Jenee Darden: My name is Jenee Darden. I’m the East Oakland reporter at public radio station KALW and we are the oldest FM station West of the Mississippi and we deliver fresh sounds when it comes to news and content in the Bay area and around the world. So make sure you listen to us on the 91.7 FM dial or online at kalw.org. And KALW is proud to be a media sponsor of tonight’s event and we thank Cal Performances for the opportunity. We’re able to do this with member support. So thank you to our members, and you can learn about becoming a member on our website at kalw.org.
Now, what we all have been waiting for, I am so proud to introduce two amazing fellow black women journalists who will be in conversation tonight. Yes. Jemele Hill was born in Detroit, the great city of Detroit and always knew…
Give it up for Detroit, Detroit in the house? All right. And always knew that she wanted to be a journalist and she was a sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel, the Detroit Free Press, and the Raleigh News and Observer and oftentimes the only woman in the locker rooms reporting on the teams. She went on to work at ESPN for 12 years as a senior correspondent and anchor of the flagship show Sports Center. Today, Jemele Hill is an award-winning journalist and staff writer for the Atlantic and host of the podcast, Jemele Hill Is Unbothered. You can listen to on Spotify, and yes, Ms. Jemele is very unbothered. She is also known for being an outspoken commentator who is not afraid to speak her mind, speaking truth to power.
She explores the intersection of sports, race and culture with the passion and veracity even when it means challenging that certain person in the oval office. And all of this is one of the many reasons why Jemele was named the 2018 journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Interviewing Jemele tonight is my colleague Hana Baba, host of Crosscurrents from KALW News, yes, and co-host of their award-winning podcast The Stoop, stories from across the black diaspora. Her work has won awards by the San Francisco Press Club, the Society for Professional Journalists, Northern California, the National Association of Black Journalists, and she was named a Bay Area African cultural icon by the California legislators. So, please give a big welcome to my colleague Hana Baba and our special guest for tonight, Jemele Hill.
Hana Baba: Hi Jemele.
Jemele Hill: Hello. I know that’s not my husband whistling because he can’t whistle, so thank you whoever’s whistling in here.
Hana Baba: Hi, are you all ready tonight to just like, yes. So I know lots of people have questions in their heads. You will get an opportunity after our chat to ask your questions. Hello Jemele.
Jemele Hill: Hello. How are you?
Hana Baba: Welcome to Berkeley.
Jemele Hill: Yeah, thank you guys for having me, by the way.
Hana Baba: Have you been here before?
Jemele Hill: This is my third time here. The last time I was here, I spent a season doing sideline reporting for college football and it was Cal when Keenan Allen was here, I know you guys are familiar with him and he actually got hurt badly in that game and I think you all lost if I’m not mistaken. Sorry to bring up negative memories. So I was here for that and I think I was here for a different speaking engagement before. So this is, I’m getting a real taste of Berkeley, walked around campus today, so that was pretty fun. I think I blended in.
Hana Baba: You think?
Jemele Hill: I think. I went to, what is it called — Super Duper? So, I don’t know …had a burger, some lettuce, it was lovely.
Hana Baba: So, I think I want to start at your beginnings. And you said before that growing up you weren’t a talkative child, but you spoke up when necessary. You were not a talkative child when you were little.
Jemele Hill: Hard to believe, huh? No, and this is, despite what I do and what people know me as, and that’s always been sort of my way. That’s doesn’t mean that I’m some kind of wallflower or a shrinking violet. But I think sometimes it’s important to conserve your energy and then kind of wait. I’ve always been an observer. So I would kind of watch a situation and then when I feel like I need to summon Thor’s hammer, I will. So I’m more strategic.
Hana Baba: Like, you’ve always been that way?
Jemele Hill: I’ve always been that way — more of an observer, because you can learn a lot more by listening. What’s the old adage? That God gave you two ears for a reason and one mouth, right? So I always like to kind of watch and see how people are and react to just assess the situation that way. And then when I feel like it’s necessary, I’ll say something.
Hana Baba: Oh, you’ll say something.
Jemele Hill: I will. Yeah. No, I will, I don’t have any problem with that. As anybody who’s following me knows, but I just don’t feel need to do it all the time. Sometimes it’s okay to just fall back.
Hana Baba: When did you know you wanted to be a journalist? Is it really since you were a kid?
Jemele Hill: It was.
Hana Baba: Were you the curious little kid, want to know everything?
Jemele Hill: I was, I used to read a lot, I used to write a lot, write a lot of short stories, poems, that kind of thing. And I wrote these little mini novels and created sort of this world that I wanted to live in, if you will. Kept a diary, even though my mother kept reading it, oh it was traumatic and not apologizing for it either. So I did that part of it. And again, being a voracious reader and then in high school in like 10th grade I sort of figured out I can combine the three things I liked. I like to read, I like to write and I love sports.
Hana Baba: Did you grow up in a sports family?
Jemele Hill: No, not particularly. I mean, my stepfather, he taught me a lot about playing sports, but sports was always something that I loved. I can’t remember not loving it. And baseball was like my first love. And kiddies back in the olden days you had to actually read the newspaper to follow your sports teams. And so I would read the newspaper, follow my sports teams, I was that kid on Saturdays. There was, hopefully there’s some people in here also 7,000 years old like me, because there was something called This Week in Baseball. They came on every Saturday and I would watch that and all the games that came on and I would just sit there and right in front the TV and watching endless endless baseball games, which seems crazy and no, I’ve not been stuffed inside a locker.
I wasn’t a nerd, but I definitely just kind of love sports. And I was the neighborhood tomboy and so when I got to high school and then I took a high school journalism class, it kind of all started to fit together. And it was in high school journalism that I went to a professional newsroom for the first time because the way that it works in Detroit is all the high school newspapers, once a month, The Detroit Free Press, which is one of two of the major newspapers in Detroit, they put out an insert with all the high school newspapers in it. So everybody gets one page, all the city high school newspapers. So you have to go to the paper to put your high school newspaper together. And so the first time I was exposed to a professional newsroom, it was like, bam, this is what I want to do, because people are crazy, they were yelling, there was like all this energy. And I was like, “Ooh, what are they doing? And I want to do that.” And so I got hooked and I’ve been at this since I was 15-16 years old. And it’s been a tremendous ride.
Hana Baba: Sports journalism. So you’re growing up, you’re watching TV, you’re reading the papers, you realize that this is a male journalists’ space?
Jemele Hill: I was too dumb to know that. I mean, I knew that, but I didn’t know it. And this is why whenever I talk about mentorship, I preach this to both mentees and mentors: The first thing you can give a mentee and the first responsibility as a mentor, you need to give them a sense of belonging. That this is something that you have every right to do. And because I came down to the newsroom, the Free Press also had this apprenticeship program where they selected 10 Detroit area high school students to come and apprentice at the paper for 10 weeks, 20 hours a week. And I wrote an essay, I have no idea what I said, but it worked, and I was one of the 10 selected. And the very first mentors that I had that were assigned, they assigned every kid in the program two mentors.
And I had two women, Johnette Howard and Rachel Jones, still friends of mine. And Rachel was a feature writer and Johnette was a sportswriter. And from them I got that sense of belonging. So, I never knew that it was something I wasn’t supposed to be doing because if the very first person I knew that did, it was a woman. I went with her when she covered the Detroit Lions practice. And so that was my first time seeing a woman in that environment, and it was just all just crazy to me. And I was like, “Oh my God, I want to do this.” And so, because I got that early confidence or at the beginning of my career, I just never went through a period of self-doubt, which is totally normal for any woman in a male-dominated space, especially a black woman. So, I was very lucky that I got that sense of belonging early.
Hana Baba: And when you went into sports journalism and you were, on the field, you were in the locker rooms, we spoke before for our podcast called The Stoop, which you were going to subscribe to, today right? And you’re all subscribed already to Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, right?
Hana Baba: Yes. You told us a story about being a black woman reporting in the locker rooms and that you felt protected. Can you talk about that? Do you have a story about Charles Barkley in particular in terms of him being protective of you?
Jemele Hill: No, it was, it wasn’t Charles Barkley. I think the player you’re thinking of, I’d got to know Chuck … It was a guy named… He played for the Indians and I think of his name is Julio Franco. That’s his name. If you’re 8,000 like me, you know who Julio Franco is.
Hana Baba: There’s another story about Charles Barkley.
Jemele Hill: I have a ton of stories about Charles Barkley, I don’t know that they are all meant for this room, but I got a lot. I was an intern at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and it was my first sports internship because before I actually started to do sports and I knew I wanted to do it, but I got a lot of advice from those older, wiser who had built strong careers that I should do news first to give myself a really, versatile, grounded training.
And I don’t know if you heard this, athletes sometimes commit crimes. So my first summer as an intern at the Lima News in Lima, Ohio, which is about two hours outside of Detroit, I spent it covering cops the whole summer. And only later to understand cops and football coaches are like literally the same people. But that’s besides the point. So, no disrespect to any football coaches that might be in the room, but it was good training and good background. So, when I finally got a chance to cover sports, I felt confident in sort of the things that I was doing, but I was covering the Indians and I was basically there to help the main beat writer.
And this is in 1996, and the Indians were quite good. They, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Albert Bell, who’s one of the worst people I’ve ever met. But that’s beside the point. But sort of the point. That locker room was terrible, and I knew after that experience that summer, I never wanted to cover baseball ever despite the fact that this was my first love. And so the players, they were just like kind of mean, and just surly for a 95 win team, they sure acted like somebody pissed in their cornflakes all the time. And there was, Albert Bell for those who don’t know, was a very volatile personality during those days. He had a very bad reputation with the media, he did not speak to the media, and when he did it was an event.
And so this is the intimidating locker room that I’m walking into and Julio Franco, older player on the team, I think he was 40 years old then, and he kind of took me aside and he looked out for me and when the other guys wouldn’t talk to me, he would give me quotes or tell me like, “You should talk to that guy, ask him this.” Very good guy, and I never forgot that. And sometimes whether you’re a man or a woman that happens in these locker room dynamics, is sometime one or two players that’ll look out for you and help that transition less so. Because the thing is that when you walk into these environments, you’re on their turf, right?
This is the clubhouse, they don’t like reporters in there. Look, we don’t want to be there any more than they want us there. We just are trying to do our jobs and that’s it. And when you come in these situations, and I’m either one of three or all three at once where I’m either the only black person in there, and the only woman in there or the only black woman in there, or as I said, all three. And so you feel as if there’s a spotlight following you everywhere you go. I’m trying to blend in, but you can’t really blend in in that situation. So with reps, it took me some time to kind of get over that anxiety of being in the locker room.
Hana Baba: Was there a point where you were like, “I can’t do this?”
Jemele Hill: No, because that’s the thing about, I think in part, me growing up where I did and how I did growing up in Detroit is failure was just not an option. I don’t do it, I’m not going back to Detroit. So, it’s just like, I had to make it work, I’m not choosing anything else. I’m terrible at math, I don’t like science, so what else am I going to do? So, I have to make this work.
And the other thing is that there’s some fire-breathing editor that’s on my case, right? And so you can’t go back to the newsroom and say, “Hey, I didn’t get the story because it was a little too intimidated to go into the locker room.” And they’re already looking for reasons why women don’t belong in sports, why they don’t belong in locker rooms. I wasn’t going to give them that ammunition, so I had to suck it up. But I often tell women who asked me the same questions that it’s normal to feel anxious, it’s normal to feel like you don’t belong, but trust me, it does get better with time.
Hana Baba: Because you feel like the only?
Jemele Hill: Yeah, I mean it’s an isolating place, I mean as you know, is that when I was at the Orlando Sentinel, and I was the sports columnist there, in my first columnist job, and I was the only black female sports reporter or sports columnist, excuse me, at a daily newspaper in North America. Not America, North America. That is not something to be proud of, not for me. It’s an embarrassment and indictment on the industry that I’m a part of, because I’m not the smartest black woman that ever wrote sports. Definitely, I’m not the best writer, not the best reporter. I’m alright, but its like, you’re not going to convince me I’m the only person that was deserving of that job. And so, automatically just having that label, it lets you know that you’re standing out and it let’s you know what you’re up against at the same time.
Hana Baba: And that brings me to this question about, you know, you’re talking about sports journalism, but journalism overall, like the numbers of people of color in journalism are still very embarrassing. And there’s talk about diversity, I mean every conference we go to, there’s the diversity panel and how do we get more people in journalism…
Jemele Hill: Always second place at the place where there’s already diversity.
Hana Baba: Right.
Jemele Hill: Why is that conversation taking place at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention? All the black people are there, we need the white people, who actually hire people.
Hana Baba: I mean, we’ve been talking about this for so long now. Why do you think it’s not working?
Jemele Hill: It’s not working… So I used to have this belief that if they just found us, if they understood that there’s a lot of us that are talented, they just need an opportunity, things will change. They just have to get more vigilant about recruiting. And now in my old and surly, 9,000-year-old age notice, I keep adding a thousand?
Hana Baba: It was seven and eight.
Jemele Hill: It was seven a minute ago, now I’m at 9,000, right? I’ll be like 35,000 by the end of this. But I realize it’s intentional. It is purposeful that they don’t want to find us. And it’s heartbreaking because getting into this business, I got into it because I felt like I wanted to tell stories, I want us to tell our stories and I wanted to be one of the people that help contextualize current events. And I wanted that feeling of 50 years from now when you crack open the newspaper, and I realize you guys don’t even read newspapers now, but just go with me, that when you crack it open and you see one of my stories and you’re like, “Oh, so that happened?” Like we’re historians at the end of the day to some degree. But I’ve realized that frankly that it is on purpose. There is no real desire, no real genuine desire to actually include us in this business.
Hana Baba: Or else they would have done what?
Jemele Hill: They would have done it already. And as you said, we’ve been having this conversation for decades. This is like my 22nd year in the business. All 22 years we’ve had this. And I wonder whenever somebody that’s in a decision making capacity comes to me and ask me for names for positions, automatically, the first thing I ask is like, “Where have you looked?”
Hana Baba: And have you looked?
Jemele Hill: And have you looked.
Hana Baba: Or, you’re sitting and waiting for people to come to you?
Jemele Hill: Right. So here’s what doesn’t happen. The way some of these executives and editors act, is as if they’re going to hear [knocking sound], “It’s diversity.” Like, it’s not going to come knocking at your door. You have to go actually recruit it, kind of like you do to white people. That’s what you got to do.
Hana Baba: And if there’s nobody ready to be recruited, you need to train them. Are you ready to do that?
Jemele Hill: Not just train them. It’s like, groom them in that same way that we see them do with other people. And that just does not happen for us, for the most part. We have to network and just navigate a little differently because at this point, look, NABJ has been around 40 plus years. It’s the largest minority journalism organization in the country. If you’re still asking yourself, where can I find black candidates? It happens every summer! You know where we are! It’s 3,000 of us! So what’s your excuse?
Hana Baba: It’s thousands.
Jemele Hill: Thousands of black journalists in one place. They have AAJA, same organization, NAHJ. They have every minority, so what is your excuse? You don’t have one. The excuse is, you don’t care. So, I’m tired of giving them a break and gently having this conversation. I’m not going to have it gentle anymore, I’m just going to tell them like, you don’t care about diversity. So, you can sit up here and have your fancy presentation about how it’s so hard. Okay, that’s great. But I know you’re not trying. Have you been to HBCU? You know, they kind of exist. A bunch of black people are there. Go find them. They want jobs. I don’t know, it’s not that hard. You’ll come to Cal, will you go to Howard? Will you go to Morgan State? You know what I’m saying? It’s not rocket science.
Hana Baba: Why is it purposeful?
Jemele Hill: It’s purposeful because much like a lot of things, journalism is only a microcosm of what we see in the rest of the sectors of society. There are four black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Four. Meaning the four brightest black people ever. Is there that many white people that is that much smarter? So, it’s like, it’s intentional. And I know people don’t actually look at it that way because it sounds so harsh, but I can only guess that your intent is not genuine because I see how you recruit everybody else. I see how you groom certain people. So now I have to wonder what is it that is keeping you from doing this? It’s not access, it’s not the fact that they’re not out there, it’s not the fact that you can’t, it’s just there’s no willingness.
It’s kind of hard to fight your way in a system that was never designed for you to succeed. It was never designed with you in mind. It’s very hard to do that. So, it’s going to always be a challenge I think for people of color to fight their way into industries, we have to fight. There have been allies certainly along the way that have eased this process, but it’s just not enough. And so I’ve often challenged, editors and people in those positions who think of themselves as allies that, are you really? Look at your Rolodex. Like who are you taking to lunch every day? Who are you saying, “Hey, just stop by my office anytime.” Who? Like if there are people that look like you, then you ain’t allying nothing. You’re just saying it, so I need to actually see it put into practice.
Hana Baba: And you mentioned a little while ago that what you said might be cruel or what did you say?
Jemele Hill: Yeah, maybe harsh.
Hana Baba: Harsh. You said harsh. And so let’s get into that. So you again, just like Jenee said, not afraid to speak your mind, you’ve been like that since you were little, right? And you get back a lot of flack and you get a lot of crap. Well, first of all, how do you not respond, but how do you take care of yourself in even like… Do you absorb all of this that’s coming towards you or do you deflect it or like what do you feel when you see all these people on Twitter? Like today, I was on your Twitter, I was like, “I don’t know what I would do. But what does Jemele Hill do?”
Jemele Hill: Well, I mean it is, I won’t act as if sometimes it’s not frustrating. It’s not frustrating because I care what they think. It’s just frustrating because sometimes people are just so dumb. It’s just like, “Do you walk around like this?
Hana Baba: So, you feel sorry for them?
Jemele Hill: No, I didn’t say that. I’m just more like, just bothered. Like, what?! So, there’s that part of it and that’s natural for anybody to feel that way. But here’s where I’m grateful to be 10,000 years old. I’m grateful because I did not grow up with social media. I’m a social media immigrant, right? And I think the people, many of whom I’m sure are in this room, you guys grew up with it. And because I knew of a life before Twitter, before Snapchat, when you had to leave messages on people’s answering machines, right? Where people not being able to reach you all the time was not considered some kind of crime of the state. So, growing up that way, it allowed me to have a much healthier relationship with social media because I could take it or leave it. These people don’t know me, I don’t know them. Half the stuff that they say on Twitter, they never say to my face. So, I can’t care too much about the opinions of people who in the grand scheme of my life, don’t matter.
Of course, on the other side of it, I think I receive a lot of love on social media. And a lot of support and I’ve gotten to know some awesome people, I’ve been able to be exposed to writers I’d never would’ve been able to be exposed to, and people are just generally funny and it’s opened up a lot of the world as well. So I try not to be the person or old woman yelling at cloud about social media because I think there are some huge benefits to it. But at the same time you kind of have to just keep it in perspective. I used to say this all the time and it still applies is that, you could go off on me or cuss me out or say whatever.
But you know what happens twice a month? A paycheck happens. And it really doesn’t matter. That paycheck’s still coming regardless. So, unless you’re Jeffrey Goldberg, who is the editor-in-chief for the Atlantic, I don’t care. Or unless you know you’re Courtney Holt, president of Spotify, I don’t care. So, when those names are attached to an email, or to a tweet, then I’ll care. Other than that, you’re not stopping what I have going. So, it’s just sort of, what is the old adage, “The lion does not care about the opinion of sheep.”
Hana Baba: All right. That’s an old adage.
Jemele Hill: It’s an old adage for people 11,000 years old. That’s an old adage.
Hana Baba: I was fishing for that, just a little bit.
Jemele Hill: It comes with experience. Like, it wasn’t like when I was born, I immediately had this sensibility. It, unfortunately, comes through learning and the first time I got some hate mail I was in college and hate mail was a little more archaic. So this, whoever this person was, used to send me and a lot of the black staffers at my college newspaper, used to write, hateful, slur-filled stuff and put it on, you go in the bathroom and they had the paper towel, but it’s not like real paper towel, it’s like some cheap sandpapery, paper towel. So, this dude was writing messages on those calling me all kinds of names in the book.
And yeah, it was very jarring because I grew up in Detroit, I mean the city was like 90% black. I’d never been called any of the things that this person called me, and so it was a big awakening. Like, this is something that I’m going to have to deal with probably the rest of my career. And it started from college and it just so happens that over that course of time, I learned how to deal with it. I don’t like that I had to learn how to deal with it. I don’t like that I have to tell other younger journalists, particularly women, that this is a part of the job that you have to accept because the onus should be on the jerk doing it, not on the people who actually have to be subjected to it.
Hana Baba: But what do you tell young women and young journalists?
Jemele Hill: I do have to tell them that, you know, I hate the thick skin speech. I really do. Because nobody has a right to dehumanize you and call you out your name because they don’t agree with something that you wrote, said or whatever. But at the same time, I have to tell them this is coming and not to internalize it. Whoever that person is that has that opinion, they don’t know you. They’re just going by what they think is you. They’re going by an opinion. They’re pissed off about a lot of things that have nothing to do with you. And as hard as it may be, you have to teach yourself and constantly affirm again, that sense of belonging. It takes practice. It’s not something that you just are automatically born with. I think you get better with reps.
Hana Baba: You’ve done print, television, and now you’re in audio. I mean you’ve done it all. You’re in our world. Yeah. Welcome. Where do you find yourself more? Do you have a favorite? Do you have a place where you feel like you can do what you do better?
Jemele Hill: Well, one of the reasons I left ESPN is because I wanted to be able to play in some different spaces. And what I love about this iteration of my career, which is completely different than anything I’ve ever experienced. I mean, leading up to two years ago, I had only worked in corporate media. You know I worked at ESPN for 12 years, I was at the Free Press for six years, at the Sentinel for two. I’ve only known that model of, “Your paycheck’s coming from here every couple of weeks. Boom, this is what you do, this is the company, this is who owns that company.” I sort of was in that mode. And even though at ESPN, the beauty of being there is that you learn how to do a bunch of different things because they have their hands in everything. So there is where I first started podcasting, there is where I did radio, did television, wrote, like did all the things that you’re required to do in today’s media age as a journalist. You have to be a utility player. And once I left, I wanted to be able to try some different things. So I wanted to write for the Atlantic, a publication that I had long read and respected and-
Hana Baba: Were there any terms when you came to the Atlantic people?
Jemele Hill: No, the only term was that…
Hana Baba: Were they like, “Jemele you can talk about anything, but…?”
Jemele Hill: No, no, they have given me complete freedom. The only requirement was that I only write for the Atlantic and that was it. Other than that, they have been amazing and I’ve grown so much as a writer because it hadn’t been something I’d done for full time in years. So, to get back using that muscle again, it was great. And this is no disrespect to the television industry that — when somebody says no disrespect, disrespect, it’s about to happen. So, no disrespect, but the thing that was always startling to me about television is a lot of producers I worked with, a lot of producers, executive producers, like none of them were journalists. And in a lot of cases you were with people who were younger than you that had never covered a team, that had never been in the locker room.
Hana Baba: Why were they there? Who are they?
Jemele Hill: Because the producer track and television is much different, and I’m not saying this is 100% the case, but at least 70 to 80% of the cases like you’re working with younger kids who they understand the visual part of it, but they don’t understand the journalism of the storytelling part. So, it was a challenge at times to work with people who were not as smart in that area that you needed them to be. Smart people in their own right, but not in the area of journalism.
The Atlantic is a lot different. You throw a dart in there and they’ve covered the White House 65 times or they’d been a political correspondent or they’ve covered wars or like the level of what those resumes look like was different to the point where I was like, “I don’t even know if I should be in here because I’m just a sports hack. Like, this is something else.” But that part was the challenge. And I really enjoyed that is being able to learn from people who knew so much more than me. And it was a gratifying feeling to return to that. So I wanted to make sure I exercise the writing muscle because writing was always my first love. Television just kind of happened.
Hana Baba: And then radio and then podcasting.
Jemele Hill: And then podcasting because I enjoyed it at ESPN and now I always enjoy interviewing, learning from people, talking to people, pushing people in some cases, having that dialogue. And because I’ve been able to build the profile I had then the opportunity to sit down with some really compelling people across the spectrum of sports, entertainment, politics, news, that was very appealing.
Because podcasts, I mean they’re very intimate environments where most of you guys when you subscribe to a podcast, you’re choosing to spend a lot of time with it. And so the people that listen are really dedicated to hearing you and hearing whoever you have on. So, I knew that was going to be a part of it. And then again, the storytelling part. So me and my best friend from college, we started a production company and we want to develop shows. We have two shows in development now. We’ll have some pretty big news coming on one of them soon, so stay tuned. And we wanted to be able to tell stories and really position, highlight ,and give a platform to a women of color, black women in particular. So I’m able to do all of these things, and as I often joke, I traded in six jobs or traded in one job for six. So in addition to working on a book, so these are all things that kind of all different, but have synergy I think.
Hana Baba: In addition to your huge platform, you’re now very famous, standing up to 45. What kind of a responsibility do you feel? Does it feel heavy to have all of this or how do you…
Jemele Hill: Heavy is not the word…
Hana Baba: How do you compartmentalize? What do you do?
Jemele Hill: Heavy isn’t the word that I would use. I think what I would say is that it’s an honor, because we all are standing on the shoulders of somebody else. And people who have gone through 20 times what I went through and I put went through in quotes, because no it would not make any person, citizen of this country feel good to have the white house calling for you to be fired. And had the president say you’re the reason that ratings have tanked and all that kind of stuff. But when I think about the totality of my life, the president saying that the white house calling for that, is literally 1200 on the list of bad things that have happened to me. It wouldn’t even rank anywhere in the top five. And that’s, it’s not even close. And really given it 1200 is probably too much.
Hana Baba: That you care about?
Jemele Hill: That I care about. Because I mean, from where I came from, growing up in Detroit, single mother, recovering. Both my parents are recovering drug addicts. You know, I’m going to try to say this as Christian as I possibly can: I don’t care about Donald Trump. Like, I just don’t. I mean, it’s just like, “All right, great, glad you spell my name right in the tweet.” No, I don’t care about him in the sense of caring about how he thinks about me. I care about what he does because I’m a citizen and I pay taxes, as we all should care from that standpoint. But what he says, what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said about me, literally, I don’t care. So it wasn’t something that kept me up at night. It changed my life. It changed it because as you alluded, my profile sort of exploded and it changed just in the type of attention that I get now, that is way different than it was before. It more upset my life than anything. It didn’t make me feel any kind of way about what was said about me. I didn’t internalize any of that. It just, I had to adjust to more people knowing me, I had to adjust to the fact that there are, and I mean this literally, more people who want to kill me. So, I had to adjust to those things.
Hana Baba: So, you fear for your life?
Jemele Hill: I think I did when it happened because of not just the attention, but some of the response that I was getting. Like when I was at ESPN, I had to shut off my voicemail entirely. Like, I didn’t have voicemail at the end of last year or so that I was there because I just got like one quick sample of what was being left. And I was like, “You know what, I don’t even need this in my life.” And I just told ESPN security to dismantle it. And then, just immediately when I went out in public spaces, me and my husband, we went to a Monday night football game with his dad and another friend of mine and we had to have security, just in case.
The thing is they know me, I don’t know them. And yeah, with some of them saying some of the things that they heard, you just never know when somebody’s going to jump stupid. And it wasn’t until recently that I actually read some of the snail mail that I received during that time and it was harsh. It was some bad stuff in there. And on Facebook, I’ve gotten plenty of death threats and that sort of thing. So, it just upsets your life in that regard where it makes you a little more cautious about where you are publicly.
Hana Baba: You’ve talked about how people you say are shifting away from information, at the same time there is so much information but people are moving away from information. What do you mean by that?
Jemele Hill: It’s a confusing time because it feels as if there’s this sentiment and maybe it’s because of stupid buzz words like coastal elites or people suddenly making education sound bad. Like it’s bad to be informed, which I don’t quite get. And one of the things that’s really changed in journalism is that when I first got into it, I think people were mostly in the mindset of when I tune into the news, just want to see what’s going on, get updated on my day, learn a few things and that’s it. But now because of the emphasis of networks have changed, people go looking to confirm beliefs as opposed to understanding what’s happening. And as long as everybody’s in that confirmation bias, then real information, it’s harder for people to digest because if it goes against what they believe, they’re just not going to believe it. And I’ve never seen such stubbornness and such a rush to be stupid, ignorant. I’m like why are you proud of this? I don’t understand.
Despite the fact the facts can be right there. And I think a lot of it, I’m not talking about opinion, I’m talking about facts. I think a lot of it is that when you have leadership that lies so openly and has been able to build a cultish following, it just really permeates kind of the rest of how news goes. So, it’s a very tricky time for everybody. And now, you add in social media, and the fact that there are active influencers that come on social media to purposely misinform and to create noise and tension between groups. I mean, there’s going to be a number of books written about how this age of information was totally weaponized and contaminated to create and stoke certain things in the populous. I mean, I had an opportunity last summer to interview Kamala Harris, Senator Kamala Harris, and she said something that really stayed with me when she was talking about the interference, not just in our election, but the interference on social media. She said something that was very true.
The people that interfere on those platforms and disrupt those platforms, they went for the lowest hanging fruit. They went for the for the one thing that they know this country has not healed from, and that’s racism. They went right to that because they knew it would divide this entire country, because it always has. And so, when I see certain memes or things, it’s frustrating as a journalist because I can write a piece that’s 4,000 words that’s well-reported, researched, has all the facts, and all it takes is a baby Yoda meme to kill it with like something that’s not even true and you’re like, “Wow, a meme could circulate and people will believe the meme over the story.”
Hana Baba: And so where’s this going? Like what do we do?
Jemele Hill: I think the horse has left the barn a little bit, especially as you see media shrinking, there are fewer entities committed to actually doing real journalism and doing the tough stuff, the investigative stuff. There is, even though at every turn, what investigative journalism has been able to add and give us as citizens, it’s like I can’t even describe that. But at the same time, when you have constant messages that the media is to be hated.
Hana Baba: We are the enemy of the people, Jemele.
Jemele Hill: I mean, look, the president calls us the enemy of the state, and it’s a message that’s reverberated constantly and people believe that. And they never think about the thousands of ways that real journalism has protected the citizens of this country. I mean, most of us got into it, I know I certainly did. The majority of journalists never got into this expecting to make money. We knew we were signing up to be broke.
Hana Baba: No we didn’t.
Jemele Hill: We did not. I mean, when I graduated from college, the average salary for a journalist was $19,000 a year. And I was like, “Yeah, my credit going to be bad forever.” So, I felt so good when my first job I made $22,000, I’m like a head of the curve, right? So, none of us actually thought we could make any money doing this, we just wanted it to be watchdogs. We wanted to protect the public trust. And that’s not to say that media should not go unchallenged. And that’s not to say that media does not make mistakes because there are plenty. We just talked about the diversity issue. There are clear blind spots. That being said, when you think about what journalism has done, I think about Ida B. Wells, we wouldn’t know about lynching and the pervasiveness and the awful horrors of lynching if not for Ida B. Wells, who risked her life to report on that. And it’s so many things that we can point to, and yet for journalists to be hated, it’s really very disheartening.
Hana Baba: Ida B. Wells, who else inspires you?
Jemele Hill: Well, I mean I guess just to bring it a little more, present day. I guess I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had a lot of, I mentioned the two mentors that I had before, but I’ve had a lot of people because that’s the thing is that, you have mentors but you collect them too along the way. I still remember as a young journalist in college, how much I idolized Michael Wilbon who later became a friend of mine. I wanted a career just like his, to be old and cranky and working at the Washington office as he did for 30-plus years, him and Tony Kornheiser.
So, him and Washington Post columnist Donna Britt who has become a friend and there’s a ton of people that I’ve admired, and not all in journalism either because I think it’s important that we find inspiration from every place. Something that helps you kind of keep going. Right now, I’m almost finished with this biography on Coretta Scott King and I feel awful because I feel like when this one was alive, I did not appreciate her enough. I appreciated her, but reading her biography has been really life-changing because of the things she has gone through, and some of the things she said. So, it’s like inspiration pockets for me are just kind of everywhere.
Hana Baba: You constantly have to remind people, at least on Twitter, that the 49ers went to the Super Bowl when Kaepernick was with the team.
Jemele Hill: I did.
Hana Baba: Why do you think that is?
Jemele Hill: He’s the NFL’s shameful sin that I hope they never get absolved from, and I hope they’re always reminded. And if I got to be that person, if I have to be that person to remind them, I’m okay with that. And not just them, but everybody else. So early after the 49ers clinched the NFC championship, there was a NFL site that put out a recap of the game and the headline or the subhead as we call this a headline and then a paragraph explaining, a little bit more about what the story is about. They said, “Oh, first quarterback to take the 49ers to the Super Bowl since 1994.” I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I miss that? Did I make up 2012 because I could have swore that I saw a guy wearing a number seven Jersey that like took them to the Super Bowl.
Hana Baba: You were swift to correct them?
Jemele Hill: Yeah. And just even now the NFL, its a powerful ad, has the “Inspire Change” ads that they’re running where the players coalition, a group of players, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, that they have been very vigilant, very committed to criminal justice reform, and this is part of their work that they’ve done. And this is not to slight them at all because I think they’ve done fabulous work. But now the NFL is running commercials about police brutality and they ran one recently, I think it was today or yesterday about Botham Jean, the young man who was unfortunately killed in his own home. (Being black while home is a thing now.) By a police officer. And as I tweeted, and people are giving the NFL credit for any of these “Inspire Change” ads, I’m like, “I’m old enough to remember when a guy took a knee for one, and y’all black balled him from the league. But now all of a sudden you’re all about police brutality.”
Hana Baba: What are they doing? What are they trying to do? What is this?
Jemele Hill: They’re trying to erase Colin Kaepernick, that’s what they’re trying to do. By shifting the focus off of him and shifting it to them, pouring money, pouring these additional resources and the social justice. And that’s not to say that what they’re doing won’t have some real tangible results. It probably will and I hope it does, but at the same time they need to be reminded that this cause you suddenly care so much about that you didn’t before he took a knee in 2016. Suddenly you care a lot about because of what he did because he brought you to this point. And if you really were that serious about social justice, and equality then you would have him in your league but you won’t.
Hana Baba: Then what is it really about then?
Jemele Hill: Oh, it’s about the president. I mean NFL owners are spineless. And I knew Colin Kaepernick would never play in the NFL the moment Donald Trump said his name, would never play again. And Jerry Jones during Colin Kaepernick’s grievance, this was in his deposition, he said that the president personally told him that this was a “winning issue for him.” One of the few things that a lot of people unfortunately agree with the president about is that Colin Kaepernick should not be taking a knee. So, he knows every time he says his name that it is giving him a level of universal support that he’s never said, that he’s doesn’t experience usually.
And so, what does that say about people in this country? I’m also old enough to remember that we just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, commemorated him and the same people I saw talking about how great Dr. King was for his nonviolent protest, also the same people who think Colin Kaepernick doesn’t deserve to play in the NFL? They shouldn’t be taking a knee, so make it make sense. I don’t understand. But the NFL, I think as we have seen in the case with Muhammad Ali, as we have seen the case in a lot of history, 20 years from now, there’ll be telling a different story. They’ll act like all of this never happened. Just like Colin Kaepernick never took the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Hana Baba: But there’s Jemele’s tweets.
Jemele Hill: So there are tweets, but…
Hana Baba: They will be archived.
Jemele Hill: Muhammad Ali, the people that covered him — a lot of them talk about this and many of them are still alive, but he was very hated. I mean, Dr. King too. I mean, leading up to his death, two-thirds of this country had an unfavorable opinion of Martin Luther King Jr. They believe that his attempts for equality and his work in social justice, all of that were doing more to hurt race relations than help them. So, I challenge people in those moments because the only thing that changed is that he was right and history proved him right. It’s the only thing that changed.
It’s the same with Muhammad Ali — history proved him right. And I wonder, why do we always have to wait until it’s proven, in the moment where it’s crucial, where something’s really at stake, that’s the time to say, “I’m going to move my chips to this number here.” So, history has already proven Colin Kaepernick right. But there’s still this resistance, like he shouldn’t be kneeling and “Oh, my God, in a league where people who hit women and people accused of raping women are able to play, the dude that actually stood for social justice is black balled.”
Hana Baba: We don’t have a lot of time left, but I want to get some hopeful thoughts as well.
Jemele Hill: I feel like I’ve been Debbie Downer this whole time.
Hana Baba: No.
Jemele Hill: I promise I’m optimistic.
Hana Baba: I think a lot of people who follow you, and follow your Twitter, me included, really appreciate you, speaking truth to power and being this fearless challenger to people at the highest levels, and appreciative of that, also, I must say envious sometimes of it, of the ability to do that. But also sometimes I’m like, “What are you also excited and happy about right now, Jemele Hill? 2018 I was in that room when you got the journalist of the year award at the National Association of Black Journalists, and the room was like electric when you gave your speech. And it was very inspiring. And that was a time when a lot of people in that room were feeling down right about the state of journalism in this country. What gives you hope today? What are you excited about and not bothered about?
Jemele Hill: Well, what gives me hope is this room. One of the reasons I love coming to universities and different campuses is because the most optimistic people are here. Because you all don’t know any better, which is great. So I could feed off your energy, and your idealism, your just strength. I mean, a lot of you possess a lot of strength you don’t even know you have. And people like me who are 12,000 years old…
Hana Baba: I mean, we are at 12?
Jemele Hill: We are at 12. So, we need to be reminded that there is hope, that the stupid people have not won. And so college is, like I had the best years of my life when I went to Michigan State, not just because I made, okay Spartans, I see y’all, “Go White!” All right, okay. I had the best years of my life there and not just because I was in college and freedom for the first time, but I met some of my best friends there. But mostly it’s where the fires of critical thinking started, is there. Because in college, you’ll never probably be exposed to this many people depending on what fields you go into, from this many different backgrounds all in one place, all with kind of a very similar goal of trying to make it whatever it is. And so right now is the opportunity for you all to take advantage of so much.
Hana Baba: But it can be scary, right?
Jemele Hill: It can be, but being scary and afraid is exhilarating if you think about it because it’s the possibility of you actually pulling it off. Like you might actually do it, which should be the exciting part for you. And at this stage, I know you all are broke. I get it, but you also kind of don’t have to pay any bills to a little bit. Like, you can let them slide a little bit at this age. It’s like a lot of you don’t have kids, you’re not married, it’s so many decisions that you can make purely for you. So, it should be as equally exciting, if not more exciting than it is fearful. The fearful part shouldn’t exist, you have a blank canvas, right?
That is part of the energy that I get from going to colleges and universities: realizing that hope is not lost. And I do think the generation behind me has already gotten this so much quicker than mine did. And I think that’s all most of us can be in it for. You just hope that people behind you that they just wind up being better than you. And so when people come up to me and say, “I want to be just like you.” I’m always like, “No, you don’t. You want to be better than me, because you can be way better.”
Hana Baba: All right, one last question and then we’ll go to audience. When you’re in your podcast, it feels like you’re talking about all of these issues and politics and culture, but it feels to me, just feels like it’s a different space for you, almost like a refuge a little bit. When you’re talking to some of these celebrities and is that a place for you where you are able to kind of just slow down and get away from the negativity?
Jemele Hill: It is. Part of the reason that the guests that I have cross the spectrum that they do, I mean for example, Monday’s podcast was with Michael Eric Dyson, my Detroit homie.
Hana Baba: About Jay Z?
Jemele Hill: Yeah, about Jay Z and we have Obama’s Malcolm X. I mean we went across the board and yeah, hope you had a dictionary if you listened to because he knows very big words that are multi syllable words. But so he was Monday and the one I dropped today is with Jackie Christie, on basketball wives. Right? So everybody’s like, “What? You went from academic to ratchet in a minute.” Yeah, I did. That’s the beauty of it. So I just like interviewing people, talking to people, learning from people.
Hana Baba: And do you just go, “This is who I want, this is who I want, go producer, get me the person.”
Jemele Hill: Yeah. I mean, amazingly that has not worked with Michelle Obama, though, or Beyonce or Rihanna. Like it doesn’t quite work that way with those three.
Hana Baba: But like you have a wishlist.
Jemele Hill: Oh yeah, I just need three, Serena Williams, that’d be one as well. And I guess Barack can drop by, you know what I’m saying? As long as he know Michelle’s slotted first.
Hana Baba: They can come together too.
Jemele Hill: They could, they could, but I kind of just want her. But that’s okay though. But in all seriousness, the guest list is a lot of people I want to talk to and it’s not based off whether or not I actually agree with them or not. It’s based off, is this person interesting and do they have something to say and granted I have my limits and standards because it’s certain people that will never, unless it’s an act of God, Candace Owens, make my podcast ever. So Richard Spencer.
Hana Baba: We don’t want to know that list, no.
Jemele Hill: No, I mean, I’ll tell you. But I’m just saying like, I think it’s people that’s obvious like, because I mean what I won’t do is give stupid a platform.
Hana Baba: But what do you want to do with the podcast?
Jemele Hill: Well, what I’d like to do, like the favorite compliment I always get is when people say, “I thought one way about this person and I came out thinking another way.” So, one of the favorite podcasts I did was with Katt Williams, and I didn’t know what to expect with Katt Williams. I know there’s one coming there like, “Pimp Chronicles, I didn’t know what was going to happen.” And he was one of the most thoughtful guests and he had quite a story to tell and he’s been through a lot. He ran away at 13, because he wanted to run away. He grew up in a household that was heavily religious, Jehovah witnesses and he got tired of it. And so at 13, he hitchhiked to Florida with a dog. And I was like how?
Hana Baba: See nobody knows that.
Jemele Hill: Yeah, that’s what I learned and I was just like, “Really a dog, how? Worry about feeding yourself, wow you got another one?”
Hana Baba: And then you’re also surprised sometimes too. The Killer Mike episode at the end. You guys heard that? You guys have to hear Killer Mike episode at the end where he messes with her, F me unbothered.
Jemele Hill: He was dead serious. Three words our business we call this a tease, runaway, Negro Creek. That’s all you need to know and go listen, everybody, you got to go listen. But Killer Mike is somebody, I probably disagree with Killer Mike on 60% of the things that he says, but I like the way his mind works because it’s genuine, it comes from a real place, and I think he’s sharp, he’s astute and he’s a hell of an artist. But that’s like his to me his rapping as good as it is, takes a back seat to just kind of the critical thinker that he is. And so that’s why I started doing this podcast. I wanted people who were just like the trigger word in the title of the podcast, who were unbothered and Killer Mike fits that. You know Katt Williams fits that, Michael Eric Dyson, Jackie Christie, all the people that I’ve had, I mean it’s a ton more of LaKeith Stanfield who I had on last week, and they all fit that mode of people who had been able to make it by being their most authentic selves. And even if you don’t do the same thing that somebody does, everybody can appreciate authenticity, everybody.
Hana Baba: And you feel it and you know it when you hear it.
Jemele Hill: You do.
Hana Baba: And you have it Jemele Hill. Thank you very much.
Jemele Hill: Thank you.
Hana Baba: So again, I could talk forever, but let’s get some audience questions.
Audience 1: You talked about being one of three in the room. Whether that being black, being a woman or being a black woman? What do you think is the importance and impact of being one of the three in the realm of storytelling and moreover in journalism as a whole?
Jemele Hill: Well, I mean for me it’s a great impact, and I understand there are some people who believe, and it’s not wrong, I just think a different way is that whatever they enter into, they need to leave whatever they are at the door. I think you bring it through the door with you because it’s part of the thing that makes you special and makes you unique and makes your perspective different. And the thing you bring with you through the door, it’s not always just your blackness or just being a woman, it could be the fact that you’re from Montana, it could be the fact that you grew up middle-class. It could be the fact that you grew up in poverty, it could be the fact that you grew up upper class. Whatever it is, those collection of traits, bring them with you through the room because that’s why you’re there.
And so, whatever room I entered being in journalism, we used to laugh about this, but every year for a while at NABJ, at the conference, inevitably it would be a session called, “Are you black or are you a journalist?” And it’s like that’s ridiculous. And we will laugh about it all the time. Like really? Because it’s not like you get pulled over by the cops. They like, “Oh I saw that notepad, you’re a journalist, I’m profiling.” It’s like you’re black, so that’s the first thing. So, at any rate, that’s just my long winded way of saying that, don’t be afraid to bring those things with you because ultimately it’s okay to lean on them for a broader perspective or perspective you’re adding to the place that probably needs it.
Audience 2: I’ve got two questions, but you can just answer the first one if you want, because they both have racial undertones that people don’t usually think about. I want to ask you about Barry Bonds and not making the hall of fame and what his chances are, and then I want to ask you about teams leaving Oakland, and Oakland being like one of the most working class diverse cities, towns and the whole country but teams leaving Oakland and like going over to the other side of the Bay or to Vegas and what your kind of thoughts are on that.
Hana Baba: So Jenee who came out here to introduce us at KALW, she is, where are you Jenee? Yes. So she was a reporter on a project by KALW news called “Bounce the Warriors” last season in Oakland. And we did a whole reporting project on what that leaving the city did for the city, the neighborhoods around it, the businesses around it. And you guys should check it out. It’s called “Bounce.”
Jemele Hill: Good luck. Definitely. So I will speak from the general perspective of somebody who’s from Detroit, and who has seen a lot of what’s happening in Detroit is happening in Oakland. Gentrification, pushing people out, acting like the people who put their blood and sweat equity into this community don’t matter anymore. So I greatly, I over stand that. One, Barry Bonds is never getting the hall of fame. It’s tragic to me, it de-legitimizes the hall of fame for Barry Bonds not to be in there. You can’t have arguably the greatest hitter of this generation, not in the hall of fame. And especially, I’m going to really lose my mind if Curt Schilling makes it and he doesn’t. And I realized the hall of fame is not the hall of good guys because Ty Cobb’s in there, so I understand this right?
Audience 2: I’d rather have Schilling in the Hall of Fame…
Jemele Hill: That’s so true. Curt Schilling, terrible person, but besides the court, terrible person, great playmaker, great performer. But it’s just the hypocrisy of that would bother me more so than Curt Schilling actually making the hall of fame. So he’s not making it, I don’t think they’re going to… It’s kind of like a Colin Kaepernick deal, I just don’t ever see what will happen. As for Oakland, I think I was talking about this earlier today with somebody. I have a really good friend of mine, I think maybe you, I have a really good friend of mine who’s from here, so I know about town business. And so she’s a Raider fan and I told her, if I were you the day the Raiders left this city, I would never root for them again. Going to Vegas was purely a money move.
Think about this, you know how many years? I mean it was like 30 something years before a NFL franchise moved, and then all of a sudden you had three teams moving in like two years, and they’re all money grabs. The owners by the way, as the way this breaks down, they get $11 million each. When Oakland moved to Vegas, they got $11 million each. It was spearheaded obviously by Mark Davis, but also Jerry Jones. And Vegas, it’s tough because I know so many fans that love the Raiders and that want to see them succeed, but it’s hard for me not to wish bad things on them because I think what they did was, was weak. It was weak. And a lot of these teams, they hold communities hostage by saying, or by always threatening to leave, trying to pay… The same people that want to sit there and lecture us about bootstraps are these first ones to take corporate welfare, first ones, which is amazing.
They want to come to the taxpayers, they want to bleed them dry, they don’t want to pay for their own stadiums, they want you to pay for them. And then when you don’t, then they want to leave. And it’s a sickening cycle. And I wish I could say it’s going to end in sports, but I think it’s only going to get worse because there are so many fan bases, mayors, people that just are desperate. They so thirsty for these teams that come there then unfortunately it’s more teams, more cities that will accept them, then that will kind of stand up to them. So I’m very sad with what’s happened in Oakland, especially as the city continues to get horrendously gentrified. Then when teams move, you’re basically in some way giving them not just an inferiority complex, but telling the citizens there that they don’t matter enough to have something like the warriors representing them on a national stage.
Hana Baba: You think the warriors are cursed now? The Oakland curse?
Jemele Hill: I know some of you all hope they are, but Klay and Steph are going to get healthy and they might have a number one pick. So I don’t know if that curse is going to hold up, and if look, Draymond went to my alma mater. And I love Steph Curry, I don’t want to wish bad things on them, but I understand if you do.
Audience 3: So, I wanted to ask you about balance. Like you said, you grew up a tomboy and you’re in these spaces with like all these men and male athletes, you kind of have to make them feel comfortable and you’re one of them. But then on the same token, kind of like you’ve held black men in particular accountable, like I think the Lonzo Ball situation that you had on your podcast as well. So, I was wondering like is that difficult to balance between like kind of just being one of the guys and then holding those same guys accountable?
Jemele Hill: Oh, I mean just not even a gender thing, just as a black person, it’s hard for me to criticize black people in public. I’ll be honest, like I struggle with it when I had to write that column about how I disagree with Jay Z’s partnership in the NFL, that hurt my soul. But I had to do it because I just didn’t think what he did was right. I disagreed with it. That doesn’t mean I question his blackness or what he’s meant to the community, or the icon that he is, or anything like that. But on this particular move, I thought it was the wrong move. But that never feels good because, ultimately, you’re giving entry to other people who aren’t a part of the community, who don’t understand the community, who aren’t in on these conversations on a regular basis. They then feel empowered to repeat what you’ve said and say worse. So, that part is difficult, but at the same time, as difficult as it is now, taking it back to gender, you mentioned Tarana Burke, who I had on my podcast and she was phenomenal.
I also know as a black woman, nobody’s here for us. And I don’t want to sound like I’m overgeneralizing, but allow me to generalize, to make a point in the sense of why this struggle in particular is worse for us. You mentioned how that dynamic is when you have men in our community who are also abusing us. And when we speak out against that abuse, they were called traitors. So, that’s why I said I will gladly be called a traitor to stick up for another black woman because nobody else is going to do it, especially black men who abuse other black women.
I mean, we all know the R Kelly’s situation is like kind of the most recent example is part of the reason why R Kelly was able to be a predator with full support for three or four decades is because he was victimizing black girls, and nobody was going to stand up for them. And my challenge always to black men is that you should want these people out the community, too. And I know that we all, as black people, it’s hard because we know how the world perceives black men, we know what they go through.
We all understand that. But we can’t lean on that and say it’s okay if there are predators within our community that they are able and allow to uncheck, unchallenge and just able to prey on black women. We can’t do that. It may not feel good to cast out another black man. It may not feel good to criticize one, but we cannot let that go down. So, I realized I don’t make any friends when I do that, and I have been called just as much as I probably been called the N word, I had been called every manner of ‘coon’ there is, an uncle Thomasina, all of them. But it’s worth it for me because I know that the person I’m really looking out for is just a black woman who will never receive that level of support.
Hana Baba: And you’re actually supporting blackness when you do that?
Jemele Hill: Yes, of course. And that’s why it’s always, it’s kind of heartbreaking to see. I remember when I was critical of Floyd Mayweather, and I’m not telling anybody, don’t watch the fight, though you’re crazy to pay $100 from pay-per-view, but that’s okay. I’m saying don’t do that, but if you choose to do that, that’s fine. But whenever I wrote or said something critical about him, the Floyd Mayweather stans are some of the worst people. Just in terms of what they were saying to me about it and accusing me of taking down a black man and what about so and so and this and that. And I’m like, all right, well that’s fine. But you’re also saying in your response to me that you are perfectly fine with Floyd Mayweather hitting black women. He’s gone to jail for it. So we’re not even disputing whether or not he did it, he did it.
Hana Baba: There’s no alternate facts.
Jemele Hill: There is no alternative facts. And anybody who knows anything about domestic violence is that you know how hard it is to get a celebrity to go to jail for domestic violence. So you have to ask yourself, how bad was it that he went to jail? So anyway, I appreciate your question. It’s difficult, but it must be done.
Hana Baba: I feel like I have a podcast plug in every time you say something. The episode before last on The Stoop is called All Black Everything, and it explores the idea of critiquing blackness and whether we can afford to do it and when we should do it, and what happens to people who do, do it. Let’s take another, well, hold on.
Audience 4: Thank you for coming. Big fan. Can you talk about and or I guess my question is how have you managed being a black woman with hair obviously, and when you walk in these different types of room, obviously we know as black women our hair is automatically politicized. So I think about when you walk in that room as a reporter, what style are you wearing? I think you have maybe micro braids right now, I can’t tell?
Jemele Hill: Yes, I’ve got braids
Audience 4: Okay. Yes, I peeped that right now. So how have you managed that throughout your career? And like I was recently talking to Chiney Ogwumike about how maybe at ESPN is there a budget for black hair or there are people who…
Jemele Hill: Man, she said “a budget.”
Audience 4: You have black women on TV, right, but are the people who are supporting you to get you ready for television, you obviously spent a lot of time on television in ESPN, taking into account what that means, have a person of color on television.
Hana Baba: Yeah, I like to get into radio where it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter what you look like.
Jemele Hill: That is true. But so the person who pointed us to the North star at ESPN was Hannah Storm, because when I first got to ESPN, they did not have hairstylists at all. So, you own your own. Hannah got there, changed the game and they brought in hairstylists, and slowly all that changed and then they not only brought in hairstylists, then they brought in hairstylists who knew how to do black hair.
So, ESPN is in a great situation from that standpoint. Now, it wasn’t always that way. As usual, it takes women speaking up, it takes some difficult conversations with some people, and frankly, this is the thing of, of how it works at television. If you have enough zeros in your contract, you can pretty much demand what you want. Hannah Storm had enough. That’s why she could get it done where I couldn’t. And I even never thought to ask it because I was super low on the totem pole with my two zeros.
They weren’t going to listen to me, but they would listen to her. And I always appreciate women who do things like that who make it better for everybody else. When you got the juice as a buddy of mine, Jim Rome told me once, sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. And so when you’re the hammer you have to swing it. And I appreciated that she did that for the rest of us. In terms of your hair being a conversation. So as I mentioned, television just happened for me. It was not, I went to school, majored in journalism, print journalism in particular with no intention of ever doing television. And then when I was at ESPN, I started to get more television opportunities, started to get better at it, it kind of went from there.
And then, oh, also saw that when they gave Matt Lauer a new contract, and it was $25 million a year and I said, “To be on TV?” I mean. That being said, because TV was something that I could take or leave because it was a part of my vision board anyway, I told every agent that I had, “If they ever come to you and say something about my hair, I promise you that’s the last day I’m going to be on air.” And it was never a conversation for me.
However, with many of black woman in local markets and smaller places than ESPN, it is unfortunately a conversation. And it’s worse there because they don’t have the leverage to really say anything, because when you’re making your way and you have this on-air job that you need in order to get to the next step, and if the general manager or the person in charge of your show, the producer comes to you and say, “We need you to change your hair.”
Then you, in that moment, I don’t judge any woman who decides to do it because you’re trying to get to a place. I judge the people who ask you to do it more so than anything. Unfortunately, it is a conversation not just for women, but for black men too, black men with dreadlocks. It’s a huge conversation. You know, I had this kid at NABJ once asked me, he had dreadlocks, nice, neat, well-kept, great style, handsome, look good. He said multiple people at his station had told him his hair was a distraction and he was wondering when to cut it. And I was like, “I hate myself for telling you this, but if you’re willing to walk away, that’s one thing. But you know, you can’t afford to walk away. So for now, unfortunately you have to cut it, if that’s what they’re telling you.”
And it was such a sickening feeling to have to tell him that, but it was the truth of what he faced. I was like, “But here’s what you can do, the next time you get in a position, particularly if they have put enough zeros in that contract, you grow your hair long as hell and dare them to do something about it.” It’s unfortunate, but much like with any battle you will face in corporate America or in those environments you have to decide.
Hana Baba: Or in high school.
Jemele Hill: Yeah. Or in high school, right? The kid in Houston.
Hana Baba: That’s right.
Jemele Hill: Yeah. And they’re going to sue and they should. I mean, the fact that the California was the first state to pass the ban to discrimination on that, like we have to have it. That just says it all, that that has to be in place.
Audience 5: As a black woman and having been in sports journalism, can you riff a little bit about the networks using certain African American popular athletes with personality, A. to entertain people when there are probably so many other commentators with insights that don’t have that personality that seems to be the black personality?
Jemele Hill: Ooh, all right.
Hana Baba: Are they hiring blackness to entertain?
Jemele Hill: To entertain, wow. That’s a bar.
Hana Baba: I mean that’s what you’re saying sir, right?
Jemele Hill: So, here’s the way it works in TV is that they’re going to hire former athletes. That’s just the way it is. Playing experience, it makes sense obviously. I don’t know necessarily, they do look for certain types because they’re looking for certain types within the construct of what works. Television is a copycat industry. And as much as these producers like to act like they invented television, they didn’t. They just follow what somebody else did, and nine times out of 10 doing it worse than the original. But here’s what happens, when something becomes successful, they then look for those archetypes.
To give you an example, when me and my former co-host, Michael Smith, when we got together, I was just talking to him today in fact, I’ll tell him you guys said hi. So when we first started, as good at chemistry as we thought we had, nobody would put us on air and they would put us on air together or they would in little pockets, but they didn’t really give us a chance. And one producer, black producer said to us, “You all think alike. That’s why you all won’t work.” He wasn’t saying we think alike because we actually think alike, and anybody who watched our show knows that we didn’t because we argued as good as we could.
Hana Baba: What was he really saying?
Jemele Hill: What he was really saying is you see two black people around the same age, even though Mike is like 8,000 years old, I’m 14,000, but you see two black people around the same age and nobody’s going to buy that you think differently, because of the way you guys look when you’re at a desk. It’s like, “Ah, two black people, they probably think the same.”
The reason they were saying that because at the time what was popular was black versus white. You had Skip and Stephen A, you had Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, black, white. Even though Michael, I said that the greatest part about PTI, which is the most successful commentary show in ESPN history, the trick of the show, or at least the thing that people don’t get, Mike and Tony the same, dude, the old dudes that hate everything, it’s the same guy. Right? But just one is black and white, they’re both bald, but you see the physical difference.
So, it’s easier to sell to people, and we had to overcome that. And so, it’s the same now is that, First Take, they’re playing off a visual dynamic of white guy Max Kellerman, Stephen A. Smith, white guy, black guy, it works. And that’s not to at all belittle or diminish the success that show has had, because it’s insane. I mean it’s probably the most at least definitely in the morning, the most popular debate show in the country. And what did Fox do? Skip and Shannon, black guy, white guy, it works, right?
So, when they see certain types successful, they try to find that type again as opposed to exposing you to a new type or different type, because everybody can’t be Stephen A, we don’t have that vocabulary and penchant for a not indoor voice, everybody can’t do that. But that that is how television operates, is once they see it and it’s successful, they try to do it over and over again, and it takes really daring people, it takes creative people to break those archetypes that they have.
I mean, their only reason Mike and I ever wound up on television is because we won the war of attrition. No executive came to us and said, “I got this bright idea to put you two on TV together.” It was, Mike was hosting Numbers Never Lie with Hugh Douglas, and Jalen Rose. And even that was built off the mold of First Take two people debating, even though Mike is not a moderator, I mean he was the host and part of the discussion, two people debating, football guy, basketball guy, different football guy, basketball guy. So that was what it was built on and Jalen left the show to do NBA countdown, they were scrambling for a third person, Mike had told them before they even started Numbers Never Lie that he wanted to work with me and they said, “All right, cool.”
“So, here’s blonde, we’re going to have you work with.” A friend of mine, Charissa Thompson, we’re going to have her and we’re going to have him. And he’s like, the two people you wanted to work with most were me and Bomani. So imagine how ahead of the curve that you could have been. We all got our own shows later on, but what was selling it? It was, and it’s sort of a disservice to the people in these jobs because they’re very talented. It was Blonde, teeing up other athletes and commentators. Blonde always worked, so it was kind of the same thing. And then eventually they asked me to do Numbers Never Lie, and it was good. And Mike and I then we it changed into His & Hers, and that was that.
Which obviously eventually became The Six, but there was nobody like us on television. And then it was funny because while we were there we were like, “Oh, so not everybody want a woman and a man on the show?” That’s hilarious considering all the stuff that we had to encounter and face to get where we got. But yeah, to answer your point is that, television in that regard, is very constructed to fit what they feel like people will emotionally react to.
Hana Baba: That’s why audio is better and podcasts are awesome. No, just kidding.
Jemele Hill: It is.
Hana Baba: Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, make sure you’re subscribed and you tell everybody.