July 6, 2021

Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be accepting a tenured professorship at the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Faculty there are livid. They said in an open letter Tuesday that her treatment by the university has been “appalling” and frankly “racist.”

Some blame pressure from Walter Hussman Jr., the $25-million donor for whom the school is named, for Hannah-Jones’s decision to accept an appointment at Howard University instead.

Not surprisingly, Hussman doesn’t see it that way. He had expressed strong reservations, he told me in a phone interview, about the accuracy of “The 1619 Project,” an extensive New York Times examination of slavery that Hannah-Jones led.

“I don’t have any judgment about her (personally) — I’ve never met her,” he said. “… I feel certain I did what I should appropriately have done. I didn’t lobby against her appointment.”

Even if not, I asked, hadn’t Hussman suggested she might be a better fit at a different university? He advocates a traditional view of objectivity as a core value for journalists and said in an earlier interview with Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch, “If she’s in favor of them (his list of core values) maybe we could work together. But if she’s opposed to them, I’m going to wonder, why did she want to go to work at a journalism school where she’s opposed to the core values of the school?”

Hussman said that he meant that he and Hannah-Jones would have a base for discussion either way. He did not intend to say she would be happier elsewhere if she disagreed.

He added that he had hoped to meet with Hannah-Jones and journalism school Dean Susan King, at least by Zoom, after Hannah-Jones had been offered the UNC job this spring, but that the meeting never came together.

The sequence of events is important to understand, Hussman told me. He first learned of the effort to recruit Hannah-Jones from King last August. Offered an introduction, he said he did not think it appropriate at that early stage.

Hussman instead read “The 1619 Project” closely and found that he agreed with some academic critics that it exaggerated the importance of slavery as a possible cause of the American Revolution. In emails to King and other top university administrators, he said so.

“The narrative became ‘rich old white guy trying to deny an opportunity to a talented young Black journalist,’” Hussman said. He reiterated that his objections were to the scholarship, not the person.

Despite his reservations about her high-profile historical essay, which was cited in her Pulitzer Prize for Commentary win, he said that he had no objection to the board of trustees’ vote last week to offer Hannah-Jones full tenure along with a Knight Chair on Race and Investigative Reporting.

Delays in that vote were the crux of a very public controversy about whether the trustees were undermining a faculty and administration recommendation of tenure.

A few years earlier, just after his gift to UNC, Hussman said, he made a point of flying around the country and talking to leading executives and journalism educators about his ideas about core values.

Despite his own strong advocacy of objectivity, Hussman continued, he is well aware that the concept is coming under challenge. At one point, he said, he suggested inviting debate with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who argues in his academic work and social media posts that both-sides neutrality has become obsolete when dealing with the falsehoods of former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

Hussman also participated in a colloquium with editors of The Daily Tar Heel on whether their student reporters should be allowed to express views in social media posts. He thought not, but they said yes.

And he is open to further debate, Hussman said.

Hussman, 74, is the publisher of the family-owned Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock and has been since he was in his 20s. Parent company WEHCO Media also has extensive cable system holdings, the source of much of his wealth.

As a newspaper executive, Hussman has been an iconoclast, opposed since the early 2000s to offering digital content for free. More recently, he has pursued a strategy of printing just one day a week, giving subscribers iPads to read an e-replica version other days of the week.

As a southerner, Hussman acknowledged, he is sensitive to the charge of racism. In a statement drafted earlier Tuesday, he wrote, “I certainly haven’t used any influence on the ideology of the school; in fact, I strongly believe a school of journalism should not have an ideology. Their job is to teach journalism, not ideology. I also do not think (Hannah-Jones) tried to denigrate white Americans. I think all those individuals of different races who fought side by side to end slavery and champion civil rights should be celebrated for working together.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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