We have been discussing the long saga over the University of North Carolina’s offering an academic chair to former New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones is one of the most prominent proponents of advocacy journalism and her writings, including as part of the 1619 Project, are highly controversial. Ultimately, Hannah-Jones turned down the UNC offer in favor of Howard University. However, an email triggered a new controversy at UNC after it was disclosed that UNC Journalism and Media Dean Susan King wrote to ABC to expressly ask them to “protect” Hannah-Jones in its coverage. It is an ironic and concerning email. Many of us are critics of advocacy journalism and the growing rejection of objectivity. In this matter, King responded to criticism of Hannah-Jones over advocacy journalism by asking ABC Deputy Political Director Averi Harper to advocate for her in framing the coverage.
There is no indication that Harper responded by saying that, as a journalist, she is not tasked with protecting favored individuals in coverage. However, the request from the dean of the UNC shows how casual journalism professors have become with these ethical lines between reporting and advocacy.
According to documents acquired by the site Campus Reform, Harper emailed King in May, to ask why Hannah-Jones had not been granted tenure. King responded “She deserves tenure. Her package is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. Protect Nikole. She deserves it and I’m doing all I can to make this right. We really want her here.” King previously worked for ABC. She also sit on the BBC Board.
King has a stellar background in journalism and I certainly do not fault her for defending the candidate chosen by her faculty for an appointment. Indeed, I raised academic concerns about political interference on such questions.
We can disagree on the academic credentials of Hannah-Jones and the scholarly values of the 1619 Project, which has been challenged by historians on critical assertions (like claiming that the Revolution was really fought to preserve slavery). However, King received an inquiry from a journalism and felt entirely comfortable asking her to actively support the subject of the story as an ally in the controversy.
This story broke as National Public Radio crossed the Rubicon on ethics and announced that its reporters will now be allowed to participate in protests. We also recently discussed the firing of Lauren Wolfe, who was fired for saying that she had “chills” in watching Biden land at Andrews Air Force base. Wolfe later penned a column declaring “I’m a Biased Journalist and I’m Okay With That” — a full-throated endorsement of the new journalistic model of open bias and advocacy.
We now have actual journalism deans writing to reporters for them to be advocates to protect the subjects of news stories. The move is consistent with the writing fo Stanford journalism professor Ted Glasser who insists 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.”
The question is who will be left to “protect” journalism. The abandonment of the tradition of neutrality for reporters will hasten the decline of American journalism. Polls show trust in the media at an all-time low with less than 20 percent of citizens trusting television or print media. Yet, reporters and academics continue to destroy the core principles that sustain journalism and ultimately the role of a free press in our society.