'Apologize for Untruth!': President Trump Lashes Out at ESPN

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Jemele Hill on the set of 'SportsCenter' during the 2017 NBA Finals.
Jemele Hill on the set of 'SportsCenter' during the 2017 NBA Finals. Credit: Scott Evans / ESPN Images

While he dispensed with the usual bromides about "Fake News," President Trump on Friday morning morning added ESPN to his media enemies list, capping a tweet storm touching on "loser terrorists" and border security with a jab at the cable sports network.

In a delayed response to "SportsCenter" host Jemele Hill's characterization of the president as a "white supremacist" -- Hill tweeted her assessment of Trump shortly after her 6 p.m. show wrapped Tuesday evening -- the POTUS took a shot at ESPN's business practices before demanding an apology from the network.

"ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming)," the president wrote on Twitter. "People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!"

The president's remarks came two days after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wandered into the fray, telling a scrum of reporters that Hill's tweets were "outrageous" before opining that they qualified as "certainly something that I think is a fireable offense."

While the president did not expand on his single anti-ESPN tweet -- an hour and a half later, he fired off a salvo about "CHAIN MIGRATION," which effectively contradicted the tenor of the provisional immigration agreement he reached Wednesday with top Democrats -- his assessment of ESPN's fortunes is worth a second look.

Another network losing subs
Like many casual observers, Trump is under the impression that ESPN is alone in suffering the erosion of the traditional cable bundle. Subscribers can't simply call their cable or satellite operators and "dump" ESPN … or any other individual network. If you don't want to support ESPN for whatever reason, your options are to a) not watch it, or b) pull the plug altogether, thereby losing access to every other cable network, including the president's favorite, Fox News Channel.

According to Nielsen estimates, ESPN reaches 87.2 million households, or about 75 percent of the pay-TV universe. In the course of the last five years, the network has lost approximately 10 percent of its subscriber base; by comparison, Fox News Channel, which reaches 89.3 million homes, has seen 9% of its potential audience vanish since 2013. Cord-cutting does not materially impact one network more than another; in other words, it is cable/satellite/telco TV that subscribers are being dumped "in RECORD numbers," not simply ESPN.

If it is mildly ironic that President Trump demanded that ESPN "apologize for untruth!" immediately after making an empirically false statement -- "We have made more progress in the last nine months against ISIS than the Obama Administration has made in 8 years," he wrote in a separate tweet -- his take on the network's future prospects isn't rooted in observable reality.

With an estimated carriage fee of $7.86 per subscriber per month, the flagship network alone this year is on pace to book $8.23 billion in affiliate revenue. And that's before its projected $2.86 billion in ad sales is added to the pile. (By way of comparison, the network with the second-largest carriage fee, Turner's TNT, fetches $2.03 per sub per month, which works out to a little north of $2.2 billion per year.)

Hill's remarks about the president set off a firestorm in the press, but she has not been suspended or otherwise disciplined by her employer. After Hill issued a mea culpa of sorts for expressing her opinion in a public forum (and as a de facto representative of ESPN), the network said it had accepted her apology. Which is probably infuriating if you're a Trump supporter, but perhaps more understandable if you're of a mind that ESPN was correct in not shuttling Hill off to the bread line for making an allegation that isn't exactly completely contradicted by the public record. (If you're a New Yorker of a certain age, you probably recall Trump's actions during the 1989 trial of the Central Park Five. There are other reports that seem to support Hill's charge.)

Liberal bias
ESPN's detractors are tireless in their efforts to identify examples of the network's alleged liberal bias, and Hill and her "SportsCenter" battery mate Michael Smith are easy targets for Monday morning quarterbacks who accuse them of putting political matters ahead of sports. ("Stick to sports!" is their facile rallying cry -- as if the two things are mutually exclusive.)

In March, during an on-site interview with the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" co-anchors, Hill spoke expansively about the intersection of sports and politics. "Mike and I kind of laugh when people accuse us of being too political," Hill said then. "That's a lazy argument. And a lazy attack. We are not on TV breaking down the Supreme Court nomination. … When they call us 'too political' it lets me know they don't watch the show."

Hill said she confined the better part of her thoughts on social issues to social media. "I think the thing [detractors] are paying attention to is my Twitter feed in particular," she said in March. "Yes, I will post stories about certain issues. But people need to stop putting everything in the 'politics' bag. Everything is not politics. What Colin Kaepernick was doing, for him, is about right and wrong. There's a certain way that people need to be treated, and he thought that needed to be addressed."

At this point, Smith interjected. "Let's just call it what it is, man: You got a lot of people who just aren't trying to watch two black people talk about black issues," he said. "Honestly. They just don't want to hear it. They don't want to hear it. So, yes, they dump it into the political bucket."

On the day after Hill's tweet storm, the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" was the third-highest rated program on ESPN.

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