‘Stick to sports’ or stick to reality? Jemele Hill controversy highlights media issues – Chicago Tribune
Years ago, it seemed standards were pretty clear for most journalists: Keep your opinions to yourself.
This is still the ethos many of us try to live by as an understanding that our professional life and our personal lives overlap as journalists. We aren’t really ever off the clock or not representing the media outlet for which we work.
But that’s getting trickier with social media and news outlets like ESPN encouraging less reporting and more debate, commentary and opinion. It’s also always been a difficult tightrope act for many reporters who are women, people of color or part of any other marginalized group often expected to ignore their identity as a means of maintaining this abstract idea of objectivity.
When ESPN singled out Jemele Hill with a public reprimand for her tweet calling President Trump a “white supremacist” it struck me and others as unnecessary and hypocritical.
ESPN has been especially adept at blurring the line, creating controversy and hoping the formula results in higher ratings. To its credit, ESPN also has been one of the rare media outlets in sports — maybe the only one — that has truly diverse hiring practices.
So does ESPN want these employees — like Hill — to share opinions about anything except the ideas that perhaps affect them most on a personal level and on which they have a unique ability to speak?
Cynthia Frisby, an author and journalism professor at the University of Missouri, says women of color, in particular, walk a fine line.
“Women of color are held under different standards, much higher expectations, often times having to watch our every move and sometimes change our behavior,” Frisby said. “(Hill as a) journalist only voiced what so many others have felt.”
Should Hill have considered that as a member of the media her tweet may have been seen as inappropriate? Yes. Should she have realized that although her colleagues tweet controversial statements and even though she is paid to have an opinion, according to ESPN, on sports and “culture” that she would be in violation of a company code of conduct? Yes.
But Hill’s outspokenness is part of her appeal for many viewers, and ESPN has promoted her accordingly.
ESPN further mishandled the situation by reportedly trying to replace Hill on “The Six” with other black hosts, a plan that was foiled when, in an act of solidarity, they refused to replace her. (ESPN has denied this version of events.)
ESPN public editor Jim Brady made an embarrassing display on Twitter in what I assume was an effort to clear up the decision about reprimanding Hill. He corrected at least two of his own tweets he admitted were poorly worded. A little ironic, right?
ESPN President John Skipper sent out a reasonable memo to employees about the code of conduct related to sports, politics and social media. But Brady undid any sound reasoning again on behalf of ESPN.
Responding to a tweet defending Hill, he asked, “Investigate the claim of whether Donald Trump is a ‘white supremacist?’ I think he’d done a lot to make a case against himself.'”
So it’s OK for Brady to say Trump has made the case that he is a white supremacist but Hill cannot use the term?
As Jay Smooth, a New York hip-hop radio personality, pointed out in his tweet reply to Brady, “The assertion that ‘white supremacist’ should be regarded as ‘name calling’ is not, itself, a neutral position politically.”
“I didn’t weigh in on the truth of the statement,” Brady tweeted on Friday about Hill’s tweet. “Doesn’t matter. We get paid to adhere to some code about how we communicate.”
Since when does truth not matter in journalism?
Which brings us to another question we should be discussing more in journalism: Whose truth are we telling?
One reason black-owned newspapers were created is because white-owned newspapers largely ignored stories that affected black communities, especially through the Jim Crow era.
White papers mostly overlooked the story about the vile harassment black baseball players faced while breaking the color line. Ida B. Wells, a pioneering black reporter who worked in Chicago, investigated lynchings because white papers ignored the epidemic. Jet magazine published Emmett Till‘s open-casket photo and caused white papers to finally devote deserved coverage to his murder and others like it.
Today, there would be a near monolith of opinion on the coverage of Colin Kaepernick if not for mostly black analysts and some reporters adding the perspective of many black fans.
“The media is more focused and proceeded more in bringing different types of faces than bringing different types of perspectives,” author Ibram Kendi told the Washington Post. “Jemele’s statements are statements that are widely believed, philosophically, within the African-American community. For her to be censured for something that is widely believed in her community is simultaneously censuring the ideas of her community.”
The topic is complex. The answers aren’t easily agreed upon.
But ESPN — like other outlets — has to decide: “Stick to sports” or stick to reality.