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Trump attacks ESPN after anchor calls him a white supremacist

Posted September 15

President Trump is welcoming a fight with the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports," ESPN.

The president said on Twitter on Friday morning that ESPN "is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth."

He was apparently referring to ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who tweeted on Monday that "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists."

Hill's assertion caused an uproar, particularly in conservative media circles, where ESPN's political bent has been a point of contention for years.

Wall Street analysts and ESPN executives generally agree that ESPN's subscriber losses are primarily a result of cost-conscious consumers and a changing business model. But the president, through his tweet on Friday, sided with the conservative commentators who say it's really liberal bias that is poisoning ESPN and dragging down the business.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, responding to questions about the controversy, has criticized Hill three days in a row.

First, on Wednesday, she said the "white supremacist" tweet was a "fireable offense."

The next day, on Fox News, Sanders said it was "highly inappropriate, and I think ESPN should take actions. But I'll leave that up to them to decide, and I'll stay focused on my day job."

On Friday, Sanders had lots more to say. She called ESPN "hypocritical" and alleged that the network "ESPN suspended a longtime anchor, Linda Cohn, not too long ago for expressing a political viewpoint."

ESPN disputes that. According to the network's version of events, Cohn was briefly sidelined -- not formally suspended -- for criticizing ESPN management decisions, not for expressing a political opinion.

Back to the briefing. Sanders has come under scrutiny for suggesting a media company should sack a Trump critic, but on Friday she said she stood by her original comment.

Sanders has that in common with Hill. When Hill addressed the controversy earlier this week, she pointedly did not apologize for her "white supremacist" statement. She only expressed regret for painting ESPN in an unfair light. (ESPN said in a followup statement that the network accepted her apology.)

Neither Hill nor ESPN directly responded to the White House's new comments on Friday.

But ESPN president John Skipper sent an internal memo Friday afternoon that said "ESPN is about sports" and is "not a political organization."

Yes, he said, the network upholds certain values about tolerance and diversity. Yes, ESPN's employees are also citizens who have opinions about politics. But ESPN has social media policies for good reasons, he said, because personal comments "will reflect on ESPN."

"In light of recent events," he wrote, "we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position."

Related: Read the internal memo

Skipper did not mention the president's criticism, but his message was clear: Let's cover the news -- sports and "the issues that intersect with sports" -- and stop being the news.

For Trump, meanwhile, this week's controversy is a new front in his war of words with media personalities and institutions.

Republican communications strategist Doug Heye, a CNN commentator, said it is "absolutely a fight the White House wants and, if you want to make a cynical ploy to hold your base after angering it, needs."

Some Trump supporters have been critical of the president's talks about a possible deal with Democrats about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

"Cutting a deal that amounts to what Trump and outside groups had repeatedly labeled amnesty caused many prominent supporters to question if they had been duped all along," Heye said. "So what is Trump going to do? Distract by tweeting at an ESPN host most people have never heard of, the travel ban and the attack in London."

Hill, an African American woman, co-hosts "SC6" on weeknights. She has been an outspoken critic of Trump all year long. The current controversy erupted on Monday night she called him a "bigot," a "threat" and a "white supremacist" during a back-and-forth on Twitter.

The next day, as people who were outraged by the tweets demanded action from ESPN, the network said that Hill's tweets "do not represent the position of ESPN."

"We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate," the network said.

When Sanders was first asked about it on Wednesday, she said Hill's criticism of the president should be considered a "fireable offense by ESPN."

Later that day, Hill issued her apologetic statement and ESPN said it accepted her apology -- clearly trying to move on from the matter.

But the controversy has continued to fester. ESPN has been accused of having a "double standard," and so has Trump. After all, the now-president repeatedly called some of his opponents "racist" while hosting a show on NBC several years ago.

Related: ESPN in the crosshairs: Bill Carter's analysis

As for the president's claims about ESPN "paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming)," ESPN is the dominant sports network on television and a target for a wide variety of critics.

Trump also said "people are dumping it in RECORD numbers." On Fox News and conservative talk radio, it's a popular talking point that the subscriber losses are due to rampant liberal bias. But there's little evidence to support that theory.

ESPN had 90 million subscribers as of September 2016, the most recent numbers it has reported. That's down 2 million from a year earlier and down from a high of 100 million in 2010.

So the vast majority of U.S. homes continue to pay for cable, including ESPN. But as the monthly cable bundle has become more and more expensive, and streaming has become more popular, some homes have dropped the big bundles that include ESPN. Others have discontinued cable altogether and turned to streaming services.

The cutbacks have put pressure on ESPN and other sports networks. To address this, ESPN is planning to roll out a direct-to-consumer streaming service next year.

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