Democracy Dies in Darkness

Style | Perspective

The fight over Jemele Hill’s tweets won’t go away. It’s about truth and race in the Trump era.

By Margaret Sullivan

September 19, 2017 at 11:42 AM

ESPN has distanced itself from anchor Jemele Hill's tweets after she called President Trump "a white supremacist" and "a bigot." (John Salangsang/John Salangsang/Invision/AP)

I love words, but sometimes they just aren't up to the job.

Like the word "inappropriate," which has been applied to certain tweets last week by Jemele Hill, an ESPN commentator, one of which described President Trump as a white supremacist.

Soon afterward, ESPN rebuked Hill, saying she had crossed a line, and she in turn made a statement saying she regretted putting her employer in an awkward position.

You might think that would be the end of it, but oh, would you be wrong.

Since then, the episode has only continued to draw heat. Trump tweeted about it, disparaging ESPN; his spokeswoman called what Hill said a "fireable offense"; ESPN's public editor weighed in to say that he essentially agreed with ESPN's reprimand; and everybody and his brother has taken to social media to agree or (mostly, vehemently) disagree with that.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated her criticism of ESPN reporter Jemele Hill on Sept. 15. (Reuters)

There sure is a lot here that's inappropriate, but at this point, Hill's initial tweets don't come close to leading the pack.

It is, for example, wildly inappropriate for a presidential spokeswoman to call for the firing of a media person who criticizes the president.

It is shockingly inappropriate for the president of the United States to defend racists, as he seemed to do after the Charlottesville protests last month.

It is tragically inappropriate for media behemoths to tout the diversity of their workforces and then hush what those diverse voices want to say on the most important matters of the day. That's especially a problem when those staffers are encouraged to opine and engage on social media.

Hill's tweets may have seemed as though they appeared out of nowhere, but in fact, they were a long time coming.

"I have to talk myself out of sending certain tweets several times a day," Hill said in some particularly thoughtful remarks during a Sports Illustrated media panel in August.

"I know there are sports fans looking for me to provide them with an 'escape,' but as a woman and person of color, I have no escape from the fact that there are people in charge who seem to be either sickened by my existence or are intent on erasing my dignity in every possible way."

So, when her social-media posts get edgy, she said, "it's reflective of all the emotion and conflict I feel."

One key factor here is that Hill is not a reporter of straight news but rather an anchor and commentator; she is expected — I would say required — to share her views. ESPN is more personality-driven than ever before, and she's a part of that change.

Another is that ESPN is not a conventional news organization but one devoted to sports.

Both of those factors give Hill a lot of leeway. Her only real misstep was in not making it clear that, in instances such as the one that went nuclear, she was expressing only her own opinions and not speaking for ESPN. That's hard to remember, however, in the heat of the social-media moment.

No doubt, the heat of the social-media moment has become a serious challenge for media companies across the board. That's particularly true for those that deal in straight political news and that want to be perceived as impartial.

Politico, for example, made it clear recently that its editors vet potential new reporters by looking at their social-media feeds and discard applications by the dozens because of partisan or — here's that word again — inappropriate posts.

Politico editors quickly severed ties with contract writer Julia Ioffe after her profane tweet about Trump's relationship with his daughter Ivanka.

And major news organizations rightly emphasize to their staffs that the public will always see them as, for example, "Glenn Thrush of the New York Times," not just Glenn Thrush, a random guy with an opinion. (Thrush himself exited Twitter on Monday, calling it "too much of a distraction.")

But Hill doesn't cover the White House, nor does she work for a newspaper or political-news outlet.

She also has a measure of truth on her side. Trump was elected in part because of his appeal to racism — yes, and sexism — in America. (And he's carried that implicit promise to fruition; recall, for example, his Feb. 17 tweeted photo of his all-white Oval Office staff, almost all of whom were male.)

Prominent voices who point that out shouldn't be silenced, especially the voices of women of color.

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the writers association PEN America, wrote this week that she fears that punishment for speaking one's mind can "cause collateral damage, instilling fear in all of us that saying the wrong thing — even in jest or in private — may be our undoing."

This zero-tolerance approach "fosters a culture of caution and 'gotcha' attacks that are inimical to open discourse," Nossel said.

At a time in America when authoritarian tendencies are rising, shutting down voices such as Jemele Hill's is worse than inappropriate. It's dangerous.

For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.


Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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