ESPN anchor Jemele Hill was suspended Monday after allegedly violating the company's social media guidelines for a second time. And Tuesday morning, President Trump took to Twitter to criticize Hill. We've republished this essay, which explores why it's dangerous for the White House to call for Hill to be fired after she called Trump a "white supremacist" and whether journalists of color are held to a higher standard when it comes to being objective.
This story was originally published on September 14, 2017, at 11:40 a.m.
Before this year, it would be surprising to see a White House official call for the dismissal of a sports reporter over her criticism of the president. But this is the Trump era, and the old rules no longer apply. On Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she thought journalist Jemele Hill's tweets about President Trump were "a fireable offense." Whatever happened to freedom of speech? Didn't Trump once claim, "I love the First Amendment — nobody loves it more than me"?
Hill, a Black sports journalist and co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter, tweeted on Monday that "Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists." She went on to say that Trump's rise to the presidency was the result of white supremacy and called him the "most ignorant, offensive president" of her lifetime.
Whether you agree with Hill's assertions or not, she has every right to express herself without fear of retribution from the highest office of the land. (Thanks to the First Amendment rights Trump claims he "loves.") And it's frightening that the White House press secretary should feel it's okay to weigh in on the status of Hill's employment.
But ESPN's response is also upsetting. The network said Tuesday it had addressed the issue with Hill and "she recognizes here actions were inappropriate."
For many media outlets, reporters expressing their opinions is a cardinal sin — just this week The Washington Post published a story about how Politico disqualifies potential hires over their tweets. It comes from the belief that members of the media should be "objective," an ethic that's complicated in the age of social media when journalists are also encouraged to build a social media following. Anyone who's ever tweeted knows that controversy often brings the retweets.
This is about far more than just building a following, though. The harsh truth is that no journalist is 100% objective, although they try to be. When you're human and have experiences and beliefs that shape your worldview, it's impossible to be completely objective. What's more important for journalists is to be fair and balanced in their reporting.
The "objectivity" myth is the result of newsrooms having a history of being mainly composed of white, male reporters. (The situation isn't that much better right now, but it's an incremental improvement.) That lack of diversity in America's newsrooms has led to some tone-deaf reporting — or no coverage at all — of issues such as the women's suffrage and the civil rights movement, to the point media outlets have apologized for their decades-old reporting.
But having homogenous newsrooms also created an ecosystem where having distance from and being neutral about a subject was the golden rule. And even though no journalist on Earth can separate who they are from how they cover stuff, the presumption of bias only exists if you're a minority journalist who might be perceived to have skin in the game. In other words, "steer clear of topics related to your identity" doesn't apply to white journalists who made the rules of the game and disproportionally dominate American newsrooms.
More often than not, no one assumes there's bias when white dudes are reporting about other white dudes. Think about it: Did you believe for a second that any white, male reporter covering male, white alt-right protesters in Charlottesville might have been biased because they shared the same race and gender as their subjects? Of course not. But a woman reporting about women's issues, a queer person writing about LGBTQ subjects, or a person of color reporting about the community they belong to? They're not afforded the luxury of presumed objectivity. Their identity will inevitably lead to someone pointing out that they can't possibly be unbiased in their reporting — even if they approach the subject with all the fairness and balance in the world.
Even though she is a member of the media, Hill is also a person, so she will naturally have opinions. It's impossible to know for sure what was going on in her mind when she fired off those tweets. Hill hasn't deleted them and even though she said she regretted the tweets made the network look bad, she is standing by her statements. But we can take a good guess: Post-Charlottesville, we saw President Trump take 48 hours to disavow white nationalists and he walked back those comments just a day after. As a Black woman, Hill might have found that tough to witness. She is far from the first person in the universe — or in the media — who has said the president has deep ties to white supremacy.
At the end of the day, she has a right to express her views about the president of the United States — especially since she doesn't even cover politics. These are her personal beliefs and she's entitled to express them if she wants, full stop.
If she broke ESPN's employee policy over the use of social media, that should be left to her employer to address. (And we'd challenge ESPN to reconsider that policy, although labor law says at-will employees can be terminated for any cause, at any time.) But firing Hill over her string of tweets, or acquiescing to the pressures from the Trump administration, would be misguided at best and dangerous at worst.
Furthermore, it's one thing to fear what your employer might think of your tweets and a completely different one to have the White House press secretary come after you personally. This reaction to Hill's tweets sets a dangerous precedent. Now would be a good time for the people who defended white nationalists' right to free speech to condemn the Trump administration for suggesting a journalist should be fired over some tweets. This is the kind of speech we desperately need to protect.