What Are Black Sports Journalists Allowed To Say About Trump And Race?

ESPN host Jemele Hill is being roasted for calling Donald Trump a white supremacist. HuffPost spoke with three prominent black journalists about what truths they are permitted to tell.
Journalist Jemele Hill in Los Angeles on June 25, 2016. 
Journalist Jemele Hill in Los Angeles on June 25, 2016. 

Jemele Hill said what she said.

In a series of tweets stemming from an odd conversation about Kid Rock, the co-host of ESPN’s “SC6” called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”

“Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime,” she wrote. “His rise is the direct result of white supremacy. Period.” She added that Trump’s presidency had empowered other white supremacists and that his bid for the White House wouldn’t have been successful if he weren’t white.

Backlash to the tweets, helped along by people like former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry and Fox Sports Radio’s Clay Travis ― who frequently says racist things ― led ESPN to release a statement saying Hill’s views “do not represent the position” of the network. This made things worse.

Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, called Hill’s tweets a “fireable offense.” That same day, ESPN tried to prevent Hill from co-hosting “SC6” with Michael Smith. In a tweet, Hill said her “regret” was that her comments “painted ESPN in an unfair light.” ESPN’s public editor, Jim Brady, said Hill ― and the media at large ― should “let the reporting do its work, and resist more incendiary labels.”

None of what Hill said in her initial volley of tweets was inaccurate. Trump voters were driven by racism, and white supremacists openly support him. His campaign rhetoric was a dog whistle for white supremacists. His attorney general has praised the Immigration Act of 1924, a law crafted by eugenicists and championed by people hoping to preserve a “distinct American type.” After a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump attributed the violence to “both sides,” even though none of the counter-protesters killed anyone.

That Trump is a white supremacist is a straightforward conclusion that can be drawn from an abundance of available evidence.

But not all straightforward conclusions are admissible in mainstream American media, particularly on the subject of race, particularly when stated by a black woman.

To get a sense of the straitjackets placed on black media figures working in a predominantly white industry, where “white supremacy” is usually seen as a slur applicable only to Klansmen and Nazis, I convened three prominent black journalists: Greg Howard, a Metro reporter at The New York Times who previously wrote for The New York Times Magazine and for Deadspin; Elena Bergeron, former staff writer at ESPN The Magazine and current editor-in-chief of SB Nation; and a current ESPN employee who, for obvious reasons, wanted to remain anonymous.

The conversation took place over Slack, a group messaging service. With the participants’ agreement, a transcript of that discussion appears below. It’s been edited for clarity and length.

Greg Howard: I guess I’m mostly frustrated by how disingenuous the entire conversation around it is. None of the events around it are actually real.

ESPN Employee: Yes. It’s not about name-calling.

Elena Bergeron: It really highlights for the public how easy it is to attack and pile on women and POC in the media. There’s a thing in all of this about the policing of her opinions and the level of authority other people (trolls, etc.) feel like they have over her voice ― and that those criticisms should be acted upon.

Greg: It’s even more cynical than that for me? Clay Travis and Britt McHenry are viruses! Their only goal is self-promotion. Their goal is to increase their star power. We can talk about whether they really believed that Jemele should be fired.

But Clay’s endgame was to say boobs on national TV.

Julia: I keep looping back to how this wouldn’t have happened to a white person. Hell, Miss Texas came at Trump over white supremacy and she was praised. Groundbreaking criticism. *rolls eyes*

ESPN Employee: There’s a really troubling double standard and I think media companies are struggling to recognize it and it shows. This administration targets black female critics in particular.

Julia: Could you expand on that?

ESPN Employee: So, ran a conversation that Chris Cillizza had about this and tried to frame this as tit-for-tat schoolyard politics. I think that’s completely misguided. So much of the way this situation has been discussed elides the role that race plays in this, which is weird. It elides that correctly identifying threats from racism and white supremacy are not optional for black people. It is part and parcel of our survival in this country because we cannot rely on protection from the state.

Julia: Greg, tell me more about Clay Travis.

Greg: He’s a troll. I don’t really think he has any sophisticated political view or anything. He’s not a journalist or anything. His whole, entire game is self-promotion. He’s sexist and racist, and his best trait is that he recognizes there are others like him out there ― which is why he largely attacks black people and women in an effort to self-promote.

ESPN Employee: Greg are you talking about Clay Travis or the president?

Greg: Both, because no one who’s invested in it would deny that Donald Trump is a white supremacist ― not people of color, not white supremacists, not regular-shmegular racists like Clay Travis and Britt McHenry.

ESPN Employee: Right. We saw that after Charlottesville. The white nationalists and neo-Nazis there believe Trump is on their side. All you have to do is look at Reddit and 4chan. The evidence is staring us in the face ― and we have to stop behaving as though what happens on the internet doesn’t have real world implications.

Elena: It’s a good reminder for me that: 1) women and POC who are in the media get a disproportionate amount of harassment and criticism from all sides; 2) when Jemele and anybody who has a front-facing job within a company get attacked, their options for responding publicly are really, really limited.

ESPN Employee: Yes, that is really scary. I mean, journalists are ostensibly front-facing employees, right?

Elena: As someone who has to manage writers and social staff that deals with trolling all the time, I think a lot about how to support them publicly without dulling their voice, or mitigating frustrations or (accurate) facts they’re bringing up.

The most important thing out of all of this is who stood up for Jemele.

ESPN Employee: Elena, can you say more about that? How did you develop a strategy for supporting your writers? What guided you?

Elena: That’s a thing that evolves every single day, to be honest. But we’re having a lot of conversations about it because you cannot hire people and have them lean into showcasing their personalities and then get mad/not stand by them when they showcase their personality!

ESPN Employee: I think Margaret Sullivan said something very similar in her column this week.

Elena: What Jemele expressed was based on her identity and her experience as a black woman in this country, and that perspective can’t only be valuable when it makes everyone comfortable. It’s got to be valuable when it makes some folks uncomfortable too.

Julia: Going off what Elena said earlier, let me ask y’all about this push to get Jemele off the air. According to the ThinkProgress scoop, Michael Smith, Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan all said no to taking her SC6 spot.

Elena: 🙌🏾

ESPN Employee: Thank God

What Jemele expressed was based on her identity and her experience as a black woman in this country, and that perspective can’t only be valuable when it makes everyone comfortable. Elena Bergeron, editor-in-chief of SB Nation

Julia: Elena pointed out how all the black employees involved stepped up and protected her. So how do the black folks at your outlets protect one another? I’m really interested in this idea of there being “two newsrooms” — one where white folks are, well, there and one where black people and other POC are having all these behind-the-scenes convos about what goes down. At HuffPost, we have a black Slack and all the black people talk to each other about EVERYTHING.

Greg: We have a Slack for minorities, too, but it’s mostly buttoned up.

Julia: We created this Slack after an intense union email thread on diversity where a few of us rightfully felt like we weren’t being heard. So we wanted to pop shit about it in private. What goes down at y’all’s outlets?

Elena: There are a couple Vox media Slack rooms plus some employee resource groups — all optional but there for people to talk candidly, share info, just generally support.

Greg: Honestly, our minority Slack can get lit at times. But there’s definitely hesitation to speak candidly. I definitely don’t, and I think I speak more than most.

ESPN Employee: I was surprised to see the number of people commenting on ESPN’s internal message board, which I think got leaked to Deadspin.

Greg: God bless ’em.

ESPN Employee: Haha

Greg: Yeah that was wild to see, though. Peak white shit haha.

ESPN Employee: Yoooooo. Like, wow, OK, so NOBODY gets it. We have such a huge problem on our hands.

Greg: I mean, her own coworkers were calling for her head and trying to connect what she said about Trump to Curt Schilling and Linda Cohn ― in public! I was aghast.

ESPN Employee: Clearly there are folks in Bristol [Connecticut] who think calling white people racist is as bad as actually being racist, which ... they gotta fix that.

Greg: It was fascinating, because you saw that some of ESPN’s own employees were the same sort of people trying to police Jemele on Twitter.

ESPN Employee: Do you think there’s some job envy there? Like, “I should have that SC seat, not her”?

Greg: Envy might be part of it, but I think it’s more just that many people don’t think a black woman should have that job. That underlined so much of the rage against Jemele, and that was there from the day she started. And so there’s this idea that her placement there is probationary, and that viewers are allowing her to be there. And if she steps out of line by offending them, they can call for her head.

ESPN Employee: OK, I’m glad you said that. I think it points to a bigger problem overall, which is that there are a lot of well-meaning white people who don’t understand just how racist our society is ― and they don’t have very good tools for it. Because the way we define racism is EXTREMELY limited.

Elena: Oooooh, church.

Greg: Tommy Craggs said it, but Jemele’s sin wasn’t offending the president or lying about the president or even telling the truth. It was being uppity and talking out of turn. That’s where the rage came from.

ESPN Employee: Yeah. They hate that. Hell, April Ryan didn’t even have to open her mouth. She just shook her head.

Greg: The subtext to the whole thing was, “Who said this black woman can mouth off?”

Julia: Jemele said that herself in The Ringer piece. Also, she didn’t lie. Her tweets are factually accurate.

Greg: I’m still looking for her lie!

Demonstrators in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters while protesting the end of the Deferred
Demonstrators in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters while protesting the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Chicago on Sept. 5, 2017. 

ESPN Employee: What sucks is that she’s out there alone, in terms of the higher-ups.

Greg: Yeah, I would’ve expected Rob King or someone else to have her back if John Skipper wasn’t going to. It was just peers.

ESPN Employee: Skipper is from North Carolina, but I don’t think he sees it that way. And he clearly sees himself as an ally to people of color at the company.

Greg: Which is a scary thing working in big organizations like this.

ESPN Employee: It’s extremely scary.

Julia: So has ESPN always been this way? Do they always leave black reporters on their own? Or is this just an industry issue?

ESPN Employee: I’m not sure. I mean, we’ve never seen it on this scale before because we’ve never had a president who was so obviously contemptuous of anyone not white and male and who poses such a threat to democratic norms. OK, you could argue that things shifted after Jayson Blair. We were always “other” in the newsroom. Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair basically gave white bosses an excuse to be extra cautious.

I think 'too liberal' is just 'women and people of color on TV.' The whole debate around ESPN being too liberal is complete bullshit. Greg Howard, reporter at The New York Times

Greg: I think there are a few things. ESPN’s management will never be a friend to its employees, right? Management isn’t your friend, but that’s even more accurate at ESPN because they’re not just a newsgathering organization. To ESPN’s credit, they have so, so, so many black reporters and personalities. Like, it’s hard to come up with a long list of names of black sportswriters who aren’t at ESPN.

ESPN Employee: And that caution was informed by some underlying racial prejudice, even though they’ll never admit it because black journalists are still treated as a group while whites are seen as individuals.

Greg: ESPN has given Jemele and many others a platform to express themselves in front of the world, but that comes with a responsibility to back your black talent.

ESPN Employee: ESPN is also unique because it employs so many journalists and there’s no union.

Julia: Oh wow. I didn’t know they weren’t unionized.

Greg: That’s a great point I didn’t think of. That’s why she didn’t have natural institutional support and it had to come from other black talent taking it upon themselves to smack down ESPN management when they tried to pull her from SportsCenter.

ESPN Employee: The lack of a union makes everybody scared. Management has all the power.

Elena: Well, I think it goes back to “embrace debate″ and some of the public sentiment that they’ve become “too liberal.”

Greg: I think that’s 1,000 percent bullshit. I really do. I think “too liberal” is just “women and people of color on TV.” The whole debate around ESPN being too liberal is complete bullshit. No one is turning off ESPN because it’s too liberal.

ESPN Employee: I was about to say, if they replaced Jemele with Sage Steele would we see the same whining about ESPN’s politics? The whole political backlash narrative is bullshit.

Elena: Agree with it being a red herring, but it’s one that comes from coded language about being mad.

Greg: I hate the debate around ESPN being too liberal and sports needing to be an escape from the real word. You want marginalized people to shut the fuck up.

ESPN Employee: This is about the cable bundle and the fact that millennials and younger people don’t buy it. Maybe because they’re in jobs where they’re not making any money, IDK.

John Skipper, president of ESPN Inc.
John Skipper, president of ESPN Inc.

Julia: Fun fact: John Skipper and I are from the same town in N.C., which kinda brings me to Jason Whitlock.

Greg: My dude!

Julia: So Skipper first tapped Whitlock for The Undefeated. What does that say about what kind of outspoken black people he finds acceptable? 

Greg: Hoo.

ESPN Employee: Oh dear.

Elena: Woooo.

Julia: 🤗

Greg: I think they’re unrelated. I’m choosing to believe they’re unrelated haha.

Greg: Well, nah, they’re loosely connected. Dammit.

ESPN Employee: Do you think Skipper knew how reviled Whitlock was by most black people?

Greg: There’s no way he did. If he asked a small group of black people in his company, he would’ve scratched the idea in a few minutes. I also think Skipper thought that because Whitlock was black, putting him in charge of a prestige site was subversive and progressive in itself.

ESPN Employee: Which again, points to just how far we have to go with “good white people.”

Clearly, we have a problem in the difference of understanding what white supremacy is. They think it’s white hoods and burning crosses. We think it’s the foundation of the whole damn country. ESPN employee

Greg: Right. I think with Jemele, it’s a little different. Like, I almost threw my laptop through the wall when I read ESPN’s first statement ― which was basically, “Don’t worry, she knows what she did, she’s being punished.”

ESPN Employee: It was gross. One, because it was so infantilizing!

Greg: Yes, and it was clearly to try to appease the people who terrorize her every single day.

ESPN Employee: Right! And there is no appeasing those people. They’re not going to be happy until we’re all gone, with the exception of Ben Carson, maybe.

Greg: I have a friend who said these disingenuous policies do buy you reprieve. It’s just chum in the water. It was such a naked appeal to all these disgusting false narratives.

Elena: I read it more as they were saying what she actually did was offend her colleagues, which is weird because it’s OK for colleagues to have different opinions about conservatism or who they vote for, etc. Calling out white supremacy isn’t a thing that should be offensive to anyone on a staff, though. People have to separate the argument about conservatism (political, fiscal, social) from confrontations about racism.

Greg: Will Cain is on ESPN and offends his colleagues nearly every day. It’s about who’s allowed to offend their colleagues.

ESPN Employee: Clearly, we have a problem in the difference of understanding what white supremacy is. They think it’s white hoods and burning crosses. We think it’s the foundation of the whole damn country.

Elena: Any attack on white supremacy, because the general population lacks the language to differentiate, seems like an attack on conservatives. It shouldn’t be. But if people believe in the inherent superiority of white people and they act on that belief … that’s white supremacy, white hoods or not.

ESPN Employee: White liberals benefit from white supremacy too. And it makes them uncomfortable. Remember when Kevin Drum tried to label it as a “fad”?

Greg: Never forget.

ESPN Employee: To a lot of white people, this is a right vs. left issue. And for black people, we’re like, naw, ya’ll still don’t get it.

Greg: You see people who benefit from white supremacy trying to talk about decorum.

ESPN Employee: Tone policing. “Not the appropriate time.” “Not the right venue.” “Be patient.”

Greg: “Not the place.”

It’s dismissive. To say Jemele Hill shouldn’t say our white supremacist president is a white supremacist because it was rude or mean is dismissive of the fact that she is less safe and has fewer rights than men or white people ― and even fewer now since Trump has been elected.

Julia: Elena, did you ever feel like you could write about race when you were at ESPN?

Elena: That’s tough to respond to because I was writing for The Mag and, culturally, I always found that it was a little bit more open than the rest of ESPN. I felt like I could write in my voice, and I felt like I could make Young Jeezy references in copy and not have to explain it.

I also profiled Louis Farrakhan’s grandson, who at the time was a big basketball prospect who went on to play for Virginia. Race definitely factored into his recruitment and no one on that staff pushed me away from that story. I wrote it, I’m proud of it.

Greg: Oooh gonna read that today.

Jemele Hill and her co-host Michael Smith covering the NBA Finals on June 12, 2017.
Jemele Hill and her co-host Michael Smith covering the NBA Finals on June 12, 2017.

Elena had to leave after that question.

Julia: Does print — and this is for everybody — get more room to discuss race? Because we have Race/Related at NYT. There’s The Undefeated. And even at HuffPost we care about race. But on TV, I just don’t see it as much — at least not as blatantly or bluntly.

Greg: I definitely had more room when I was at NYT Mag than at the paper itself.

ESPN Employee: Somewhat. You have to be careful. Sometimes it’s like, you have to have an extra layer of receipts that easily adds another 500 words to a story that could go without it. Or, in places that are REALLY white, they’ll defer to the only black person because they know they don’t know ― which is also bad, because then you have no one to trade ideas with.

Greg: I think it’s mostly about who’s in charge. I felt most empowered to speak about race when I was at Deadspin, because the two top editors and, like, three of the top four editors at the site were people of color. At NYT Mag, I had a black editor and black writers around me. You could tell the top editors, although they were white, were truly invested in the magazine’s black talent grappling with race and stuff. You don’t get that as much at the paper.

Julia: HuffPost always cared about race, shoutout to Black + Latinx Voices, but when Lydia Polgreen took over we REALLY started caring about it.

Greg: NYT Mag operates almost autonomously, and they have Wesley Morris, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Jenna Wortham, Jay Kang, Rachel Kaadzi Gansah and others. “Talking about race” isn’t an option, really. The paper is less diverse. There are fewer people of color in positions of power. There’s not as much institutional support. And you have fewer people who can improve and sharpen your thoughts and ideas. So you become more hesitant as well.

ESPN Employee: Here is my overarching frustration: Race gets consigned to a beat but it’s not a beat, not really. It should be part of EVERYONE’S beat because it is such a big part of the way life is experienced here. You can’t really section it off.

Julia: YES. That’s been my biggest frustration. I see some stories that we publish and they don’t include race and it’s mind-boggling. I say to myself, “I would have covered this completely differently than you.” 

Race gets consigned to a beat but it’s not a beat, not really. It should be part of EVERYONE’S beat because it is such a big part of the way life is experienced here. ESPN Employee

Greg: The only way that changes is by hiring editors of color who understand that. And that’s not really happening all that quickly anywhere.

ESPN Employee: Journalism is still struggling to adapt to the fact that the white experience is not universal with gradations according to class, geography, etc.

Greg: I don’t think they’re trying to adapt at all.

ESPN Employee: Well, there’s that.

Julia: Welp.

Greg: At Gawker Media and at The New York Times, there were pockets of minorities who made the argument that the white experience isn’t the default or universal, and to have a more diverse newsroom is to have a better one. And the response was disheartening in both places. It’s disheartening everywhere.

And that’s why Jemele’s situation is so frustrating. It really appeared like a bunch of people at ESPN agree broadly with a lot of her trolls. That you can and should excise race from conversations, even if you’re a person of color.

ESPN Employee: Obviously, that’s the whole point of a diverse newsroom and those numbers haven’t budged. But also, if you are white, and you go home, and everyone in the houses around you is white, and most of your kids classmates are white, too ... you’re going to be resistant.

Julia: Meanwhile, I’m inundated by whiteness at every turn and I’m also really over it.

ESPN Employee: Right. So even the smart people we know who are responsible for telling the rest of the country wassup are living in a bubble. They think it’s a class bubble, an ideological bubble. No, issa race bubble.

Julia: I went on a Twitter rant about this. About how, for me, it’s not just class. It’s race, too. I grew up poor and now I feel weird in these journalism bubbles because I’m black and I grew up poor.

ESPN Employee: Right, it comes back to what Greg said earlier, which is basically that this is about white discomfort and an expectation that everyone else moderate their actions around it.

Julia, you realize when this gets published, you’re going to get comments saying “that ESPN employee is racist against white people.”

Julia: Yep. And I can’t wait to tell them to fuck off. But, my last question is this: Should Jemele apologize?

Greg: Lol for what?

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