Morning, all. Early morning September 11th, a tweet storm ignited the Internet. Jemele Hill, host of ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” issued a series of statements calling President Donald Trump, “a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists” and, “a bigot.” The backlash was swift and fierce; some might even call it fire and fury (though I wouldn’t go that far). In response, ESPN… lightly chastised her. The backlash from this decision was even worse. Some eviscerated ESPN for not firing Hill, some criticized the fact that they punished her at all, and some used the incident as an opportunity to indict the network for commenting on politics in a sports setting.
This incident isn’t the first of its kind, either. Back in August, CNN fired correspondent Jeffrey Lord, a notorious right wing pundit, for tweeting the phrase “Sieg Heil” at Media Matters America president Angelo Carusone. Lord claimed that his tweet was satirical and meant to mock the allegedly facist behavior of Carusone and the organization, but CNN couldn’t defend his behavior and axed him. Side note: this incident was cited as “left bias” by right wing sources in their reaction to Jemele Hill’s disciplining, as they claimed that right wing opinions were being silenced, while left wing commenters who spoke out were comparitively spared any punishment.
These incidents bring to light a very interesting and exigent question: how much control can news networks and organizations exert over the behavior of their employees, and how much blame should they take for any incidents stemming from such behavior, especially when such behavior is connected to opinion panels or personal mouthpieces? And, if it turns out employers can fire employees for personal opinions, can we extend that to the government?
Well, the answer gets complicated. Because the comments were made in necessarily opinionated settings or on personal platforms, the networks couldn’t really regulate the actions of their employees. This lack of control brings up a challenge for dealing with such remarks: how should they be punished by the company? Firing or demotion would seem to some like restriction of free speech, but going with no punishment at all could lead to more extravagant opinions being expressed, seemingly in the name of the company.
I think the solution here is simple: have networks and companies simply distance themselves from the personal opinions of their employees. DVD special features already do it all the time. They roll a title card that says something like, “The opinions and views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of blah blah blah you get the idea.” Networks should roll this before talk shows and display it on their website as a disclaimer. This way, if a panelist did make some crazy remark on the air or in their spare time, the network could distance itself from the opinion and spare itself blame. This might also help mitigate outlandish remarks, because the remarkers would face all of the heat for their actions, which could make for discipline enough.
The public will always react harshly to any expressed opinion, that’s unavoidable. All I’m saying is that the networks don’t necessarily have to take responsibility for what their employees say. Now, can this system be abused? Yes, absolutely. Any system can be abused if you really want to abuse it. But that abuse would be a fireable offense. Flagrantly taking advantage of this system would show that an employee is hell-bent on causing trouble, akin to a malicious prankster who can’t (or won’t) be stopped. In that case, the company could easily sever ties with the offender and clear themselves of responsibility definitively.
So, what about the government? Can politicians be punished for the things they say? It depends on who they’re acting as when they say it. Let’s create a hypothetical president. To avoid any insidious real-world connections, we’ll call him President Jed Bartlett, Martin Sheen’s character on The West Wing. Now, President Bartlett has two Twitter accounts, @realjedb and @potus, his personal and official accounts. Now, say President Bartlett tweeted out, as @realjedb, “The Communist flag will rise” or something like that. Should the country be afraid that the Bartlett administration will turn the country red faster than Lenin on a college campus? I don’t think so.
Everyone’s got opinions, but how much should personal opinion be seen to influence public policy? Well, it shouldn’t have to. The separate Twitter accounts are meant to act like a disclaimer: anything that comes out of the personal account is Bartlett the man, anything from the official account represents Mr. President, face of the nation and anything associated with it. Now, I’m not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t get mad about anything somebody says on their personal accounts, but it shouldn’t be seen to influence public policy.
In conclusion (cheesy ending, but what can ya do), personal backlash should serve as an effective deterrent from outlandish behavior, personal statements shouldn’t necessarily determine or signal professional decisions, and professional, highly scrutinized figures should separate their personal dialogue from their professional lives. But this is all based in “should.” We don’t ever know if this will actually happen, or how well it would work if it did happen. We can only speculate. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’ll see you in the news.