The sensational Jemele Hill does the work


The sensational Jemele Hill does the work

Michigan-born journalist Jemele Hill spent a decade as a general assignment sports writer and columnist at several major newspapers, segued into a career in opinion writing and then television commentary at ESPN, and finally became a national sensation in 2017 for tweets attacking then-President Donald Trump and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. For the latter tweet, in which she criticized Jones for preemptively attempting to stop his team from kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” she earned a two-week suspension from the network. By early 2018, she had left the poorly performing 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter she co-hosted with Michael Smith — then later departed the network entirely after a short stint on the company’s black-focused The Undefeated vertical.

This year of controversy grew Hill’s brand much faster than all of her other years of diligent labor combined: She gained millions of social media followers, won various awards, launched podcasts and other new media productions, and now had the justification needed to write Uphill: A Memoir. This book, the story of Hill’s life to date, is both the bracing tale of a miserable childhood and adolescence as well as a blueprint for “doing the work” of espousing the right social causes at the right times needed to turn a solid career into a million-dollar brand. The bigger lesson it teaches is how a smart, ambitious, and talented journalist today, following the incentives of the media industry as they actually exist, is likely to avoid a career in real journalism, instead finding one in outrage and self-promotion using her own story of victimhood.

Hill is refreshingly candid about her childhood poverty and material motivations. While growing up in inner-city Detroit, Hill’s father was absent, her sometimes-abusive mother remained in the throes of drug addiction until turning to Christianity and social conservatism later in life, and Hill was fortunate to find her way into the good graces of the local black journalists she met while participating in a high school apprenticeship program sponsored by the Detroit Free Press. There, she wrote a powerful essay for the paper’s Sunday magazine about “Morgan, the only white kid at my high school,” a sad sack who “got his ass beat again and again and he just took it.” The piece was written with care and nuance, with Hill reflecting on how “it would only be a matter of time before the oppressed mirrored the traits of the oppressor” if “vengeance, not equality, was the goal.” This convinced her mentors that she had legitimate writing chops, and she would go on to win an academic scholarship that covered her tuition and fees at Michigan State University.

Taking her mentors’ counsel to heart, Hill maximized the value of her time in college, racking up newspaper internships at a rate many former journalism majors, myself included, would lack the initiative to procure. Eventually, she landed a full-time job at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, working there for a year at a salary of $24,000. This amount, which is accurate — I interned at the News & Observer in 1999, a year after she left — is one of many precise salary figures Hill provides throughout the book as she traces her upward trajectory in the world of journalism.

Initially, Hill’s successes — first at the News & Observer, where she produced excellent reporting on Mandy Garcia, the first female athlete in the history of the previously all-male Citadel military college, and then at the Detroit Free Press and Lansing State News — were tied to her in-depth reporting work. Hill prided herself on being a shoe-leather journalist so dedicated to the job that she got an abortion in her late 20s because the relationship she was in had been faltering (“I didn’t feel any remorse or regret,” she writes, but “I felt guilty because I didn’t really have an excuse not to have the baby”).

Hill moved from reporting to opinion and features writing when the Orlando Sentinel offered her a substantial raise in 2005. There, she initially agonized over speaking her mind — “who would care about what I thought?” — but eventually found her voice. She hit it big in 2006 when she interviewed star Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee for her “Riding With” series, only to luck into McGahee lapsing into an extended lament about his “baby mama” as well as his ex-wife. On the strength of McGahee’s absurd dialogue about how it’s harder to deal with baby mamas than ex-wives, the interview went viral, getting picked up by Deadspin and other outlets, and led to Hill signing a two-year, $240,000 deal with ESPN in 2006. Always careful when it comes to dollars and cents, Hill informs readers it wasn’t a particularly great deal because she was classified as an independent contractor and on the hook for her own healthcare.

Initially, Hill was supposed to write for the “Page 2” column section to which literary luminaries such as Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Wiley, arguably the greatest black sportswriter of the 20th century, contributed. Her first column, a lengthy, self-deprecating justification for her own presence on the ESPN staff, was panned by outlets such as Awful Announcing, and a column in 2008 led to her first suspension from the company after she wrote that “rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim.” She apologized for the error at the time and now says she should have referenced Stalin instead — though she does stand by her original claim about the Celtics having historically been the team of “white America.” Characteristic of her work from this period was a column about former college football player Katie Hnida, whose sexual assault at the University of Colorado was used by Hill as a means of discussing her own struggles, an unnecessary personalization of a difficult story that rubbed some readers the wrong way.

Hill’s later rise from mere worker to someone who “does the work” was tied to her shift from writing to appearing on television. After being added to Smith’s failing analytics show Numbers Never Lie, Hill and Smith proceeded to clean house, with frequently ill-prepared former NFL star and Numbers Never Lie commentator Hugh Douglas given the boot after the savvy Hill used his bad behavior at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention to justify his ouster. Hill and Smith then turned the show into His & Hers, a chatty, black-oriented pop culture show that did well enough to justify the pair’s ascent to the SportsCenter anchor desk in 2017.

As an anchor, Hill’s run was characterized by declining ratings and an inability to fit the conversational style she had developed with Smith into the strictures of the highlight show format, along with a refusal to expand the show by including analysts such as conservative commentator Will Cain (she claims in Uphill that Cain didn’t warrant a spot on the show because, among other reasons, “he wasn’t a former college player” — despite Cain having played varsity water polo at Pepperdine University). This didn’t matter, of course, because Hill soon transcended that modest television perch merely by interjecting herself into the national debate via Twitter. She called Trump a “white supremacist” in the wake of the Charlottesville riots, earning a rebuke from both Trump and his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and urged advertisers to boycott the Dallas Cowboys if Jones followed through on his threats to bench players who did anything “disrespectful to the flag.” While making her a lightning rod for the network, it also earned her the support of Colin Kaepernick, for whose ESPN documentary she would serve as executive producer, former President Barack Obama, and many other left-wing media and sports figures.

By the time Hill left the SportsCenter desk in 2018, she was, quite predictably, so very tired. But she did manage to turn up in a black leather jacket and a gray T-shirt that said “PHENOMENAL WOMAN” on the front for her final episode. She knew then, she writes, that “what was ahead of me was going to be even more rewarding than what I’d already experienced. … I had achieved the financial stability I had longed for as a child.” To accomplish this, Hill had “done the work” of tweeting her mind — and it worked out better for her than anyone could have imagined.

Oliver Bateman is a journalist, historian, and co-host of the What’s Left? podcast. Visit his website:

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