On Thursday, ThinkProgress exclusively reported that amid brewing controversy over Jemele Hill’s tweets calling President Donald Trump a “white supremacist,” ESPN had initially tried to keep Hill off the air on Wednesday for the 6:00 p.m. ET broadcast of SportsCenter.
Two sources close to the situation told ThinkProgress that Hill’s co-host, Michael Smith, refused to go on the air without her, as did two black anchors ESPN asked to serve as fill-ins. Eventually, ESPN called Hill back to the studio and the show went on as usual.
ThinkProgress spoke with ESPN prior to publication and they provided a response that was included in the original article. After the article was published, ESPN provided numerous outlets, including ThinkProgress, an additional statement: “We never asked any other anchors to do last night’s show. Period.”
ESPN used this short statement to suggest that ThinkProgress’ initial report was inaccurate. It generated headlines like “ESPN denies trying to bench Jemele Hill for calling Trump ‘white supremacist’” and “ESPN denies report it tried to pull Jemele Hill off the air Wednesday.”
But ThinkProgress has subsequently learned more details about exactly what happened on Wednesday to Hill and Smith. In light of these new facts, ESPN’s “denial” is much less than meets the eye.
Here is what actually happened, according to four sources familiar with the situation who spoke with ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity.
Late Wednesday morning, after a contentious meeting, a top executive at ESPN told Hill to go home. She was seen in the parking lot around 11:30 a.m. ET, the time she is usually in meetings to plan out the show.
When he learned that Hill was sent home, Smith immediately made it known that he would not appear on the 6 p.m. broadcast without her. That left ESPN with no hosts for its flagship show, scheduled to start in just a few hours.
ESPN then reached out to multiple anchors, including Elle Duncan and Michael Eaves, the two anchors mentioned in the original report, to check their availability for the 6:00 p.m. show. According to sources, Duncan and others told ESPN they were not available to fill in. ThinkProgress has subsequently learned that ESPN reached out to other anchors regarding their availability, including white hosts.
Some sources who spoke to ThinkProgress said they believed ESPN preferred to replace Jemele Hill and Michael Smith with a black host. Other sources pushed back strongly against this notion, saying that ESPN was in a crisis mode and looking for anyone to fill in, regardless of race.
In follow-up discussions, ThinkProgress reached out to ESPN to offer the opportunity to answer the following questions on the record:
- Was Jemele Hill sent home late Wednesday morning?
- Did Michael Smith, shortly thereafter, refuse to do the show without Jemele?
- Did ESPN producers reach out to other anchors at the network to check their availability for the 6:00 SportsCenter on Wednesday?
In response, an ESPN spokesperson refused to answer, saying only, “we are going to respectfully decline additional comment.”
A full picture of Wednesday’s events reveals that ESPN’s post-publication statement was, at a minimum, highly misleading. It can be regarded as true, only if you accept the fine distinction between asking other anchors to “do last night’s show” and asking the same anchors if they are available to do the show.
This controversy began on Monday night, when Hill tweeted that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself [with] other white supremacists.”
On Tuesday, ESPN escalated the controversy when it released a statement saying that Hill’s comments “do not represent the position of ESPN.” Wednesday afternoon at a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the tweets were a “fireable offense.”
Hill released a statement on Twitter late Wednesday night saying that her comments on Twitter were her personal beliefs, but she regretted that they “painted ESPN in an unfair light.” On Friday morning, Trump weighed on on the situation.
Hill still has not deleted her original tweets.