The Media Today

Lessons from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure battle

July 7, 2021

In April, the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media announced the hiring of alumna Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project, for the position of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The journalism school recommended Hannah-Jones for full tenure; a month later, NC Policy Watch broke the news that UNC’s board of trustees had rejected the recommendation, offering her a five-year contract instead. In late May, The Assembly reported that mega-donor Walter Hussman, Jr., had emailed university leaders and raised concerns about linking the 1619 Project to the school, citing reputational controversy as well as his own personal qualms with the effort. In June, NC Policy Watch again broke news, reporting that Hannah-Jones had chosen to hold out for tenure. Last week, students demonstrating their support for Hannah-Jones at a board meeting to decide her future at the university were removed without explanation; the board then held a closed-door session in which it eventually approved a tenure offer. Yesterday morning, Hannah-Jones told CBS’s Gayle King that she had rejected the offer, announcing that she would instead join the Howard University faculty, where she will be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism and will launch the school’s new Center for Journalism and Democracy. (Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “The Case for Reparations” and Between the World and Me, will also join Howard University, where he will hold the Sterling Brown chair in the English department.) 

“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a statement explaining her decision. Many journalists and colleagues rejoiced in the situation’s outcome and its broader implications for journalists of color who have been excluded or maligned. “So many lessons from my friend @nhannahjones, this morning,” Yamiche Alcindor, PBS White House correspondent, wrote. “Go where you are embraced, celebrated, valued and supported.” Stacy-Marie Ishmael, who stepped down from their role as editorial director of the Texas Tribune in March, citing burnout, tweeted, “Among the many reasons I am grateful that Nikole Hannah-Jones lends her considerable genius to the practice of journalism: she reminds us that we can imagine a better way.” 

Meredith Clark, a Black media-studies scholar, also celebrated Hannah-Jones’s decision, though with a caveat: the forces at play at UNC are at play everywhere, and not everyone has the power to push back as Hannah-Jones had. “Tomorrow, let’s talk about conditions for faculty who aren’t major players,” Clark wrote. Dean Freelon, an associate professor at UNC’s journalism school who is also Black, wrote a thread about the challenges that UNC—and its faculty and students—will continue to face. “This won’t be the last time, or the last place, we see something like this,” Freelon said. “Faculty, students, you can’t outrun this (not even to a private school). All you can do is put in the work for the change you want.” Joe Killian, the reporter at NC Policy Watch who broke the story about the board’s tenure rejection and interviewed both Hannah-Jones and Hussman, wrote an extended Twitter thread on the power differentials rendered invisible in too much discussion about Hussman and Hannah-Jones. Hussman, who is white, inherited significant power in the journalism industry; Hannah-Jones earned it in the face of considerable obstacles, Killian wrote. “Whatever you may think of her, it’s impossible to credibly argue Hannah-Jones hasn’t put in the work,” he concluded. “That she won’t be accepting the offer says more about UNC than it does her. They could have prevented this, had they put in the work.” 

New from CJR: Years of complaints preceded the recent departure of a New York Times photo editor

The ongoing challenge for UNC as an institution is, in many ways, a mirror to our own industry. Outlets like Essence and NC Policy Watch have reported that UNC has already lost some faculty and recruits during its handling of Hannah-Jones’s tenure application, arguably damaging it as an institution; so, too, has the journalism industry harmed itself, its practitioners, and its readers by failing to reckon with its own failures, especially in welcoming, celebrating, and supporting journalists of color. A CJR report from the late 1960s noted that many schools, including Howard University, launched journalism or communications programs for Black students in response to the Kerner Commission, a 1968 federal report that noted—among other national instances of racial inequity—the press’s failures to address racism. But decades later, gross inequities persist

Journalism, as a practice, speaks truth to power; as an institution, it also holds power, and has often wielded it to uphold its own status quo. For CJR’s most recent magazine issue, Savannah Jacobson wrote about the history of the press pass and its roots in racist practices—noting, for example, that the White House Correspondents Association once barred Black reporters under the guise of preventing non-daily news reporters. Though journalism is ostensibly tasked with the role of speaking truth to power, “a lot of the traditions in journalism are rooted in racism, misogyny, and a fierce defense of our own power,” Jacobson wrote in a Galley discussion. Former CJR staff writer Alexandria Neason agreed. “It’s kind of a wonder, to see a press corps that has in recent years spoken so forcefully about how politicians, for example, cling to power, without seeing how we cling to ours, too,” she wrote. Countering oppression within journalism’s institutions—from classrooms to newsrooms—requires ongoing confrontation with the ways in which we have historically wielded power. We can’t outrun this; we can only face it.

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More on Nikole-Hannah Jones, the media, and accountability:

  • Supporting local: Hannah-Jones wrote that she gave Joe Killian, the NC Policy Watch reporter who broke several stories concerning her tenure application, an exclusive print interview after his scoop about her tenure rejection. “The story about the discrimination I faced in the UNC tenure debacle was broken by excellent local reporter @JoekillianPW,” she wrote. “Local news matters.” 
  • Objection: Faculty members from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media published an open letter on Medium in response to yesterday’s news, noting that only 3.1 percent of tenured faculty at their university are Black women. “While disappointed, we are not surprised,” the letter signatories wrote. “We support Ms. Hannah-Jones’s choice. The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust. We will be frank: It was racist.” As of this morning, forty-six faculty members have signed the letter.
  • Benched: Yesterday, ESPN pulled Rachel Nichols from NBA finals coverage, following a Sunday New York Times story that revealed Nichols made comments suggesting a colleague, Maria Taylor, had advanced in her job because she is Black. (Nichols is white.) Nichols accidentally recorded her conversation to a server at ESPN’s headquarters; another employee filmed and then leaked the video. “Taylor, whom executives had asked numerous times to change her interactions with Nichols, said that the only people punished by ESPN’s actions were women of color,” The New York Times had reported, adding at the time that the network’s decision not to discipline Nichols was called an “active source of pain” among some ESPN employees.


Other notable stories:

  • Many reporters who covered the Capitol riot—having faced danger and threats—are struggling with trauma and anger as they cover Republican congressional representatives who continue to downplay the severity of that day’s events. Some reporters have sought therapy; others won’t return to the building, VICE reported. PBS NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins told VICE that she still isn’t sleeping well. “That day we weren’t just observers; we were one of their targets,” Ginger Gibson, an NBC News editor, said. “Those of us that were inside that day will forever have a perspective that is slightly differently informed than anyone else who’s ever covered Congress. It’s not my job to divorce myself from the emotional feeling. It’s my job to let it inform me in a way that’s constructive, while still being fair.”
  • Rupert Murdoch plans to launch Fox Weather, a competitor to the Weather Channel, later this year, the New York Times reported. (Meanwhile, the Weather Channel will launch its own streaming service). Weather media is a lucrative sector, and often overlooked, the Times’s Michael Grynbaum wrote; it depends upon habits. Brian Wieser, a media investment analyst, asked, “How do you address the fact that weather changes are caused to some degree by humans when you have a media property with a history of challenging that fact?”
  • Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, found that One America News Network host Christina Bobb plugged her nonprofit—which funds right-wing attempts to amplify election misinformation by conducting misleading “audits”—more than 140 times on the air. The Daily Beast notes that Bobb, “who served as an adviser to the Trump legal team’s efforts to overturn the election following Trump’s loss, has been the face of OAN’s coverage of the Arizona audit.” 
  • Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of journalist Gretchen Carlson’s sexual-harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, the wealthy and powerful founder and CEO of Fox News. Soon after, several other women came forward with similar allegations; Ailes was eventually fired. Variety published an interview with Carlson, who noted that the industry’s willingness to pursue sexual-harassment stories has changed dramatically. “If we would have pitched a sexual harassment story six years ago,” Carlson said, “nobody would have given a damn.”
  • In the Netherlands, Peter R. de Vries, one of the country’s best known investigative reporters on organized crime, was shot on Tuesday evening following a regular appearance on a current affairs television show. Recently, de Vries had been acting as a confidant to a witness in a major trial against the alleged leader of a violent crime gang. Three suspects have been detained. De Vries is in a hospital being treated for serious injuries.
  • This morning, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote that crackdowns against journalism are on the rise worldwide. Imprisonments are at an all-time high since the Committee to Protect Journalists began tracking in the early 1990s. Both the Biden and Trump administrations have failed to address such threats, Sullivan argued. Joel Simon, the executive director at CPJ who will step down this winter after fifteen years in leadership, told Sullivan that “repressive leaders feel empowered.”
  • The Information plans to launch a new standalone publication dedicated to batteries and electric vehicles, Axios reported. The subscription-based tech industry publication has launched several industry-specific newsletters this year. The new standalone title, “The Electric,” will require a secondary subscription in addition to its $400 annual professional subscription. 

ICYMI: College newsrooms challenge an industry’s status quo

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites