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How a freelance journalist broke the Melania Trump plagiarism story in 3 tweets

"Oh my God, I know that line": an interview with Jarrett Hill

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Jarrett Hill was sitting in a California Starbucks on Monday night, watching a live stream of Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech. Midway through Trump’s remarks, Hill realized her words were very familiar. "I thought to myself, ‘I definitely know where I heard that before,’" he told me in a recent interview.

Hill started tweeting about the similarities between Trump’s speech and the speech Michelle Obama made at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. People took notice — the tweet where Hill highlighted the paragraph that Trump lifted from Obama’s speech got 25,000 retweets.

Hill’s scoop inspired countless news stories. At first the Trump campaign denied that the speech had been plagiarized, but by Wednesday a speechwriter named Meredith McIver took the blame.

I talked to Hill to find out what it felt like to scoop the story of the week and whether the plagiarism will 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 knew the quote immediately because of the way we file a quote away in our minds. I thought to myself, "I definitely know where I heard that before." If you look at my tweets, they definitely graduated, right? One of them is like, look at this little line!

It happened over the course of an hour. A YouTube video came out where I was able to compare Melania’s speech to Michelle’s as opposed to listening to it live and just remembering that quote. It ended up being that whole paragraph.

EB: What about Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with you and caused you to remember it?

JH: I’ve always been a big fan of the Obamas and was watching with bated breath in 2008. I particularly remember this one quote: "the only limit to the height of your achievements 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 eight years later it would come back to play in such a big way for the country and myself. When I heard it in on Monday it was very familiar. I ended up saying the words "and your willingness to work for them" back to the screen, 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 came up with many excuses, from saying that "Michelle Obama didn’t invent the English language" to even implying that a My Little Pony character said something similar. Why do you think the Trump campaign initially tried to credit everyone but Michelle?

JH: I think this actually really speaks to the polarization of our country right now. If you are a Republican, you cannot be friends with a Democrat, let alone agree with them or say something that they said or give them praise, right? The Trump campaign would never want to quote Michelle Obama. They would never want to say that President Obama did something well. I think they probably come out and say negative things even when they aren’t necessarily upset, so that they can appear to be angry with the president.

I don’t even know that I genuinely believe that Donald Trump believes all of the things he says. I think that he believes, his supporters believe some things. An entertainer has to reach out to their audience. I expected they would find some way to not apologize. This is one of those moments where I think of that old saying, "Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining." The Donald Trump campaign has been peeing on our legs for a long time and told us to look somewhere else.

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 had no mean spirited intentions behind my tweets. I’m not like hoping people lose their jobs or say negative things about Melania. But the fact that that campaign had a person make such an enormous, if not historic, flub, and then submit their resignation and say, "Oh no, it’s fine." What if this happened in the White House? What are the things that could come of a president getting in front of the nation and the world, or even a first lady, and saying something that was incorrect?

EB: What do you think the response would have been if Michelle Obama was caught plagiarizing?

JH: This speaks to that polarization. Whatever she does comes under fire. I think the most egregious example of that is her 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 that mad that she said that drinking water is healthy?

The polarization of this nation has made us always feel like we have to fight with the other side because they said anything. I say, "Good morning." You say, "What makes it so good?" It’s that kind of situation. If Michelle Obama would’ve done this, they would’ve pinned this on the president and said that this is a lack of leadership and that he is leading from behind.

We can also look at this in the way that Donald Trump just spoke about Gov. [Mike] Pence on 60 Minutes. Gov. Pence supported the war in Iraq in the same way that Hillary Clinton did. Trump said, well it’s okay if Pence "makes a mistake every once in awhile," but Clinton can’t. He literally said that! That double standard was presented to us in our faces so nonchalantly and people were just like, oh, okay.

EB: Looking at impact of Melania-gate, do you think that this plagiarism will tarnish Trump’s campaign?

JH: I certainly don’t think it will. The majority of Trump supporters have not cared about any of the fact-checking that we’ve done on Donald Trump. As journalists, it is our job to look at those things and say: This is not accurate, or this is accurate.

[The plagiarism in Melania’s speech] was so blatant and so hard to refute. When you play those two videos next to each other, how do you deny that? And even then, they denied. So, do I think it’s going to change anything for the Trump campaign? Or will it start a national conversation? I don’t know. Our attention span is so short, we probably will move on from this instantly, in no time.

EB: Critics have tried to say you were a Clinton plant. I can imagine what your Twitter mentions look like right now. How are you dealing with that?

JH: At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, it’s been a lot of "thank yous" and "great catch, you were right." I’ve had some direct messages from people that are obviously Trump supporters or at least anti-Michelle, saying things like, "you do nothing for society" or "watch your back," but it’s generally been pretty positive.

EB: If you were in a traditional newsroom when you scooped the story, you would’ve reported on it in a newspaper or on a website or on television. How did the immediacy of Twitter change breaking the story, versus a more traditional journalistic approach?

JH: This was a very 2016 way for a story to break. This would not have been the case if this were 2008 when Michelle was up there speaking or in 2004 when Barack Obama was speaking for the first time. We have streaming, we’re live-tweeting, and we can Google anything, find it, and then be able to highlight it and post it on Twitter. It can explode like wildfire. I don’t know if a person of Melania Trump or Donald Trump’s stature could get away with what they did on Monday again in the future. Could they have done this 20 years ago? Probably.

EB: You're a journalist of color who scooped one of the most important stories of 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 #HireBlackWriters?

JH: I have been in newsrooms where I’m the only black person, or at least in meetings when that is the case. It’s immeasurably important. Beyond filling in the demographics or quotas, I think it’s so important, because we as a business need to have stories that tell a breadth of experience.

Even though we see a lot more women, black people, Latinos, Asian Americans we still tell stories that are very white. We still tell stories that are very focused from a white perspective. From a male perspective. Sitting in a meeting with all white men and women, trying to explain why Black Lives Matter is a statement that is important or sitting in a meeting where it’s all white men and you mention "I’m the only black person in here" and they say, "Oh why does that matter?" And you respond, "If you were in a room of all black men and you were the only white man, would you not notice that?"  We need to have voices that represent everyone. This is a different day in America and we should reflect that with our work.

Watch: Did Melania Trump plagiarize Michelle Obama?

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