Jemele Hill scandal: Pressure mounts on Disney CEO Bob Iger to fire ESPN star

Disney boss Bob Iger is facing mounting pressure on multiple fronts regarding ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, whose racially charged statements have ticked off conservatives and now possibly NFL bigwigs.

From a business standpoint, firing Hill would be an obvious solution. But Iger, who is believed to harbor 2020 presidential aspirations, could risk upsetting the left.  

Disney CEO Bob Iger smiles as he arrives for the the annual Allen and Co. media conference Sun Valley, Idaho July 7, 2015.  REUTERS/Mike Blake - RTX1JH73

The Disney boss is feeling the heat over Hill's statements  (Reuters)

ESPN suspended Hill on Monday after she violated the company’s social media guidelines for the second time in less than a month. First she called President Trump a “white supremacist” and claimed if he “were not white, he never would have been elected.” But it took Hill potentially impacting the network’s bottom line with Twitter rhetoric to be punished.

In the second instance Sunday, she took to Twitter and encouraged fans who weren't happy with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ policy that his players must stand for the national anthem to boycott the team’s advertisers. 

“When people get fired in the workplace and say it’s against the First Amendment… it’s not.”

- Television historian Robert Thompson

Media Research Center Vice President Dan Gainor feels that Hill has shown she has “no ethics” and can’t stick around if Iger wants ESPN to maintain credibility.

“She falsely claimed that President Trump is a white supremacist. She wasn't fired or suspended. She didn't have to apologize to Trump or even take down the posts. But let her say something about lefty ESPN's advertisers and she is suspended instantly,” Gainor told Fox News. “If ESPN wants some return to credibility, she can't stay. She wouldn't fit in. But if ESPN wants to stay as what critics call MSESPN, the ‘woke’ version of sports, then Hill certainly fits in well.”

Television historian Robert Thompson told Fox News the Hill situation makes him “glad” he’s not running a company such as Disney and those people upset that Iger and ESPN executives suspended her need to stop pointing to the First Amendment.

“When people get fired in the workplace and say it’s against the First Amendment, it’s not,” Thompson said.

Iger has gotten increasingly political of late, stoking speculation he has his eyes on the White House. The New York Times recently said Iger is “emerging as a credible contender in the 2020 presidential speculation game,” while the Washington Post recently listed him as a top contender to land on the Democratic ticket and CBS published a headline pondering, “Is Bob Iger considering a presidential run?”

Reuters columnist Jennifer Saba said that Iger’s “priorities are all out of whack” because the “$155 billion media company he runs… needs his undivided attention” and if he plans a White House run it shouldn’t be at the expense of Disney.

But he’s still running Disney, and what Iger ultimately decided to do with Hill will have ramifications down the road if he ends up facing off against Trump.

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 12: Owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys gives the 'thumbs up' to some Cowboys fans before the game aagainst the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on October 12, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Calling for a boycott of Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys advertisers could be the last straw for Hill

“If someone does decide to run for public office then their entire public record is available for analysis,” Thompson said.

Iger admitted he was directly involved in the decision not to fire Hill over the Trump comments, essentially because he hasn’t experienced racism himself but understands that African-Americans aren’t happy with the president.

Journalist-turned-investment banker Porter Bibb, who is now the managing partner of MediaTech Capital Partners, said Iger is a “champion of free speech” but this isn’t a situation where his views are relevant because he has a business to run.

“She should be fired by ESPN and her lame excuse that she now needs to do some work on twitter management belittles ESPN and its right to impose conduct policies,” Bibb said. “She knows better, clearly is hoping for fan support and will break ESPN rules again if she is not fired.” 

Hill’s second violation of the company’s social media policy had more to do with cash than politics, and she was sidelined for two weeks as a result. Hill called on fans to take indirect action against the Dallas Cowboys after owner Jerry Jones told players they would be benched if they didn't stand up during the national anthem. ESPN agreed to pay $15.2 billion to air the NFL’s “Monday Night Football” through 2021, according to The New York Times, and the network also depends on the NFL for the majority of its more-popular content. In layman’s terms, ESPN needs the NFL and its employees can’t try to take money out of the owner’s pockets.

Fox Sports radio host Clay Travis called Hill’s actions “one of the dumbest things” he’s “ever seen in his life” and questioned if she is “intentionally trying to get fired” in order to land another gig.

“If you are in the business that we are in, your salary is either paid by advertisers or the NFL. Especially at ESPN… her entire show is underwritten by these same sponsors,” Travis said on “Outkick the Show.”  

The “SC6” co-host admitted that she cried over the Trump situation in a meeting with ESPN President John Skipper and recognized that “ESPN become a punching bag” because of her actions on Twitter. So why did she do it again so quickly?

The Rev. Al Sharpton introduces Ramsey Orta at the funeral of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Garner died in police custody after an officer placed him in an apparent chokehold. Orta shot video of the incident. (AP Photo/New York Daily News, Julia Xanthos, Pool)

If Hill is fired, the Rev. Al Sharpton could get involved, making the situation even stickier for Iger and Disney  (ap)

Washington Post columnist Callum Borchers wrote that Iger’s decision to suspend Hill was “unsurprising” and it appears “ESPN does not want to be viewed as endorsing Hill's first tweet or rejecting her second” as the network attempts to “reestablish its political neutrality.”

The result of the confusion atop ESPN has “opened it up to criticism from Hill's sympathizers and detractors alike,” Borchers wrote.

Many on the left, including several ESPN colleagues, have defended Hill. Liberal website Deadspin proclaimed she was suspended for “no good reason” and Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted the suspension “should NOT go unanswered,” warning that “ESPN and advertisers will hear from us!”

Unfortunately for Iger, the people who support Hill are also upset with ESPN. These same people would presumably vote against Trump in 2020. The network is in a no-win situation with viewers on both sides of the political spectrum outraged and Hill has proven that she will continue to stir the pot as long as she has the platform that ESPN provides. 


Brian Flood covers the media for Fox News.

Follow him on Twitter at @briansflood.