jemele Hill. And the way in which it handled the situation raises some questions about ESPN’s perceived and actual roles in our media culture and what it owes the people, predominantly people of color, who make ESPN possible.

It started on Sept. 11, when Hill tweeted, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” She elaborated on that tweet here, here and here.

Now, this is a fact, as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post points out in a short but damning bill of particulars:

  • As a candidate for president, Donald Trump retweeted bogus statistics massively exaggerating the rate at which blacks murder whites. When asked about that move by then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump replied, “Bill, I didn’t tweet, I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert. … Am I going to check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people @realDonaldTrump. All it was is a retweet. It wasn’t from me.”

  • As a very public private citizen, Trump appealed for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York after the Central Park rape case made headlines. “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” wrote Trump in a 1989 ad that ran in various newspapers. The “Central Park Five” — a group of black and Latino teens — were later convicted of the crime, and years later exonerated. After the Central Park Five reached a settlement with the city in 2014, Trump wrote an opinion piece calling it a “disgrace.”

  • As a publicity-seeking reality TV star, Trump led the “birther” campaign against President Barack Obama, one of the most racist escapades in this century. As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump said in September 2016, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

  • As a brilliant self-taught campaign strategist, Trump said at his kickoff event, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Pressed later by CNN’s Don Lemon about the offensiveness of those comments, Trump responded, “Somebody’s doing the raping, Don.”

One could question whether it’s appropriate for Hill, who co-hosts a sports show that generally doesn’t touch on politics, to raise that point, at least on company time, but, yes, it’s a fact.

That fact notwithstanding, the right-wing media Wurlitzer picked up on the item and started demanding that Hill be fired. ESPN publicly went only so far as to issue a statement Tuesday saying only that

The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.

But Hill’s fact drew the attention of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who declared on Wednesday that Hill’s remarks constituted “a fireable offense” (video).

(Fun fact: Title 18, Subsection 227 of the U.S. Code makes what Sanders did a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. She should go to prison. But I digress.)

While there’s no evidence in the public record that ESPN has threatened to fire Hill, we do know that the network intended to substitute for her in her regular 6 p.m. timeslot on Wednesday. And in a move that’s cynical even by the standards of cable networks, they tried to find another person of color to replace her.

At 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening, just three hours after the White House encouraged ESPN to fire her, Jemele Hill sat next to her co-host Michael Smith on the set of their daily SportsCenter show and, after a warm welcome to her live broadcast audience, began discussing the Cleveland Indians’ historic 21-game winning streak.

Hill — who was caught in the middle of a firestorm of controversy that began on Monday night when she tweeted that President Donald Trump was a white supremacist, which escalated when ESPN issued a statement on Tuesday reprimanding her comments and which exploded when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Hill’s tweets were a “fireable offense” — was calm and composed throughout the hour, and the show went on as usual.

However, two sources familiar with the situation told ThinkProgress that this was not the original plan.

ESPN originally tried to keep Hill off the air on Wednesday evening, but Smith refused to do the show without her, the sources said. Both sources also said that producers reached out to two other black ESPN hosts, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, to ask them to serve as fill-ins for the show — but Eaves and Duncan did not agree to take the place of Hill and Smith, either. …

Faced with the possibility of having to replace Hill and Smith with white co-hosts, the sources said, ESPN then called Hill and asked her to come back on her show.

(It’s worth noting that while Hill has apologized for putting ESPN in the position she did, she has stood by her remarks about Trump.)

Now, given a nascent revolt by announcers of color, one would think ESPN might rethink its position on this issue. And one would be wrong, even though I would argue that they should.

Because here’s the thing: Although most people see sports as entertainment — which is what the “E” in ESPN stands for — ESPN has fashioned and marketed itself as a journalism outlet. It also has executed some respectable journalism, too, particularly, although not exclusively, on the show “Outside the Lines.” And it takes itself seriously enough as a journalism outlet to have created the position of public editor. Typically, in a news outlet, the public editor, or ombudsman, advocates for the reader/viewer, seeking answers to questions that audiences have about coverage and explaining why the outlet does what it does from a journalistic standpoint.

The incumbent at ESPN is Jim Brady, and to judge from his tweets this week, he has not covered himself with glory on this issue (and he didn’t improve heading into the weekend). Give him credit for engaging deeply with his audience, but he’s trying to have it both way on the question of journalism and even on the question of whether Trump’s a white supremacist.

And much as it might like to, ESPN can’t have it both ways. ESPN’s whole existence is based on athletes, particularly in major sports like football, basketball and baseball, who are disproportionately people of color. It can’t call itself a journalism outfit, and don the trappings of one, and then ignore societal conditions that place those people at a disadvantage, particularly when the president of the United States might be the most formidable obstacle to addressing those conditions.

Yeah, there probably are a lot of racist white people who watch ESPN, and with its audience already dwindling because of such factors as cable cutting and concern about brain injury in football, the network obviously doesn’t want to contribute further to the fall-off. But those people aren’t the only ones in ESPN’s audience; doesn’t it owe something to its audiences of color? Moreover, sometimes journalism means telling your audience something they need to know but don’t want to hear.

And yes, ESPN’s a business, and it doesn’t want to alienate advertisers when its audiences, which set the rates advertisers pay it, are dwindling. But you know what? Sometimes, if you’re a journalism outlet, you have to publish stuff your advertisers don’t like. Tough; they don’t get a vote in the newsroom (or, at least, they shouldn’t).

I don’t expect ESPN to report on, say, the crisis with North Korea. But many stories out there — immigration and race relations (which are related), to name just two — offer ESPN a way to carry out its journalistic mission while remaining true to its sports mission. It can report on the effects of trends and retrograde policies on athletes, coaches, and audiences of color. It can look into what led Las Vegas police to arrest and threaten to kill Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett when he and others in a crowd were fleeing gunshots. It can resist political pressure. As a network, it can do its job in a way that would lead Jemele Hill to think that anything she could add on Twitter would be superfluous. And if it’s going to continue to think of itself and market itself as being in the journalism bidness, that’s what it needs to do.

 

 

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Monday, September 11, 2017 7:20 am

“For thou art with us …”

Filed under: Sad — Lex @ 7:20 am
Tags:

As is my custom on this day, I’m going back to read Sarah “Sars” Bunting’s post-9/11 essay, “For Thou Art With Us,” and I strongly urge you to do the same.

Sunday, September 3, 2017 3:57 pm

Blood and dirt; or, Why one cop’s illegal attempt to draw blood suggests a culture of corruption

The case of the Salt Lake City cop who arrested a nurse who refused to break the law for him looks bad on the surface.

Underneath the surface, it looks a lot worse.

Detective Jeff Payne of the Salt Lake City Police Department demanded that blood be drawn from an unconscious patient at the University of Utah medical-center burn unit. Burn-unit nurse Alex Wubbels correctly refused because the patient had not given (and, being unconscious, could not give) consent and because Payne did not have a search warrant for the blood sample.

On the police body-cam video, portions of which were played Friday by an attorney for Wubbels, Payne appears to lose his temper, grab Wubbels and take her into custody. The video shows University of Utah police, who provide security for the hospital, doing nothing to stop Payne.

(While this shouldn’t matter, the video also captures the fact that Wubbels is an attractive, blonde, white lady; she’s also fairly well-known in the area by virtue of having been an Olympic skier in 1998 and 2002.)

As a trained phlebotomist and someone who draws blood as part of his job, Payne should have known that just more than a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that drawing blood without a warrant is unconstitutional unless the patient is under arrest, which this patient was not, or (correction: EVEN IF patient is under arrest, a warrant is still required; h/t Amy Crittenden) consents, which this patient had not and could not.

Payne has been temporarily relieved of his phlebotomist duties with the department but otherwise remains on the job with pay.

That’s bad enough. But there’s more.

The patient from whom Payne wanted blood was William Gray, an off-duty reserve police officer for the Rigby, Idaho, Police Department who drives tractor-trailers when not working as a cop. He had been in a head-on collision in which he was not at fault; a pickup truck being pursued at high speed by the Utah Highway Patrol crashed into Gray’s rig, causing an explosion and fire. The driver of the pickup died at the scene; the Highway Patrol had begun pursuing him after other drivers reported him driving recklessly.

So if Gray was not at fault, why did a detective with the Salt Lake City P.D. want a sample of his blood? Payne says he received a request from the Logan, Utah, P.D. to obtain a sample of Gray’s blood to test for controlled substances. I haven’t been able to find anything one way or another as to whether that request actually was made. But even if it had been, the law is the law. Payne argued that Gray had given implied consent, which has not been the law in Utah since 2007 — another fact Payne should have known.

The Rigby P.D. issued a statement thanking Wubbels for trying to protect Gray’s rights. And she wasn’t just doing that. She also was upholding the law — indeed, had she complied with Payne’s request she might well have lost her nursing license.

There may be another reason why Payne wanted Gray’s blood badly enough to break the law to get it. Owen Barcala, a Massachusetts litigator, argues in a thread on Twitter that the cops hoped to find something in Gray’s blood that would allow them to disparage or discredit Gray — and thus get the Highway Patrol off the hook for instigating a high-speed chase that ended up seriously injuring an innocent person.

It’s not clear whether that pursuit was within Highway Patrol policy. This 2007 article in the Salt Lake Tribune suggests that state troopers there have pretty wide latitude to start a chase, and I couldn’t find anything more recent. But given that the Highway Patrol began pursuing a suspect wanted for the relatively minor charge of reckless driving, and that Gray ended up seriously injured as a result, Gray might well be in position to sue the Highway Patrol and win big — UNLESS, Barcala points out, the Highway Patrol could somehow prove that Gray had in some way contributed to the wreck through his own negligence, such as driving while impaired. Then, any award Gray might receive from a court might be reduced by a percentage equivalent to the percentage to which Gray “contributed” to the accident — or Gray might not recover anything at all. And Barcala points out that Payne might have intended to use whatever showed up in Gray’s blood to dissuade him from filing suit at all.

In all fairness to Payne, the Salt Lake City P.D.’s investigation is ongoing, and there may be more to this story than seems apparent right now.

But what is clear is that the public almost certainly will never know the whole truth, because almost no states or localities in this country have wrapped their heads around the fact that law enforcement officers — and public employees generally — are not morally entitled to any expectation of privacy with respect to performance of their professional duties. Salt Lake City’s civilian police review board’s role is merely advisory to the police chief, and while the board is assigned a full-time investigator, that investigator is from the police department. The board does not appear to have subpoena power.

Law enforcement needs public trust to be able to operate with the public’s confidence and support. Behavior like that of Payne undermines that trust and confidence, making the job of other cops harder.

And police departments aren’t even acting in their own best interests. Consider that this incident happened on July 26, and the department reviewed the relevant body-cam video within 12 hours, according to the Tribune. But the department did nothing about it until the video went viral five weeks later. That tells us that this isn’t just one rogue cop. At best, it is a gross misservice to Wubbels, Gray, and the larger public the department serves. At worst, the events and delay in responding to them suggest that this is a department whose culture is corrupt to the core.

Update 9/6: Payne has been fired from his part-time paramedic job after he said on the video that he’d bring transient patients to the hospital and take the “good patients” elsewhere to retaliate against nurse Alex Wubbels.

Update 9/8: Local prosecutors have asked the FBI to join the investigation into the cops.

 

 

 

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