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This article was published 15/9/2017 (1058 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Long, long ago in another millennium, I had an editor when I started at the Free Press who refused to vote — federal, provincial, civic, none of it — on a point of principle.
He felt that as a journalist, it would be a betrayal of his objectivity to choose a side in an election campaign, even if it was in the privacy of a voting booth.
I remember thinking at the time that if that was true, journalism is surely the only occupation that requires you to surrender your bedrock rights as a citizen just to do your job.
Man, have times ever changed.
I was reminded of how far we’ve come from those strict standards over the past week with the furor that has erupted over a series of comments ESPN anchor Jemele Hill made on Twitter in which she left absolutely no doubt about what her politics are.
"Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists," Hill tweeted on Monday.
"Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period."
Hill went on from there, but, well, you get the picture.
Now, there’s a good chance that as a Canadian you don’t even know who Hill is, but as an African-American anchor of ESPN’s suppertime Sportscentre newscast, she is a very big deal in the United States.
On a network that is bleeding subscribers and laying off staff seemingly monthly, Hill’s show is — or at least was — one of the few things still working on ESPN and she has 673,000 Twitter followers to go along with millions of nightly viewers.
Her comments, not surprisingly, caused an uproar — but not the one I was expecting.
While Trump supporters predictably lashed out at Hill and ESPN and the White House even called for her firing, the loudest voices of protest this week came from Hill’s media colleagues who were outraged — outraged, I tell you — ESPN had issued a public apology over Hill’s comments.
The general consensus, at least in the media, was Hill did nothing more than what journalists are supposed to do — tell the truth — and ESPN did not sufficiently have her back when the whole thing blew up in her face.
That is, of course, absurd and it is a monument to just how in love with our own voices my profession has become in the age of social media that the reaction to Hill’s comments was anything other than that they were wildly out of line coming from a journalist (yes, even a sports journalist; yes, even a sports anchor) and, as White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued this week, a fireable offence.
Indeed, it says so right in the ESPN employee manual, which advises all company employees on social media to "avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric."
Now, we can debate, I suppose, whether Trump is a white supremacist or simply a craven opportunist who will accept support — and validation — from wherever it comes.
But wherever you fall on that spectrum, I think we can agree that Hill’s comments were very definitely "personal" and absolutely "inflammatory."
So why, then, is Hill still on the air but another ESPN broadcaster with a loud mouth on Twitter, Curt Schilling, isn’t? And why, even more to the point, are many of the same commentators who demanded ESPN yank Schilling off the air now among Hill’s most vocal supporters?
Well, it’s because somewhere along the way, the media appointed itself the arbitrators of the acceptable range of viewpoints we’re all allowed to hold in our society. And Schilling — with his rants against Muslim extremists and transgender bathroom users — found himself on the wrong side of that line.
Hill, on the other hand, had the good fortune of expressing a viewpoint about Trump that the overwhelming majority of her colleagues also seem to hold, judging by: almost every media person’s Twitter feed I’ve seen over the past year; a range of academic studies that have found journalists overwhelmingly tilt left; and every media party and social gathering I’ve been to in over 30 years.
If only reporters voted, my experience suggests, marijuana would have been legalized 30 years ago and every government in the country would be NDP. That’s just a fact in a profession in which almost every first-year journalism student, when asked why they want to be a reporter, says, ‘Because I want to change the world.’ Good luck with that, kid.
It’s this same pack mentality that anointed Bruce Jenner a hero when he announced he was transitioning to a woman and his new name was Caitlyn — and then labelled a pariah anyone who suggested that perhaps the word ‘hero’ was more appropriately reserved for, oh, I don’t know, the boys who landed at Normandy?
Michael Sam, who came out gay just prior to the NFL draft? Another hero. Also, a lousy football player, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of another condescending lecture from the media about how we’re all terrible.
And now, of course, it’s Trump.
Now, there is a case to be made here, I suppose, that objectivity has always been a myth — you’re making choices the second you put pen to paper in a notebook — and the best thing that could happen is that all us media types lay all our cards on the table instead of pretending, like that editor all those years ago, that we’re some kind of weird blank slate entirely immune to the influences of the world around us and a lifetime of experiences.
I’ll go first: I hate the Blue Jays — so much — for a lifetime of reasons I won’t go into here. Does it colour and even skew my viewpoints on Major League Baseball? Of course — although I’d argue it is also simply an empirical fact that Jose Bautista is the whiniest athlete in pro sport.
But laying out where you stand so that your readers, viewers and listeners can make a fully informed assessment of the information you’re providing them is one thing; using your bloated Twitter feed to foist your unsolicited opinions on an unsuspecting public is quite another.
Jemele Hill has 673,000 Twitter followers for one reason and one reason only — because she is a prominent personality on a major American sports network. And so for her to then turn around and use that outsized megaphone to give a disproportionately loud voice to her opinions on American politics is hubris of the worst kind.
And it’s also bad journalism. Schilling got fired for the same reason Hill should be fired — because he recklessly used a very valuable platform given to him by his employers to advance his own personal agenda, in the process undermining his own credibility and that of his network.
True story: the Free Press once had a young female intern file a news story that deliberately misspelled the word ‘woman’ as ‘womyn’ throughout the copy. An editor — he also doesn’t vote, I don’t think, but more out of sloth than principle — quickly disabused her of any notion that spelling mistakes were the path to gender equality in this country or that it was her job to be advancing a cause in the first place.
As a sports columnist, I’ve got lots of opinions and a privileged position here at the Free Press to express them. But I harbour no illusions that people are sitting at home just waiting for me to come down from the mount to tell them what to think about politics or the hot button social issues of the day.
There’s a reason no one in the media saw Trump coming — it was because we were all too busy telling everyone what to think that we failed to hear what they were actually thinking.
Hill, Schilling, me and the rest of the media would all do well to shut the hell up for awhile and start listening again.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
Updated on Saturday, September 16, 2017 at 8:54 AM CDT: Edited
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