ESPN, Twitter, and the myth of objectivity

Charles Pierce’s Sports Illustrated defense of Jemele Hill, the ESPN anchor who posted on her Twitter account that President Trump is a white supremacist surrounded by white supremacists, is a takedown of the news industry that is about as blistering as it gets.

Jemele Hill attends ESPN: The Party 2017 held on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, in Houston, Texas. John Salangsang | Invision/AP

Yesterday, a White House spokesperson said Hill should be fired for her point of view.

Gene Denby, NPR’s Code Switch blogger, recommended it via Twitter last night. You’ll have to forgive language used in the point he makes: “objectivity is bull****.”

I’ve stated as much in this space for years — without bovine references. Journalists are chasing an impossible ideal and, in the process, becoming timid in their coverage, unwilling to upset anyone and risk being called unobjective. The “brand” must be protected at whatever cost.

Here’s the money section of Pierce’s essay:

Suddenly, all of us had to be concerned about “the brand.” We were warned not to do anything that might damage “the brand.”

Often, “the brand” was camouflaged as the publication’s “credibility,” but anyone over the age of five knew that “credibility” translated into don’t write or say anything that might cost us a couple of dollars or get us screamed at by the talk-show lunatics on the radio.

I once was severely disciplined by my newspaper for having called Newt Gingrich “a doughy fraud” in another venue. I mean, honestly, if you can’t call a doughy fraud a doughy fraud, what the hell is the fun of being in showbiz?

We already have gone too far down the road on which our employers presume to have some sort of right to control us in our off hours. journalists, that ought to mean that our employers have no right to get hysterical for anything we write that’s outside the institution that pays our salary.

Writers think. Writers write. And, in 2017, that means that they share their thoughts in writing with the world in what has come to be the equivalent in cyberspace of the old town square. To threaten someone’s employment for something they wrote in their personal time just because it drew you some angry phone calls is not a labor strategy. It’s extortion.

So, in conclusion, and in the spirit of an earlier Boston alternative journalist named William Lloyd Garrison, who told a sleeping country, “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” So, in that spirit, let me say the following:

Jemele Hill is a tribute to the people who raised her and an ornament of great value to her profession.

The President of the United States is a white supremacist and a racist, just like his odious father was before him.

So, is there a problem with objectivity here? No, Denby argues after declaring the concept “B.S.”

Her bosses talked to Hill and told her the tweet in question was unacceptable. She has, judging by ESPN’s statement, seen the error of her ways.

That itself is not a neutral nor “objective’ stand, Denby argues.

“The idea that reporters should not explicate white supremacy in a conversation about elector politics is not a neutral decision,” he says. “Whiteness is not neutral. Neither is leaving it unexplicated. There are consequences for making it plain, and consequences for not doing so.”

Last evening, Hill issued this statement that sought to protect ESPN’s brand.

Her original tweet is still there.

From the archive: The ‘objectivity’ v. ‘fairness’ debate (NewsCut)