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Singled Out: Black Women Journalists in the Age of Trump

The general point that Donald Trump dislikes the media isn’t lost on anyone. Whether he’s caterwauling about “fake news” or tweeting that the media is the “enemy of the American people,” Trump’s contempt for the fourth estate has been well-documented. What is often lost in that shuffle is the way that black women journalists have been particularly targeted for marginalization or demotion in the age of Trump. Three black women journalists in particular have been casualties of Donald Trump’s caustic attitude towards the media. Tamron Hall, April Ryan, and Jemele Hill have all been directly or indirectly professionally impacted by his hostility towards the media.

Of the three women, Tamron Hall’s Trump-influenced career woes are probably the least obvious to the casual observer. A 10-year veteran of the Today Show, Hall parted ways with NBC in February of this year after the network hired former Fox personality Megyn Kelly to replace her in the 9 o’clock hour of the show. Kelly, though having spent more than a decade at Fox expressing very conservative views and delivering right-leaning political coverage, was shockingly remade into a feminist icon overnight in the wake of Donald Trump’s opprobrious response to her line of questioning during the first Republican presidential debate in August of 2015. Hall was offered millions of dollars to take a reduced role at NBC, but rebuffed that proposition and chose to partner with Harvey Weinstein on a new project. Unfortunately for Hall, this new partnership with Weinstein would be short-lived, due to revelations that Weinstein has serially abused women in Hollywood for decades. There are no indications that Hall had any knowledge of Weinstein’s misdeeds, but her career ironically, again suffered a setback due to another rich, powerful, well-connected, and sexually abusive white man.

Tamron Hall’s career decline during the political ascendance of Donald Trump is particularly ironic when compared to Megyn Kelly’s rise during the same time frame. NBC courted Kelly with the prime 9 a.m. slot on the Today Show, her own Sunday evening news program, and a contract worth $23 million a year to boot. With such a generous compensation package, one would assume that the woman who replaced Tamron Hall would be a ratings juggernaut. One would be wrong in that assumption. Kelly’s tenure at NBC so far has been beset with miscues and dismal ratings. There was her controversial and widely panned interview of right-wing conspiracy theorist and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones. Then there is her difficulty in booking celebrity guests for her show.  Finally, there are her generally poor ratings. Kelly’s ratings during the 9 a.m. hour of the Today Show are 24% lower than Tamron Hall’s ratings last year in the same hour of the show. Of course, this ratings slide will come as no surprise to any professional black woman who has ever lost her job to a white woman who was less talented, but “more relatable.” While Megyn Kelly reaps millions of dollars a year for underperforming expectations, propped up by NBC’s desire to cash in on her role in the 2016 presidential election, Tamron Hall finds herself bright, talented, and capable, yet underemployed.

photo credit: EURweb.com
Tamron Hall

April Ryan had been a journalist in the White House press corps for twenty years before she became a topic of the news herself in  February.  When she asked Trump if he planned on conferring with the Congressional Black Caucus, he asked her if they were friends of hers and then asked her to set the meeting up–as if just because she is black, she should be the presidential liaison to the CBC. During a now infamous exchange with erstwhile White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Ryan pressed him on the pervasive perception that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government in the 2016 election. Spicer’s response was sexist, racist, and condescending. Telling a grown ass black woman to stop shaking her head while you are clearly bullshitting her and the American people was a new (but not the last) low for the Trump administration. Ryan described that experience as becoming “roadkill.” She also found herself in the position that journalists always try to avoid–becoming part of the news story themselves. Lost in that exchange was Ryan’s serious and substantive inquiry about the Trump campaign and Russian collusion. As time has now revealed, those questions were well-founded, because there are concurrent Senate, Congressional, and a special counsel investigations into just that.

Ryan, like Megyn Kelly, was able to parlay her run-in with a member of the Trump inner circle into another gig. Though she kept her day job as the White House press corps journalist for National Urban Radio, she also became a CNN political contributor in April.  Unlike Megyn Kelly, however, Ryan did not displace anyone more talented to land her new job, nor did her new network back up a Brinks truck to compensate her for her efforts. Lastly, Ryan is not underperforming her compensation package with CNN. The irony and the justice in her run-in with Sean Spicer is that for all his proclamations that legitimate media outlets are fake news, after his firing, Spicer has been unable to land a job with any of the media outlets he spent the better part of six months trying to delegitimize.

photo credit: thegrio.com

When ESPN’s Jemele Hill used Twitter in September to opine that Donald Trump was a white supremacist who surrounded himself with other white supremacists, the Trump administration became apoplectic. From the lectern of the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders implied that the veteran sports journalist should be fired for it. Let’s sit with that for a second. The White House press secretary–a government official–singled a journalist, suggesting she be fired for criticizing the president of the United States. Though such an action is par for the course in repressive governments like Russia, Uzbekistan, and Cuba, the United States and by extension, the office of the president, hold themselves out as the arbiters of justice and moral rectitude–except when a black woman journalist exercises her 1st Amendment rights, apparently. Though Trump and his administration have been incredibly hostile to media in general, up to that point they had never singled out a reporter to be fired for criticizing the president. There is a first time for every new low in Trump’s America, and the administration reached it there.

Hill’s initial Twitter comments followed Donald Trump’s abysmal reaction to the deadly violence that erupted at a Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August.  ESPN responded by warning her about her comments on Twitter. As the NFL season began in September, and numerous players emulated Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, Donald Trump inserted himself into the fray, insisting that a player who would dare kneel in protest is a “son of a bitch” who should be dragged off the field. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined many of his fellow NFL owners in kneeling with his team in a self-serving act of “solidarity” designed to protect his product. Only weeks later, Jones was singing a different tune, insisting that players who knelt would be benched. “The policy and my actions are going to be if you don’t honor and stand for the flag in a way that a lot of our fans feel that you should, if that’s not the case, then you won’t play,” he told a Dallas sports radio station. Hill responded by tweeting that if fans were upset by Jones’ stance, they could boycott Dallas Cowboys’ advertisers:

 

ESPN suspended Hill for two weeks after her October 8th tweets in a move that upset many African-Americans and 1st Amendment enthusiasts. Even though Hill was definitely not the first journalist to criticize this president, she was the first one to be sanctioned by her employer for her journalistic conduct stemming from a complaint from the White House. Hill will be back on the air at ESPN this Monday, and today issued a statement indicating that she had deserved her suspension. Whether this sentiment is reflects her actual attitude towards suspension or represents a chilling effect of a black woman journalist criticizing the government in the age of Trump, we may never know.

photo credit: citizenjour.com
Jemele Hill

The profession of journalism itself is under fire from the Trump administration, and with precious few black women in it, we can ill-afford to have their voices silenced as the fourth estate is attacked on all sides. Tamron Hall’s journalistic perspective was jettisoned for Megyn Kelly, who is currently struggling to attract new viewers and maintain old ones. April Ryan was demeaned and condescended to by a man who served as Trump’s chief propagandist, and the seriousness of the questions she was asking was obfuscated in the process. Jemele Hill called out Donald Trump’s platform of white supremacy and was ultimately sanctioned by her employer for doing so. Despite these threats to their livelihood, I suspect that journalists in general, and black women journalists in particular, will continue to be on the front lines to speak truth to power and hold the powers that be accountable for their actions.