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Jemele Hill discusses Trump, journalism at U of M speech

In less than two years, Jemele Hill has been on the receiving end of a headline-grabbing @realdonaldtrump tweet, served a two-week ESPN suspension for voicing her opinion on Twitter, led much of the national discussion about former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and joined the staff of The Atlantic, where she has embraced her role as a writer and social commentator.

And yet, she sees herself simply — as a journalist, nothing more.

“I’m not an activist, even though I am often characterized as such,” Hill said. “I’m just a journalist who is committed to finding ways to bring awareness, attention and disruption to the issues I think are central to us frankly being a better society.”

Hill, the former ESPN journalist, spoke Tuesday night at the 2019 Norm Brewer First Amendment Lecture Series at the University of Memphis’ UC Ballroom. The core of her speech centered on her voluntary departure from ESPN — where she worked in a variety of roles for 12 years, including as co-host of the network’s landmark program, “SportsCenter” — and President Donald Trump’s decision to attack her with “the infamous tweet, the tweet heard around the nation in September of 2017.”

At ESPN, the outspoken Hill increasingly found it difficult to manage her employer’s corporate realities and her own inner voice as a journalist unafraid to speak the truth, whether on sports, race or politics. She wasn’t suspended for calling Trump a white supremacist — a comment she vigorously defended Tuesday night — but rather for pointed comments about the NFL’s handling of Kaepernick’s well-publicized protests against U.S. police brutality against African-Americans.

Hill’s “white supremacist” comment came after Trump’s controversial reaction to the racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Her opinions about the NFL ran afoul of ESPN’s billion-dollar television contract with that league, she said.

“If I were ESPN, I would have suspended me, too, but that still wasn’t going to stop me from saying what I had to say,” Hill said before the largest crowd in the Brewer Lecture Series’ history. “I was just comfortable assuming the consequence of what came with it.

“Being at ESPN changed my life. We were on the same page 95 percent of the time when I was there, but in this case we just weren’t — which is OK. Two things can be true at the same time. They can protect their business and I have the right to protect my integrity.”

Put another way, “ESPN and I were two people who loved each other, who respected one another but had no business being together.”

Hill, a graduate of Michigan State University, spent Tuesday afternoon at the U of M’s Meeman Journalism Building meeting with students from the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media. “@jemelehill spoke to my class today. How was your day?” tweeted Robert Byrd, assistant professor of journalism, after Hill addressed his students.

Hill seemed to be speaking directly to the U of M’s journalism and strategic media students when she discussed concerns about her profession during an era when the president often calls the media the “enemy of the people.” She described journalists as “disruptors” — a positive term, in her view — and implored students who have a passion for truth and storytelling to follow her into the field. She especially called for an increase in the number of journalists of color in the United States, where an overwhelming majority of writers, editors, photographers and broadcasters are white.  

“We (journalists) are not meant to be liked, and certainly a lot of times we’re not even appreciated,” Hill said. “We’re here to agitate, but not merely for the sake of agitation. If you want to be a journalist, you have to be in it for something that’s bigger than yourself. It has to be bigger than being famous, it has to be bigger than being on television, it has to be bigger than for seeing your byline in print. You have to be committed to this work.”

The lecture series is named for the late Norm Brewer, a celebrated newspaper and television journalist in Memphis whose commentaries about social justice and the civil rights movement were vital to the city during that time.

— Phillip Tutor, CCFA media coordinator, potutor@memphis.edu

Published inDepartment of Journalism and Strategic Media

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