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Jemele Hill has strong opinions about Donald Trump, as many people do. A little over a week ago, she tweeted some of those opinions, as many people do. Hers included a flat statement that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists,” among other statements.
The tweets were not aggressive. Hill framed her criticisms as observations of behavior (“white supremacist,” “ignorant”) rather than as name-calling (“Nazi” or “moron,” for example), and explicitly stated that she considers this issue “a threat” to herself.
She was responding to questions from someone else on Twitter; those tweets are gone now, but it seems likely that they were not exceptionally friendly. It was, by the standards of anti-Trump Twitter rhetoric, pretty measured, mild stuff.
But Hill is also a marquee on-air personality at ESPN, the cohost of ESPN’s 6:00 SportsCenter (currently rebranded as The 6 or SC6, depending on which source you check), and contributor to a number of the sportsy juggernaut’s outlets. So ESPN decided to get involved, issuing a few different statements putting distance between Hill’s personal views and the network’s decidedly less-opinionated views. Hill issued a complementary statement, expressing regret that her comments “painted ESPN in an unfair light.” Then the White House press secretary described Hill’s actions as “a fireable offense,” and the President himself tweeted a potshot at ESPN, and by that point everyone in the hot take industry across sports, politics, and entertainment felt free to weigh in.
For my part, I found myself fixated on a statement from ESPN President John Skipper, issued after the story had gone full-supernova. It was an attempt to illuminate ESPN’s standards for the expression of political opinion, particularly on social media, which are more or less what you’d expect and don’t appear unreasonable, at least on a casual first glance.
But toward the end of the statement, Skipper dropped in something that struck me as odd: “In light of recent events, we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.”
It’s the kind of clenched-teeth proud journalistic tenet that wouldn’t be out of place in All The President’s Men or Transmetropolitan, but it rang bizarre when applied to people whose primary roles are often to make jokes over game highlights and speculate wildly about potential roster moves. It’s easy to understand why political reporters and investigative reporters—or even sports reporters within major newspapers—would operate under the kind of stricture Skipper describes. But how could Hill’s political opinions possibly inform her ESPN work? And, tangentially, is what she does even truly journalism?
To get a local, expert point of view on this, I turned to CSN Mid-Atlantic’s multiple Emmy Award-winning anchor Michael Jenkins, who is in the habit of making some jokes over highlights. Jenkins is probably best-known nationally for a bit in which he pretended that the Capitals being eliminated from the playoffs had driven him to drink on-air. He was not particularly impressed with my “is sports-anchoring journalism” question.
“The craft is extremely important to me,” Jenkins says. “I have two degrees in journalism, I’ve taught journalism at the junior college level, I’ve done work in news, and I have a passion for writing and storytelling. But guess what? No one cares, and most people know me as the goofball who was drinking after a Caps playoff loss.”
The social media question also seems simple to me—follow an individual reporter if you like her whole online persona, follow a publication if you just want the sports news—but Jenkins offered a pretty grim analysis of that line of thinking as well.
“Many fans will choose a side, draw a virtual line in the sand and then scream at each other,” Jenkins notes, citing the ongoing drama surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest.
“It’s that same sort of mentality that often prevents some consumers from being able to separate journalists’ personal opinions from the sports they cover. If someone disagrees with you, you suddenly suck at your job, as opposed to someone simply acknowledging their viewpoint differs from yours,” says Jenkins.
It’s an accurate analysis and a pithy distillation of an experience shared by almost anyone working in media online. What’s most unsettling about it in regard to the Hill situation, though, is realizing that it not only describes the reaction of Hill’s online critics, but also, both directly and through official channels, the reaction of the president of the United States.