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Nikole Hannah-Jones' Tenure Rejection Rocks UNC Campus

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Next, we hear two voices behind a story at the University of North Carolina. The university hired an acclaimed New York Times journalist. She was the driving force behind the Times' 1619 Project that argued slavery is central to the American story. But then the University Board of Governors did not take up a proposal to give her tenure, which triggered familiar debates about race and cancel culture. Behind that is a story about two approaches to journalism. Here's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

David Folkenflik: Let's meet the two people at the heart of this controversy.

Walter Hussman: My name is Walter Hussman Jr. I'm the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and I'm 74 years old.

Nikole Hannah-Jones: My name is Nikole Hannah-Jones. I am a reporter at The New York Times and I am 45 years old.

Folkenflik: Both earned degrees from UNC's journalism school. Hussman was graduated in 1968. Hannah-Jones received her masters in 2003. They took very different paths to get there.

Hussman: Our family's been in the newspaper business since 1909, and my grandfather started the business and my father did it for 50 years before he retired. And so I always thought I might want to go into journalism

Hannah-Jones: 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, which almost all of the Black kids were bused in to 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.

Folkenflik: Hannah-Jones has won praise for her investigations into ongoing racial segregation. But she's perhaps best-known for being the force behind the 1619 Project. In that series, The New York Times explored the sordid and central role slavery played in U.S. history and in the prosperity of white America.

It was acclaimed. She won a Pulitzer in the commentary division for it. It was also attacked, for example, some scholars say it overstated the role of slavery in inspiring the American Revolution.

And here's where Hannah-Jones collides with Hussman.

Hussman: I'm worried that we're moving away from those time-tested principles of journalism that we had in the 20th century that were so effective in engendering tremendous trust in the media.

Folkenflik: Hussman's papers lean to the right on the editorial pages, but he says he wants clear separation from the news pages, where he mandates what's often called impartiality or objectivity. Reporters must avoid any bias or position or belief in pursuit of the facts and give people the chance to make up their own minds.

A few years back, Hussman made a $25 million pledge to the school. His journalistic manifesto — and it is broader than just objectivity — has been painted on a banner at the school. It's now the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and Hannah-Jones is up for that tenured job there.

Hussman opposes her bid.

Hussman: I've been in the news business, in the newspaper business for 50 years, and 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 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.

Folkenflik: Hannah-Jones backs some of his priorities. That ideal of objectivity, though, Hannah-Jones says, it's loaded.

Hannah-Jones: We are both graduates of that journalism school. We are both people who have been in the newspaper industry for a very long time and no one person gets to establish the rules of our trade.

Folkenflik: Hannah-Jones asks, Why shouldn't reporters care if local governments fail foster kids or school children? Why do all newspapers have police reporters, but many of them don't cover poverty?

These, she says, are choices. And so is the question of what sources to consider reliable. Think about how news organizations rely on police for authoritative information. Yet without eyewitness videos, no one would have known how Eric Garner, Walter Scott, George Floyd and so many others died.

Hannah-Jones: The harm is by pretending that the news we see is being led by objective arbiters of fact -- 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.

Folkenflik: That, she says, is how journalism used to be taught and how it used to operate.

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

Folkenflik: The school has offered Hannah-Jones a five-year contract, and it's asking the UNC board to reconsider her tenure bid. Most of the heat centers on the 1619 Project. Hussman says that's what trips him up, too.

Hussman: Sometimes controversies can overshadow or even overwhelm the core mission of any institution.

Folkenflik: Hussman says he knows the school gets to make its own choices. UNC journalism Dean is Susan King. She sometimes wears a baseball cap emblazoned with Hussman's catchphrases about journalism.

She also tells NPR the profession is changing with the times. And, she says, it needs to.

Copyright 2021 NPR

Education Morning EditionUNC Chapel Hill
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.