By J.A. Adande
Preparing lectures over the past 13 years has taught me that the process is similar to crafting sports columns. And sometimes in teaching, just as in journalism, the story writes itself.
The opening lecture for my fall quarter undergraduate sports commentary class was solidified after my friend and longtime ESPN colleague Jemele Hill tweeted that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, setting off reverberations that reached all the way to the White House. This episode hit so many important topics, from the importance of caution and restraint on social media to the principles of the First Amendment. It also plays into my affinity for teaching sports media history, even if in this case the history goes back only five years. But if you want to know why Hill tweeted about the Trump presidency in the first place despite an ESPN policy that forbids both non-sports related political commentary and “inflammatory rhetoric” you need to go back to 2012.
After the killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin, several ESPN personalities wanted to wear hoodies in their Twitter avatar pictures to represent Martin’s attire when he was shot by George Zimmerman. ESPN initially ordered its employees to not engage in social media discussions on Trayvon Martin and other non-sports topics, then reversed course in light of what a spokesman called a “tragic situation” and allowed “this particular expression of human sympathy.”
This wasn’t political debate, this was basic human empathy. It was a fearful realization that African American men could be pursued and gunned down merely for walking down the street, with no legal penalty for the killer. It wasn’t the last reminder of the perils of black skin. And with each new incident — Michael Brown in Missouri, Sandra Bland in Texas, Philando Castile in Minnesota and on and on — the agony and the arguments played out on Twitter, with ESPN personalities weighing in.
It was possible to engage in these highly charged discussions while observing company policy when it came to endorsing political parties or candidates. Hill frequently jumped in where she saw fit, and often sought to differentiate between social issues and political discussions, never more succinctly than when she told Sports Illustrated “Equality isn’t political.”
The lines blurred with the election of Trump, who offended women and people of color during his campaign and has spent far more time condemning the media than he has spent condemning white nationalists. This is not a matter of debating tax reform or foreign policy. For an African American female journalist such as Hill, Trump’s occupancy of the nation’s highest office and the millions of people who co-signed his views could be considered another “tragic situation.”
It’s akin to USA Today NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt weighing in on the health care debate by retweeting New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s tweet that the latest Republican proposal to repeal Obamacare would increase coverage costs for people with metastatic cancer by $142,650 per year and adding the comment: “If this is accurate, this is disgusting. Signed, person with metastatic cancer.” It was an uncharacteristic foray beyond the realm of sports for Zillgitt, but it obviously sprung from a close-to-the-heart reaction to the political discourse.
Hill made a mistake in venting her frustration on Twitter, a public forum whose 140-character format doesn’t allow for thoughtful discussion. She used the flammable label of “white supremacist” on Trump without supporting her case. The easiest way to do so would have been to link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story in The Atlantic, “The First White President.” In his typical unrelenting style, Coates laid out the premise that Trump’s electoral college victory was a triumph for — and byproduct of – white supremacy. But it’s notable that among the thousands of words in his story you won’t find the specific phrase “Donald Trump is a white supremacist.” That’s not by accident in a piece that underwent serious editorial review before publishing. It is self-imposed restraint for the sake of fairness.
But one of the questions to emanate from the Hill tweets is, who is entitled to fairness? Should Trump be given the benefit of a doubt given his track record, as summarized here by Coates? In the wake of Hill’s tweets, we saw other writers, including David Zirin in The Washington Post and Charles Pierce in Sports Illustrated declare that Trump “is a white supremacist.”
And while Charles Blow of The New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winner Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald didn’t use such declarative sentences, they eventually delved into the issue and reached the same conclusion.
All of those pieces were significant in that they didn’t get sidetracked from the original premise. They are good examples to use for one of my primary pieces of advice for students in the opinion business: don’t react to the reaction. Focusing on the reaction to a story instead of the core issues of the story itself has become one of the biggest recurring failures in journalism. Case in point: the way the Colin Kaepernick story went from a silent protest against police brutality to a debate about whom the national anthem represents to the current story of whether Kaepernick has been blackballed by an NFL that’s awash in mediocre quarterbacks. The media gets so easily distracted by the sequences of louder and more outrageous responses to a story that we neglect the issues of actual public importance.
Within days of Hill’s tweets the topics shifted to ESPN’s response to Hill, then to how that compared to previous ESPN responses to violations of its social media policy, next to a White House spokesman terming Hill’s tweets a “fireable offense”, then to Trump attacking ESPN’s business and demanding an apology and, finally, to a TV segment discussing the week’s developments being derailed by a reference to women’s body parts.
None of those mattered as much as the issue Hill first raised, and Zirin, Pierce, Pitts and Blow deserve credit for not losing sight of that. And it’s noteworthy that they were allowed to raise this issue – on the pages of their news organizations, not on their own social media accounts – without reprimands from their employers or rebukes from the White House. It’s also noteworthy that they are all male (Zirin and Pierce are white, Blow and Pitts are African American).
Jemele Hill is the lone African American woman regularly providing opinions in the realm of sports television. If you’ve seen the responses she gets on her Twitter feed or the comments on her Instagram page lately you’ve seen the attacks she receives simply on the basis of that status. Therefore we can’t discount her unique position as a contributing factor to singular focus on her words on Trump amid the large chorus of his critics. Is it possible Hill was treated more unfairly than she treated Trump?
Recognizing the rarity of her accomplishments and the potentially precarious moment in her career, Hill’s defenders rallied behind her in a show of support that went far beyond the ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut. Sports journalists, including David Aldridge of Turner Sports and Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, switched their Twitter avatars to pictures of Jemele Hill.
Without even realizing it, they provided a coda to the origins of this whole saga, back to when ESPN journalists changed their avatars to Trayvon Martin in a show of support.
Much of my lessons to students in social media involve caution and risk/reward analysis. Always consider the worst-possible reaction to a tweet and consider there’s no way the best outcome could compare. Retweets and likes don’t compare to a career. As a person who already held a prominent position, Hill only stood to lose on Twitter. ESPN sure didn’t benefit.
Note that Hill didn’t apologize for her tweets. She did express regret that she put her company in a bad place. But when all the noise settled down she had brought a critically important issue to the table, opening a door that some of the less hysterical, more responsible media members chose to enter. We all can agree that it wasn’t right for her to say these things on Twitter. That doesn’t mean we’ve closed the case on whether what she said was right.
J.A. Adande is the Director of Sports Journalism at Medill. In that role, he oversees the Medill Graduate Sports Media Specialization and teaches both graduate and undergraduate journalism students.