The recent still-rolling ethics train wreck launched by ESPN “SportsCenter” co-host Jemele Hill is a perfect example of how such cultural fiascos occur.
Hill, a young African American woman, went on a Twitter rant against President Trump this week.
“Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime,” Hill tweeted Monday night. “His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period. He is unqualified and unfit to be president. He is not a leader. And if he were not white, he never would have been elected.”
Factors, Stage I: The Instigator
A. An ethics alarms doesn’t ring.
Why in the world would Hill think that the face of a national broadcast network could publicly call the President of the United States a white supremacist without causing a problem for her employer? The key ethics values being breached are trust and responsibility. She has a responsibility to ESPN, which should be able to trust her not to harm it or upset viewers.
B. An instigator has an inflated view of his or her own importance, indispensability, wisdom, expertise or authority.
We are living in an age where narcissism is epidemic, but even so, a sports anchor has to be able to comprehend that once he or she is outside the realm of sports, her opinion on the President or anyone else cannot possibly have a positive effect on public discourse unless it is carefully crafted, thought out, and expressed.
The key ethics values being breached are competence and humility.
C. Social media.
Any public figure, including TV personalities, should not use social media until they recognize that a flamboyant post is the equivalent of a press release. Attacking the President, especially in personal terms, is stupid, even when the attack itself isn’t as stupid as Hill’s. (Uh, Jemele ? President Obama would never have gotten to within a baseball throw (remember, we saw him throw a baseball) of the White House, or even the nomination, if he were not black. Before him, no candidate, successful or not, for President would have been elected if wasn’t white, or male for that matter. Or Jewish. The accusation if Trump were “not white, he never would have been elected” is really, really stupid.
The key ethics value being breached is competence.
D. Corrupting cultural influences.
Too many of Hill’s likely peer groups and those around her have, since last November 8, engaged in nearly continuous disrespect of the President’s person, his office, and the process that elected him. This continues to be divisive, destructive, and dangerous for the nation. It is wrong. The culture is giving her terrible role models, like Maxine Waters, celebrities on Hollywood award shows, and Stephen Colbert, who, for example, thought that it was a appropriate and hilarious to repeatedly give the “Heil!” salute on his show as an insult to the President. CBS (unethically) lets him get away with this kind of thing, because it embraces the Star Syndrome, or the King’s Pass, rather than ethical principles.
The key ethics value being breached is citizenship. Hill has been misled into thinking that amplified hateful conduct and rhetoric toward a President is appropriate conduct for any U.S. citizen. it isn’t. It is even more inappropriate for prominent Americans in the media.
Stage Two: Failed Containment
ESPN’s response was this: “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.”
This made the problem worse. Why? Because ESPN had, more than once, suspended or fired prominent personnel for far less “inappropriate” public comments than what Hill said. Thus it appeared to shrug off a personal attack on the President, including accusations of racism.
Factors, Stage Two
A. Inept Ethics Chess
How could ESPN, already under fire for politicizing its sports reporting (and losing viewers as a result) not realize that an ethics train wreck was starting to roll, and that it could either stop it, or accelerate it? Hill had made sure that no matter what it did, it would be attacked, but no valid attacks would land if it said, “As we have in the past when on-air personnel have made inflammatory statements about public figures and issues unrelated to sports, ESPN has suspended Jamele Hill for her comments about President Trump.”
The key ethics values being breached are competence and fairness.
B. Bias makes you stupid.
ESPN and its parent company Disney is largely run and populated by Democrats, progressives and liberals who detest President Trump, and thus have their values paralyzed by bias in everything related to him. Echo chamber or no, they should recognize this by now, and adjust accordingly. Everyone has to recognize the biases that lead to bad decision-making. In addition, one is in immediate peril of unethical conduct when one refused to respect the choices and views of fellow citizens, especially when you purport to provide services and products to all
The key ethics values being breached are trust, competence and fairness.
C. Unethical messaging
As a business, employer and a prominent presence in the culture, ESPN has an obligation to send clear, positive, responsible messages to its employees, audience and the public at large. Ugh. Here are some of the messages a reasonable person could derive from the networks bland reaction to Hill’s rant:
If you are female and black, you can pretty much get away with saying controversial stuff that a white man can’t. (See: Curt Schilling)
ESPN thinks the President and half the population and probably more than half its audience is racist, but would prefer employees not broadcast that fact, because it is inappropriate.
ESPN hires self-righteous political grandstanders rather than competent sports commentators.
ESPN has double standards.
ESPN has no standards.
ESPN is run by a confederacy of gerbils.
Here is the message that ESPN, if it were responsible, trustworthy, fair and competent while respecting its viewers, should have sent with whatever action it chose to take regarding Hill:
“This is a sports network, and we expect our on-air personnel and all of our employees to conduct themselves like professionals at all times, never engaging in conduct or rhetoric that insults or denigrates any of our viewers, the nation’s elected officials, or any other person or entity not directly related to a sports story or topic. To do otherwise is a breach of their duty to the ESPN audience, and to ESPN itself. We apologize to the President and the public for Jemele Hill’s comments. She has been disciplined for them, and informed that a repeat of such conduct will end her employment here.”
That took me 6 minutes to compose and write. It’s not hard, ESPN.
The key ethics values being breached are trustworthiness, responsibility, accountability, competence, respect, and citizenship.
Stage Three: The Reaction
When the responsible party doesn’t send a clear message, then unethical parties with agendas will try to hijack the issue for their own message.
- Pablo Torre, ESPN rising star, retweeted himself from after Trump’s election: “The difference between being a white supremacist and permitting white supremacy might exist. But good luck finding it.”
Moron.. “The difference between being an atheist and permitting atheism might exist. But good luck finding it.” “The difference between being an abortion supporter and permitting abortion might exist. But good luck finding it.” “The difference between being a socialist and permitting socialism might exist. But good luck finding it.”
This bone-head thought that fatuous, ignorant tweet was worth sending out twice. He did it because ESPN made it clear that there would be few consequences of its sports commentators announcing to the world that they are fools, as long as the “right” people are being bashed.
Oh, this is often the only factor in Stage Three. People, professionals, elected officials and pundits can’t help themselves. They are like drunk college students who run around a bonfire and set themselves aflame. Naturally, the main flaming party now on the ethics train wreck is the Trump administration.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to a reporter’s question about Hill’s rant by saying, “That’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.”
The President and his staff should not be suggesting, implying, or in any way advocating that an American citizen who makes a critical statement about any government matter be punished. It chills free speech. It is punching down. It is an abuse of power. Sanders is obviously continuing the tradition set by her predecessor: throwing gasoline on fires. What she said is a fireable offense. It is true, but the President of the United States cannot target citizens for using their First Amendment rights.
The key ethics values being breached are trustworthiness, responsibility, ethical use of power, position, and influence, competence, fairness, citizenship.
B. False narratives
In other words, the news media. First, many news sources reported that the White House “demanded” that Hill be fired. Obviously it didn’t. Fake news.
The key ethics values being breached are trustworthiness, responsibility, honesty, competence, fairness, and professionalism
C. Rationalizations over ethics.
This one is an embarrassment to the Washington Post, its editors, and anyone who reads the paper.
Here is the defense of Hill levied by ethically ignorant Post reporter Aaron Blake:
It’s one thing if Trump were as pure as the driven snow. But even if you set aside the accuracy of such claims, which is a matter of opinion, Hill calling Trump a racist is hardly far afield of the tactics Trump himself has employed during his political rise. He even called his predecessor — you guessed it — a racist.
I see, Aaron! You think that ethical conduct toward individuals is defined by how they have behaved in the past! You think that the bar for how elected Presidents should be treated in the news media is lowered to their worst and most unethical conduct when they were private citizens! What a great concept! Andrew Jackson shot people in duels, so the would-be assassin who tried to shoot him can’t be criticized by President Jackson! Donald Trump was often crude and insulting when he was a reality star, so the news media can lower its level of discourse to his per-Presidential level, and that’s now professionally beyond reproach!
What are you, ten years old? That’s a rationalization and a distortion of the Golden Rule, you biased, ill-trained boob. It’s “Do unto others as they once did unto others when they were being unethical,” is it? Was that what Jesus taught? Who let you get near a keyboard? What kind of parents did you have? Were they in the Mafia?
Here are the main rationalizations your faulty and biased brain mistakes as “ethics”:
2. Ethics Estoppel, or “They’re Just as Bad”
The mongrel offspring of The Golden Rationalization and the Bible-based dodges a bit farther down the list, the “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse is both a rationalization and a distraction. As a rationalization, it posits the absurd argument that because there is other wrongdoing by others that is similar, as bad or worse than the unethical conduct under examination, the wrongdoer’s conduct shouldn’t be criticized or noticed. As a distraction, the excuse is a pathetic attempt to focus a critic’s attention elsewhere, by shouting, “Never mind me! Why aren’t you going after those guys?”
2 A. Sicilian Ethics, or “They had it coming”
The other familiar, equally absurd but even more corrupting manifestation of Rationalization 2 is the “They had it coming” variation or essentially the ethics of the Mob, “The Godfather” and Hollywood revenge fantasies. This argues that wrongdoing toward a party isn’t really wrong when the aggrieved party has aggrieved the avenger. The victim of the unethical conduct no longer deserves ethical treatment because of the victim’s own misconduct.
But the misconduct of a victim never justifies unethical conduct directed against that victim.
7. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse
This is the principle that bad or unethical behavior justifies, and somehow makes ethical, the same or equivalent unethical behavior in response to it. The logical extension of this fallacy is the abandonment of all ethical standards. Through the ages, we have been perplexed at the fact that people who don’t play by the rules have an apparent advantage over those who do, and “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” has been the rallying cry of those who see the abandonment of values as the only way to prosper.
The very concept of ethics assumes that winning isn’t the only thing, Vince Lombardi to the contrary, and that we must hold on to ethical standards to preserve the quality of civil existence. Although maxims and aphorisms cause a lot of confusion in ethical arguments, this one is still valid in its simple logic: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
What a partisan hack.
The key ethics values being breached are competence and professionalism.