Jemele Hill

It’s been an interesting month of media interviews for ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who addressed her suspension over tweets about boycotting NFL sponsors on Jim Miller’s Origins podcast and made some news with commentary on Nick Saban and the Alabama election in a New York magazine profile. Hill’s most recent interview is with Richard Deitsch on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, and it’s a wide-ranging hour-long discussion of everything from her tweet about Donald Trump and the backlash and support it drew (including, as she reveals, support from Warriors’ star Kevin Durant) to the ratings and evolution of her SC6 show to ESPN president John Skipper’s sudden resignation to race in the sports media.

However, the most headline-worthy portion of the conversation may be where they start, with the response to her September tweets calling President Donald Trump “a white supremacist.”

Shortly after the controversy flared up around those tweets, Hill tweeted that her comments “expressed my personal beliefs,” and that “my regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light.” Later that month, she wrote a longer column at ESPN’s The Undefeated, where she said “Twitter wasn’t the place to vent my frustrations because, fair or not, people can’t or won’t separate who I am on Twitter from the person who co-hosts the 6 p.m. SportsCenter” but also “My criticisms of the president were never about politics. In my eyes, they were about right and wrong.”

And in October, when preparing to return from her suspension over those NFL tweets, she told TMZ “I would tell people, absolutely, after my Donald Trump tweets, I deserved that suspension. I deserved it. Like, absolutely. I violated the policy; I deserved that suspension,” but also “The only thing I’ll ever apologize for is, I put ESPN in a bad spot. I’ll never take back what I said.”

Hill’s comments to Deitsch continue along those lines, but offer perhaps the most specific public defense she’s made yet of using the term “white supremacist,” and also further explore her argument that she wouldn’t have drawn so much controversy if she’d used that term in a different forum than Twitter. That part of the discussion starts around 7:30 in the podcast (following a discussion of the criticism she received first from the White House and then from Trump personally on Twitter), where Deitsch asks “As you look back on the specific tweets criticizing Donald Trump, do you have any regrets on the specific language? Not the fact that you criticized the president, but any regrets about the language that you chose when you criticized him?” Here’s Hill’s response:

“I have more regrets about the medium. …Most of us find out every day in some form or fashion that Twitter is not necessarily a place for nuance. Twitter’s not even really a place where if you want to have some extensive conversation, especially about race, Twitter’s not set up for that. It’s built on quick thoughts, okay, and that’s not something to have quick thoughts about. So I don’t really have any regrets about the language that I used, because I do think that there is some evidence to at least where we can question some of the things that he’s said and done, and for that matter, examine why there are clearly large groups of people, women, people of color, who feel they’re very vulnerable at this time and under attack. I don’t regret what I said or even the language that I used.”

“…It’s just the where. The where is problematic because, of course, there are these problems that are going to be created because of who I represent and who I work for. And that’s just not a conversation that people are accustomed to someone in my position having, especially not in an open forum. And I’ve often wondered, if I were on a panel discussion at Harvard and said the same thing, would it have resonated the same way? Because I do think now that Twitter’s become what it’s become, it’s an easy place to search tweets and create headlines and create sort of this thinkpiece-like environment for other media entities.”

“And I think timing is everything, and I regret the timing too, because there is, and I’ve mentioned this before and talked to you about this before, the timing of especially where and how ESPN is being viewed by a lot of people, those are things that in a forum like that, it’s just not going to go over well. So, as I’ve said before, I don’t take anything back from what I said, I’ve been very consistent in that message, but I do think the environment lends itself to it drawing more attention than it was probably worth.”

Hill’s somewhat right there that Twitter absolutely lends itself to quick takes rather than nuance, and to those takes spreading far and wide. But it seems likely that the particular “white supremacist” language she used here would have sparked a wider controversy regardless of where she said it. If she said it on a panel discussion at Harvard, someone in the audience is going to tweet it, and while that might not spread quite as quickly as the tweet from Hill’s own account did (and might come with additional context if it was part of a longer response), a prominent ESPN host using that particular language about a sitting president feels like something that still would get a lot of attention in the end, especially given the wider criticism of ESPN for a perceived left-wing political slant. But Deitsch goes on to make the valid point that while it would be noticed, it might have led to less internal controversy at ESPN, saying “I agree with you on the medium; had you said that at some panel forum at some university, I think the reaction both from your employer and from some others would have been different. And that’s an interesting angle to consider.

It seems like ESPN is incredibly focused on what their personalities say on Twitter, and not so much what they say elsewhere. While the new social media policy covers “social media platforms” rather than Twitter specifically, a lot of it seems very directed at Twitter usage. And while a lot of that policy (particularly “Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in “hard” news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders,” “Commentaries on relevant sports-related issues are appropriate, but we should refrain from overt partisanship or endorsement of particular candidates, politicians or political parties,” and “Communication with producers and editors must take place prior to commentary on any political or social issues”) doesn’t appear to be completely enforced so far, it’s out there and gives ESPN an excuse to suspend or otherwise discipline anyone who does create a Twitter controversy.

But there have been crickets when personalities like Hill have made comments that appear to be about specific candidates and have not received editorial approval in other forums, like her thoughts on Nick Saban and Roy Moore in that New York profile. So it’s definitely interesting to wonder if ESPN might have been more publicly supportive of Hill if she’d said the same exact thing about Trump in a university panel discussion rather than on Twitter, even if it wound up spreading as widely and creating the same backlash. And that raises questions of if it’s the substance of comments they care about, or just where those comments are made.

At any rate, this interview’s the clearest indication that Hill isn’t backing away from her comments calling Trump a white supremacist. And it’s interesting that Thursday also saw her engaging with another discussion of her and the White House:

Hill’s overall conversation with Deitsch has a lot of interesting material, including the support she received from colleagues and others like Durant, her thoughts on how SC6 has changed to more of a traditional SportsCenter format than it was initially, and a discussion of John Skipper’s surprising resignation. That’s also notable forher commentary on the widespread theories that there’s something more to it than what ESPN announced (36:50):

“There’s two different hats I can wear in this answer. One is as somebody who works there and knows John and has no reason not to take him or for that matter the people around him at his word, so there’s that part of it. But the other side of it is that it was such a shocking story that people automatically, your spidey senses are up, and you say ‘Surely there’s got to be more, there’s got to be more to the story.’ Because I think on the journalism end of it, you’re just accustomed, it’s in your DNA to question everything, we’re all taught to do that.  But at least everything that I’ve seen and for that matter everything that I’ve heard has been completely consistent with what the public has seen. I have no reason to be skeptical of the reason that he decided to resign.”

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that as soon as I heard the news, that wasn’t my first thought, ‘There’s something else, right? This couldn’t be it.’ Just going through that fear that  there would be some other shoe to drop that some of us never saw coming, beyond obviously the very personal admission of struggling with substance abuse. But certainly since I’ve been back from vacation, I’ve had, and I’ve heard from other people, I have had no reason to believe there is something bigger and more damning than what we’ve already been told.”

So that’s notable, as is her commentary on SC6 and her thoughts on the lack of black women in prominent sportswriting and sports columnist positions. But it’s the discussion of those Trump tweets that particularly stands out here, and Hill’s clearest indication yet that she stands by specifically calling him a white supremacist, just not the forum she did that in. It will be interesting to see if she offers similarly-pointed commentary in the future, on Twitter or in other forums.

[Art 19]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.