The Media Today

On NHJ, UNC, and CRT

June 25, 2021

In April, the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, announced a marquee hire: Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist for the New York Times Magazine, would arrive in the summer as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. “The university has given me a lot,” Hannah-Jones, a UNC alumna, said, “and I’m grateful for the opportunity to give back by helping students pursue their dreams and learn how to practice the type of journalism that is truly reflective of our multiracial nation.” The journalism faculty recommended her for tenure. But last month, the process hit a snag, when members of the university’s board of trustees failed to approve—or even formally consider—her tenure position. The chair of the board described that as routine, since Hannah-Jones lacks a “traditional academic-type background,” yet her predecessors in the post received tenure after having spent their careers as media professionals. In her case, the university’s effective denial was widely interpreted as a political snub: Hannah-Jones is persona non grata among many conservatives, thanks to her direction of the 1619 Project, a Times initiative that centers slavery in the American story.

Hannah-Jones agreed to sign a five-year contract, with tenure to be reviewed. This week, however, NC Policy Watch reported that she won’t join UNC unless she is offered tenure up front; her lawyers told the university that since signing on, she “has come to learn that political interference and influence from a powerful donor contributed to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application,” and thus “cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith” at a future date. The donor in question is Walter Hussman, Jr., another UNC alum who is now the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and who has pledged so much money to UNC’s journalism school that it took his name and agreed literally to etch his journalistic values into the building. (For now, they’re printed on wallpaper because of an etching delay.) In late May, The Assembly reported that, after Hussman learned of the plan to appoint Hannah-Jones, he privately informed university leaders of his concern about tying the school to the 1619 Project; in emails, he referred to reputational controversy, but also revealed his personal disagreement with the project’s “denigration” of “courageous white southerners” in the civil-rights era. “My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion,” Hussman wrote. When The Assembly approached Hussman, he declined to elaborate much, citing his duty to journalistic impartiality. (Taking sides privately—as a major donor, no less—is, apparently, fine.)

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Hussman v. Hannah-Jones thus became an episode in the endless media-industry debate over the meaning of “objectivity” and its practical application. Individually, the pair appear to stand at opposite poles, but, as Sid Bedingfield, a journalism academic at the University of Minnesota, wrote for the Washington Post yesterday, situating their positions in historical context reveals an irony: far from enshrining objectivity, white-owned Southern newspapers—like the Arkansas titles that the Hussman family would later acquire—“worked closely with business and political allies to eliminate what they viewed as the threat of Black suffrage and to build the Jim Crow political economy that came to dominate Southern society,” forcing Black journalists to fight back in the name of democracy. The success of those papers “explains why Hannah-Jones has an agenda today,” Bedingfield writes.

Present-day context is important, too. The centrality of UNC makes this situation about more than journalistic philosophy—it’s also a matter of academic freedom, now the subject of national uproar. Concocted right-wing panic about “critical race theory”—which is actually a (mostly college-level) field concerned with systemic and institutional racism—has been weaponized by conservative activists as an amorphous, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children? boogeyman for Americans who are being asked to think seriously about racism and don’t like it. As with all right-wing panics, this one has come to assume the form of a media feedback loop: right-wing outlets have blown up outrageous-sounding anecdotes, driving attention as conservatives kick up a fuss at school-board meetings. According to the Post, critical race theory has been mentioned on Fox News nearly two thousand times this year, with nearly fifty mentions on Tuesday alone. Liberal outlets have covered the subject far less, but, as is always the case with right-wing panics, the story has started to spill out of its silo, inspiring a parade of rebuttals, debunkings, and semantic arguments. These have often been worthy, but the fact we’re talking about critical race theory at all is a victory for the agitators. All the while, state-level Republican politicians are pushing restrictive education laws—just as they used Trump’s lies about the election as cover to push restrictive voting laws. As Hannah-Jones noted on MSNBC last week, the two types of legislation go “hand in hand.”

The 1619 Project is not critical race theory, but it’s a flashpoint in the same fight—and was one of the earliest things to be targeted in the recent education wars. Like critical race theory, 1619 threatens conservatives because it challenges their shibboleths; it also challenges their control of the national conversation, and thus their power over the political agenda. Expanding the discourse is what good journalism does, as the dean of UNC’s journalism school noted after hiring Hannah-Jones. Etch that into the wall. And grant Hannah-Jones tenure, while you’re at it.

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Below, more on NHJ, UNC, and CRT:

  • Suiting up? Late last month, Hannah-Jones said that she had retained lawyers in response to UNC’s failure to grant tenure; the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is among the parties representing her. In a letter to UNC this week, her lawyers previewed their likely arguments should the matter end up in court: “The inferior terms of employment offered to Ms. Hannah-Jones in the fixed-term contract,” they wrote, “resulted from viewpoint discrimination in violation of the freedom of speech and expression, secured by the United States and North Carolina Constitution; race and sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of federal and North Carolina state law; unlawful political influence in violation of North Carolina state law; and other unlawful grounds.”
  • The university context: NC Policy Watch reports that UNC “has lost multiple high profile Black recruits, faculty and staff members since the controversy began,” with professors reporting that “they have spoken with Black students at the undergraduate and graduate level who have decided not to return to the university as a result of the university’s actions.” For some Black faculty, Essence reports, the university’s treatment of Hannah-Jones was not the sole cause, but the final straw. Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, Andy Thomason looked back at other incidents that made Black scholars at UNC wonder if they’re welcome, including “the public scapegoating of the African and Afro-American studies department” in 2012.
  • Critical race theory, I: In recent weeks, Fox News has hosted interviews with parents and educators concerned with the supposed advance of critical race theory in schools—but, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, nearly a dozen of those guests “also have day jobs as Republican strategists, conservative think-tankers, or right-wing media personalities”—something Fox has not made clear. The trend “is particularly notable when Fox covers ‘critical race theory’ controversies in Northern Virginia,” Matt Gertz writes, “in a state where GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin has sought to make his opposition a central issue in the fall.”
  • Critical race theory, II: Denise-Marie Ordway, of the Journalist’s Resource, offers four tips for reporters when covering the critical race theory story. Journalists, Ordway writes, should familiarize themselves “with what critical race theory is and is not” in order to spot “when the term is being misused,” ask sources to define “American” and patriotic” when they assert critical race theory is the opposite of those things, ask specific factual questions to establish context, and “investigate the potential impact of teaching K-12 students about race and racial inequality.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.