Jarrett Hill sat in a California Starbucks on Monday night, watching Melania Trump’s speech live at the Republican National Convention. In the midst of Trump’s remarks, Hill realized that his words were very familiar. “I was like, ‘I really know where I heard that before,'” he told me in a recent interview.
Hill began tweeting about the similarities between Trump’s speech and Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. People have noticed – the tweet where Hill pointed out the paragraph Trump took out of Obama’s speech got 25,000 retweets.
Hill’s scoop has inspired countless reports. At first, the Trump campaign denied that the speech was plagiarized, but on Wednesday a speechwriter named Meredith McIver took the blame.
I spoke to Hill to find out what it was like to pick up the story of the week and if the plagiarism would damage Trump.
Elisha Brown: When did you first realize that Melania Trump’s RNC speech on Monday was so similar to First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech?
Jarrett Hill: I immediately became aware of the quote because of the way we classify it in our minds. I was like, “I really know where I heard this before.” If you look at my tweets, they’re definitely graduates, right? One of them is like, look at that little line!
OMG. Melanie. It was literally a whole line from Michelle Obama 2012.
“… their willingness to work hard for them.”#GOPConvention
– Jarrett Hill (@JarrettHill) July 19, 2016
It happened within an hour. A YouTube video came out where I was able to compare Melania’s speech to Michelle’s instead of listening to it live and remembering that quote. It ended up being that whole paragraph.
EB: What about Michelle Obama’s speech that resonated with you and made you remember it?
JH: I’ve always been a huge Obama fan and looked forward to 2008. I particularly remember this quote: “The only limit to the height of your accomplishments is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them. ” [Watching Michelle] I remember thinking, “Whoa, that was really well done.” Obviously, I had no idea that eight years later it would be like playing in such a big way for the country and myself. When I heard it on Monday, it was very familiar. I ended up repeating on the screen the words “and your willingness to work for them”, which is when I had a moment of Oh, I know that line … Oh my God, I know that line.
EB: Until Wednesday, the Trump camp vehemently denied plagiarizing the speech. The day after the speech, the campaign found many excuses, ranging from saying “Michelle Obama didn’t invent the English language” to even implying that a character from My Little Pony said something similar. Why do you think the Trump campaign first tried to credit everyone except Michelle?
JH: I think it really speaks to the polarization of our country right now. If you’re a Republican, you can’t be friends with a Democrat, much less agree with them or say something they’ve said or praise them, can you? The Trump campaign would never want to quote Michelle Obama. They would never want to say that President Obama did something right. I think they probably go out and say negative things even though they’re not necessarily upset so they can appear to be mad at the president.
I don’t even know if I sincerely believe Donald Trump believes everything he says. I think he believes, his followers believe certain things. An artist must reach his audience. I expected them to find a way not to apologize. It’s one of those times when I think of that old saying, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Donald Trump’s campaign has been peeing on our legs for a long time and telling us to look elsewhere.
EB: What does that say about the Trump campaign and this election in general?
JH: This is the Trump campaign. This is what they do. But it’s important for me to say that I didn’t have any petty intentions behind my tweets. I don’t like to hope that people lose their jobs or say negative things about Melania. But the fact that this campaign had one person who made a huge, if not historic, dud, then tendered their resignation and said, “Oh no, that’s okay.” What if it happened in the White House? What are the things that could happen from a president coming forward to the nation and the world, or even a first lady, and saying something wrong?
EB: What do you think the response would have been if Michelle Obama had been caught plagiarizing?
JH: It speaks of this polarization. Whatever she does, she is criticized. I think the most egregious example of this is his coming out for healthy eating and coming out for drinking water. The Republicans came back with, “How dare you tell me to drink water? Were you really mad at her saying that drinking water is safe?
The polarization of this nation has always made us feel that we have to fight with the other side because they said anything. I say hello.” You say, “What makes him so good?” It’s that kind of situation. If Michelle Obama had done this, they would have blamed it on the President and said it was a lack of leadership and he was leading from behind.
We can also look at this the way Donald Trump just referred to Gov. [Mike] Pence on 60 minutes. Governor Pence supported the Iraq war the same way Hillary Clinton did. Trump said, well, it doesn’t matter if Pence “makes a mistake every now and then,” but Clinton can’t. He literally said that! This double standard was presented to us in our faces so casually and people were like, oh, okay.
EB: Looking at the impact of Melania-gate, do you think this plagiarism will tarnish Trump’s campaign?
JH: I certainly don’t think it will. The majority of Trump supporters didn’t care about the fact-check we did on Donald Trump. As journalists, it’s our job to look at these things and say, this isn’t right, or it’s right.
[The plagiarism in Melania’s speech] was so blatant and so hard to refute. When you watch these two videos next to each other, how can you deny it? And even then they denied. So, do I think this will make a difference for the Trump campaign? Or will he start a national conversation? I do not know. Our attention span is so short that we’ll probably be moving on instantly, in no time.
EB: The critics tried to say you were a Clinton factory. I can imagine what your Twitter mentions look like right now. How do you deal with this?
JH: At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, it was a lot of “thank you” and “big take, you were right”. I have received direct messages from people who are clearly Trump supporters or at least anti-Michelle, saying things like ‘you don’t do anything for society’ or ‘watch your back’, but it’s usually pretty positive.
EB: If you were in a traditional newsroom when you picked up the story, you would have talked about it in a newspaper or on a website or on TV. How has Twitter’s immediacy changed the breaking of history, compared to a more traditional journalistic approach?
JH: It was a very 2016 way for a story to fall apart. It wouldn’t have been the case if it was in 2008 when Michelle was speaking up there or in 2004 when Barack Obama was speaking for the first time. We have streaming, we are tweeting live, and we can google everything, find it, then highlight it and post it on Twitter. It can explode like wildfire. I’m not sure if someone of Melania Trump’s or Donald Trump’s stature could get away with what they did on Monday again in the future. Could they have done it 20 years ago? Probably.
EB: You are a journalist of color who scooped up one of the most important stories from the Republican National Convention, and yet you are currently unemployed. Given the lack of journalists of color in the newsroom, what do you think this says about the need to #Recruit black writers?
JH: I’ve been in newsrooms where I’m the only black person, or at least in meetings when I am. It is immensely important. Beyond filling in demographics or quotas, I think it’s so important, because we as a business need to have stories that tell a lot of experience.
Even though we see a lot more women, black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, we still tell very white stories. We always tell very focused stories from a white perspective. From a male point of view. Sitting in a meeting with all the white men and women trying to explain why Black Lives Matter is a statement that matters or sitting in a meeting where it’s all white men and you mention “I’m the only black person here” and they say, “Oh, why is that important? And you say, “If you were in an all black man’s room and you were the only white man, wouldn’t you notice?” We must have voices that represent everyone. It is a different day in America and we should reflect it in our work.