By:
July 1, 2021

Nikole Hannah-Jones was granted tenure Wednesday by the University of North Carolina.

That’s great. It’s good news. Her tenure is well deserved and should have never been in doubt.

She’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, the driving force behind one of the most talked-about pieces of journalism in recent memory (The New York Times’ “1619 Project”) and she earned a master’s degree from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media — the very place she’ll now be teaching.

Any journalism school would be lucky to have her. Granting her tenure should have been a no-brainer, a rubber-stamp, barely worth discussing.

And yet there was a lot of discussion — months of it — as conservatives and others, including the mega-donor whose name is on the school (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman Jr.), raised concerns about Hannah-Jones’ hire. Hussman claims he never pressured anybody, but he did send several emails to the journalism school’s dean and one of the trustees, expressing potential issues.

This was about race, plain and simple. The pushback came from those uncomfortable with the “1619 Project.” The school blinked in the face of those unwarranted concerns and, in the process, risked alienating and potentially losing a journalist full of talent, impact and experience.

And while the university’s board of trustees did the right thing Wednesday, this still goes down as a mess — a mess that can’t instantly be washed clean by Wednesday’s vote.

How ironic: The process and controversy that led up to Wednesday’s vote will likely be as permanent as Hannah-Jones’ position.

Even before the vote, UNC Hussman School adjunct coordinator John Robinson, whose resume includes stops at several North Carolina newspapers, tweeted, “Regardless of what happens today with tenure for @nhannahjones, can we agree that the UNC Board of Trustees turned what should have been a celebration — hiring a Pulitzer & genius grant recipient! — into an unnecessary avalanche of bad publicity?”

UNC’s board chairman, Richard Stevens, said after the vote, “Our university is not a place to cancel people. Our university is better than that. Our nation is better than that.”

He added, “We embrace and endorse academic freedom and vigorous debate and constructive disagreement.” He also said the campus was not a place for calling people “woke” or “racist.” According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, Steven said the trustees had to endure terrible insults but could not respond for privacy reasons involving the decision.

Ultimately, UNC’s board of trustees did the right thing, even if four of the 13 trustees voted against giving her tenure at this time. Still, it’s done. She has tenure.

But it never should have taken this long or been this hard.

In a statement, Susan King, the dean of the UNC School of Journalism and Media, said, “It has taken longer than I imagined, but I am deeply appreciative that the board has voted in favor of our school’s recommendation. I knew that when the board reviewed her tenure dossier and realized the strength of her teaching, service and professional vision they would be moved to grant tenure.”

For more on this, I encourage you to read Barbara Allen, Poynter’s director of college programming, who had a unique take with, “UNC’s mishandling of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure exposed the public to one of academia’s biggest shortcomings.”

And for more details and background information, you can read The New York Times’ Katie Robertson or CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis.

Tweet of the day

Check out what Hannah-Jones tweeted right after her tenure became official.

Bill Cosby’s verdict overturned

Bill Cosby reacts outside his home in Elkins Park, Pa. after being released from prison on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

In stunning news Wednesday, Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault was overturned by a Pennsylvania appeals court and he has been released from prison. Cosby, 83, had served more than two years of a three- to 10-year prison sentence after being convicted of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the district attorney in the case, who had Cosby arrested, was obligated to stand by his predecessor’s promise to not charge Cosby. The Associated Press’ Maryclaire Dale wrote, “Justice David Wecht, writing for a split court, said Cosby had relied on the former district attorney’s decision not to charge him when the comedian gave his potentially incriminating testimony in Constand’s civil case. The court called Cosby’s arrest ‘an affront to fundamental fairness, particularly when it results in a criminal prosecution that was forgone for more than a decade.’”

At least 60 women have accused Cosby of sexually harassing or assaulting them. Kate Snow, who has reported on this case for NBC News, shared the reaction on air from Cosby accuser Eden Tirl. In a text to Snow, Tirl wrote, “From the very beginning, the rigid constructs of the statute of limitations did not provide protection or a pathway for justice for the women that came out against Cosby. The outdated laws are so clearly in place, protecting men in these cases, more often than not. This is the story of the MeToo movement that must be included in the narrative now and not pushing the Cosby story off to the side. I am completely out of breath.”

Snow asked another Cosby accuser, Heidi Thomas, if she expected Wednesday’s decision. Thomas texted, “Not at all, out of the blue.”

Lisa Bloom, the attorney representing three women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera that she was “absolutely disgusted and shocked by this ruling.”

“I want to remind everybody that these are very, very serious charges,” Bloom said. “It just goes to show if you have money and power in the criminal justice system and you can afford attorneys to fight and fight and fight for years and years and years, eventually you may find a loophole and a way to get a conviction overturned, and that’s what has happened here.”

CBS News’ Jericka Duncan spoke to Cosby in an off-camera interview. She said on the “CBS Evening News,” “(Cosby) seemed very excited, obviously, to be home. … His takeaway was that he was glad he had his freedom and that this sends a message around the world.”

Meanwhile, Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s TV wife (Clair Huxtable) on “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s and early ’90s, tweeted, “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted – a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

That didn’t go over well on Twitter. It also should be noted that Rashad is scheduled to start a new job today as the dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University.

The Washington Post’s Sonia Rao, Paul Farhi and Manuel Roig-Franzia have more on the Cosby story.

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Elite journalism

Want to see some absolutely elite visual journalism? Well, I have two links for you today.

First, check out this phenomenal piece from The Washington Post’s Jon Swaine, Brittany Shammas, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Atthar Mirza, Emma Brown and Amy Brittain: “Video, images and interviews deepen questions about role of pool deck in condo collapse.”

Then, be sure to set aside some time to watch an incredible visual investigation from The New York Times: “Day of Rage: An In-Depth Look at How a Mob Stormed the Capitol.”

For the 40-minute documentary, the Times: “synchronized and mapped out thousands of videos and police radio communications from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, providing the most complete picture to date of what happened — and why.”

In a companion piece, The Times writes about six takeaways from the investigation, including the multiple points of attack, why the day turned deadly, the makeup of the mob and then-President Donald Trump’s role in the events.

The Times wrote, “What we have come up with is a 40-minute panoramic take on Jan. 6, the most complete visual depiction of the Capitol riot to date. In putting it together, we gained critical insights into the character and motivation of rioters by experiencing the events of the day often through their own words and video recordings. We found evidence of members of extremist groups inciting others to riot and assault police officers. And we learned how Donald J. Trump’s own words resonated with the mob in real time as they staged the attack.”

It’s incredibly well-done journalism that needs to be on your must-watch list.

More must-see work from PolitiFact

The scene outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Mihoko Owada/STAR MAX/IPx)

Speaking of the Jan. 6 insurrection, you must check out the stellar work by Poynter’s PolitiFact with “Misinformation and the Jan. 6 insurrection: When ‘patriot warriors’ were fed lies.” The report shows how misinformation radicalized one man, Jeffrey Sabol, who stormed the Capitol because he falsely believed the election was rigged against Donald Trump.

In the key passage, PolitiFact’s Bill McCarthy writes:

Because of what federal prosecutors say he did outside the Capitol building on Jan. 6, Sabol is now detained at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, D.C. He faces eight charges, including for allegedly assaulting police officers. If convicted, he could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison. A federal judge in April ruled him enough of a flight risk and danger to the community to deny his request for pretrial release.

Behind Jeffrey Sabol’s visit to Washington in January was a belief in something that was not true, a falsehood promoted for months by former President Donald Trump and repeated over and over again on social media, pro-Trump websites and conservative cable channels such as Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network.

To Sabol, there was no question that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

PolitiFact reviewed court filings, news reports and other information for approximately 430 defendants arrested through June 1 on charges related to the insurrection. Many defendants saw their actions as patriotic, and the day as a turning point in American history. They believed they were on the frontlines of a new revolution or civil war. In about half of the cases, the court documents shed light on how misinformed beliefs influenced the defendants’ lives ahead of the riot.”

I asked PolitiFact’s editor-in-chief, Angie Drobnic Holan, to share her thoughts on the report.

She told me, “Like many Americans, we wanted to know more about exactly what caused the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Was it misinformation that made people angry enough to storm the Capitol? We thought that looking at the specific cases of individual people would help illuminate the bigger story.

“We found that many defendants saw their actions as patriotic. They believed they were on the front lines of a new revolution or civil war. And the messaging that inspired them was everywhere: on social media, on TV and in conversations with friends. The key driver was the false narrative that the election was stolen, even though it wasn’t.

“We believe there is more to be learned about how misinformation influenced the events of Jan. 6, and we intend to continue our reporting in the months ahead.”

Lawsuit involving PolitiFact dismissed

A lawsuit filed by Children’s Health Defense against Poynter, Facebook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been dismissed. The suit alleged that PolitiFact, which is owned by Poynter, had censored a truthful public health statement about vaccines through its fact-checking relationship with Facebook.

PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson has the story.

Rumsfeld dies

Donald Rumsfeld. (Star Shooter/MediaPunch Inc/IPX)

Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary under George W. Bush who oversaw the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, died Wednesday from multiple myeloma. He was 88.

For more on his death, check out the obits from The Washington Post’s Bradley Graham and The New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden, as well as USA Today’s Ella Lee with “‘Known unknowns’: Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous — and infamous — quotes.”

Media heal thyselves

NBC News president Noah Oppenheim was on a panel this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival and talked about what the media can do to unify given the increasing distrust in media.

Oppenheim said it’s not the media’s job to unify.

“Our job is to hold the powerful accountable, to try to capture the best available version of the truth at any given time, and convey it as broadly as possible,” Oppenheim said. “I agree we’re in a terribly dangerous moment. I agree that there’s unequivocally bad actors out there who are throwing gasoline on the fire and trying to drive wedges between Americans and trying to attack the notion of an empirical truth. But that said, there were fires burning before that gasoline got thrown on and I think that as an industry … we have to acknowledge our role in this.”

Oppenheim added, “We have a responsibility to look at ourselves and say, ‘Why was it wrong and how do we fix it?’ And I think that the more transparent we are about the imperfect nature of what we do … we’re flawed. Like scientific inquiry, journalistic inquiry gets it wrong sometimes. And we have to do a better job of explaining that to people and then we have to do a better job of fixing it when we make mistakes, and I think that’s how we sort of gradually rebuild trust over time.”

Media tidbits

Next week

Just a heads up. The Poynter Report is going on vacation after tomorrow’s edition. So we’ll see you Friday morning, but then we’re going to take a week off to recharge. The newsletter will return July 12.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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