In the Trump era, things previously thought unimaginable in the United States have become politics as usual, but the uproar over ESPN reporter Jemele Hill has managed to plumb new depths, and charged ones, at that. While she likely didn’t expect it when she fired off a tweet calling the president a “white supremacist” (which he is), Hill has become a flashpoint for both freedom of the press and an exploration of the myth of journalistic objectivity — in addition to an illustration of the rampant racism in US society.
Hill, like many contemporary journalists, is active on Twitter — her feed is a mixture of promotion for SportsCenter, commentary, slices of life, and the related materials people have come to expect from the feeds of celebrities. The demand to be accessible is such that Twitter and social media more broadly are almost required for career success, and Twitter is a place where people tend to speak their minds off the cuff, something that has caused problems before.
Hill’s tweet, however, was more of a statement of fact than anything else. Other journalists have (correctly) noted that Trump is a white supremacist, often on the record in their own publications. So have a variety of other public figures. There’s nothing new, notable, or controversial about the comment — except that it came from a Black woman who reports on sports, in a culture where people think athletes (and the people who cover them) shouldn’t engage in political speech. We have also reached the point where accurate descriptions of the president’s political and social policy are, evidently, political speech.
She had the misfortune to be working for a network that’s been accused of “liberal bias,” something the White House seized upon on Wednesday when an official used the podium to call for Hill’s firing, which was an astounding overreach of power. No president has been uniformly pleased by his media coverage, and most certainly some have longed to see controversial journalists given the boot — in Trump’s case, given more private attacks on journalists as well as the contents of his Twitter, it’s safe to say that the excitable president very much dislikes his coverage. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for him, Trump doesn’t make hiring and firing decisions at news outlets.
But bringing the weight of the White House to bear was a cowardly, vile move, one that steps into censorship: Here we have a government attempting to dictate the terms of employment for a member of the media. This is a gross violation of the First Amendment, and it’s one that magnified the furore, emboldening those aggressively calling for Hill to be fired and using the incident as an excuse to attack ESPN. It is impossible to escape the implicit racism, as well; would a white man have been penalised as harshly? Would a white woman?
Hill noted that her comments appeared on a personal social media account and didn’t speak for the network, nor did they purport to do so, with ESPN accepting her public apology. That should be the end of it, but it’s not.
Abandon the myth of journalistic objectivity
ESPN has been criticised for its slant, rather unfairly. It should be news to no one that every single media outlet on Earth has a slant, and so do the people who work for it. Some are more overt than others — in some cases building their brands around their political and social beliefs. But it’s impossible to report and contextualise news without a political agenda, though some outlets certainly strive to appear unbiased.
The question isn’t ‘does the news have a bias,’ but ‘can journalists and media outlets compensate for their bias and still report accurately?’ And also: Are a journalist’s personal beliefs relevant to the coverage they’re providing?
Hill covers sports — not politics, or Trump — and therefore her opinions about the administration don’t carry the same weight as, for example, a White House correspondent. (Again: It should be stressed that stating Donald Trump is a white supremacist is not an opinion, but an accurate assessment of fact.) She’s also covering sports, though, in an era when the collision of politics and sport is even more significant than ever, with athletes speaking out on issues, team owners getting involved, and a much bigger, more complicated conversation at work. That makes her politics more relevant than they might have been a decade ago.
Should ‘journalistic objectivity’ include never commenting on political issues, thus leaving audiences to wonder what her views might be, and how her views might be colouring her coverage decisions? Or is it better for Hill to be open about her political beliefs, thereby allowing her to acknowledge and compensate for them in her work?
There’s a larger context for this, in light of recent revelations that several major news sites scour the social media accounts of job applicants and dump them if they seem “toxic.” It’s no news that employers check social media to identify potential problems, but what price toxicity? Are they discarding applicants who spew racist garbage, or applicants who make comments about how they voted in a recent election? Partisan discussions have become so charged that a seemingly unremarkable comment (“I like Hillary Clinton”) might be perceived of as “toxic,” even when a journalist is perfectly capable of setting aside personal preference to report accurately on, for example, Donald Trump — there are most assuredly people working in the White House press room who loath the president and everything he stands for while successfully reporting on his administration as a public service.
Media in a time of whataboutism
Cases like this inevitably bring out calls of “but what about…,” referencing some similar incident in the past. The rancor between left and right has some on the right asking where bold free speech defenders were when rightwing journalists made comments the left deemed offensive and the left called for discipline or firing. These cases are trotted out as proof that the left is hypocritical — though notably most of these conservatives aren’t taking the opportunity to defend Hill, so their false comparisons ring a bit hollow.
These cases are not analogous. There’s a difference between the public, which collectively consumes media, and the government. The public chooses how and where to invest its energies on the basis of whether it likes the quality and nature of the news it receives; someone who objects to racism doesn’t want to hear reporting by someone who’s made racist comments on Twitter, while a transgender person doesn’t want to read coverage of gender and health care written by a TERF. When members of the public call for discipline or firing, they do so as an extension of their role as consumers. Outlets that want to appeal to those consumers can decide whether to take action or not.
Were a government representative stepping forward to demand that someone be removed, this free speech violation would be objectionable no matter what the speech — unless it is hate speech, in which a deliberate incitement of violence, often via an appeal to bigotry, poses a serious risk of harm. Thus, if the White House condemned an anchor for saying “kill all Jews,” this carries a different tenor from being angry at an anchor who said “Donald Trump is a white supremacist.”
This case involves a Black woman stating a fact, one deeply tied to racist institutions in the US. It carries very different weight than, for example, a talk radio host making transphobic comments on air, a sexist journalist making crude comments on Twitter, or a racist TV personality linking to racist propaganda on Facebook. To claim otherwise to score political points is to be disingenuous.
Jemele Hill deserves everyone’s unreserved support, because this isn’t the first salvo against freedom of the press fired by the Trump Administration, and it also won’t be the last. It is critical for the public to impress upon the Trump Administration that it is being watched, and that assaults on freedom of the press will not be taken lightly.
Illustration: DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons