We have been discussing the controversy over the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media offering a chair and tenure to New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. After the university rescinded the tenure offer, Hannah-Jones agreed to accept the position on a non-tenured basis. She then later demanded tenure and the board changed its position after a national campaign. Now, Hannah-Jones has denounced the university and accepted a position at Howard University.
The original offer of a chair and tenure at UNC was controversial. Hannah-Jones was made the offer despite leading academics challenging the historical account in her 1619 Project as deeply flawed as well as criticism of her record as a journalist of intolerance, controversial positions on rioting, and fostering conspiracy theories. The board then rescinded the offer to Hannah-Jones to be the next Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Instead, it offered a five-year appointment to the faculty. While I was one of those highly critical of the appointment, I expressed concerns over the political interference with a faculty in making such academic decisions. Then a national campaign was used to get the board to reverse itself.
After the university renewed the tenured offer, however, Hannah-Jones denounced UNC and accepted a chair with Howard University. On “CBS This Morning” with anchor Gayle King, Hannah-Jones said that she would not accept the position because “what it took” to get it. She blamed racism as opposed to her controversial history as a writer:
“Because look what it took to get tenure. This was a position that since the 1980s came with tenure. The Knight chairs are designed for professional journalists when working in the filed, to come into academia. Every other chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure…To only have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment after threat of legal action, after weeks of protests, after it became a national scandal, it’s just not something I want anymore.”
The objections to Hannah-Jones were based on her approach to journalism and questions about the accuracy of her main work.
Academics have criticized Hannah-Jones work 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 New York Times was criticized later for a “clarification” that undermined a main premise of her writing. In March 2020, the New York Times wrote “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.” None of that appeared to concern the Pulitzer Committee anymore than University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
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, Stanford journalism professor, Ted 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. Hannah-Jones has been a leading voice in attacking those with opposing views. A year ago, the New York Times denounced its own publishing of an editorial of Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) calling for the use of the troops to restore order in Washington after days of rioting around the White House. It was one of the one of the lowest points in the history of modern American journalism. While Congress would “call in the troops” six months later to quell the rioting at the Capitol on January 6th, New York Times reporters and columnists called the column historically inaccurate and politically inciteful. Reporters insisted that Cotton was even endangering them by suggesting the use of troops and insisted that the newspaper cannot feature people who advocate political violence. (One year later, the New York Times published a column by an academic who has previously declared that there is nothing wrong with murdering conservatives and Republicans).
Critics never explained what was historically false (or outside the range of permissible interpretation) in the column. Moreover, writers Taylor Lorenz, Caity Weaver, Sheera Frankel, Jacey Fortin, and others said that such columns put black reporters in danger and condemned publishing Cotton’s viewpoint. In a breathtaking surrender, the newspaper apologized and not only promised an investigation in how such an opposing view could find itself on its pages but promised to reduce the number of editorials in the future.
One of the writers who condemned the decision to publish Cotton was Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones applauded the 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. Opinion editor James Bennet reportedly made an apology to the staff. 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.
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.
Again, the Hannah-Jones controversy presented a difficult tension for those of us who believe in the need for both faculty governance and greater diversity of viewpoints. However, this is not how a board should respond to such controversies. The Board adopted a position divorced from principle or logic. It failed to explain why it would rescind both a tenure and chair offer. Such rare decisions should come with a full and frank explanation from the University. Instead, we had an anonymous statement that this is a political compromise removed from the academic basis for the offer. If the Trustees want more intellectual diversity on the faculty, they should state so and address how to do so without gutting faculty governance. If it viewed Hannah-Jones as unqualified, it should have stated so.
The position of Hannah-Jones is no less baffling. She first demanded tenured but then accepted the position without tenure. She then demanded tenured but, when it was restored, she then rejected the position and denounced the school.
Hannah-Jones will now teach journalism as a tenured chair at Howard University. That resolves the question of where she will teach but questions remain over what she will teach is the essence of journalism.