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Sunday Conversation with Jarrett Hill, correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter

On the evening of Monday, July 18, Jarrett Hill was in a Starbucks working on his laptop and halfway listening to the Republican National Convention. A job interview earlier in the day had not gone well and Hill, at the time an unemployed journalist, was feeling blue. His last full-time job in television news, as a producer and reporter at WFTS-TV’s The Now Tampa Bay, had ended in April 2015. Hill’s small interior design business was busy, but he strongly desired to get back in the newsroom.

However, with no other prospects on the horizon, things looked grim.

Then, Melania Trump, wife of Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump, walked out on the stage and said these words:

“Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

The phrase instantly struck a nerve with Hill. Not because Trump’s delivery was so profound but because he’d heard them before – eight years ago when first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

Hill tweeted the comparison and his life instantly changed. In a matter of hours, he went from an obscure, out-of-work newsman to an international sensation and media darling.

Hill is now a correspondent for entertainment outlet The Hollywood Reporter. He returns to Tampa Thursday as the guest speaker at the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists’ annual Griot Drum Awards, which recognizes the best journalism on issues related to people of color. Hill, who attended Kennesaw State University, recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times correspondent Kenya Woodard about that tweet and his thoughts about a Trump presidency.

You’re a progressive and supported Hillary Clinton. What was your reaction as the election results pointed toward a victory for Donald Trump?

I had little expectation of his winning the presidency but knowing it was a possibility, obviously. I was at a Hillary watch party. The tone of the room was like watching a house burn down slowly. I say that because there was still hope. Like, “oh, we can still be saved.” By the end of the night … there was a wide range of sadness and confusion and frustration – all rooted in pain. I was very grateful to not be on TV (the night of the election). I was glad to not be on a camera.

Now that Donald Trump is president-elect, what are your thoughts about a Trump presidency?

I think no matter who was president, we we’re going to have a scandal-laced administration. We’ve been spoiled by a scandal-free presidency. Donald Trump is wildly unprepared for this job. He’s going to be under intense scrutiny. That is setting in to him right now. It’s going to make for an interesting four years. It’s now more interesting than we thought.

So what were your thoughts at the exact moment when you realized that Melania Trump had lifted passages from Michelle Obama’s speech?

I was listening to her but I was kind of tuned out. I didn’t know Michelle Obama’s speech. I knew the quote. If she had never said the plagerized part, I would have never noticed. I immediately knew. It was like, “I know that speech.” I thought it was bizarre but I didn’t realize how much had been plagerized. I then knew this was a story.

When you tweeted the comparison, did you expect it to garner so much attention?

I got nervous when I saw it was a being retweeted. I was getting picked up so quickly and it was going so far so fast. I started second-guessing myself because I may have been retweeted half a dozen times before. (The tweet about the speech) was growing exponentially. I was so scared because I was like, “What if I’m wrong?” Then I saw it on CNN. I knew it wasn’t wrong. By 10 p.m., I had emails from BBC News, from (news outlets in) Ireland. Before I went to bed, I did six national and international interviews.

In the last year, you worked primarily on building your design business. Did you always know you’d return to television?

My dad always recalls the story of me being 5 years old and finding me in the bathroom looking in the mirror talking to a hairbrush like a TV reporter. I’ve had the blessing and curse of knowing what I’ve wanted to do and what I wanted to be. When I step out of that, the universe does an overreach like, “Not that, that’s not what you’re supposed to be.” One part of (career success) has been persistence and the other is the universe.

I look at all of this as creative. When producing a show…you’re putting together different elements to tell a story. With a client, I have to go in and figure out who they are and what they want – putting together those elements to give the client what they want.

What’s been your experience going from covering the news to being part of it?

It was surreal that the people who were my colleagues and bosses are producing me as talent. My experience as a producer and a writer has made me a better guest and host. It’s a great weight and responsibility because I’ve had so many people say, “We’re so proud of you.” I didn’t anticipate that. There’s an ownership that comes along with that and a responsibility that come with people’s pride in you.

It feels amazing.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]

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