In a surprise checkmate move, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones informed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that she would not be accepting its delayed offer to join its journalism school, and would instead become a tenured professor at Howard University.
The announcement came after the school stumbled through an extended public controversy over Hannah-Jones’ hiring, and revelations that a conservative mega-donor to the journalism school, Walter Hussman, had worked behind the scenes to make sure the overqualified Jones wasn’t initially offered a tenured position, unlike her white predecessors at the school.
UNC’s journalism school was renamed the Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2019, after the wealthy media magnate and publisher of the anti-Clinton Arkansas Democrat-Gazette committed to donating $25 million to UNC, although most of the money from the gift has not yet been given. The school had recruited Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur “genius” and the driving force behind the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” an ambitious journalistic reexamination of American history that focused on the central role slavery had in shaping the nation and its institutions.
Hannah-Jones has since become the target of right-wing media wrath for discussing racism honestly and openly, and conservatives immediately began trying to scuttle her UNC hiring.
Hussman the ideologue joined that fray, contacting an array of senior university officials to express his objections, even though as a donor he had no say in the hiring of faculty. “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote to several officials in late December.
The anti-Hannah-Jones pressure campaign ran counter to how universities are supposed to deal with mega-donors, as they protect academic freedoms. In fact, by so clearly using his privilege and overstepping his bounds by inserting himself directly into university hiring protocols, Hussman violated the journalistic ethics that he claims to support.
“He’s completely outside this process and he’s contacting the people who are involved with financial giving over his concerns about university hires,” one UNC board of trustees member told NC Policy Watch. “That’s throwing your weight around because you know you can exercise your influence, based on your gifts to the school. It is a threat. I don’t see how you can see that any other way.”
After an extended public outrage, led by UNC students and faculty, the university’s trustees last week finally voted, behind closed doors, to offer Hannah-Jones the position as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, complete with tenure. The insulting way the hiring was handled though, made her acceptance impossible. Now the elite journalist is heading to a historically black university in Washington, D.C., where she will assume that same Knight-sponsored position.
“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans,” Hannah-Jones said in a stinging rebuke to UNC and Hussman published yesterday.
For the journalism school, the sad episode will leave a permanent stain. “Nikole Hannah-Jones is one of the most prominent journalists in the United States, frankly in the world, today,” according to UNC journalism professor Daniel Kreiss. Yet bowing to right-wing pressure, the university shrank from its responsibilities. Across the campus, some acclaimed UNC professors are already heading for the exits in the wake of the controversy, which they say broke their trust in the university’s commitment to academic freedom.
You know who probably wasn’t surprised by Hussman’s meddling in the hiring of a prominent black journalist and consequently damaging the reputation of a journalism school? Bill and Hillary Clinton. For years they tangled with Hussman’s conservative Arkansas Democrat, which later took over a more liberal rival to become the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (Hussman’s family bought the Arkansas Democrat in the 1970’s and he was installed as publisher at age 27, so that’s his journalism resume.)
According to Arkansas newsroom veteran Max Brantley, Hussman’s daily had been “incredibly critical of Bill Clinton.” Clinton himself agreed, once telling biographer Taylor Branch that the newspaper had been his "chief tormentor for decades,” concocting “Faulknerian plots” of intrigue about him and his family. And it was the paper’s editorial page editor who first dubbed Clinton “Slick Willy,” a moniker the right-wing media relished for years.
More recently, Douglas Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who once worked for Hussman’s daily, called out the publisher for being a cog in the right-wing noise machine.
“Hussman’s family bought the dying Arkansas Democrat in the ’70s & installed him as boy-publisher, still in his 20s,” Blackmon tweeted. “He hired extremist conservative editors who made war on the truth, and in the 80s begin spinning bogus ‘Whitewater’ conspiracy tales about Bill & Hillary Clinton.”
Added Blackmon, “He’s been a mini-Rupert Murdoch for 40 yrs. Walter Hussman is a founding father of the fake news/Trump-lies era.”
Given all of that, it’s time for UNC to rename its journalism school.