Nikole Hannah-Jones Turns Down Tenure at UNC and Accepts Chair At Howard University

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 After the university rescinded the tenure offer, Hannah-Jones agreed to accept the position on a non-tenured basis.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  The board then rescinded the offer to Hannah-Jones to be the next Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.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 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.

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.

 

 

115 thoughts on “Nikole Hannah-Jones Turns Down Tenure at UNC and Accepts Chair At Howard University”

  1. Interesting, they reject objectivity in reporting, but claim to possess objective moral judgement (“moral clarity”).

  2. A “Slavocracy,” If You Can Keep It (with apologies to BF)

    The central claim of the “1619 Project” is that in 1776, the Founders created America primarily to protect the institution of slavery, i.e., that America was created as a “slavocracy.” By that historical revisionism, Hannah-Jones and her ilk are attempting to destroy the greatest political accomplishment in human history — a country created explicitly on the concept of individual rights.

    Whitewashing history has been practiced since at least ancient Rome. It is a fraud, but the motivation is at least a human one: to make a country seem better than it actually is. This, though, is the first instance I know of where historical revisionism is used to make a country seem *worse* than it is — and, in fact, is being done to destroy a virtue. Those who wrote and promote 1619 have a sub-human motive — the desire to destroy a magnificent achievement.

    Incidentally, slaves were not introduced into this continent by colonists. Slavery (and not just of blacks) was imported to North America in the 17th century by Great Britain (Spain, Portugal, and other European countries).

    There’s a myth running around that the “1619 Project” merely has as its goal publicizing the fact that slaves first landed on this continent in 1619. It has been known since the 17th century that there was slavery on this continent in 1619 (and, actually, long before that). That point is not a revelation.

  3. The decision not to offer her a Chair should have been solely based upon evidence, including the historical inaccuracies of her 1619 project, and the flaws in the reasoning of her articles.

    The trend in the body of her work is that her reasoning is flawed.

  4. Well,

    Hannah-Jones managed to win twice. Hannah-Jones gets to play victim twice. Once for having her original job offer rescinded, then again for turning down the offer after it was reinstated claiming she should not have had to go through because it was racist. Maybe UNC should have thought this through from the start.

    While I certainly understand Hannah-Jones reaction, I wonder how good a chair she would have been with her credentials of driving out opposing opinions in a field that prides itself on unbiased integrity. Hopefully UNC learns its lesson and does not repeat the mistake. Hire or not, but make sure you are unwavering once you made a decision.

  5. John S. Knight co-founded the Knight Foundation that endowed the journalism chair at UNC (and at other universities around the country). He was an extraordinarily successful newspaper publisher, back in the day when newspapers still had editorial standards and a semblance of objectivity.

    Here is Knight in 1969 expressing one of the key principles of his newspapers:

    “The Knight newspapers strive to meet the highest standards of journalism. We try to keep our news columns factual and unbiased, reserving our opinions for the editorial pages, where they belong.”

    How ironic, then, that the very Foundation his wealth funds is now supporting creatures like Jones, who peddle racist myth masquerading as historical fact.

  6. Turley warns:

    “Media outlets are now wedded to echo journalism models where opposing views or facts are increasingly rare.”

    Notice that he does not qualify “media outlets.” One can thus conclude that he is referring to both those on the Right as well as the Left. Of course, as I have often pointed out, Turley is likely contractually prevented from pointing his finger directly at Fox News as he do often does Fox’s media competitors.

    1. Agreed, Jeff. Media outlets publish actual news and opinion pieces, which aren’t the same thing at all. Turley’s blog falls under the latter category because he ignores or severely slants commentary on news items that run counter to the pro-Trump, pro-Republican agenda of his employer. Fair enough, so long as we all understand that. But, it seems to me that the Hannah-Jones’s 1619 piece tries to mix up the two: she seems to be offering an opinion about historical facts, and by doing so, distorts the truth, which is counter to what journalism is supposed to be about. She’s not the only one who does this. There is that other author who claimed that slaves set up and ran the Underground Railroad, which just isn’t true. Slaves were illiterate and didn’t own property. White Abolitionists set it up. Yes, some former slaves, like Harriett Tubman, helped, but they couldn’t have set it up or run it on their own because they lacked the resources. There’s too much history in the form of writings, secret hiding places and hidden rooms discovered in houses that were owned by abolitionists and used to help slaves hide until they could escape to Canada that proves this.

      Then, there’s the other author who claimed that slaves were the “architects” of this country. Again, more hyperbole not based on facts. Slaves were mostly agricultural workers on plantations in southern states and most were illiterate– they weren’t “architects” of anything. Yes, they contributed to the economy, but weren’t leaders. Turley talks about having diversity of viewpoints, which is fine as far as that goes, but fantasizing about facts that didn’t exist and trying to create a narrative about economic contributions that simply aren’t true crosses a line. How could someone who doesn’t understand this be an effective leader or teacher? How can there be validity to an “opinion” about past historical events that actual historical facts establish isn’t true?

      There is some parallel to Trump’s claims about a “stolen landslide election”. This is his opinion, based on no facts, which he continues to claim despite mountains of proof to the contrary. So, he tried to attack the proof in the form of attempting to stop the ballots from being counted (in AZ), disqualified or tried to get Republican election officials to change the totals (in GA), which didn’t work. He ignores all facts that counter his “opinion”, including the fact that he set a record for consistently low approval ratings, and every single poll predicted he would lose. He tried to bully and then sue to get his way, and when that didn’t work, incited a riot to try to force Congress to take away Biden’s victory. He still won’t quit. Fact and opinion are two different things.

      1. ‘Democrats don’t want to hand over router passwords in Arizona for the same reason Democrats can’t find chain of custody docs for mail-in ballots in Georgia for the same reason 135,000 votes are magically pre-loaded into machines by Democrats in the NYC mayor’s race.’ @EmeraldRobinson

        1. Under what authority should Election officials in Arizona “hand over router passwords” to a pro Big Lie group with no experience in anything election-related? They are inspecting ballots and machines, but that’s all, and even that is wrongful because they have an agenda, and it isn’t to be fair. And..where did you get the idea that all election officials in Arizona are all Democrats? It has come to pass that because voting equipment has been manipulated by the Cyber Ninjas that these machines cannot be used again, and that will cost Arizona taxpayers millions of dollars. All for the ego of a malignant narcissist who cannot accept the fact that he lost in 2020.

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