We have been writing about the assault on foundational concepts of neutrality in journalism in academia. This includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. Now the University of North Carolina has awarded the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. While Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her writing on The 1619 Project, she has been criticized (including on this blog) for her role in purging dissenting views from the New York Times pages and embracing absurd anti-police conspiracy theories.
As discussed earlier, Hannah-Jones was one of the journalists who denounced the New York Times for publishing the views of Sen. Tom Cotton on the use of troops to quell rioting in U.S. cities. Hannah-Jones applauded the disgraceful decision of the Times to apologize for publishing such an opposing viewpoint and denounced those who engage in what she called “even-handedness, both sideism” journalism. When Hannah-Jones and others objected to the publishing of the views of Cotton, opinion editor James Bennet was rustled out to make a pleading apology. That however was not enough. He was later compelled to resign for publishing a column that advocates an option used previously in history with rioting.
Notably, while the use of national guard troops was condemned in the protests around the White House, the delay in the use of national guard troops was later criticized in Jan. 6th riot.
Not long after playing a prominent role in the removal of Bennet, Hannah-Jones was criticized for advancing an anti-police conspiracy theory.
In her now deleted tweet, Hannah-Jones promoted a thread that discussed how the recent injuries and destruction caused by fireworks was not the fault of protesters but actually part of a police conspiracy. This occurred at a time when police are trying to quell the use of these fireworks in New York and other cities. These incidents were becoming more and more of a concern for residents both in protests and random attacks. This included an incident involving the victimizing of a homeless man and effort of the police to identify the culprit:
As criticism of the use of fireworks grew so did a conspiracy theory on the Internet is that the fireworks are part of a police plot “to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” The thread promoted the view of a person identified as Robert Jones, Jr. that
“The media is reporting this as though it’s just Black and Brown kids blowing off steam, but I don’t believe that’s the case. My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.”
When confronted on her republishing of this conspiracy theory, Hannah-Jones deleted the tweet and apologized. That was the correct response. However, the incident does not seem to have prompted any reconsideration of the recent move against the Times or its editors. In that incident, they published not a conspiracy theory but a column on a power held by the federal government for decades and used repeatedly in history.
There was not a lot of “investigative reporting” shown in Hannah-Jones suggesting that police were framing protesters by secretly giving them the fireworks used against the public or homeless people. It fit a narrative and that was sufficient.
Unlike the editor of the Times, however, such theories are not viewed as cause for resignation or unacceptable “both sideism.”
Academics have also criticized Hannah-Jones writing on the 1619 Project. According to The Atlantic , Princeton historian Sean Wilentz criticized that work and some of Hannah-Jones’s other work a letter signed by scholars James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes. They raised “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.'” They objected that the work represented “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” The Atlantic noted that “given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.”
The concern is that figures like Hannah-Jones represent a fundamental rejection of objectivity and neutrality in journalism. She appears to adhere to a growing view among academics.
In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Glasser insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.” He rejected the notion that the journalism is based on objectivity and said that he views “journalists as activists because journalism at its best — and indeed history at its best — is all about morality.” Thus, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
Dressing up bias as “advocating social justice,” does not remove the taint of yellow journalism. It is the same rationalization for shaping the news to fit your agenda and treating readers as subjects to be educated rather than informed.
While other professors in The Stanford Daily disagreed, Wesley Lowery, who has served as a national correspondent for the Washington Post, also rejects objectivity. In a tweet, Lowery declared “American view-from-nowhere, “objectivity”-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment…The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”
These are major voices in media. Glasser is a Stanford Department of Communication professor emeritus and served as the director for Stanford’s Graduate Program in Journalism. He is also the former president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
What is interesting is that this fundamental challenge to journalistic values is not being widely discussed. For those of us who have worked for decades as columnists and in the media, the growing intolerance for dissenting views is stifling and alarming. Media outlets are now wedded to echo journalism models where opposing views or facts are increasingly rare. We are seeing our leading schools teaching such advocacy and bias as values as opposed to dangers to journalism. It is a shift at universities that will impact journalism for many years to come.