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UNC Journalism School Tried To Give Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure. A Top Donor Objected

A bid for tenure by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been opposed by a leading donor of the journalism school, <em>Arkansas Democrat-Gazette </em>Publisher Walter Hussman.
A bid for tenure by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been opposed by a leading donor of the journalism school, <em>Arkansas Democrat-Gazette </em>Publisher Walter Hussman.

On paper, The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones is a dream hire for the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She won a MacArthur "genius grant" for her reporting on the persistence of segregation in American life. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay accompanying "The 1619 Project," a New York Times Magazine initiative she conceived on the legacy of slavery in the United States. And Hannah-Jones earned a master's degree from the school itself in 2003.

Yet the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees declined to act upon her proposed appointment. That tenure proposal ran aground on race, politics and, perhaps surprisingly, on a clash between diverging views of journalism.

The opposing view has been embodied by Walter Hussman, the 1968 UNC journalism graduate whose name has graced the school since he made a $25 million pledge. Longtime publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hussman has shared his opposition to Hannah-Jones' appointment with the journalism school dean, several university administrators and, reportedly, two members of the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees.

Both Hannah-Jones and Hussman agreed to speak, separately, with NPR to articulate their competing views of journalism.

For Hussman, reporters must avoid any form of bias, a practice given a shorthand name of "impartiality" or "neutrality." For journalists to earn credibility, they must eschew any form of personal belief or partisanship, he argues.

"I worry that we're moving away from those time-tested principles of journalism that we had in the 20th century that were so effective at engendering tremendous trust in the media," Hussman tells NPR.

Hannah-Jones says the promise of objectivity is a subterfuge.

"Most mainstream newspapers reflect power," she says. "They don't actually reflect the experiences of large segments of these populations, and that's why many of these populations don't trust them. So when I hear that, I think he's speaking to a different audience."

Hannah-Jones is still scheduled to teach two courses at UNC this fall. She was hired as a professor under a five-year contract that does not include tenure — the promise of a lifetime appointment — according to UNC's journalism dean. UNC's provost, or chief academic officer, has asked the trustees to reconsider her for tenure. Hannah-Jones has threatened to sue UNC. She declined to talk directly about the tenure decision in the interview with NPR.

Hannah-Jones: A career spent investigating racial inequities

Hannah-Jones got her start reporting as a teenager in Waterloo, Iowa. As she has written, she grew up "on the wrong side of the river that divided white from black, opportunity from struggle," and her parents enrolled her in a voluntary desegregation program.

"In high school, I complained to one of the only Black male teachers I ever had that our high school newspaper never seemed to write about kids like me," Hannah-Jones tells NPR. "Almost all of the Black kids were bused into a school that didn't really feel like ours. And he suggested I should write that story myself or don't complain to him anymore — that I needed to join the newspaper staff. So I did."

As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, she majored in history and African American studies. After getting her master's, Hannah-Jones reported for two esteemed regional papers: The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., for which she covered the public schools in nearby Durham, and The Oregonian in Portland. She also worked for the investigative nonprofit news organization ProPublica before joining The Times.

"I always understood that my charge as a Black journalist was to write about the Black experience, to report on my community and to report on the inequality that my community experiences," she says now. "That's why I became a journalist. I really wanted to excavate racial inequality."

And that's different, she says, from what people mean when they talk about neutrality, impartiality or objectivity in journalism. She knows those words well — she says that's how many people, primarily white faculty, taught journalism when she was a student. It's the way Hussman wants it to be taught today.

Hussman: "We need the perception of fairness"

Each morning, the newspapers owned by Hussman, in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, publish a statement of his core journalistic values. It starts with the pledge the late Adolph Ochs made when he took over The New York Times in 1896: "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor." And Hussman added, among other core values, objectivity, impartiality, integrity and truth-seeking.

Hussman says he sees himself as the protector of the credibility of a newspaper company started by his grandfather back in 1909 and run by his father for a half-century.

"So many times, we start out on a story — and we may have a couple of leads, a couple of tips — and things seem pretty rational," Hussman says. "And we think we know what the truth is on the front end. And as we dig into it, we find it's something very different. And you know, then, we have to follow the story wherever it leads."

He says that news organizations have set aside impartiality as they seek to build or even just keep audiences in an ever-more-fragmented media driven by opinion and partisanship.

"I have seen what the public sees. And the public sees more and more bias in news reporting in the United States," Hussman says. "I want to emphasize 'more and more,' because it's increasing. The lack of trust in news reporting and the media is increasing." He points to studies from the Pew Research Center documenting an erosion of trust over time, though there is a partisan divide in how that plays out.

"We need something better than just fairness. We need the perception of fairness," Hussman says. "Fairness — it's a good thing, you know, that's the best thing you can possibly try to be. But you need to try to be impartial."

His core values are painted on a banner in what's now the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Hannah-Jones: "Nothing feels objective about the coverage"

But Hannah-Jones says there has never been true impartiality in American journalism. Not at its roots. Not, she says, in the era to which Hussman points with nostalgia. And not today. There are too many assumptions baked in, she says.

"Nothing feels objective about the coverage on any given day," she says.

Further, Hannah-Jones says, a lot of reporting shouldn't be neutral. She asks, why shouldn't reporters care if local governments fail foster kids or schoolchildren? Why do all newspapers have police reporters, but so few assign full-time beats covering poverty?

These, she says, are choices.

As are journalists' selection of sources to cite in their stories. Traditionally, news organizations have relied on police for authoritative public safety information. Yet, without eyewitness videos, no one would have known how Eric Garner, Walter Scott, George Floyd and many others died at the hands of police.

"The harm is by pretending that the news we see is being led by objective arbiters of fact," Hannah-Jones says. "It's just not based in reality. And I could give you a thousand examples from the perspective of communities of color, of marginalized communities, where what we're told is objective news is not."

And the question of bias itself, she says, is often charged. Of course, reporters should not display blatant partisan preferences. But that cuts multiple ways, she says.

"When you see Black reporters, people presume they see our biases," Hannah-Jones says. "White journalists, though, are often treated as neutral, as if they are not going through the world in a racialized way or a genderized way, as if their class status and upbringing is not shaping their stories. But they are."

A donor's concerns, and questions of academic freedom

Hussman took particular exception to Hannah-Jones' work on "The 1619 Project." For example, he noted that some leading scholars of slavery have argued The Times overstated the significance of protecting slavery in inspiring the nation's founders to break free of Great Britain. (The Times stood by her characterization, and Hannah-Jones defended the claim anew in a fresh posting Sunday on Twitter.) The curriculum derived from the project has been used in thousands of classrooms, according to The Times' academic partner. And it has been caught up in conservative activists' campaign against critical race theory, which teaches that racism is embedded in institutions and social structures, rather than simply the hate of individuals.

Hussman has spoken about Hannah-Jones with UNC figures numerous times, reportedly including its chief fundraising official, though the newspaper publisher tells NPR he recognizes that the tenure decision is the university's to make. A Black professor of chemistry from the University of Maryland at Baltimore withdrew her candidacy, citing Hannah-Jones' treatment. The UNC Black Caucus, made up of Black faculty and staff, has warned that several of its members are considering leaving the university.

On the editorial pages, Hussman's newspapers take a conservative tack and were supportive of former President Donald Trump. Hussman has appeared on the prime-time show of Fox News' Tucker Carlson and on Twitter follows only a handful of accounts, largely ones with conservative ties. He says he tries to ensure a sharp delineation between the opinion and news sections.

Hussman's involvement as a major donor, and the role conservative figures have played in the university system and the campus, have set off concerns over academic freedom at UNC.

"I would love to ask Nikole Hannah-Jones about the core values," Hussman says. "I try to be open-minded. If Nikole Hannah-Jones has information, has data, has facts about how the Founding Fathers fought the Revolutionary War to protect slavery, I'd love to see them."

"Walter is a man of integrity," Susan King, dean of the UNC Hussman School, tells NPR. "I think he's very dogged in what he believes in. I don't think he should be trying to influence who we bring in as faculty. And I've told him that. I realize, however, that his name is on the school, and so he cares."

King says students are excited to learn from Hannah-Jones. And UNC, as a Southern university, remains eager to take up her insights and reporting on race, she says.

King says Hussman's core values remain important for students. But she says, journalism is an evolving practice. Journalists bring their own lived experiences to inform their reporting. And investigative reporters such as Hannah-Jones, she says, do not stand aloof from the implications of what they report.

"In the meantime, universities, newsrooms and schools of journalism are going to go through some pretty rugged internal debate. And it's not always going to be easy," she tells NPR. "I'm up for it."

Hannah-Jones says she won most of her journalistic distinctions — which include a National Magazine Award — before "The 1619 Project." She tells NPR that's the only work she's heard raised by Hussman in objecting to her tenure appointment.

"We are both graduates of that journalism school," Hannah-Jones says. "We are both people who've been in the newspaper industry for a very long time. And no one person gets to establish the rules of our trade."

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