MEMPHIS — Near the end of Jemele Hill’s lecture Tuesday at the University of Memphis, the award-winning writer gave the audience a piece of advice on being a journalist.
“Tell the truth bravely, even if it makes people uncomfortable,” Hill said.
It’s a motto Hill lived as a former columnist for ESPN and a current staff writer for The Atlantic. She was recently named one of Rolling Stone’s 20 women that are shaping the future.
Hill’s talk was part of the university’s 8th annual Norm Brewer First Amendment Lecture.
Much of the first half was devoted to the infamous tweet she sent in September 2017 calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist, her suspension for tweets advocating the boycotting of Dallas Cowboys advertisers and why she eventually left ESPN.
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“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 according to a story posted on Memphis’ College of Communication & Fine Arts website. “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.”
She noted that, in her mind, the tweet about Trump was her merely being a journalist making a fact-based statement in the wake of Trump’s comments following a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Instead of dwelling on that, she chose to dive deeper on another tweet — one sent by Trump on October 10.
In October 2017, Hill tweeted fans should boycott Dallas Cowboys’ advertisers after owner Jerry Jones said he’d bench players who knelt during the anthem. Trump then responded by tweeting “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have “tanked,” in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”
She recalled laughing when she saw the tweet and going back to bed. When she awoke and went to her favorite steakhouse, she saw it blew up into a firestorm that was the talk of cable news.
Hill said the situation was meant to silence her, but she instead felt awakened to re-examine her career. She had been at ESPN since 2006 and after co-hosting SC6, an updated take on the 6 p.m. SportsCenter with colleague Michael Smith, she realized how unsatisfied she was.
It led her to return to The Undefeated, ESPN’s site that discusses the intersection of race, culture and sports. But after 12 years with ESPN, she and the company mutually agreed to part ways.
In addition to writing for the Atlantic, Hill started a production company, Lodge Freeway Media, with best friend Kelley Carter, who writes for The Undefeated. On April 8, she will debut a podcast entitled “Unbothered” on Spotify.
She closed her lecture by encouraging younger journalists to speak truth to power at a time where journalists are under attack. Fittingly, Hill left one last bold remark by speaking out against a media industry that is becoming less diverse, citing a lack of sports columnists that are female and non-white.