Friday was the deadline by which the prizewinning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones had asked the University of North Carolina to restore her offer of tenure to its journalism school or face legal action.
“Today the University responded to a letter from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. regarding Nikole Hannah-Jones’ employment,” said UNC–Chapel Hill vice chancellor for communications Joel Curran in a statement emailed to Slate by the university’s press office. “We look forward to continued dialogue with her counsel.”
Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer winner and MacArthur “genius,” was recruited to be a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, only to see the standard tenure offer that goes with the position replaced with a five-year nontenure contract. Her tenure candidacy has also been resubmitted to the board of trustees, which gives them a chance to change course.
On Sunday, the North Carolina online magazine the Assembly reported that in addition to the conservative trustees themselves, a crucial opponent of her hire was Walter Hussman Jr., the Arkansas newspaper publisher whose $25 million commitment to the university got the journalism school named after him in 2019.
Hussman learned of Carolina’s interest in hiring Hannah-Jones in the summer of 2020, according to emails obtained by the Assembly, and he began to express concerns to top university officials, including at least one trustee, that her hire would undermine the school’s values. Or, more directly, his own set of journalistic values, which his donation prompted the school to inscribe in the front of its building.
Among those principles: “Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.” And the whole question of Hannah-Jones’ tenure offer, and Hussman’s role in blocking it, does revolve around credibility and impartiality—but not necessarily in the way Hussman wished it to.
Hussman’s concern, in the emails, was Hannah-Jones’ work on the New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, a journalistic reexamination of American history that focused on the central role of enslavement in shaping the nation. “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” wrote Hussman to several university officials in late December. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.”
He feared, Hussman wrote, that “many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda” and that such a perception would threaten his vision “that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion.”
But Hussman’s account of the 1619 Project contained its own partiality. An earlier email, from September, took issue with a line— “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone.”—from Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer winning essay from the 1619 Project.
“I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War,” he wrote.
He continued: “Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”
Hussman is a newspaperman—and as a journalist, he told the Assembly, he felt a professional obligation not to publicly take sides in the hiring controversy. The fact that he had personally stoked that controversy in private was beside the point. Impartiality here was reduced to a kind of performance, in which a journalist’s professional duty is to talk as if they are neutral on a question, no matter what the truth may be. (Hussman told both NC Policy Watch and the Raleigh News & Observer that he was standing by what he said in the emails.)
Hussman is in a position to make a multimillion-dollar gift to a journalism school because, backed by his family’s publishing wealth, he won a war for control of his local newspaper market. He is the longtime publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a marriage between what had been two rival papers. In the 1970s, Hussman’s family bought the Arkansas Democrat and instated him as publisher. He positioned the Democrat as a conservative alternative to the Arkansas Gazette, a paper that was long critical of racist politicians and practices, and started a newspaper battle that the Gazette couldn’t survive. The conflict was about profitability, longevity, and winning—as they often are—and it came at the expense of the Gazette.
During this feud, John Robert Starr, a top editor of the Democrat, also wrote a salacious weekly column. Starr, according to research conducted by Donna Lampkin Stephens in her dissertation, used the column to position himself and the Democrat as aligning with Arkansas’ conservative majority. Hussman, for his part, questioned the ethics of one of the top editors also operating as an opinion columnist but allowed it to continue. The column featured nasty digs at politicians, the Gazette, and its staff. Longtime Gazette reporter Ernest Dumas said that the Gazette, to his knowledge, was never asked about the salacious information that Starr published.
“The brazen disregard for journalistic principles was shocking in its outrageousness,” wrote Lampkin Stephens of the Democrat’s practices. “Such practices run completely counter to standard journalistic practices, and even the fact that they took place during Arkansas’s fierce newspaper war cannot condone their use. Simply, the Hussman-owned Democrat did not have the same commitment to quality journalism that the Gazette had under Heiskell family ownership.”
After an antitrust lawsuit, the Gazette was bought by Gannett before being sold off to Hussman and merged with the Democrat to form the paper as it exists today.
Hussman has also appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to discuss journalistic objectivity, which is an interesting choice for someone concerned about credibility. (Carlson is also an avid opponent of the 1619 Project.) Who he chooses to follow on Twitter, and who follows him, is equally revealing.
This all makes his concerns about Hannah-Jones’ hiring all the more peculiar. The concern is linked, intentionally or not, to a broader conservative disinformation campaign against universities—which is even more complex and intense in North Carolina. Viewing the 1619 Project, particularly the marquee essay by Hannah-Jones, as “opinionated,” rather than as historical analysis rooted in research, is indicative of what truths are valid to him. Then there’s that whole issue of a powerful donor overstepping his bounds and involving himself in university hiring protocols, which is, again, a direct violation of the journalistic ethics he touts.
“If you think you can say whatever you want to whoever you want as long as people don’t find out about it, you shouldn’t be lecturing people about ethics and integrity,” said one trustee to NC Policy Watch. “I can’t say the things I’d like to publicly about this, because I’m told it would jeopardize a personnel process, maybe even lead to a lawsuit. But a rich donor can find out this information, make arguments to people at the highest level about the fitness of people we employ, call other donors and talk about it … and as long as he doesn’t do it publicly, he thinks that’s okay.”