Many years ago, far more than either of us would likely want to admit, a wonderful journalism professor of mine dropped a little verity on me and the rest of my class that has stuck with me ever since.
He said that each of us brings our own personal baggage to each story that we cover, meaning that we bring our life view and experiences to our work as journalists.
My professor was awfully prescient and his wisdom became apparent to me last week in the midst of a media tsunami where an ESPN anchor named Jemele Hill called the president of the United States a white supremacist in a tweet.
Before the end of the week, Trump’s press secretary would call for Hill’s firing, ESPN would distant itself from Hill’s remarks and Hill would apologize for the linkage others drew between her and ESPN’s supposed agreement with her tweet by its failure to fire her.
Hill, who is African-American, is a co-anchor along with Michael Smith, of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, ESPN’s news show.
The company, in an attempt to bring more personality to its programming, has allowed its anchors to be more expressive on air.
Towards that end, Hill and Smith, who is also black, bring a decidedly non-traditional, more urbane and urban approach to their version of SportsCenter, which launched last winter.
Their ratings have been mixed, a fact that conservative viewers have seized upon, with the cry, “Just stick to sports.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, I consider Jemele Hill to be a friend. We’ve known each other for more than 15 years and I’ve watched and admired her work.
Though I might not have said precisely what she tweeted, I don’t disagree with it.
To many, there is a distinction between what is expected of, say, NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt, and Jemele Hill.
One is the stentorian voice of a network news division, while the other merely reads scores and talks to dumb jocks.
Maybe, but I have always operated under the presumption that the people who read or listen to me in a news setting are entitled to all the facts I can deliver in as balanced an approach as I can deliver, regardless of whether I am reporting on an Orioles game or a five-alarm fire.
We’ve reached a time in our culture where journalists are expected to lay everything on the table. It’s not enough that we tell you that your team won and how they did it.
We’re now expected to tell you what we think it means and on occasion, how you should feel about it.
We’re allowed our own truth, but at the end of the day, it is just that: Our own individual truth. Nothing more, nothing less.
Jemele Hill has every right to believe that Donald Trump is a white supremacist. But ESPN has the responsibility to make sure their audience knows that each employee’s individual truth does not get in the way of telling you, the viewer, the reader, the listener, what happened.
A journalist, sports or otherwise, should never let his or her baggage damage their effectiveness. We’ll see if that happens to Jemele Hill.
And that how I see it for this week.